LaFayette Visits the Great Lakes – Winter 2023

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By E. James McHugh

 The Marquis de Lafayette (Gilbert de Matier) is considered by many to be the best traveled and most welcomed guest to visit the United States. Arriving in August 1824, he would spend a year visiting   all 24 states. Invited by President Monroe, Lafayette would meet Monroe as well as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Madison and John Q. Adams. Wherever he went, parades, speeches, banquets were held in his honor. Residents of small towns and villages, growing cities, state capitals, all came out to greet the Marquis.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Painting by Ary Scheffer, 1824. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Traveling on a yearlong visit was not without its mishaps, including changes in itinerary, rerouting, poor mail service, lost luggage and even being a passenger aboard a river steam boat (Mechanic) that hit a sand bar and sank. But none of this stopped the Marquis as he ventured on, finally reaching Pittsburg and then onto Erie – via Waterford, Pennsylvania.

On June 1, 1825, Lafayette and his party, which included his son George Washington Lafayette and personal secretary Auguste Levasseur, departed Pittsburg traveling north to Erie. Through-out General Lafayette’s travels, advance notice by two or three days was given to the communities on his travel route.

June 2, Lafayette and his party reached Waterford, Pennsylvania, where local dignitaries and residents from the surrounding countryside greeted the general. After speeches, meet and greet, and an evening meal, the general retired to a room in the local tavern.

The next morning Lafayette and his traveling companions awoke to find officials from Erie waiting to guide them into the city. The group left Waterford and when they reached the mile marker outside Erie, they were met by a welcoming committee and honor guard.

The honor guard was led by General Benjamin Wallace, assisted by Colonel McClosky, Major McKay and Major David McNair. Also present was the local militia, the Erie Guards, under the command of, Honorable Joseph M. Sterrett.

The honor guard and militia came to attention. A military band led the parade, followed by the Erie Guards. Next, Judah Colt esq., a leading citizen of Erie, rode with General Lafayette in an open carriage. Behind the general, also in an open carriage, rode George Washington Lafayette and the personal secretary Levasseur. Behind them were local dignitaries. Others on horseback brought up the rear.

The procession brought General Lafayette to the U.S. Naval Station where he was met by the commander, Captain George Budd, and Captain Maurice, chief engineer.

Lafayette inspected the sailors from the Naval Station who were at attention. The national anthem was played and a naval gun salute was fired. General Lafayette offered his thanks and expressed admiration for the order and discipline of the new generation of America’s military. Especially for those stationed in a growing but still frontier community of Erie.

After the military inspection, Lafayette and his party proceeded to the house of Daniel Dobbins where the Chief Burgess of Erie, Dr. John Culbertson Wallace, gave the official welcome to Lafayette: “General – I am authorized by the Constituted Authorities of the Borough and County, to express their grateful sense of the honor done them by your visit to this place. Your presence among us is highly gratifying, and I repeat the united voice of our citizens in giving you a cordial welcome to the shores of Lake Erie. “

After the formal welcome, the leading men of Erie introduced themselves. Many were the sons of soldiers who had fought in the Revolution; many more were veterans of the recent War of 1812. The commander of the naval station, Captain Budd, was aboard the USS Chesapeake when it battled the HMS Shannon. Captured, the captain was held prisoner in Halifax. Similarly, Dr. Wallace and his brother, General Benjamin Wallace, both served in the Pennsylvania Regiment. Lafayette took notice and recognized the courage of Americans in the Revolutionary War that had been passed down to the new generation.

The next stop for Lafayette was the home of Judah Colt. The ladies of Erie had invited the General for a visit and were waiting at the Colt House. Lafayette offered his thanks and praised the women for the fine etiquette. He marveled at the culture and refinement the ladies gave Erie.

The visit with the ladies was followed by a 1:30 pm lunch. Erie did not yet have a large hall or center to host Lafayette and the crowd of guests ready to dine with the General. But that did not stop the people of Erie from hosting a large luncheon.

A traffic bridge had been built over a creek connecting State Street to French Street. Closing off traffic, the bridge became the lunch venue with tables and chairs set up on the planked roadway. To give shade to the lunch guests and dignitaries, a canopy was raised over the dining area on the bridge.

Upon arrival, Lafayette was impressed to learn that the canopy was made up of the sails from the captured British ships taken at the Battle of Lake Erie. Flags taken from the British ships were displayed around the dining area.

Before lunch was served, a presentation was given recounting the naval victory on Lake Erie (September 10, 1813). Here at the homeport of the American fleet, 12 years later, Lafayette was literally surrounded by trophies of the American victory. Once again, he remarked that the courage of the Americans he served with during the Revolutionary War had been passed down to their children.

After the presentation, a toast was made to Lafayette: “To him who in his youth was a hero, in mature age a sage, in old age an example for the present time and for future generations.”

Lafayette graciously gave in return a blessing to the town of Erie: “Erie: A name that has great share in American glory; may this town ever enjoy a proportionate share in American prosperity and happiness.”

Steamship Superior. Image from the Thunder Bay Research Collection at the Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

By 3:00 pm, the celebratory lunch came to an end. Word had reached Lafayette and his party that the town of Buffalo, which was on his route, had arranged for a steamboat, Superior, to rendezvous with his party at Dunkirk, New York. It would be an overnight ride to Dunkirk via Fredonia. Yet an intrepid traveler, the General could find sleep in the most uncomfortable conditions. With a late afternoon and all- night ride ahead of them, Lafayette bid a fond adieu to Erie.

