300 bodies in Delaware Park: The War of 1812
Photo courtesy of Forest Lawn
Three-hundred American soldiers froze to death in Buffalo roughly two centuries ago, victims of poor planning, and worse equipment. Volunteers in the fight against the British during the War of 1812, they arrived at an area called Flint Hill in the summer of 1812. Ordered to make camp for the winter, the troops were without warm uniforms. They had no boots, little food, and open-ended tents. The calendar year ended, and a sickness began to spread, killing roughly half the garrison of men. The soil was rocky, and the ground frozen, so shallow graves had to do. Come spring, the bodies were dug up and reburied in a meadow. In 1896 came the placement of a boulder marking the spot in which they were buried.
The mound can be found near the fourth hole on the Delaware Park Golf Course. And if that’s not a story emblematic of Buffalo’s little-known War of 1812 past, I’m not sure what is.
Patrick Kavanagh of Forest Lawn Cemetery says Flint Hill, the area where the troops were encamped, was on Main Street, from Jewett Parkway to Scajaquada Creek in Forest Lawn. “A lot of people, even Parksiders, are not aware of this and their story,” Kavanagh says. “This epidemic, a terrible respiratory disorder, also killed many civilians here on the Niagara Frontier on both sides of the Niagara River.”
Dedicated neighborhood resident Steve Cichon, author of The Complete History of Parkside, first heard about the story from Kavanagh and fellow historian Michael Riester. He found it fascinating to hear all that went on in this specific spot, and his interest in bringing the story to greater prominence went beyond the book. Recently, he helped spearhead the creation of a monument on the spot.
“Two things made me want to get involved with spreading the word of the Mound in the Meadow,” Cichon says. “One, it’s just incredible: 300 soldiers buried underneath the Delaware Park Golf Course. Second, there were plenty of people who didn’t believe the story. The history is rock solid. First-hand accounts go straight back over 200 years—it’s irrefutable. Yet Mike Riester had trouble convincing people of the fact that the golf course was a cemetery back during the time when there was talk of moving the zoo. One plan called for a parking lot where the Mound is. Those plans didn’t happen, but they could have, because many people said, ‘that can’t be true,’ or ‘they must have moved them.’ I told the story several times before the book came out, and there were people who didn’t believe me: ‘I’d have heard that before.’ I think it just got lost to history.”
Cichon became angry, not just at the story of the soldiers’ sad demise, but also that so many simply did not believe it. “It’s a tremendous story of sacrifice, and one that is a uniquely Buffalo story as well,” he says. “If this were a Civil War battlefield, it would be a National Park, and the story of these soldiers would be told not only on PBS specials, but taught to school kids. But the War of 1812 isn’t a very sexy war. We know Francis Scott Key and Dolley Madison, maybe that Buffalo was burned.” (We’ll get to the burning shortly.)
For the past five years, Cichon has worked toward the creation of a permanent memorial along Ring Road, with Memorial Day 2012 picked for the unveiling. “It’s actually been a struggle to find a place for the monument,” Cichon says. “Luckily, at the last minute, the Buffalo Zoo became involved, and now there will be a home for a monument where people can read it, with the 1896 boulder in sight.”
The story of the Mound in the Meadow is merely one piece of a fascinating, and little known (to most) story. Here are some other bits of trivia:
• Black Rock was of particular importance during the War of 1812. It was a major depot for supplies and also for assembling troops and militia prior to crossing over to Canada, Kavanagh says.
• Forest Lawn Cemetery has close to 300 soldiers/civilians/volunteers who were present during that time, many of whom were killed in the war.
• The first naval skirmish of the war occurred at the mouth of the Canadaway Creek in Chautauqua County.
• One event that Buffalonians may be familiar with is the infamous burning of Buffalo and Black Rock on December 30, 1813. This was “in retaliation for the destruction of Newark—Niagara-on-the-Lake today, on December 10, 1813,” Kavanagh says. “The British actually crossed the river on the 30th and then returned on January 1, 1814 to finish their destruction. When it was all said and done, only three structures remained. There were no U.S. Army troops here to defend Buffalo. They had all left. Many of them refused to defend it—they did not care for the men of Buffalo. All you had were militia, volunteers, and Senecas.”
• As Amherst town historian David Sherman explains, the hamlet of Williams Mills, now the Village of Williamsville, “became the last line of defense after British troops burned Buffalo” as civilians and soldiers sought safety. “Log barracks were built along the south side of Main Street between Ellicott Creek and Garrison Road, [and] were converted into temporary medical facilities.” Ironically, Sherman says, the contract for the U.S. Army Hospital at Williams Mills “specified ‘no burying place on the premises.’ Despite this, a well-kept series of mass graves along present day Aero Drive remain as the last vestiges of this hospital.”
There is much, much more to be said about the burning, about Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother, and WNY’s role. This year is the 200th anniversary of the war, so it’s a fine time to revisit. And there are many ways to explore:
• The circa-1810 Hull Family Farm and Homestead hosts a War of 1812 Candlelight Tour at 6:30 p.m. on August 16. Reservations are required: 716-741-7032.
• The Black Rock Historical Society’s Traveling Museum War of 1812 exhibit will be at Engine #12 (Grant and Amherst) for the Discover Amherst Street Fest on June 16.
• The War of 1812 Bicentennial Peace Garden Trail covers more than 600 miles in the U.S. and Canada (1812.ipgf.org).
• Much is on display at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society; bechs.org lists its 1812-related collections.
• The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum’s “Diplomacy of the War of 1812” exhibit is on display at Porter Hall through August 31.
• The Battle of Queenston Heights will be commemorated this fall in a binational event from October 12 to 14.
• Old Fort Niagara will hold a War of 1812 Encampment on September 1 and 2. See oldfortniagara.org for details.
• Fort Erie has planned a variety of bicentennial events, including a parade on June 23 (forterie1812.ca/home.php).
• Sherman is cochair of the Amherst War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration Committee, which will participate in a June 10 ceremony at the Garrison Cemetery. (For more info, write to Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org.) “My ultimate goal,” he says, “is to have every public building in Erie County fly the fifteen-star flag on December 30, 2013—the 200th anniversary of the day Buffalo was burned by the British.”
Christopher Schobert is Spree’s associate editor.