History Department collection brings 1812 conflict home

May 26, 2012

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Genesee County Historian Sue Conklin surrounds herself with materials relating to the local history of the War of 1812. Much of the material was discovered during a trip to the New York State Archives earlier this year.

 
 

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Posted: Saturday, May 26, 2012 2:45 am | Updated: 11:46 pm, Fri May 25, 2012.

Genesee County Historian Susan Conklin didn't have high expectations when she traveled to Albany this year to conduct research on the War of 1812.

A 1910 fire in the state archives building destroyed numerous documents, including -- it was thought -- a significant number of records related to the only American war that directly involved Genesee County and Western New York. But Conklin was pleasantly surprised to find a large trove of papers on the conflict between the United States and Great Britain.

"I was shocked at the amount of material that was saved from the fire. It's incredible to me," Conklin said. An estimated 35 cubic feet of records from the War of 1812 are stored in Albany.

Photocopies of many of the documents are now on file in the Genesee County History Department, 3 West Main St., Batavia.

Conklin said many of the original papers in Albany still smelled charred.

"Which is kind of spooky," she said.

Conklin said the records she found in Albany was among the most exciting finds of her professional career.

"This War of 1812 really became a passion," she said.

One citation notes that residents of Pavilion could hear and feel the concussion of cannonfire in Buffalo or Fort Erie.

A list of militia and military appointments includes names such as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Rea, for whom the town of Alexander was named.

"Founding names of the community, they all served," Conklin said.

Others on the list are adjutant Andrew Ellicott, son of Holland Land Office's Joseph Ellicott and captain Isaac Southerland, who constructed the Land Office building and the county's first courthouse.

Each able-bodied American man had to have a loaded weapon. Service in the army or militia was mandatory.

The new archival material in the History Department is not about the military history of the battles. It does, however, provide a look at how soldiers and civilians were affected by the war.

Batavia was transformed into a refugee camp as hundreds of people, the "Sufferers of Niagara," flooded in from the west to seek food and shelter after British forces -- in retaliation for American forces burning of a Canadian village -- torched settlements on the American side and killed men, women and children. The English army destroyed about 200 houses on a 40-mile strip of river settlement from Youngstown to what was then the village of Buffalo.

"They burned everything," Conklin said.

New York State provided $50,000 for the relief effort and Holland Land Office agent Joseph Ellicott, who had built a small armory in Batavia to store guns and black powder, donated $5,000 to the cause.

Other records kept by Isaac Spencer, armorer and superintendent of the Batavia Arsenal in 1814-15, list military gear returned to him by militia captains. An itemized inventory showed one fife, five drums, four axes, 71 camp kettles, 204 tent poles, 884 muskets with bayonets, 1,254 muskets without bayonets and 1,072 boxes of rifle cartridges.

"This wasn't a small operation," Conklin said.

Conklin's office has information on 111 War of 1812 soldiers from the county that are cross-indexed by name and town of residence.

Town of Alabama historian Joe Cassidy assisted with the county project. He compiled a list, by county, of men who served in the state militia from 1803 to 1821.

An article in the Dec. 14, 1926, edition of The Daily News includes names of soldiers buried in Genesee County from four wars, Revolutionary, Civil, 1812 and Spanish-American, is also on file.

Redfield Parkway's namesake, Heman J. Redfield, was paymaster with the Light Infantry Company of Capt. Davis in Canandaigua.

The History Department also has four large binders of "records of claims."

"These were like a pension," Conklin said.

Surviving veterans were reimbursed for items such as boots, clothing, gunpowder and bullets. Names of people who submitted claims included Zephaniak Clarke of Albion, and Alvin Perry of Knowlesville.

Other payments were made for services rendered. Gunsmith John Morgan sent in a bill for 398 rifles, plus shipping, for $595. Joseph Ellicott was paid $167 for building his armory.

The Seneca Nation of Indians allied with the Americans during the war. Some of its warriors helped guard the white settlements when their men were serving in the militia.

Vouchers submitted by Native Americans had the word "soldier" or "militia" crossed out and replaced with "Indian volunteer" or "Indian Warrior." Claims for shoes or boots were replaced with a voucher for moccasins; for pants it was changed to leggings.

Conklin emphasized she is not sure records are complete but it is all of the information she and her staff were able to find. There were some papers in Albany she was not able to examine because the state was converting them onto microfilm.

"Lists don't match. Some veterans moved here afterward," she said. "We decided we're collecting everything and anything."

Her staff has the unenviable and still ongoing task of keyboarding new data into the department's computer system.

"Of course after you're done you have to index everything," said research assistant Judy Stiles.

The Genesee historian researched state archives in preparation of the observance of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Her trip to Albany was financed by a state grant.

Paperwork and references on the war in the History Department also includes index numbers for source materials in the state archives.

Conklin will present some of her findings June 14 at a conference of historians, academics and researchers at Niagara University.

She said there is a dearth locally of information and artifacts from the War of 1812.

"We're probably going to be it," she said.

Conklin has asked representatives of the Batavia International Peace Garden, which is adjacent to the Holland Land Office Museum on West Main Street, to ring a bell at noon June 18 to observe the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812.


Article reveals 'sad tale' from War of 1812

The Genesee County History Department has a copy of an article from the March 3, 1892, issue of The Daily News that told a sad tale of a War of 1812 widow from the Tonawanda Indian Reservation.

"Her family lost out on almost $2,000 all because of government bureaucracy," county historian Susan Conklin said.

Mary Black-Squirrel, surviving spouse of the warrior Black-Squirrel, was eligible for $1,987 in War of 1812 military pension benefits, under provisions of a law passed in 1878. Her husband died in 1876 and had not received reimbursement for his expenses from a war he'd fought in more than six decades in the past.

Woods & Dunham, attorneys for Mary Black-Squirrel, announced the Pension Department approved her application for benefits. It was a hollow victory.

The widow was only eligible if she was still alive. She died three weeks before at age 102, according to the news article.

"As it is, the government will pay the expenses of the widow's last sickness and her burial, but nothing further," the article stated.