of Lewiston, New York
Birthplace of Niagara
is historically significant for many reasons, but primarily for:
- Its geography and its relation to Niagara Falls in the
early commercial development of the Great Lakes region.
- Its role in the War of
- Its position as the last stop of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves who were
seeking freedom in Canada.
Lewiston was the birthplace of the world famous
Niagara Falls about
12,000 years ago, near the present location of Artpark. Since then, the
power of Niagara Falls has eroded south through seven miles of solid
rock. You can see the path the Falls has taken by following the Niagara
Gorge which begins in Lewiston.
Early French and British Explorers and Traders
Lewiston was the first
European settlement in Western New York. During the 1600s and
1700s, when the French and British traders settled in the area,
Lewiston was instrumental in the development of the Great Lakes region
because of its strategic location.
The first French explorer, Etienne
Brule arrived in 1615. By then, the Five
Alliance had been established since 1450 and each of the tribes --
Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga -- had its designated
duties. The Senecas were the protectors of the land and
rights of the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Ontario. The Senecas
were the "Keepers of the Western Door."
Louis Hennepin, who was
accompanying the French explorer Sieur
LaSalle, landed in Lewiston in
December 6, 1678. LaSalle was searching for the Mississippi
River. The next day, the Senecas escorted Fr. Hennepin to see
Niagara Falls, which made such an impression on the priest that we
wrote a glowing report. He was the first European to write about seeing the Falls. (When Fr. Hennepin saw the
Falls he witnessed twice the water going
over the falls as is seen today. In the past decades, half of the
natural flow water has been diverted to hydroelectric power plants in
both Canada and the United States.)
Later, the explorers built a
small chapel and a fortified cabin in which to store their supplies,
much of which was used to construct the first ship on the Great Lakes, The
Griffon, which was built and launched on the Niagara River above
The first permanent structure built by a
white man in Lewiston was Frechman Chabert Joncaire's Trading post
which was constructed in 1719 after he received permission from the
Seneca Indians. It was located on the site of today's Artpark
parking lot which is located immediately east of the main
It is no longer standing, but ruins that were studied
in the 1950s indicated that it was destroyed by fire in 1741. The
exact location of the Trading Post is where Artpark's "painted parking
lot" is today. The best image of what the Trading Post might have
looked like can be seen here.
Because Niagara Falls created an
insurmountable obstacle for
shipping good and materials by water, a transportation route or detour
around the Falls had to be created. The land route around the
was called the portage, and Lewiston was the major drop off point for
shipped goods and materials
that were transported on the portage.
The French held the land and maintained the
trading post and employed the Indians to transport goods from Lewiston
to the upper Niagara River at a place upstream from the falls where the
river was again safely navigable. Back in those days
called "the carrying place." As trade increased, fur pelts came
from the west in great quantities and from the east came the supplies
for the military posts and trading stations. The
Trading Post and the portage, which provided a bypass around Niagara
Falls for goods to be transported, opened up commerce on the Great
Lakes for the first time.
In 1998, the The National Park Service
declared this location a National Historical Landmark and erected a
plaque which states:
Landing Archeological District has been designated a National Historic
Landmark. This site possesses national significance in
commemorating the history of the United States of America. The
archeological remains of Joncaire's trading post (1719-1741) and other
archeological resources document inter-cultural relations at this key
point within the colonial Niagara historic district."
In 1754, French soldiers cut the
first narrow road from the Niagara River landing to the top of the
Niagara Escarpment to
accommodate the increase in the amount of goods being transported over
the portage. A series of capstans and booms were installed to
the oxen pull the wagons up the steep zigzag road of the Escarpment and
to slow their descent.
In 1757, the Senecas complained
the French Governor that their rights of control of the portage and
their privileges were being violated. But the French were not
going to have in influence in the area for long.
In 1763, at the conclusion of the
French and Indian Wars, the British controlled North America and the
portage. The British improved the road and built several
stockades along the route where troops were stationed for the
protection of the wagon trains. Capt. Montresor of the Royal
Engineers, began to construct a 400 foot tramway which,
by some accounts, is considered the first railway in North America.
