By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
Dunkirk's role in the War of 1812 was small but significant. Aside from hosting the very first battle, we have an unsung heroine to celebrate. Her name is Celia Sampson Cole, wife of Seth, first settlers of Dunkirk.
Seth was contracted by the Holland Land Company to cut a path one rod wide(a rod equals 16.5 ft) through the heavily wooded land along Lake Erie from Pomfret to Silver Creek (now Route 5). He was paid $10 per mile for this service. He had traveled with his wife and their 10 children, along with the family of Zottu Cushing, for three weeks through winter snows by oxen drawn sleighs, from Oneida County. They crossed Lake Erie on ice from Buffalo in February 1805 narrowly escaping death in a sudden storm.
Cushing went on to the settlement of Canadaway; Seth bought his land for $3.33 an acre at the entrance to Canadaway Creek. There he built a log house. Their 11th child was born one month later. That in itself was heroic! But that was just the start of Celia's heroism. Seth died in 1810 leaving her in the wilderness to fend for the family.
Tensions were high with England in those years and the British ruled the Great Lakes with their larger, armed ships, often harassing and kidnapping sailors and fishermen, plundering the scattered, poor pioneer families along the developing communities, taking their scarce provisions. Salt was a precious commodity in the days before refrigeration and salt boats were frequently attacked as they sailed their commercial routes from the Onondaga Salt mines to growing settlements along the Great Lakes.
The Dunkirk Harbor, then Chadwick Bay, was described as one of the best harbors on Lake Erie, offering shelter and anchorage for commercial traffic. Canadaway Creek also offered shelter for boats. A militia of some 40 local men was formed to help protect the settlers and the salt boats and other commercial interests near Canadaway and the harbor. War was declared against England on June 12, 1812.
It was in July 1812 that Celia, also known as Widow Cole, observed a salt boat being pursued by the British armed schooner, the Lady Prevost. Widow Cole immediately jumped on her horse and rode to Canadaway (Fredonia) to alert the militiamen along the way that the British were coming. The Americans gathered in time to ambush the armed British as they rowed into Canadaway Creek from their ship in pursuit of the salt boat which had sought shelter there. Celia did not rest from her round trip ride. She is reported by Leslie Chard in his historic account, "Out of the Wilderness" to have "melted down her pewter ware to make bullets" for the muskets during the fight and prepared food for the 40 to 45 men.
This was the first naval fight of the War of 1812, right here in Dunkirk! It proved successful and the British returned to their ship and fled on toward Buffalo.
Two of Celia's sons, Erastus and Daniel, went on to serve in front line battles of the war in Lewiston, N.Y., and Queenston, Ontario. At age 75, Celia Cole applied for her husband's veteran's benefits but was rejected due to lack of paperwork. She died in 1845. Historian, Horace W. Taylor of Portland wrote in 1902, "I knew Mrs. Cole in after years. She was a woman of remarkable energy and endurance."
How can we not celebrate such a courageous and strong pioneer woman? She is our Joan of Arc and Paul Revere all wrapped up into one historic figure. Here is an engaging, charismatic hometown heroine who could win over many hearts and inspire young women who do not see enough feminine energy in the pages of history. She represents the strong fabric of our forefathers in frontier Western New York. With coordinated effort. we could project her story in reenactment during this bicentennial celebration year - and every year. She deserves fame and recognition. Her glory shines the light on our region and will attract school children, tourists and history buffs.
There are interested collaborative parties willing to consider putting together a program this summer or fall. It could be a one horse/one woman program telling the story as she goes or the entire reenactment with the militia, which has even been done in the past. Volunteers will be needed. We think we have a lead on one horsewoman, but if there is interest in promoting this real life story from our history, contact the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse (366-5050), the Dunkirk Historical Museum (366-3797) or the Dunkirk Development Office (366-9879). Let's celebrate Dunkirk's role in the War of 1812. Let us celebrate heroic Celia Cole!
The New York State Regional Tourism office, in collaboration with the International Peace Garden Foundation, has unveiled a new trail map pinpointing historical sites related to the War of 1812 across New York and in Ontario. Maps and websites are coordinated with this effort. Let's get Dunkirk on the map to commemorate our role in the War of 1812 and 200 subsequent years of peace between Canada and the USA.
There is current acclaim related to Dunkirk related to this war. This year a Dunkirk native, Richard Barbuto, 1976 graduate of Dunkirk's Cardinal Mindszenty High School, has published his second book on the war, "Long Range Guns, Close Quarter Combat: The Third US Artillery Regiment in the War of 1812." The book traces the history of the third regiment from the beginning of 1812 through the end of the war. Dr. Barbuto is deputy director of the Department of Military History at the United States Army Command and Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. His book "Niagara 1814: America Invades Canada" was named Historic Book Club Selection in 2000.
Editorial reviewer Timothy Johnson, author of "Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory," comments that Barbuto has written an "impressive and important addition to the historical works on the War of 1812 Comprehensive in scope and detailed in analysis." William Skelton, another reviewer, states, "His study is unmatched for its comprehensiveness and balance and should be welcomed by scholars and general readers with a strong interest in military history."
Barbuto has agreed to a fundraising lecture for the Dunkirk Historical Society and book signing in Dunkirk this June. Watch the OBSERVER for an announcement with further details of his visit.
Skeeter Tower is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org