Niagara Gazette

September 12, 2013

Devil's Hole's marking 250th anniversary on weekend

Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Historians sometimes refer to it as America’s first labor strike.

It happened in Niagara Falls with the 250-foot gorge as the backdrop to a brutal attack.

Today, it’s a small state park, close to the sprawling Niagara Power Project and Niagara University. This weekend marks the 250th anniversary of the Devil’s Hole Massacre.

To commemorate the milestone, Old Fort Niagara and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation are staging special programs Saturday (at Devil’s Hole) and Sunday (at Fort Niagara). Due to limited parking at Devil’s Hole, visitors are advised to park at the Power Vista lot, off Lewiston Road, and use the free shuttle service that will run from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission to Devil’s Hole and the activities is free.

It was Sept. 14, 1763, when about 400 Seneca Indians lay in wait for the British convoy along the trail at the place called Devil’s Hole.The story goes that the Indians, who had once worked for the French in hauling goods along the portage, between Lewiston and the river above the falls, were upset because the British then controlled Fort Niagara, so the Seneca services were no longer needed. Also, the portage road was an important link in transporting supplies from the Niagara area to Detroit, where the British military post was virtually isolated in the Great Lakes Region. For the Indians, it was payback time, carefully planned by Pontiac, the Ottawa chief of tribes in Michigan. 

As the 25 horses and ox-drawn wagons from Fort Schlosser on the upper river — enroute to the Lower Landing in Lewiston — reached the Indians in hiding that September day, they were suddenly struck by a heavy volley of musket fire. Within seconds, the Indians burst out from the wooded area and continued firing.

The scene just a couple of miles from one of the world’s scenic wonders turned into a blood bath. Several of the wagon teams broke away and stampeded, some plunging over the cliff to the rocks more than 200 feet below. Drivers trying leap from their wagons got tangled in the harness and were dragged to their deaths, according to Howard H. Peckham, author of “Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (Princeton University Press). Amid the chaos, the soldiers couldn’t control the frightened and kicking animals. Before they could defend themselves or even reload, the Indians were attacking with their tomahawks.

John Stedman, a civilian employee of the army heading the wagon train, managed to spur his horse away from the scene and dash back to Fort Schlosser. When the gunfire at Devil’s Hole was heard two miles away in Lewiston, Lt. George Campbell and his two companies of troops heading to Detroit, were ordered to ordered to reverse directions and head up to attack site, Before reaching Devil’s Hole, they encountered a second ambush, The final death toll: 80 British soldiers; eight others were wounded and eventually returned to Fort Niagara. The number of Indian casualties was never determined.

One hard-to-believe account from that day involves a 13-year-old boy, drummer Lemuel Mathews, who either jumped or was thrown into the gorge. His leather drum sling reportedly snagged on a tree limb and he miraculously survived.

MARKING THE MILESTONE SATURDAY At Devil's Hole State Park n 11 a.m.: Native American Opening Ceremony n 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.: Camps open to public. Demonstrations of period skills, uniforms/clothing and equipment. n 11:30 a.m.: (and at noon) -- Musket demonstrations over the Niagara Gorge n 1 p.m.: Walking tour. Visitors to meet reenactors portraying original combatants as narrator relates the story of the encounters. n 2 p.m.: Musket firings over the gorge n 3 p.m.: Walking tours n 4 p.m.: Moment of silence/closing ceremony Note: A free shuttle is available from the New York Power Authority's Power Vista parking lot. SUNDAY At Old Fort Niagara n 10 a.m.: Native American opening ceremony n 10:30 a.m.: Special tour: Fort Niagara in Pontiac's War n 11:30 a.m.: Artillery demonstration n 12:30 p.m.: Trade demonstration n 1:30 p.m.: Special tour Fort Niagara in Pontiac's War n 2:30 p.m.: Frontier Diplomacy at Fort Niagara in 1763 n 3:30 p.m.: Reveille Race for Kids n 4 p.m.: Closing ceremony