The cars were counterbalanced for easier operation up the steep
incline from the river.
Devil's Hole Massacre
The Senecas lost
control of the portage and their main means of livelihood and were
upset. On September 14, 1763, the Senecas ambushed a wagon train
was transporting goods along the portage. After killing and
dozens of the troops accompanying the wagon train, the Indians drove
the oxen and carts over the cliff to destruction on the rocks far
below. Another contingent of soldiers sent to their aid was also
ambushed and murdered. Only two men and a drummer boy from the
train, and a few from the relief column, lived to tell of the terrible
the place on the river road known as "Devil's Hole," which is now a
state park situated about 2 miles south of the Village of Lewiston.
Some historians call the Devil's Hole Massacre the first labor
uprising in North America, though it is generally understood that the
violence was caused by greater forces at play, primarily Pontiac's Rebellion.
The British did not retaliate
against the Senecas. However, a subsequent council meeting
between the British and the Six Nation League after the incident,
resulted in the Senecas being required to deed a strip of land a mile
wide along each side of the river to the British. This land
known as the Mile Reserve.
In 1775, Joseph
Brant, the war
chief of the Mohawk tribe and a Loyalist, settled with his tribe along
Ridge Road (Route 104). He built his home and a chapel at the
intersection of Ridge and Creek Roads. A church bell, received by
the Mohawks from Queen Anne in 1712, hung in a tree nearby. The
Queen had also presented the tribe with a sterling silver Communion
Service which had been buried for safekeeping during the Revolutionary
War. Today, Brant's Spring is the smallest "park" or reservation
in the United States.
In 1784, Rev. John Stuart, a Church of
England priest, visited Brant and returned to him the Communion
During and after the
Revolutionary War, many United Empire Loyalists from the Eastern states
came to Lewiston to cross the river to Queenston in Canada. At
the instruction of Gov. Simcoe of Upper Canada, a ferry service was
started between Lewiston and Queenston in 1791. So great was the
traffic waiting to cross the river that wagons were reported to be
lined up for three miles. In 1796 there were still only a few
Indian and Loyalist squatters as permanent residents in Lewiston.
The Senecas still claimed ownership title to the Mile Reserve
land along the river. Without clear title, the land could not be
sold and except for the few squatters, people wanting to settle moved
Lewiston is Named and Surveyed
1796 between Britain and the United States set the border between
two countries midway across the Niagara River. The land titles
were cleared to the dismay of the Senecas. None of their land
claims were considered valid. The Indian and Loyalist squatters
were given land grants in Canada.
Joseph Brant moved his
people to the Six Nations Indian reserve in Brantford, Ontario.
The 1712 Queen Anne Communion Service is still in safekeeping at
the Anglican Church on the reserve.
In a transaction known as the
"Holland Land Purchase," Robert Morris bought from the State of New
York three million acres of land extending east from the Niagara River.
By 1798, New York State surveyors began the work of surveying and
dividing the Mile Reserve.
The site for a mile square
village was chosen and named Lewis Town in honor of the Governor, Morgan Lewis.
The survey of the streets and building lots was completed by
1805. The original plan extended east from the shore for ten
blocks, numbered from one through nine. The cross streets were
named for the Six Nations Indians
-- Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk to the north of Center Street and
Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora to the south. A large town common
area was reserved between Fourth and Seventh Streets and Cayuga and
Onondaga Streets. This area contained most of the high land in
the village. In 1810, the State Legislature granted the petition
of the Village requesting the division of this land for building lots.
Plain and Ridge Streets were added to the street plan.
However it was 1815 before these lots were available for sale.
The First Major Battle of the War of 1812
On October 13, 1812,
the United States invaded Canada.
Lewiston was the staging area for the Battle of Queenston
Heights, the first major battle of the War of 1812. Cannons
installed on the lawn of Barton Hill
were aimed at the village of Queenston, across the Niagara River in
Canada. Troops were quartered on Major Barton's property as
Americans lost the battle
primarily because the local militia refused to fight on foreign soil,
stating their job was to defend the United States, not invade Canada.
