Margaret St. John - Table of Contents

Margaret St. John and the Burning of Buffalo
Excerpted from
"When Buffalo was Young: Some Incidents of Local History Retold for Young People,"
by Myrtilla Constantine Fosdick.
Otto Ulbrich Co., Buffalo NY, 1925, pp. 26-27, 29-38.

General McClure, who was left in charge of the American garrison at Fort George, began to be disturbed in December by rumors that a large British force was advancing upon him. For various reasons his own forces were greatly reduced and in a panic he blew up the fort and retreated to Fort Niagara.

Before leaving the fort, however, he committed the grave mistake of lighting the fires of hatred by burning the village of Newark [present day Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada]. This act which left four hundred people homeless in midwinter with only a few hours preparation was denounced as "an exhibition of wantonness only fit for savages" and people were loud in their disapproval of such action.

The assurance of some of the more godly people that if we "sowed the wind we would reap the whirlwind" was soon justified. The enemy retaliated by crossing with a force of five hundred British and Indians, capturing Fort Niagara and burning Lewiston and Youngstown.

Fort Schlosser [present day Niagara Falls, NY] with but a pitiful small force held out bravely for two days but was at last forced to surrender. Before returning to Canada the enemy burned every house as far as Tonewanta [present day Tonawanda] Creek.


On December twenty-ninth, 1813, the British landed at Scajaquada Creek a little after midnight with a force of a thousand men who entrenched themselves so firmly at Black Rock that they were able to repulse every attack of our men to dislodge them. On learning of their approach, General Hall dispatched General Adams with his militia down the river, thinking it wiser to keep the more experienced men in reserve for the expected attack on Buffalo.

This was a great mistake, for had he sent his entire force against them, he might have overcome the British and averted the disaster which followed. These militiamen, outnumbered, untrained and undisciplined, encountered the enemy at Black Rock. Finding themselves the target of a fierce attack in front and also being fired upon by cannon from the other side of the river, they became panic-stricken and rapidly retired toward Buffalo. Another attempt was made to halt the oncoming British near Fort Tompkins, but this effort failed likewise and a retreat was ordered.

This movement, none too dignified even at first, ended in a deplorable rout. At Buffalo the alarm had been given to the anxious watchers, although it was not necessary for they could plainly hear the firing at Black Rock. When the fleeing soldiers reached Buffalo, they were joined by their families laden with an odd collection of personal treasures. In their excitement they had hastily snatched up many useless things, one alarmed housewife even turning her partially-raised bread dough into a pillowcase and carrying it tenderly in the hope that she might find a place to bake it. The wildest confusion reigned. Frightened crowds, hastening on foot and in various conveyances and shrieking "The Indians are coming," blocked every road leading from the city.

The Williamsville road was black with running, excited people, constantly dropping and picking up articles of their hastily assembled possessions while others, following too closely and unable to halt quickly enough stumbled upon them from behind. Suddenly those ahead turned upon the fleeing mob, shouting "Indians! Indians!" and the hysterical refugees fled back toward Buffalo, rushing madly down the street and out the Seneca Road. Almost immediately Indians did leap out of the woods (on North Street) and ran down Main Street, yelling, shooting and giving a fearsome exhibition of savage warfare.

In the meantime two or three young men mounted the only gun at hand and aimed it down Niagara Street. When the triumphant British army had reached the outskirts of the town -- just about where the McKinley monument stands in Niagara Square -- they were halted for a moment by a few rounds from the cannon in the hands of our enthusiastic young defenders whose success so encouraged them that in their zeal they overloaded the gun, thereby causing a terrific explosion which dismounted it,

At this critical moment Colonel Chapin, in order to gain time, appeared displaying a white flag and parleyed with the British general, Riall, offering to capitulate if the British would spare the inhabitants and their property. Soon after he had accepted the terms, Riall discovered that Chapin was not in command; thereupon he withdrew his acceptance and let torch and tomahawk have full sway.

By three o'clock in the afternoon the flames had reduced Black Rock and Buffalo almost to ashes, only six or seven buildings remaining. The British then crossed to Canada.

During the next two days some of the homeless people, who had found hiding in the woods in midwinter a bitter experience, crept back to bury the dead whom they found lying frozen stiff where they had fallen. When the returning inhabitants entered the town they at first saw no living thing; but presently they discovered that some one was living in one of the unburned houses, and, on investigating, found their friend, Mrs. St. John, and two of her daughters who welcomed them and gave them food.

This woman's husband and son had been drowned a short time before, leaving her to care for herself and eight children with the help of an older daughter, Mrs. Bemis. For three weeks before the fire, fear of an Indian attack so terrified the St. Johns that the women had slept with their clothes on ready to flee at a moment's notice.

When the firing at Black Rock had given the alarm and the family had learned that the militia had broken and fled before the pursuing British and that the Indians were close upon them, Mr. Bemis hastily harnessed his horse, packed his family and six of the St. John children into the wagon and hurried toward Williamsville, leaving the mother and two older daughters at the house to be called for later. On reaching North Street the fleeing party met the returning Senecas who were pursued by Canadian Indians, firing as they came. Mr. Bemis instantly turned and drove down Main Street at a breakneck pace, calling to Mrs. St. John as they dashed by her house that he would have to go by the Lake Shore Road and that he would return for them as soon as possible. (As it happened, he was not able to return until after the danger was over; so that the three women were left to save themselves.)

