A Road Most Traveled

For Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, NY by Michelle Kratts

There is a road alongside Oakwood Cemetery that leads a most famous trail of early American history.  Most drive through without realizing that each visit is a brush with destiny.  On Portage Road we walk beside ghosts.  Volleys pass over our cars, soldiers rifle by and a lone rider flies through the grass and trees on a magical horse.  This road is no ordinary road.  It has been christened with the blood and sweat of heroes.  It has many stories to tell and probably many, many more secrets to hold until the end of time.  


“Worn by thousands of feet in moccasins before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock…” the Native Americans first carved it out as a sacred walkway between the landings at Lewiston and Niagara Falls. Like a maze, it was set inside a wild and primordial forest of oak, beech and iron wood trees, and for a time a man could only move through single file.  The eyes of dangerous animals gazed out hungrily from the blackness as they passed through.   The French, the first white men at Niagara,  called it the portage, or the carrying place, as it was the only way to conduct trade as all routes were abruptly cut and made impossible by the presence of the world’s most famous waterfall, Niagara.  This walkway was the lifeline that connected the New World to Europe. They cleared land and built forts alongside the portage, while Seneca warriors taunted and burned everything as swiftly as it was erected.  When the English came, they fought with the French over it and for a time--it has been stated-- the portage became the most important road in North America, for whoever controlled this line of trampled grass controlled the fate of western civilization.


There was a master of the portage and I like to think he rides down this road like the headless horseman every year on a particular night in September.    Hailing from Herefordshire, England, John Stedman came to Niagara following the defeat of the French at Fort Niagara and had been given the task of widening the portage road and smoothing out the rough spots.  His family line went all the way back to John De Steddanham, the son of an English nobleman and Crusader.  This ancestor was a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and had for arms a cross fleury Vert in a field Or.  According to an ancient tradition, John De Steddanham brought with him to England a chalice made from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.  Other accounts state that it was actually the Holy Grail, itself.  Regardless, it is believed that John Stedman, the master of the Niagara portage, brought the banner of his ancestors to Niagara where he may have raised it as a flag upon the old stone chimney that now sleeps upon an embankment by the river.  He may have brought it to this new world as a token of his family’s mystical history and for divine protection.  We will never know for sure, but we do know that strangely, on September 14, 1763, during what was to be known as the Devil’s Hole Massacre, Stedman was one of only three to survive a massacre of wagon trains with his life intact.   The Seneca attackers attributed the preservation of Stedman to some “miraculous interposition”, and believing he wore a charmed life, conferred up him the name of “Ga-nas-squah, signifying, stone giant.” They reported that neither arrows, bullets nor tomahawk could penetrate the mysterious force that protected Stedman and his horse as they rushed through the portage back to the fort.  Stedman claimed that it was this miracle that made the Seneca more inclined to leave him in peace and to offer him, personally, much of their most precious land in Niagara.  He left Niagara and the portage behind when he evacuated with the British garrison in 1796.  A Loyalist, he was in Canada for awhile and then returned to his family estate in England where he died in 1808.   But if there ever was a place that his spirit would want to roam it would be here, along this road, where he will always undoubtedly be the proclaimed master.   


It wasn’t long before war and bloodshed found their way to Niagara and the portage.  But, at first, when the War of 1812 blew into Niagara it was nothing but a ruse.  Perhaps many historians will disagree, because war is so serious a deal, but it seems to me that the officers on either side of the river really did not entertain any real reason for making battle upon this land.  In fact, when the declaration hit it is said that many of them were, at the moment, engaged in peaceful entertaining at the beautiful village of Newark (Niagara on the Lake). So they said their goodbyes and then proceeded to wage a bloody war.  Many New Yorkers, who happened to be new settlers and farmers, right along this road, were not very interested in blowing things up and losing limbs.  The idea of an invasion of Canada was actually quite loathsome and they made that well known by frequent desertions and actually refusing to go into battle.  However, when war was unavoidable and the cannons could be heard from across the river, a foreign deep and rumbling note in the usual chorus of rock and water, and the soldiers could be seen marching along the gorge, their red coats visible from the chasm…they enlisted into the local militias. 


One cute story of the games men play was conceived just down the road from Oakwood Cemetery, on the portage, at Mr. Pierce’s watering hole, a popular tavern that was situated in a cozy corner across from the location of the present Niagara Falls Public Library.  The tavern keeper, Gad Pierce, was beginning to feel the tension and thought he would do something about it.  He gathered a large amount of local men, including Tuscaroras, and concocted a crazy and outlandish plan to outwit the Brits.  Pierce’s idea was to instill fear across the river by creating an illusion of strength.  Short guns and other equipment, they gathered every cane, ramrod and stick and mounted horses which they marched up and down the River Road until they got to Fort Niagara where they practiced more drills.  To the men on the Canadian side, it looked like a large regiment of Cavalry.  However, to those close by, it was a most ridiculous vision of a hodgepodge of blankets, plow horses and old men.  When the British did come on that fateful day in December of 1813, following the burning of Lewiston, Gad Pierce and four other men bravely awaited their advance.  They had sent their families away some time before but they stayed to protect the property.  Ultimately the British force was too large for these five men.  They fired some shots but fled out the door and down beside the portage into the woods.   Pierce returned to Niagara after the war and made himself quite a prominent citizen.  At this point it is unknown where he is buried.  Much of his family is in Oakwood.  Some were removed from the old burying grounds which had been cleared for the railroad. Unfortunately, records do not exist for this time period. Perhaps Mr. Pierce’s name will show up one day after an old stone is made legible.  