Losing American General Stephen VanRensselaer explains how the
battle was lost in a letter to Maj. General Dearborn, you can find here. However, regular American soldiers did
cross the Niagara River to Canada and
killed General Brock,
the British commander, near the base of Queenston Heights in the early
morning hours. Brock was an admired and respected leader and his
stands in Queenston today and can be seen across the river from
Lewiston. Many Canadians believe that if it wasn't for General
Brock's leadership, that Canada would not be an independent country
today, but rather part of the United States.
Lewiston Attacked, Dozens of Citizens Saved by
December of 1813, General
McClure, the American General, ordered that the occupied town of
Newark, then the capital of Upper Canada (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Fort George be burned. The residents, mostly
women and children,
who were ordered to leave the town before it was burned, were left
homeless during a bitter cold winter. The able bodied men had
joined the British troops who had retreated to Burlington when the town
Retaliation was swift and savage.
In the early morning (near daybreak) on December 19, 1813, the
citizens of Lewiston awoke to unimaginable horrors. Hours
earlier, in the middle of the night, British-Canadian troops invaded
the United States and captured Fort Niagara without firing a shot.
And now, they were about to unleash an assault on Lewiston that
could only be compared to today's "shock and awe" campaigns.
British-Canadians, along with their allies from the First Nations,
including the Mohawks, ran down River Road toward Lewiston, armed with
torches, guns and tomahawks -- intent on retribution and turning
Lewiston into a pile of ashes.
But what happened that cold
winter morning turned out to be much worse. Poorly defended,
Lewiston citizens were on their own. They could only run for
their lives through the snow and mud in hopes of escaping the
atrocities. Civilians were murdered in the rampage and tormented
parents found themselves helpless in trying to save their children --
one 7-year-old was shot and scalped in front of his mother's eyes.
At the moment when Lewiston
citizens had lost all hope and thought they would all become victims of
a bloody and merciless massacre, Native Americans from the the local
Tuscarora village ran down from atop the Escarpment and offered the
first resistance the British and Mohawks had seen. The
Tuscarora's ingenious and diversionary tactics gave the impression that
their "numbers were legion." Fearing a trap, the enemy stopped in
Despite being outnumbered
30-to-1, the "Tuscarora Heroes" were able to buy the escaping residents
enough time to get out of harm's way, and saved the lives of dozens of
Meanwhile, Lewiston was burned
the ground, except for one building. The exact number of
civilians who were killed is unknown. Estimates range from close
to a dozen to over 40. One American officer, reported soon after
the attack, that "it is not yet ascertained how many were killed as
most of the bodies were thrown into the burning houses and consumed."
The Historical Association of Lewiston
(716-754-4214) has just published a book, Tuscarora Heroes, which details the
attack and lists all of the names of the Tuscarora men who
participated. The Association is planning to unveil a Monument of
thanksgiving to the Tuscarora Nation on Dec. 19, 2013, on the 200th
Anniversary of the attack.
The British remained in control of
Fort Niagara and the area until the end of the War of 1812. Small
war parties from Fort Niagara continued to attack and harass the few
remaining inhabitants on several occasions. The Fort was returned
to the Americans in 1815 and peace returned to the
The Invention of the "Cocktail"
in Lewiston was reportedly the only building left unscathed when the
British invaded. Some say it was because the British officers
remembered too many good times they had there sipping a "cocktail" --
the drink that owner Catherine Hustler is credited with inventing when
she stirred a "gin mixture" with the tail feather of a stuffed cockerel
(a young male of the domestic fowl.) She said it "warms both soul
body and is fit to be put in a vessel of diamonds."
The Hustlers entertained author
James Fenimore Cooper during the summer of 1821 and he was so amused
that he included them in his book, The Spy, as characters Sergeant
Hollister and Betty Flanigan. Hustler's Tavern is no longer
standing, but the site was located at 800 Center Street (northeast
corner of 8th and Center Streets).
