Union and the War of 1812.
By Beverley Bittner, From Brown-Thompson Newspapers, January 1974.
It was a time of western expansion. Many who settled in our area soon pushed further westward. By 1811, more than half of the original settlers had left the county, believing that all who did not leave must starve.
While their fields were being cleared, the settlers were dependent on boats to bring supplies. Those who did not have money to pay for goods became indebted to the land agent. Many became so deeply in debt that they had to leave.
The clearings were all very small yet, for the first settlers did not understand how to clear land, according to “The History of Union Township” by David Wilson.
The wide extended forest induced a great deal of rainfall, Wilson wrote in 1881, and the wind could not get into the little clearings. Consequently, the frost settled down in them a month earlier in the Fall than it does now.
The roads were only paths through the woods, and there were not yet enough people to make good roads. It required a great deal of courage, hope and perseverance to enable any to stay, but fortunately for the future of the country there were those who were equal to the task, says Wilson.
Soon another trouble was to meet the struggling pioneers. A cloud was rising on the political horizon which threatened a war with Great Britain. This was the War of 1812, which, when it did come, affected every family in even our remote area.
Almost every able-bodied man was subject to the draft. Early settlers, James Gray, his brother William, and John Frampton were obliged to join Harrison’s army and participate in his memorable campaign in the Northwest.
There they met James Smiley, who four years later came to Union and took charge of the mills which had been built in 1800 by William Miles.
The troops rendezvoused at the head of Lake Erie on January 12, 1813. The hardships of that bitter winter march and fighting left William Gray in impaired health, and John Frampton dead. While in Harrison’s army, James Gray gained renown for his great strength. He was said to have lifted a cannon that no other soldier could lift.
All able-bodied men who escaped the draft were called out to guard (Captain Oliver Hazard) Perry’s fleet while it was being built in the Erie harbor. They stayed until the fleet was completed and then were allowed to return home.
The militia was called out again that winter, ostensibly to protect the town of Erie, lest the British should cross the lake on the ice and burn it. This drafting of the men for militia duty made it very difficult for the women, who were often isolated in their cabins, for the families were far apart, and the paths not broken through the snow, and the snow often as much as two feet deep.
One family’s experience was this: Hugh Wilson was drafted with less than 24 hours notice of the time he must report. No substitute could possibly be obtained, and if he did not go at the time appointed he would be caught and shot as a deserter. He did not even have time to cut firewood for his family.
The Wilsons had at that time seven children, the oldest three being girls, and the oldest girl about fifteen.
Hannah Wilson had several cows, some young cattle and a few sheep to take care of, besides her family. Their hay was scarce and the animals had to browse for some of their food. She fed the animals what she could spare, chopped what wood she needed, and felled some basswood trees for browse, and let the animals out.
The men were away six weeks. During that time Mrs. Wilson and her children lived without seeing another human being except for a neighbor boy from three miles away who came once to see if they were all right.
An enterprising grocer
There was a great deal of controversy as to the necessity of this draft. Some felt that R. J. Reed, an Erie merchant, misrepresented the danger to Brigadier General Mead, of Meadville, in order to have the militia called out. Mr. Reed’s motive, some believed, was a large store of flour he had on hand and could not sell, except to the Army.
In support of this theory, David Wilson writes, it was argued that although the British had burned Buffalo and the village of Black Rock, yet no general would require his men to march fifty miles over a field of ice exposed to the keen winds of winter without an object.
There was no garrison and no munitions of war at Erie, nothing but Reed’s flour, and the British did not know anything about that, and there could be no object in burning the few scattering houses of a village like Erie.
Besides, the lake does not freeze over in the winter, but perhaps General Mead and the enterprising grocer did not know that, Wilson concludes.
Beverley Bittner (1930–2006) was born in Dunkirk, NY, a daughter of Paul and Doris Blakeslee. She was raised and educated in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania where she graduated from Spartansburg High School in 1948. She moved to Corry, Pennsylvania in 1960, and resided there until 1979 when she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for several years. She was the Associate Editor for the Union Gospel Press in Cleveland, and was a free-lance writer for various religious publications. She had a special interest in history, wrote about veterans of World War II, and wrote and published a series of five novels about the history of western Pennsylvania and the origins of the local oil industry. She founded the Writer’s Block in 1999 after moving back to Corry and served as a mentor to other writers until her death in 2006.