Front Page Titles (by Subject) FORT ERIE. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1
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FORT ERIE. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 1 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 1.
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On consulting a good map, a little promontory may be seen jutting out into Lake Erie on the Canada shore, nearly opposite to Black Rock. Perhaps it may be marked Fort Erie, for there Fort Erie stood.
A lady of Buffalo, who happens to be a good walker, proposed that she and I should indulge in a ramble to Fort Erie, one fine day, towards the end of October. She showed me that she was provided with stout boots, in case of our having to cross swampy ground; and she said she believed we might trust to getting some sort of a dinner on the Canada side, and might therefore go unencumbered with provisions.
We set out from Buffalo soon after breakfast, and made our way over a waste, through brush, over fences, along a natural terrace once planted with guns, down to the ferry at Black Rock. On the way I saw one of the less prepossessing abodes of settlers, so frequently described;—its desolate appearance on the verge of the wood; its untidy garden, and the cool, uncomfortable manners, and the lank hair, and pale, dingy countenance of its mistress. I also heard, during our walk, some things which make me think that Buffalo is as undesirable a place of residence as any in the free States. It is the rendezvous of all manner of persons; the passage through which fugitives pass from the States to Canada, from Canada to the States, and from Europe and the Eastern States into the wild West. Runaway slaves come here, and their owners follow in hopes of recapturing them. Indian traders, land-speculators, and poor emigrants come here, and the most debased Indians, the half-civilized, hang about the outskirts. No influence that the mass of respectable inhabitants can exert can neutralize the bad effects of a floating population like this; and the place is unavoidably a very vicious one. A sufficient proof of this is, that ladies cannot walk beyond the streets without the protection of a gentleman. Some excellent English ladies opened a school in Buffalo, and not being aware of the peculiarities of the place, followed, with their pupils, the English practice of taking country walks. They persevered for some time, hoping to obtain countenance for the wholesome practice, but were compelled, after a time, not only to give up walking, but to quit the place. It will be understood that I do not give this as any specimen of American towns The corruption of Buffalo is owing chiefly to its frontier position, and consequent liability to a vicious, transient population.
After crossing the ferry at Black Rock, we pursued our walk in a south-west direction, sometimes treading a firm sand, and sometimes a greensward, washed by the fresh waters of the lake. Though we were on British ground, we were entertained by an American woman who lived on the lake shore, close by the fort. She treated us with negus and cake while preparing to get a dinner for us, and amused us with accounts of how butter and eggs are smuggled into Buffalo from her neighbourhood, these articles not being allowed to pass the Custom House. My eyes never rested on the Canada shore without my feeling how absurd it was that that poor country should belong to us, its poverty and hopeless inactivity contrasting, so much to our disgrace, with the prosperous activity of the opposite shore : but here was the climax of absurdity,—the prohibition of a free traffic in butter and eggs! What a worthy subject of contention between two great nations,—the one breaking the laws to provide Buffalo with butter and eggs, and the preventive force of the other exercised in opposition!
Our hostess was sewing when we went in, amusing herself meanwhile with snatches of reading from “Peter Parley,” which lay open before her. She put away her work to cook for us, conversing all the while, and by no means sorry, I fancy, to have the amusement of a little company. She gave us tea, beef-steak, hot rolls and butter, honeycomb, and preserved plums and crab-apples. Immediately after dinner I went out to the fort, my friend promising to follow.
The thickness of the remaining fragments of the walls shows the fort to have been substantially built. It was held by the Americans to the last extremity, in the war of 1814, and then blown up by a brave man to prevent its falling into the hands of the British. He remained alone in the fort to do the deed; and as I now witnessed the desolation of the solitude in which it stands, I felt as if I could enter into what his feelings must have been on the last day of his life. At one moment, all had been dead silence; at the next, the windows in Buffalo were blown out by the explosion.
I sat alone beside a pool in the middle of the fort. Fragments of the building lay tumbled around, overgrown with tall grass, and bristling with shrubbery. Behind me was the grim forest, with the ruins of a single deserted house standing within its shadow. Before me lay the waste of waters, with gulls dipping and sailing. A single birch overhung the pool beside me, and a solitary snipe, which seemed to have no fear of me, vibrated on the top of a bulrush. I do not know that I was ever so oppressed with a sense of solitude; and I was really glad soon to see my friend standing on a pirmacle of the ruined wall, and beckoning me to come up.
This afternoon, she told me her wonderful story; a part of which,—that part in which the public may be said to have an interest,—I am going to relate.
At the time of the war of 1812, Mrs. W. Lived in Buffalo, with her father, mother, brothers, and sisters. In 1814, just when the war was becoming terrific on the frontier, her father and eldest brother were drowned in crossing the neighbouring ferry. Six months after this accident, the danger of Buffalo was so great that the younger children of the family were sent away into the country with their married sister, under the charge of their brother-in-law, who was to return with his wagon for the mother and two daughters who were left behind, and for the clothes of the family. For three weeks there had been so strong an apprehension of a descent of the Indians, the barbarous allies of the British, that the ladies had snatched sleep with their clothes on, one watching while the others lay down. It was with some difficulty, and after irany delays, that the wagon party got away, and there were still doubts whether it was the safer course to go or stay. Nothing was heard of them before night, however, and it was hoped that they were safe, and that the wagon would come for the remaining three the next morning.
