LEWISTON – Screaming children in nightgowns ran down Center Street illuminated by the light of propane flames while hundreds looked on Thursday night as Lewiston began its observance of the 200th anniversary of the burning of the village by the British during the War of 1812.
A ragtag band of American militia re-enactors then stepped up, firing their muskets. With each shot, they slowly retreated, leaving the street filled with smoke. As dramatic background music swelled, people knew what was coming – the British were coming, along with Mohawk natives who savagely killed villagers, leaving bodies in the street.
“Is he really dead?” one child asked as he watched.
The re-enactment continued along Center Street until it reached Portage Road. There it ended and gave way to a ceremony marking the unveiling of the new “Tuscarora Heroes” monument, which honors the tribe that saved the day in 1813 by slowing the British advance and allowing surviving village residents to escape to Batavia.
The monument shows a mother and child being helped to safety by the Tuscaroras.
Lee Simonson, volunteer director of the event for the Historical Association of Lewiston, said Thursday’s celebration was four years in the making and called it the largest bicentennial monument project in the United States.
“They were desperately praying for a miracle when God answered their prayers and the Tuscaroras arrived on the scene,” Simonson told onlookers.
Neil Patterson Sr., a member of the Tuscarora Nation council, said he had heard snippets of the story growing up.
“It’s an amazing thing. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would be standing here, in the Center of Lewiston unveiling a statue of the Tuscarora Nation,” Patterson said. “(Sculptor) Susan Geissler, I can’t give her enough credit. She hit this thing right on the head.”
Attending the event was Jeanne Collins, 77, of Colorado, a fifth-generation member of the Cooke family, which survived the burning of Lewiston. She said Isaac Cooke wrote at one time he had given up all hope of surviving until the Tuscaroras arrived. She gave her heartfelt thanks to all for their heroism.
“I’ve heard this story since I was 10,” said Collins. “For me this is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.”
Earlier Thursday, about 125 re-enactors portraying British soldiers took a predawn 5-mile march from Lewiston to Old Fort Niagara to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British siege of the fort on Dec. 19, 1813.
Snow crunched underfoot in the dark as Adrian Rittner, resplendent in the red wool uniform of a British military officer, entered the outer reaches of wooded Fort Niagara State Park around 5:15 a.m.
“It really puts you in the state of mind of what it was like 200 years ago,” said the Niagara Falls, Ont., resident. “We really experienced everything – the hour of day, the cold and the uniforms marching to order. For a re-enactor, that’s quite a pleasurable experience.”
Meanwhile, more than 100 spectators occasionally stomped their feet and rubbed their hands to stay warm inside the fort’s walls as they eagerly awaited the Brits’ arrival.
Cordoned off in a safe area to the left of the entrance, the crowd included three generations of the Stack family of Youngstown. Patriarch Kevin is a member of the Old Fort Niagara Association and his sons Garrett, a Wilson social studies teacher, and Tom, a former social studies teacher and current Newfane High School principal, attended. Tom Stack brought his nearly 3-year-old son, Cameron.
“This is a little snapshot of the past,” he said.
“It’s a good history lesson,” said Ellen Adams of Youngstown, who attended with her two young granddaughters. “There is so much history around here and so much happening in our own backyard.”
A hush fell over the crowd as a scuffle was heard and the British re-enactors strong-armed guards at the gate and hurried in to take stock of the grounds. Yells of panic rang out and musket shots were heard as cannon fire lit the darkness.
The re-enactors inside the fort portrayed the American soldiers, surprised, unprepared and unable to reload their muskets. They were quickly overtaken and either killed, injured or taken prisoner.
At the end of the brief skirmish, the Americans had lost 65 men, and the British had only lost six. A total of 344 Americans were taken hostage and moved to Fort George in Newark, Ont., now Niagara-on-the-Lake.
After the attack, a second wave of British soldiers and their Mohawk allies arrived and burned down Youngstown and then Lewiston.
That was not the original intent, said Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara.
“The military objective was to go after the artillery placement in Lewiston pointed at Queenston,” Emerson said. “But they were angry about the burning of Newark (nine days earlier) and burned Youngstown and Lewiston, and that was collateral damage.”
News Niagara Correspondent Teresa Sharp contributed to this report.