With nerves quivering from the long suspense they tried to pierce the darkness of the early morning with fear-distended eyes, but could make out little in the confusion except that everybody but themselves seemed to be fleeing for their lives. Cloaked and bonnetted the three women waited impatiently for Mr. Bemis to return for them. Peering out into the darkness again Mrs. St. John saw an Indian in the act of tearing down the curtain of the Lovejoy house next door, revealing the tragic scene within. Faint with horror she watched Mrs. Lovejoy as, crazed with anger at the Indian for despoiling her property, she struck at him with a carving knife. Swiftly his tomahawk did its work and the poor woman lost her life in an effort to protect her possessions.

Trembling with apprehension Mrs. St. John hesitated at the door, wondering what course to pursue, when the clatter of hoofs came to her ears and she saw a British colonel approaching. In the dim light he saw her figure outlined in the doorway and gruffly asked her why she remained there. She replied that she had lost the opportunity to escape and now there was no place to go except out into the snow to perish in the cold. In a few words she told him of the tragedy in the next house and implored him to place a sentinel at her door to prevent the Indians from attacking her family and burning her house.

In a kindly tone he replied that, while he had no authority to grant her request, he would advise her to go to General Riall at headquarters and state her case; and he, too, passed on.

In despair she returned to the house only to find that while she was talking with the officer some Indian women had entered and were already plundering it. They took the cloaks and bonnets off from the three white women, replacing them their own blankets and were proceeding to further annoyances when a dwarfish little man appeared, sent away the Indians and quieted the St. Johns' fears by telling them of General Riall's latest orders, that no one should be molested who was obliged for good reason to stay in the town. He informed them also that he was the General's interpreter and, on hearing their story, offered to accompany them to the General's headquarters on Niagara Street and obtain protection for them. After securing this promise, he returned with them, sat down inside the door, and whenever Indians came and banged on door he sent them away looking as if they had been severely reproved.

During the day the Lovejoy house was set on fire. As soon as the incendiaries had left, the St. Johns, conquering their aversion to looking upon the scene of the tragedy, removed Mrs. Lovejoy's body from the house and finally succeeded in quenching the fire.

Afterward they carried the body into the house again, thinking it would be safe until someone came to bury it; but all their well-meant efforts were in vain for when the Indians returned on the third day, the house and its contents were burned to the ground.

New Year's day looked upon a scene of desolation. A few people ventured back to bury the dead and the three St. Johns, darkening their windows that no lurking enemy might guess at their activities, took turns cooking for the refugees until they were almost exhausted, for the homeless thronged their tiny house day and night.

One of the daughters disguised herself as an Indian by wrapping herself in a blanket and several times ventured out into the cold dark night to forage for food. She proved to be quite expert at catching fowls in the dark and, having traced pigs by their tracks in the snow, she was able to add plenty of fresh pork to their menu as well as tasty vegetables, salvaged from pits which she had located.

On the third morning after the fire as a party of them sat at breakfast, they were again thrown into a panic when an old man rushed in with the news that British and Indians were returning to burn and pillage what remained. The old man and one of the girls fled for their lives out of doors and up toward Mohawk Street. Mrs. St. John, rushing to the window with a table-cloth in hand to wave in token of surrender, saw an Indian in pursuit of them. The red man overtook them and, to their amazement, instead of tomahawking them, painted their faces with vermilion and passed on in apparent friendliness

The girl returned home, laughing hysterically but filled with remorse for having deserted her mother and sister in her panic. She refused to remove the paint, however, for fear the Indian would return and be displeased. While they were still agitated and wondering what to expect next a British officer rode up and inquired about the painted faces. On learning the circumstances, he insured their safety and advised removing the paint.

The burning went on and soon the St. John house was the only building that remained except the stone jail and a blacksmith shop. This is the little house in which the family withstood the hardships of the catastrophe and ministered to the refugees. A tablet affixed to the South column of the front wall of the Edwards Department Store on Main Street near Mohawk marks the spot where the house stood.

For some time the terrified settlers remained in their hiding places, stealing over to the St. John house under cover of darkness for an occasional meal. They had lost homes and personal property but many had carried their money with them so they were able to remunerate Mrs. St. John for her hospitality and to pay her for the making of much needed clothing. This brave woman and her family were soon reunited and joined in a successful effort to build up their fallen fortunes.

The relief committee of Canandaigua made an appeal for money, supplies and clothing for the unfortunate refugees which received a prompt response, thirteen thousand dollars besides food and needed warm garments being raised in a short time. In addition to the local relief, the State Legislature, the cities of Albany and New York, the Holland Land Company and others contributed nearly sixty thousand dollars.

Then the work of reconstruction went on apace. After a brief interval the Gazette went to press again and in April it reported that Joseph Pomeroy had rebuilt his hotel and was ready for customers. So rapidly did rebuilding take place that five months after the fire a score of stores and taverns had been erected while many families were camping out in shacks or huts awaiting the completion of new homes. The victims of the fire were animated by new courage of which they were again to stand in need as the war progressed.

Special thanks to Christina Kulifaj for her assistance

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