The ladies put out their lights early, as they were desired; and at eight, two of the three lay down to sleep; Mrs. W., then a girl of sixteen, being one. At nine, she was called up by the beating of a drum, the signal that the Indians were at hand. No description can give an idea of the loathing with which these savages were then regarded,—the mingled horror, disgust, dread and hatred. The Indians were insidious, dangerous, and cruel beyond example, even in the history of savage warfare. These poor ladies had been brought up to hate them with a deadly hatred; they were surrounded with persons burning with the injuries inflicted by Indian revenge and barbarity; for weeks they had lived in hourly dread of death by their hands; their strength was worn, and their nerves shaken by the long suspense; and now the hoarse drum woke them up with news that the hour was come. A deadly sickness overspread their hearts as they started from their beds. They looked from their windows, but could see nothing through the blank darkness. They listened, but they knew that if the streets had been quiet as death, the stealthy tread of the savages would have been inaudible. There was a bustle in the town. Was the fight beginning? No. It was an express sent by the scouts to say that it was a false alarm. The worn-out ladies composed their spirits, and sank to sleep again. At four, they were once more wakened by the horrid drum, and now there was a mustering in the streets which looked as if this were no false alarm. In the same moment, the sister who was watching what passed in the street, saw by torch-light the militia part asunder and fly, and Mrs. W., who was looking through the back window, perceived in the uncertain glimmer that a host of savages was leaping the garden-fence,—leaping along the walks to the house, like so many kangaroos,—but painted, and flourishing their tomahawks. She cried out to her mother and sister, and they attempted to fly; but there was no time. Before they could open the front door, the back windows came crashing in, and the house was crowded with yelling savages. With their tomahawks, they destroyed everything but the ladies, who put on the most submissive air possible. The trunks containing the clothing of the whole family stood in the hall, ready to be carried away when the wagon should arrive. These were split to fragments by the tomahawk. These wretches had actually met the wagon, with the rest of the family, and turned it back; but the brother-in-law, watching his opportunity, wheeled off from the road when his savage guards were somehow engaged, and escaped.
The ladies were seized, and as Mrs. W. claimed protection, they were delivered into the charge of some squaws to be driven to the British camp. It was unpleasant enough the being goaded on through such a scene by savage women, as insolent as the men were cruel; but the ladies soon saw that this was the best thing that could have happened to them; for the town was burning in various directions, and soon no alternative would be left between being in the British camp and in the thick of the slaughter in the burning streets. The British officer did not wish to have his hands full of helpless female prisoners. He sent them home again with a guard of an ensign and a private, who had orders to prevent their house being burned. The ensign had much to do to fulfil his orders. He stood in the doorway, commanding, persuading, struggling, threatening; but he saved the house, which was, in two days, almost the only one left standing. The whole town was a mass of smoking ruins, in many places slaked with blood. Opposite the door lay the body of a woman who in her despair had drunk spirits, and then defied the savages. They tomahawked her, in sight of the neighbours, and before her own door, and her body lay where it had fallen; for there were none to bury the dead. Some of the inhabitants had barricaded themselves in the jail, which proved, it was said, too damp to burn: the rest who survived were dispersed in the woods.
Before the fire was quite burned out, the Indians were gone, and the inhabitants began to creep back into the town, cold and half dead with hunger. The ladies kept up a large fire (carefully darkening the windows), and cooked for the settlers, till they were too weary to stand, and one at a time lay down to sleep before the fire. Mrs. W. often during those dreary days used to fasten a blanket, Indian fashion, about her shoulders, and go out into the wintry night, to forage for food,—a strange employment for a young girl in the neighbourhood of a savage foe. She traced the hogs in the snow, and caught many fowls in the dark. On the third day, very early in the morning, six Buffalo men were enjoying a breakfast of her cooking, when the windows were again broken in, and the house once more full of savages. They had come back to burn and pillage all that was left. The six men fled, and, by a natural impulse, the girl with them. At some distance from the house, she looked behind her, and saw a savage leaping towards her, with his tomahawk already raised. She saw that the next instant it would be buried in her skull. She faced about, burst out a laughing, and held out both her hands to the savage. His countenance changed, first to perplexity; but he swerved his weapon aside, laughed, and shook hands, but motioned her homewards. She was full remorse for having quitted her mother and sister. When she reached her door, the house was so crowded that she could neither make her way in, nor learn anything of their fate. Under the persuasion that they lay murdered within, she flew to some British dragoons who were sitting on the ground at a considerable distance, watching the burning of the remainder of the town. They expressed their amazement that she should have made her way through the savages, and guarded her home, where they procured an entrance for her, so that she reached the arms of her patient and suffering mother and sister. That house was, at length, the only one left standing: and when we returned, Mrs. W. pointed it out to me.
The settlers remained for some time in the woods, stealing in to a midnight warnning and supper at the lone abode of the widow and her daughters. The ladies had nothing left but this dwelling. Their properly had been in houses which were burned, and their very clothes were gone. The settlers had, however, carried off their money with them safely into the woods. They paid the ladies for their hospitality, and afterwards for as much needle-work as they could do; for every one was in want of clothes. By their industry those women raised themselves to independence, which the widow lived some tranquil years to enjoy, The daughter who told me the story is now the lady of a Judge. She never boasts of her bravery, and rarely refers to her adventures in the war; but preserves all her readiness and strength of mind, and in the silence of her own heart, or in the ear of a sympathizing friend, gratefully contrasts the perils of her youth with the midler discipline of her riper age.