John Fagant - Table of Contents

The Earliest Settlers of Buffalo
The British Period: 1760-1784

By John Fagant

With the fall of Fort Niagara in 1759, Joncaire's settlement of the Little Rapid was abandoned and destroyed. The French were now removed from WNY and the British took over control. In 1764, the British Captain John Montressor was authorized to build fortifications along the Niagara portage route to protect the passage between Lewiston and the Niagara River above the Falls. In July of the same year, Colonel Bradstreet, Montressor's commanding officer, ordered him to proceed to the source of the Niagara River at Lake Erie and select a location for a new fort:
            ‘You will proceed tomorrow at daylight to the outlet at Lake Erie. Make examination of the discharge above the rapids and select a proper place for fortification. It must command an anchorage where vessels may lie while being provisioned for Detroit."
For the next several days, Montressor explored both shores at the mouth of the lake. He reported that Buffalo Creek would not be acceptable for shipping due to the significant sandbar blocking the entrance to the water way. He then rowed across the river and decided that the northern shore was the proper location to build Fort Erie. Montressor's choice of fort location brings about an interesting "What If?"situation.  What if the fort had been built on present day Buffalo? How would that have changed the history of the region, if at all? Would Buffalo have developed into the great commercial center that it did or would the presence of a military post on the site inhibit its growth? Nevertheless, the future Buffalo remained uninhabited for more than another decade, until the last years of the American Revolution.

During the Revolution, Fort Niagara was used as a haven for many of the Loyalist families that had been driven from their homes in Pennsylvania and New York State. The Fort became a center of activity as many raids of the American frontier originated from here.  The terror that the Tories (loyalists) and their Native American allies, the Iroquois, spread eventually forced an American response.  Major general John Sullivan's 1779 expedition destroyed over 40 Iroquois villages, many in the Genesee Valley, and burned to the ground their crops and food supply. Refugees, especially among the Senecas, fled to the safety of the British at Fort Niagara. The British, however, were overwhelmed and could not adequately feed and provision the hundreds of Native Americans, causing many to starve and die during the difficult winter months of 1779-80. In the spring of 1780, the Iroquois were encouraged to settle the surrounding lands & grow their own food supply.  One of those areas was on the shore of Buffalo Creek.  

What was life like on Buffalo Creek in these early days as a Native American village? Was it an isolated settlement or did it interact with the rest of the Niagara Frontier?  Fortunately for the local historian, "The Narrative of the Captivity & Sufferings of Benjamin Gilbert & his Family", written during this time period (1780-1784), gives us a small glimpse into life in WNY and in Upper Canada.
In April of 1780, a raiding party of 11 Indians surprised the Gilbert household and took 15 captives. Among the members of the raiding party were Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas and a Delaware. Interestingly, several of these Indians had English names rather than the traditional Native American version. Led by the Mohawk brothers Rowland & John Monteur, they also included the Seneca John Huston and Samuel Harris and the Delaware John Fox. The captives were forcibly marched for over a month until reaching their destination at Fort Niagara.

The captives were split up among the various Indians for adoption into their families. Of particular interest to this article are the experiences of Rebecca Gilbert (age 16) and Elizabeth Peart (age 20), who ended up living on the Buffalo Creek site. Rowland Monteur gave Rebecca to his wife, who was the daughter of Siangorochti, an important Seneca chief.  Leaving Fort Niagara, the newly formed family walked to Fort Schlosser, located on the upper river about 1 mile above the falls. From there, they took a canoe the rest of the way to Buffalo Creek, eventually landing around 4 miles upstream.  As it was planting season, the land was cleared and the women planted corn, potatoes, pumpkins and squash. The men erected log cabins.
 Until the crops were harvested, however, there was a shortage of food in the settlement. Thus, several trips were made not only to Fort Niagara, but also to Fort Schlosser and Fort Erie, to obtain provisions and food from the British. The men also spent time hunting while the women gathered hickory nuts and berries. During the winter, the men would hunt for several weeks, living off their kills. This left more of the harvested food for the women and children who stayed behind in the village. In the early spring, they moved to a temporary camp a few miles away to gather the maple sugar.

Buffalo Creek was not an isolated settlement during this time period. There was much travel between the forts and other settlements. The British had a military presence at Fort Niagara, Fort Schlosser and at Fort Erie, while the Native Americans formed several settlements on both sides of the Niagara River. There was even a white civilian settlement forming among the Loyalists of the Revolution who lost their homes in the newly created United States. John Butler of Butler's Rangers fame established the village of Butlersbury in 1781. It was later renamed Newark and finally Niagara-on-the- Lake, as it is known today.
As for the plight of the Gilbert family, within two years of their capture, they had all received their freedom and returned to their home in Pennsylvania. The only exception was the father, Benjamin, who died soon after his release.


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