This road saw much destruction and obliteration during the War of 1812.  It has been documented that at least 25 buildings were destroyed along the portage.  Inside many of these dwellings lived a hardy sort of person who knew the ins and outs of frontier life.  Here lived a blacksmith named Raymond, a wheelwright called John Davids, Oliver Udall, a farmer, William Chapman, a rope maker.   Many of the women and children had been sent down the road to Batavia or Canandaigua before the great conflagration.  But there were women and children who had stayed.  In fact Miss Reynolds and Miss Field, years later, recollected how when news of the invasion had finally come General Whitney sent a sleigh to their door and all of the children and provisions they could fit were hastily thrown in, finally the adults, and along with a cow they drove up the river to where the road branches off toward Batavia.  It certainly was a frightful time. 


The portage was also the sight of the great war encampments.  Battles were not fought here, but along this road the broken-hearted and the broken-bodied marched to and from battle.  It was a stretch of ground between the living and the dead—and quite appropriately, the place Judge Porter chose for a cemetery.  During the War of 1812, Fort Schlosser, at the upper end of the portage, was a store house surrounded by a light palisade. Many of the sick were brought to Schlosser and probably died there.  Various regiments, each numbering about 400 officers and men, with their strengths often depleted by sickness and desertion, marched from their camps between Fort Schlosser and Manchester to the Lewiston docks and over to Queenston where the first battle of the war was fought.  Among many of these men were Major Benajah Mallory’s 40 Canadian volunteers who hurried down from Manchester to fight the British.   


On December 21, 1813, a British detachment under Major General Phineas Riall burned practically every dwelling along the portage road.  Even as there was not much left following the devastation when the war was ended many settlers returned and built a city from the ashes; a city that would rival some of the greatest cities in the world.  Businesses grew and flourished and this cemetery was born in 1852.  Unfortunately, just a decade later Niagara found herself in yet another skirmish--one that deeply burned the heart from the Niagara frontier.  The portage saw many a hero pass through these black iron gates during this period.  In fact, the scribbles left behind in the Oakwood archives are notably sparse at times as even the trustees lost sons in battle.  Oakwood may hold some of the greatest numbers of Niagara’s Civil War dead. 

That dismal day in June of 1864 saw at least 100 Niagarans perish with Col. Peter A. Porter’s 8th NY Heavy Artillery Regiment.  Many are resting inside these gates.  The funeral of Lt. Edward Hawes drew large crowds and a volley was fired over the grave.  He was only twenty three and died in a battle which is considered to be the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign.  One of our greatest heroes is Col. Porter, himself.   The dashing young officer from Niagara, more poet than soldier, had turned down a more pleasant government position in order to bring his Niagara boys home.  In the end it was they who brought him home.  And one of these Niagara boys, Leroy Williams, lies not too far from his commander.  He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for risking his own life, crawling upon his belly to drag the Colonel’s lifeless body to Union lines.  It was written that although Colonel Porter’s funeral was one of the largest ever seen at Niagara, there were moments of silence in Oakwood Cemetery when the mourners paused to listen as the great Niagara, herself, cried out and witnessed the death of one of her greatest men. 


But there are other heroes that have passed down this road.  Not too far from Peter Porter’s grave is a little known woman lost forever to time in the Town Grounds, without even a simple marker.  Jane Lee came through these gates, down the portage, lifeless and encased like all the others.  A servant to some of the wealthiest Niagarans, she had been born a slave and lived to be over one hundred years old.  We hope that one day we can find where she rests and honor her life more conspicuously. 


It is inevitable that from within the gates of Oakwood we watch as today’s world passes us by.  In a busy carnival of colors and lights an Arby’s and a Planned Parenthood dot our horizon.  The exhaust from cars enters and chokes the sky like an ancient burning sacrifice.  But here, in Oakwood, not much has changed.  Of course, there has been the usual weathering.  A recent storm took down giant tree branches and pieces of Arby’s were tossed into the mix.  But a few Saturdays ago, dozens of Niagarans put it all back together and by Mother’s Day flowers and waving foliage outflanked any destruction that may have taken place.  It seems that there will always be battles drawn along this portage road.  Some places, like Oakwood, are meant for the ghosts of history and gracefully acquiesce to the onward march of time.