I’ve had a fabulous week looking into the life of Lewis Palmer. Even before I began researching family history, I’d been drawn to the Niagara area. Perhaps Lewis and his family have been calling to me to rediscover them and share their lives with family and friends?
Significant in my research has been straightening out Lewis Palmer’s parentage. Most online family trees have it wrong. What followed from that discovery was a clearer picture of a British/Canadian family who lived, worked, traded, farmed, raised families and fought with and against Americans and Indians on both sides of the Niagara River through peace and war on the frontier. The big prize in my research this week was coming across a newspaper clipping narrated by Lewis himself!
But let’s start at the beginning, for Lewis had a pretty interesting start in life.
According to Lewis, he was born in 1795 in Bertie Township. Bertie faces Lake Erie on the south and the Niagara River on the east. The community grew up around Old Fort Erie, as soldiers built homes for their families. Traders, merchants, churches and schools followed. Fort Erie had been used as a supply depot for British troops during the American Revolution. After the war, the area was settled by soldiers demobilized from Butler’s Rangers. Many Loyalists also settled in Welland County after the Revolution.
Lewis’ father was John Palmer (1776-1850), eldest son of Joseph Palmer (1739-1802). From land petitions submitted by Joseph and his sons, John and Joseph Richard, we know that Joseph Palmer served 36 years in the 34th Regiment of Foot Soldiers. The 34th Regiment arrived in Canada with General Burgoyne’s army in the spring of 1776 to fight the Americans. That would have made Joseph 37 years old when he arrived in Canada.
I found a treasure trove of information about the Palmers in petitions for land and in abstracts of deeds. The folks curating the site, Niagara Settlers, has done an amazing job of transcribing the early history of the area.
I would not have expected to find intimate details about a person in a land petition, yet from the petitions submitted by Joseph and his sons we learn that in June of 1784, Joseph was: “Five feet six Inches. Forty five Years old. Fresh Complexion Black Hair Black Eyes.” The Crown did indeed reward Joseph for his years of service: he was granted nearly 500 acres. But by 1793, Joseph realized that his many years in military service had worn him out to the point of “circumstances bordering on distress.” Unable to physically work the land, Joseph petitioned for a post with the customs office.
As the sons of a career soldier, both John Palmer and his younger brother Joseph Richard Palmer, were entitled to make petitions for land as well. The brothers submitted their petitions in 1793 and were granted 200 acres each. Curiously, though, the brothers left the area a few years later, crossing over to the American side where they remained for about 5-7 years. They settled for a short time in the rustic community of Buffalo. Though there for a brief period, they made an impact.
Various accounts of the early history of Buffalo, including this one, tell us that about the year 1795 John Palmer built a house there. He came to the area as an Indian trader, the primary trade being rum and whiskey. He ran a tavern and inn near the mouth of Buffalo Creek. This made John Palmer Buffalo’s first innkeeper!
Sources record that John’s first wife, Catharine Mabee, died in Buffalo. So, apparently John brought his family with him. Lewis must have been born just before they left Bertie. No doubt, it was a rough life for the young family, living among the Indians on an outpost of the Western New York frontier. A dramatic account of “the first murder” in Buffalo history reads:
An Indian from one of the villages on Buffalo Creek, attacked (it is said without provocation) John Palmer, the inn-keeper, with a drawn knife, with the intent to stab him. Two men, of the name Ward and Keeler, were sitting with Palmer at the time. Not succeeding in his attempt upon Palmer, the Indian struck his knife into the neck of Ward. The alarm soon brought together the few white inhabitants, and in the attempt to secure the Indian, a man of the name of John Hewitt, received several stabs from the desperate savage, producing almost instant death. (An Authentic and Comprehensive History of Buffalo)
If little Lewis didn’t witness this violent incident, he surely heard about it. But life in those times could be harsh. As a boy, Lewis lost his mother, Catharine Mabee. But some time soon after, before John took the family back to Bertie in 1802, he married Catharine’s younger sister, Mary. Hopefully, having Mary step in to care for them softened the blow of losing Catharine for both John and Lewis.
Though it sounds a dangerous environment for a child, the Palmer brothers made attempts to civilize the place. In a letter dated August 11, 1801, Joseph Richard, requested of Joseph Ellicott, a surveyor for the Holland Land Company, to “grant them the liberty of raising a school house on a lot in any part of town, as the New York Missionary Society have been so good as to furnish them with a school-master.” Ellicott complied with the request and a school house was erected. Thus, the Palmer’s brought the first school to Buffalo! Young Lewis may have attended for a brief time before his father took the family back to Bertie Township.
In 1802, John Palmer got word that old Joseph was either near death or had died, for he took his family back to Bertie. As the oldest son, it fell on him to settle his father’s estate, for Joseph died intestate. According to deed abstracts, John sold off his father’s lands when he returned to Bertie. Perhaps to settle his father’s debts, get his mother settled, and fund the building of another tavern — for we know that he did indeed run another tavern about 6 miles from the Old Fort Erie. His wife, Mary, had been given 100 acres by her father, Lewis Mabee, so the family had land to live on and farm. John ran the inn until his death in 1850, after which Mary took over.
Lewis Palmer was about 7 years old when the family returned to Bertie and he lived there the rest of his life. Of his life as a youth in Bertie, we have this account in his own words:
“When I was a boy wolves and even bears were not unfrequently to be met with in the woods near our house. One of my earliest recollections is meeting a large brown bear, face to face, in a ravine only a few hundred yards from the garrison at Fort Erie while searching for stray cattle. The animal showed me no disposition to attack me, and of course I did not molest him.”