Gradually, after the burning of
Lewiston in 1813, the villagers in Lewiston
began to return to start the slow process of rebuilding their lives,
homes and businesses. Before 1825 and the opening of the Erie
Canal, Lewiston was called the Gateway to the West and had more
population than the City of Buffalo. It was the social center of
the Niagara Frontier and saw much stage coach activity. It was
home to the finest hotel in the United States west of Albany, which
still stands today and
is known as the Frontier House which was built in 1824-5 by Joshua
Fairbanks, Benjamin Barton and son, Samuel.
The Frontier House is
premiere historic landmark. Stage coaches once thundered up to
its doors at a time when Lewiston was the center of the
"Great Overland Route Across the Continent." The Froniter House
is constructed of stone from the Bay of Quinte at the Northeastern end
of Lake Ontario. 18 men worked 18 months in laying up the solid
stone 30 inch walls.
In 1826, William Morgan,
the Masonic traitor, was brought here by stagecoach. He changed
coaches and continued from here to Ft. Niagara. The original
coach he arrived in remained for years behind at the Frontier House
because people feared to move it, lest they be implicated in the
abduction plot of Morgan. The coach decayed where it came to rest
and no trace of it remains today. Historic guests at the Frontier
House include: Gov. DeWitt Clinton; Edward, Prince of Wales,
James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind, Henry
Clay and John L. Sullivan. The last use of the building was an
historic McDonald's Restaurant, but at present, it stands empty.
Underground Railroad & Freedom Crossing
In the early to
mid-1800s, Lewiston was the final stop for escaping slaves from the
South, seeking freedom in Canada. They called it the Underground
Railroad, even though it wasn't a railroad. Lewiston's citizens
were staunch supporters of the anti-slavery movement and many of them
volunteered to help smuggle thousands of slaves across the
border. There was a code of silence and Lewistonians never
trusted or spoke to outsiders about their secret activities.
Lewiston's "station master" was Josiah Tryon, a local tailor. He
and his fellow citizens, hid and guided slaves at the First
Presbyterian Church at 5th and Cayuga Streets, the Episcopal Church at
465 Plain Street (now the Lewiston Museum) and at a home on the river
called "the house of the four cellars." Josiah used a row boat
countless times to take his precious cargo across the swift river's
A now famous book was written about Lewiston's role
in the Underground Railroad, called Freedom
Crossing, by Margaret Goff Clark, and is read by thousands of grade
school students across the United States every year. The Freedom Crossing Monument commemorates the
Underground Railroad movement in Lewiston and was dedicated on October
Today's Historic Lewiston
Many of the homes and
buildings constructed in the 1800s still stand proudly in Lewiston,
which has cherished its history. More recently, Lewiston has
become known as a charming and quaint village that enjoys hosting
visitors from far and wide. The local area is home to many
restaurants and small businesses, and institutions such as Artpark are
renowned for their theatrical and artistic venues.
A number of festivals and events
sponsored by the local arts council, business organization and
historical association attracts tens of thousands of annual visitors.
Sports fishing is also gaining dramatically in popularity.
The Town of Lewiston is home to the
New York Power Authority's Robert
Moses Power Project, which is the largest hydroelectric generating
facility in New York State, built in the early 1960s.
Niagara University, founded in 1856, is one of the
largest private colleges in Western New York also calls Lewiston home.
The Tuscarora Indian Reservation, established around
1800, is located entirely within Lewiston.
Lewiston continues to evolve as a
commercial, cultural, recreational and residential center.
Building upon its deep historical roots, development progresses
to the make the Niagara River waterfront more attractive and
accessible. A new luxury hotel has opened near the foot of
Local citizens and visitors alike
enjoy the rich and fascinating history, and look to the future with
optimism and confidence as Lewiston's reputation becomes stronger as
the ideal place to live, work and raise a family in Western New York.
Much of this material was from Lewiston:
A Self-Guided Tour; by Barbara I. Hill, Janet M. Domzella, Kenneth
Tracey; published by Friends of the Lewiston Library, Inc. 1986