YOUNGSTOWN – Before the crack of dawn on a bitter morning 200 years ago this week, more than 500 British soldiers and their Native American allies stealthily arrived on the banks of the Niagara River from Canada. They were determined to capture Fort Niagara and avenge the burning of Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, the previous week, during the War of 1812.
In a brief but horrific battle in 1813, the British succeeded in taking the sleeping fort and marched on to destroy unsuspecting Youngstown, Lewiston and Wilson.
Two centuries later, these communities will remember that fateful date of Dec. 19 with numerous activities planned throughout the day and evening Thursday.
It begins with re-enactors charging the gates at Old Fort Niagara at 5 a.m. Spectators are invited to watch the simulated assault from a safe area, but they must arrive at the fort between 4:30 and 4:45 a.m. Admission is free, and the re-enactment will be followed by a brief ceremony. Calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Old Fort Niagara Executive Director Robert L. Emerson said he had no trouble attracting re-enactors, even at this early hour. “We want this to be an authentic experience, and we are replicating the assault as closely as we can,” he said.
At 7:15 a.m., events move to Falkner Park on Main Street in Youngstown, where re-enactors will light ceremonial flares and fire musket volleys as part of a brief ceremony recalling the burning of the village.
At 8:15 a.m., two historical programs will be presented at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Main Street, with the Niagara County Historical Society giving a PowerPoint presentation followed by the screening of “Niagara on Fire,” a video produced by the Niagara-on-the-Lake War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee.
Youngstown restaurants will open at 6 a.m. for event spectators, while a catered breakfast for the 150 re-enactors will be served at Youngstown Fire Hall.
At 9:30 a.m., 650 students from Lewiston-Porter, Wilson, Stella Niagara and Tuscarora Nation elementary schools will arrive at the fort for a special program illustrating the 1813 capture of the fort, where interpreters in period costume will give demonstrations. At 11 a.m., the students will travel to four learning centers in the village, where they will experience everyday life circa 1812, and learn about topics ranging from Fort Niagara’s 1812 flag to the music and military life of the era. They will also watch “Niagara on Fire.” These student learning centers will be hosted by the Youngstown Village Center (Red Brick) and St. John Episcopal, First Presbyterian and St. Bernard Catholic churches.
Each student will receive a haversack and quill pen, according the Gretchen A. Duling, chairwoman of the Youngstown events committee.
In addition, each student will receive a copy of a new map created by Porter Town Historian Suzanne Simon Dietz, who worked with Historical Society member Karen K. Noonan in researching and documenting the residents and where they lived in 1813. They created a map of the early settlements in Porter from 1800 to 1829 and co-authored a booklet, “Early Town of Porter Residents 1800-1829,” based on U.S. census data, Holland Land Co. records and federal documents, as well as oral history and genealogical data.
In Porter churches today, the names of the “sufferers” – a term used for people who suffered as a result of the War of 1812, whether they lost family or friends or property – will be read aloud or be printed in bulletins. Bells will be rung following the services, Duling noted. She also said a new souvenir program will be distributed at the Falkner Park ceremony Thursday.
Emerson said, “This is a combined effort, and there are a number of things going on. It’s a progressive event, and it’s going to be a full, full day.” Events involve more than 150 volunteers and are supported by the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council, the Niagara River Greenway Commission, the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. For more information, visit www.oldfortniagara.org.
Attention shifts in the early evening to Lewiston, where thousands are expected to gather at 6:30 p.m. on Center Street and Portage Road, for the “Flames Through Niagara” re-enactment marking the 200th anniversary of the destruction of the village and the unveiling of the new “Tuscarora Heroes” monument.
Lee Simonson, the Historical Association of Lewiston’s volunteer project coordinator, said the Lewiston event will commemorate “a forgotten moment in a forgotten war that will never be forgotten” with the dedication of the new monument.
Simonson said spectators need to arrive early to witness the dramatic re-enactment of the day the British and their Mohawk allies traveled down River Road from Youngstown and stormed Lewiston, armed with torches, guns and tomahawks. Unsuspecting and unarmed civilians – even children – were murdered, while many tried to flee the chaos.
The new monument to be unveiled depicts two Tuscarora men helping a Lewiston resident and her baby to safety as her village is besieged by the British. Lewiston artist Susan J. Geissler was commissioned to create the bronze monument by HAL, which has been raising funds for four years through grants and donations. The monument also contains a time capsule, placed Oct. 16, 2013, containing items from Tuscarora Nation Elementary students.
“This is a remarkable story of how Native Americans, our Tuscarora neighbors, intervened here during the British attack, allowing some residents to escape, which saved dozens of lives,” Simonson said. “… The British were so infuriated that they destroyed the Tuscarora village atop the hill, and all of their winter supplies. They were homeless for a year or two, because they defended their neighbors and friends in Lewiston and sided with us in the War of 1812. And they were never thanked!”
Lewiston’s commemorative event will begin with British re-enactors firing muskets, inciting screams as those playing besieged Lewiston residents who run for their lives amid flames burning in giant barrels on Center Street, against the backdrop of dramatic music. The re-enactment – which will last less than 15 minutes – will culminate in the unveiling of the new monument.
“It’s important that people realize that this monument is not government-conceived,” Simonson said. “Our local governments certainly gave us tremendous support, but this is the voice of the people. The people of Lewiston are thanking the Tuscarora Nation for a courageous act that occurred 200 years ago and that has been ignored and unappreciated since that time.”
Sponsors for the Lewiston event include the Town of Lewiston and Niagara County, through Niagara River Greenway Commission funds; the Village of Lewiston; KeyBank Foundation; Margaret L. Wendt Foundation; Niagara Falls National Heritage Area; and Daughters of 1812. For information, visit www.historic lewiston.com.