Two centuries after the British advanced on Lewiston and burned it during the War of 1812, there are undoubtedly descendants of some of those villagers who are alive today because courageous Tuscarora tribesmen led their ancestors to safety into the early 19th-century wilderness of Niagara County.
It was that act by the “Tuscarora Heroes” that is being commemorated in a recently minted “good luck” keepsake coin that the Lewiston Museum is offering to the public in advance of this year’s wider official village bicentennial ceremony to be held Dec. 19.
The 2-inch coin depicts two Tuscarora warriors aiding a female villager with child away from the British attackers in 3-D relief on the front and the emblem of the Tuscarora Nation on the reverse. The Nation’s emblem shows native symbols of the turtle, Northern White Pine tree and an eagle across the face of the sun along with a six-striped belt overlaying a totem pole to represent each nation in the Iroquois Confederacy. The coins are available for $10 each.
Lee Simonson, a volunteer and the 1812 Bicentennial director for the Historical Association of Lewiston, said all proceeds from the coins’ sales will go the Tuscarora Heroes Monument project, which he called “the largest War of 1812 bicentennial monument project in the United States.” It will be unveiled Dec. 19.
“We’re building awareness and building excitement in Lewiston,” he said.
The coin – as well as the planned bicentennial celebration – are designed to remind area residents that, although many in the Iroquois Confederacy sided with the British during the war, the Tuscaroras broke ranks with their blood-brothers to help out their white neighbors in Lewiston – a move for which they themselves paid a heavy price, Simonson added.
“The Tuscarora Nation, who had sided with the United States in the War of 1812, [was] one of the few tribes who did,” said Simonson. “And they have never been thanked.”
It was Dec. 19, 1813, when British troops invaded the United States, capturing Fort Niagara without firing a shot. Then, hundreds of troops marched to Lewiston to burn the village. At least a dozen residents were killed in the siege, but the death toll would have been much higher if not for the Tuscaroras’ stalling the British attackers just long enough for many Lewistonians to escape eastward along what is now Ridge Road.
“They did come up with an ingenious, spur-of-the-moment plan to halt the attack long enough to give the impression there was a large enough force ready to counterattack,” said Simonson, who said the Tuscaroras were outnumbered 30-to-1. “It was all bluff and bluster, but it stopped the British in their tracks and gave the people of Lewiston a few minutes’ head start.”
The British troops burned Lewiston. Then those natives allied with the Crown became so “infuriated” with the Tuscaroras’ actions that they burned down the Tuscarora villages after Lewiston was set ablaze.
“They were as lost and homeless as Lewistonians were,” said Simonson. “The Tuscaroras were defending white people against their own blood brothers, the Mohawks, who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy.”
Ten days after Lewiston, the village of Buffalo was burned by the British.
The bicentennial events in Lewiston are designed to “thank the Tuscaroras for their bravery and for saving dozens of our citizens,” said Simonson.
The monument to be unveiled at the Dec. 19 event will be a larger-than-life bronze representation by Sue Geissler, a Lewiston-Porter alumna who now lives in Youngstown. Geissler is putting the finishing touches on a 7-foot-high clay enlargement, which will be shipped to Colorado in the coming weeks to be cast in bronze.
Commissioned by the Lewiston Museum, the monument will show the Tuscarora men leading the female villager and her child to safety as it is depicted on the coin. It will be installed at Center Street and Portage Road in Lewiston at the same geographical location where the events actually happened in 1813, said Simonson.
There will also be a plaque installed there with the names of heroes and known victims in the burning of Lewiston.
Many of the details of that night’s events were preserved through the work of Elias Johnson, a 19th-century Tuscarora chief and author who published a book on Tuscarora history in 1881. In it, Johnson documents earlier conversations he had with Tuscarora men who had participated in the 1813 action and provided him “firsthand, eyewitness accounts.”
One of Johnson’s quotes in his book – “May our chain of friendship be brighter and brighter as time rolls on” – is also represented on the reverse of the commemorative “Tuscarora Heroes” coin.
To order the coin, contact the Lewiston Museum at 754-4214. The coins can be paid for over the phone and shipped for an additional $4 fee or picked up at the Plain Street museum. Checks may also be made payable to the “Historical Association of Lewiston Inc.” and sent to the museum at 469 Plain St., Lewiston, NY 14092.