Brief Sketch of the Seat of War in the North

From the Pittsburgh Mercury, November 26, 1812

It is often very hard to imagine what the countryside was like two hundred years ago.  Fortunately the newspapers often provided for their readers descriptions like that below, of the countryside between Detroit and Niagara.

“As the situation of places on our north and north-western frontier, with their distance from each other, must be interesting to our readers, we subjoin the following short sketch, regretting that our means of information have been too limited to make it as complete as we could have wished.–As far, however, as the statement goes, it may be relied on to be accurate.

DETROIT is situated on a river of the same name, twenty miles above the head of Lake Erie.  This river, opposite to Detroit, is three quarters of a mile in width, with a current of about three miles an hour, and of sufficient depth to carry any vessels which navigate the lakes.  all the waters which empty into the Lake of the Woods, lake Superior, lakes Michigan and Huron, pass down the Detroit river into lake Erie.

The town of Detroit contains from one hundred to one hundred and fifty houses, mostly frame, which have all been built since the year 1805; the old town having been entirely destroyed by fire in June of that year.

The garrison stands at the north-west corner of the town, about three hundred yards from the river, and is situated on a small elevation, so as to overlook the surrounding plains.

The whole face of the country is very level, becoming flat and marshy as you proceed a few miles back from the river.

From Detroit to Brownstown, a Wyandot Indian village, is a distance of eighteen or nineteen miles.  It is situated on the river about one mile above the lake and opposite to fort Malden on the Canada side.

From Brownstown to the river Raisin, a distance of eighteen miles, there are no settlements of whites; being mostly Indian lands.  There were a number of families residing on this river, previous to the surrender of Detroit, but they all fled after that period, either to Detroit, or to the settlements in the state of Ohio, in consequence of the hostility of the Indians.

From the Rapids of Maumee to Sandusky  river, is a distance of forty miles, being such low swampy lands that there have been no settlements made on the road between these two places.  At the mouth of Sandusky the first settlement on the lake within the state of Ohio commences, which continues with short intervals to Buffalo, through part of the states of Pennsylvania and New-York.

From Sandusky river to Cleveland is a distance of about 80 miles, and from thence to Erie, in Pennsylvania, about one hundred miles, and ninety from Erie to Buffalo.

BUFFALO, is situate at the foot of lake Erie, within a few yards of the lake, nearly opposite the British fort Erie, and between two and three miles therefrom.

BLACK ROCK is about two miles below Buffalo, at the foot of a very considerable rapid in the river, which is here about the same width of Detroit river.

From Black Rock to the falls of Niagara is a distance of about twenty miles, and from thence to Lewistown eight or nine miles, opposite Queenston on the Canada side.

FORT NIAGARA stands at the head of lake Ontario, eight miles below Lewistown, and nearly opposite to Newark and Fort George.  From the falls down to lake Ontario, the river is not more than from a quarter to half a mile wide.

The editor of The Western Press, Mercer, Pennsylvania (here reprinted by the Pittsburgh Gazette, March 26, 1813) begins his journey at Buffalo, and ends at Youngstown.

“The village of Buffalo is situated at the lower end of lake Erie, between a quarter and an half mile back from the margin from the lake.  The British fort Erie, is nearly opposite and at the distance of between two and three miles, part of which is woods.  Immediately below this the river Niagara forms itself, and a very considerable rapid continues for about two miles, the main channel being on the British side of the river.  Black Rock is at the foot of these Rapids near three miles from Buffalo; here the river is about half a mile wide, a flat bottomed boat or a scow is said to cross in 7 minutes.  The opposite shore makes a handsome appearance, the buildings being all on the bank of the river, & the farms appeared to be cleared back about half a mile.  The batteries on our side are advantageously situated, the bank very commanding, and well supplied with cannon from 32 pounders, down to 4s & 2s.

The navy yard is a short distance below Black Rock, covered from the enemy by Squaw Island; a number of guns are mounted here, four vessels fitting out, which will carry from 10 to 14 guns each.  About 3 miles below this is the head of Grand Island, which continues 12 miles, immediately below where is another small Island, called Navy island.  Schlosser, a place so called from the old French Fort which formerly stood there, is 22 miles from Buffalo, and opposite Chippewa, a small village and creek of that name on the Canada side, and half a mile below the point of Navy Island.  The river is here between two and three mil wide, and a ferry has usually been kept, but great caution has to be used by the Ferrymen, to keep clear of the rapids below, which is so considerable as to render Navigation impracticable.  This is also a landing place for boats, and all kind of merchandize that is carried round the falls.

The great falls of Niagara is one mile below Schlosser, half a mile above which the river begins to descend with great rapidity its bottom very rocky, with sundry small perpendicular pitches; the stream is divided by Goat island, which runs to the main pitch.  This pitch is said to be 137 feet perpendicular, and is in a circular form–on the top of the fall the river is about 3-fourths of a mile in width, but becomes considerably narrower immediately, and continues a very wild current, of from a quarter to a half a mile in width to Lewistown, a distance of seven miles being confined by perpendicular banks of about 200 feet in height, generally coved with cedar.

At the falls is a small village called Manchester.  A grist mill and some other water works are erected on the bank a few rods above the main pitch.  This promises to be a place of much business.

The face of the country continues perfectly level on each side as far as Lewistown without descent, as might be expected from so great a fall in the river.–The descent from fort Schlosser to Devil’s hole or whirlpool, a distance of four miles, including the perpendicular falls and rapids, has agreeably to an official report made to congress in April 1808, been by correct measurement ascertained to be [indecipherable] and the whole fall from lake Erie to Lake Ontario is estimated at 450.  From the out let of Lake Ontario, which forms the St. Lawrence to Montreal, the descent is estimated at 100 feet, making the elevation of Lake Erie above the surface of the river at Montreal 650 feet.

On the hill above Lewistown a delightful prospect presents itself, a commanding view of the adjacent country, Lake Ontario, fort Niagara, at a distance of 7 miles, Newark, fort George, Queenston, Lewiston, &c.–  From Lewistown the river continues at about half a mile  wide, with a deep moderate current.  Fort Niagara is situated on a delightful plain, its walls on the very margin of the Lake and bank of the river, Newark a handsome village, is situated directly opposite to the fort, immediately above which stands Fort George.  Queenston also a handsome village, is on the opposite shore from Lewistown, previous to the war a ferry was kept here, and the inhabitants on each side of the river in a continual habit of intimacy and traffic.

Youngstown, is one mile above Fort Niagara on the bank of the river, and half a mile above fort George.  A large battery is here erected called the salt battery, mounted with 32, 18 and 6 pounders, and this battery and those on Niagara fort, owing to a bend in the river, form cross fire on fort George to great advantage which was 17 times set in flames by our batteries on the 21st November last, by the assistance of their water engines the fire was extinguished.”
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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden