As the saying goes, “History repeats itself.” And sometimes – 200 years later – it can also redeem itself.
Before dawn this morning, British soldier re-enactors clad in bright red and their hapless American victims will replicate the bloody capture of Fort Niagara in Youngstown on Dec. 19, 1813, during the War of 1812.
Tonight, soldiers will chase villagers through Lewiston, which will be ablaze with flaming barrels as Tuscaroras come to the rescue. The dramatic re-enactment will culminate with a new bronze statue being unveiled in Lewiston, thanking the neighboring Tuscarora Nation for courageous acts that spared many settlers’ lives two centuries ago – thanks that until today have been left unsaid.
“This is amazing that it is actually happening,” said Neil Patterson Sr., who served as Tuscarora Nation project liaison. “I still can’t believe it. It’s a wonderful thing.”
The monument of two Tuscarora men helping a white Lewiston woman settler and her baby to safety from rampaging British soldiers was created by Lewiston sculptor Susan J. Geissler. Titled “Tuscarora Heroes,” it was commissioned by the Historical Association of Lewiston and is located at Center Street and Portage Road. It will be unveiled at 6:30 tonight.
It recalls the day two centuries ago when British soldiers bent on revenge for the earlier burning of Newark, Ont. (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) stealthily paddled across the frigid Niagara River to land at Five Mile Meadow (currently Stella Niagara), halfway between Lewiston and Youngstown, and creep northward. The British were intent on capturing sleeping Fort Niagara.
They succeeded without firing a single shot, killing 65 Americans, wounding 14 and taking 344 hostage, while the British lost only six soldiers, with five wounded.
“The British had commanded its forces not to use muskets, because of the need to reload and the danger of accidentally misfiring in the dark and giving away the attack,” said Robert L. Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara. “The British used only their bayonets for the element of surprise. They were able to get in close in the dark and stab the Americans with their bayonets. The Americans were the only ones firing their muskets, but they couldn’t see their targets in the dark. … It was a complete surprise.”
Emerson said the British, who numbered 562 in the fort assault, “had a lot of luck that day. The whole thing was over in less than 30 minutes, and it all happened before dawn. They also captured a lot of equipment and supplies, munitions, artillery and clothing, all valued in today’s terms at around $12 million to $16 million. It was a big deal.”
Once the British had captured the fort, they signaled their comrades in Canada to cross the river at the same spot, and the second wave of British came across but moved south with their Native American allies – Mohawks – to storm Lewiston, Emerson said.
“They were not after the village, the burning of the village was just collateral damage,” said Emerson. “Their military objective was to go after the artillery placement pointed at Queenston. But they were angry about the burning of Newark (the previous week), and that’s why they torched everything here. And smaller parties of British burned the outlying farms in the area.”
Watching the encroaching British and their allies from their village atop the Escarpment, the Tuscarora men “ran down the hill … and offered the first resistance the enemy had seen,” according to Lee Simonson, volunteer project director of the Historical Association of Lewiston. “Their ingenious and diversionary tactics gave the impression that their numbers were legion.”
Despite being outnumbered 30 to 1, the clever Tuscaroras were able to stall the British and buy valuable time for settlers to flee east, saving dozens of American lives.
“This is a remarkable story, that the Tuscaroras had the courage and inclination to help,” said Simonson. “They were under no obligation to defend us, and, in fact, they may have been left alone if they had stayed out of it.”
But as a result of their stance, the British burned the Tuscarora village, and they, too, were forced to flee that snowy December day.
“This statue is to remind us of this land, these people – that we were here and willing to help,” said Patterson.
“We can have our separate communities but still be friendly and still work together,” added Patterson. “That’s what they did back then. And I hope that as time goes on, we see this happening more.”
Jeanne Cooke Collins and her daughter, Katharine Collins, both of Aurora, Colo., traveled to Lewiston this week to represent the Lewiston survivors’ descendants. Jeanne, a retired teacher, is the direct descendant of two Lewiston families who survived the attack that day – the Robinsons and the Cookes. She is the fifth-generation descendant of Capt. Lemuel Cooke, one of the first white settlers of Lewiston, who served as a surgeon in the Revolutionary War.
She recalled the story of that day drawn from descriptive family records. With the attack underway, the women and children fled the family homestead near Ridge Road on foot, while Lemuel and his son Bates harnessed the oxen to a sled to carry another son, Lothrop,who had recently had a leg amputated, Collins said. She said Bates had only one bullet for his rifle that day.
“They had loaded the sled with beef and flour, and an iron kettle was hanging on a post on the sled near Lothrop’s head,” Collins said. “An Indian (Mohawk) was getting ready to swing his sword and kill Lothrop when a sound made his horse skittish, and he missed and hit the kettle. Bates had that one bullet, and he shot him in the throat. It really is a hair-raising story.”
Collins said family records indicate that the Cooke men then met up with the rest of their family, “had a happy reunion” and rested a bit, then immediately returned to Lewiston to rebuild.
Collins said she intends to speak tonight on behalf of the descendants of the “bravery of the Tuscaroras and to give them our heartfelt gratitude.”
The Tuscarora Heroes monument offers not only a history lesson, but also a cultural lesson, as well. It has been carefully placed on a platform in the shape of a turtle, a sacred symbol of the Iroquois, who believe the earth was created on a turtle’s back. The turtle’s back has 13 large scales, representing the 13 full moons of the year, surrounded by 28 smaller scales for the 28 days of the monthly lunar cycle. The turtle’s head is pointed toward a replica of the American flag used during the War of 1812.
Six Northern white pines, representing the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, have been planted at the site, and the Iroquois flag will be permanently flown alongside the replica American flag.
Youngstown has been preparing for today’s events for the past year, and plans involved around 150 volunteers.
The predawn attack on Fort Niagara, in particular, took meticulous planning, for accuracy and safety reasons.
“We want to replicate this assault as closely as we can to what it was 200 years ago, and we want it to be an authentic experience,” he said.
Spectators were invited but were told to arrive at the fort before 4:45 a.m. Otherwise, they would be permitted to watch the assault only from a previously designated safe area.
Emerson said, “We have been working in cooperation with several towns in the area. These are combined efforts, with a number of things going on.”
In Lewiston, Simonson said that the Historical Association had its first meeting with representatives of the Tuscarora Nation back on Dec. 19, 2009.
“We had to make sure we had their approval,” said Simonson. “We became partners right from the very beginning.” The association told Patterson about their intention of dedicating a sculpture “in thanksgiving,” Simonson said.
Patterson recalled seeing the small clay model of the Tuscarora Heroes monument. “I thought, ‘You hit it right on the head, lady,’” Patterson said. “It’s perfect.”
John Stewart, a re-enactor from Niagara Falls, was preparing for a long day today.
He will portray the commander of a small American unit at Fort Niagara during the British attack at 5 a.m. and command the American militia for the “Flames of Lewiston” event at 6:30 p.m. in Lewiston. In between, he will be kept busy helping teach schoolchildren about what it was like to be an American soldier during the War of 1812.
“We are very fortunate to live in this place at this time and to have so many things happening right in our own backyard. I say this especially as a history buff and re-enactor,” he said Wednesday. “It will be a long, cold day for the re-enactors, but it transcends all of that ... We are at the right place at the right time.”