In Lewis’ narrative (please do read the entire article — it’s wonderful!), he tells of his military service in the War of 1812, which broke out when he was 17 years old. He signed up with the militia and was involved in some skirmishes before being captured at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. The prisoners were taken to Batavia, but Lewis escaped from there and traveled some 40 miles to the shore of Lake Erie. He hid out until he was able to get hold of a boat and cross back over to Canada “at the risk of drowning, as the boat leaked rapidly, and [he] was obliged to stop every few minutes and bail out the water.”
Lewis was 19 years old at the end of the war. Presumably, for the next 5-6 years, he lived with and assisted his father in maintaining the farm and helping out at the inn. When he was 20, Lewis was brought into the society of freemasons by his father. It is said that old Joseph Palmer, Lewis’s grandfather, had brought over a lodge warrant with him from England. Lewis was a mason his entire life, holding various leadership roles in the lodge, and the masonic emblem can be seen on his tombstone. An account of Lewis’s lodge activity can be read online in The History of Freemasonry in Canada. Notably, just before Lewis died, they named the lodge after him. It is still called the Palmer Lodge.
About 1820, Lewis married Catharine Woolever, then 17 years of age. Catharine was the daughter of Peter Woolever and Susannah Shannon. The children of Lewis and “Caty” were:
- Adeline b. 1821
- Ellen b. 1824
- Mary Ann b. 1827
- Catherine b. 1831
- John Lewis b. 1836
- William Nelson b. 1839
- Leah Letitia b. 1841
The baptism of Lewis and Caty’s children is recorded as taking place at St. Paul’s Church in Fort Erie. They were all baptized on the same day: August 26, 1838.
According to the Canada Census of 1851, Lewis supported his family as a farmer. Lewis inherited land from his father, John, who passed away in 1826-27. The first recorded land transaction for Lewis is dated January 12, 1827, wherein he sold off 100 acres of his father’s lands. About a year later, he sold another 100 acres. A year after that, Lewis was given a quit-claim to 492 acres along Lake Erie. He then went on to mortgage parts of that land to others. It seems Lewis enjoyed dealing in land, for he made numerous land transactions in Bertie between 1827 and 1856.
From 1832-33 Lewis supplemented his farm and land speculating income by serving as postal carrier on the 36 mile Niagara River route between Fort Erie and Niagara. He was paid £78 in 1832 and £19 10s in 1833. He made 2 trips a week and the trip took him about 4 ½ hours.
When Lewis was In his early 40s, he was again called into military service. When the Rebellions of 1837 broke out in December, Lewis served as an adjutant in the 3rd Regiment of Lincoln Militia. The rebellion was pretty short-lived, though, and Lewis was called up to serve for less than two weeks.
Lewis Palmer was active in town government. In 1843, he was appointed a school commissioner. The following year, he was elected to the critical position of district councilor, serving in the post for 3 years. District councilors were “practical men who took hold of the work of opening up the townships … They knew the state of nearly every road and every bridge in the district. If any elector needed improvements in his neighborhood, he went to the district councilor representing his township and stated his needs.” (The Ontario Township). In 1848 and 1849, Lewis served as chairman of the township. In 1850, he stepped down to the position of councilman, and in 1851 took the post of town collector. (A Century of Municipal History, 1792-1892). After nearly 10 years holding public offices, Lewis retired to his farm.
The Canada Census of 1861 shows Lewis, Caty and two of their adult children living in a 1½ story frame house. Caty’s mother, Susan Woolever resided with them and many Woolever’s lived nearby. At that time and for the next several years, the area around Fort Erie became a major end station for slaves using the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman held her headquarters in St. Catharines, just 25 miles north of Bertie.
After the American Civil War, a brief period of unrest struck the Fort Erie area again in what became known as the Fenian Rising of 1867. The Irish fight for independence visited itself upon Canadians when “1,000 Irish veterans of the American Civil War [launched] raids on British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada in order to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland.” (Wikipedia) By then, Lewis was an old guy of 71, yet on June 2, 1866, he played a small role in the Battle of Ridgeway. The paper, Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, provides a colorful account of the incident:
“At about this time Lewis Palmer, a former Captain in the British army in his seventies, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the 1837 Rebellion, was smoking in the door of his house near Garrison Road about two miles outside of Fort Erie when he suddenly observed in the distance the glistening in the sun of rifles and bayonets in the road to the west.57 Palmer at first assumed that these were Canadian or British troops advancing into Fort Erie but as they came closer into view he realized they were Fenians. He quickly mounted his horse and galloped off into town to give warning.”
In the Canada Census of 1871, Lewis and Caty are still on the farm and a grandchild, Ezra Palmer is living with the elderly couple. A few years later, in 1876, Lewis was one of the surviving veterans of the War of 1812 to receive a small honorarium from the Canadian government in acknowledgement of his service.
Lewis passed away of “general disability” on January 17, 1789, at the age of 84. He was buried at St. Paul’s Anglican Cemetery in Fort Erie. Caty followed him in on May 7, 1881. That his service in the War of 1812 is inscribed on his death record should not, I think, be held of slight significance. I think we can view Lewis’s service in that conflict as a defining point in his life. Certainly, it had to have been the most dramatic time of his life, having been engaged in battle, captured by the enemy, marched 40 miles to a prison camp, escape and near drowning in the attempt to get back home.
Lewis was clearly a patriotic, service-oriented man. He served his King, and he served his community. He was rewarded with a long life and recognition for his service by his country.
Lewis Palmer was my 4th great-grandfather. His eldest daughter, Adeline, married William A. Beach of East Otto, NY, in Buffalo in the year 1846. After living a time in Bertie, William took Adeline and their children back to East Otto where they lived out the rest of their lives. What took William from East Otto to Buffalo? How did he meet Adeline? This is a “loose end” that I intend to investigate with diligence, so stay tuned!