As the afternoon turned into evening and evening turned into night, the traveling party crossed the state line into western New York. Around 2:00 am, Lafayette and his half-sleeping companions awoke to the blast of a cannon.

Looking out, they saw the village of Fredonia set aglow by torch light and bonfires. A church bell tolled to announce the arrival of General Lafayette. The whole community was already out and lined the roadway in an ecstatic welcome. The local band struck up the tune Yankee Doodle.

On the town square, a platform had been erected. Local officials stood on the torch-lit stage and welcomed Lafayette. Some of the crowd, unable to control their emotions, reached out to the general as he took the stage.

Lafayette gave his thanks to such an unexpected welcome. He did apologize that his visit would be short, that his ship Superior was waiting in Dunkirk. He again thanked the crowd, which included women, infants and children. He worried for their health being up late in the cold night air. Yet not to be rude, Lafayette and his party did dine on the food that the people of Fredonia had prepared.

At 3:00 am Lafayette continued on to Dunkirk, reaching port the morning of June 4. Ready to take Lafayette and his party to Buffalo was the steamboat Superior. On board was the owner and captain Jahtizel Sherman, as well as a contingent of leading men and women of Buffalo. There was even a band of musicians.

As Lafayette’s carriage approached the wharf, the band struck up a happy melody. Lafayette, his son, secretary and aide were welcomed aboard and greeted by the Buffalo dignitaries. Once their luggage was safely brought on and stored, Captain Sherman gave the order and the Superior steamed out to Buffalo.

By noon, the Superior was off Buffalo but a strong headwind slowed the progress of the steamboat. It took Captain Sherman and his crew two hours to tack into the harbor and dock. But the delay did not stifle the celebration.

The local militia under the command of Colonel Peter Porter, days earlier had his men ready to honor and greet General Lafayette. Upon sighting the Superior, the men assembled at the dock. As word spread throughout Buffalo, citizens quickly came out to line the main thoroughfare.

Upon disembarking the Superior, Lafayette passed through and reviewed the honor guard consisting of the local militia, Captain Vosburgh’s Cavalry and Captain Rathbun’s Frontier Guards. With the military at arms present, Lafayette was led to an awaiting carriage. A parade had assembled to escort the general into Buffalo.

A military band formed the head of the parade, followed by the Cavalry, the Frontier Guard and Militia. Officials, legal and business rode in carriages leading the guest of honor. Lafayette, in his own carriage, thankful to the citizens of Buffalo, waved his hat to the crowd.

The parade took Lafayette and his party to the Eagle Tavern where a large stage had been built in front of the tavern to accommodate the guests and hosts.

The Buffalo reception for General Lafayette in front of the Eagle Tavern in 1825. Source unknown.

Taking the stage to give a speech welcoming Lafayette was Council President, Judge Oliver Owen Forward.

“General, in behalf of the Citizens of this village, and its vicinity, I have the honor of welcoming you among them, and of tendering you that regard which has been again and again reiterated, from the center to the remotest extremities of the Union. This regard we are unable to testify to you amidst the splendor and magnificence of a state or national emporium: but to you, we are aware it will not be less acceptable, if presented in the unimposing form of Republican simplicity. We are not less mindful than are the whole people of this extended empire, of the services you have rendered our common country, nor less conscious of the gratification the patriot and philanthropist must feel in passing the declivities of life, carrying with him the richest of all earthly rewards, a nation’s gratitude. But few of us were among those who participated with you in the toils and the dangers of the revolution, which established not only the liberties of the confederacy, but what the world had never before seen, a welcome, a happy, and a protected home, for oppressed of all nations. But we alike revere the memory of the brave, and cherish with the same zeal the principles for which you and our fathers bled. And with all the grateful recollections which a love of liberty can inspire, of the voluntary sacrifices you have made in the support of her cause, we beg you to accept the humble tribute of our respect, in conjunction with what has been and will continue to be offered, not only by every citizen of the American nation, but by every friend of liberty and of Mankind. “

Lafayette replied to Judge Forward’s speech:

“It would have sufficed to my high gratification, Sir, to visit this frontier of the State of New York, to admire its wonderful improvements and to meet the affectionate welcome which I have received from the people of Buffalo, and which in their behalf you are pleased most kindly to express. But here additional sources of delight are open to me. After having lately seen the lines of Orleans (Chalmette Plantation, Louisiana), I now have approached those parts of the Union, where in the last war the rights and honor of the nation have been gloriously supported, by the sons of my revolutionary contemporaries; the account of which achievements have excited in my breast proud and patriotic emotions, long before the principal leaders in that was had become my personal friends. I have this morning navigated the lake, the name of which is forever associated with the illustrious name of Perry, as being the theater where has been so conspicuously evinced the superiority that in every instance of two wars against Great Britain, has attended the American flag. Be pleased, sir to accept my personal thanks, and to receive the tribute of my grateful respect to the citizens of Buffalo.”

Following the speeches, a reception line formed where many young and old passed by with brief introduction, to say a few words and shake Lafayette’s hand.

However, some needed no introduction.

Red Jacket, 1835. Image from the Library of Congress.

An elderly gentleman, along with his interpreter,  a  Chief  from the Seneca Nation, a member of the Bear Clan no less, Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha), came and greeted Lafayette. Red Jacket reminded the general of their previous meeting in 1784, when the general, under orders from Washington, traveled across New York to Fort Stanwix where a treaty was made between the United States and the Iroquois Confederacy. Lafayette recalled quite well that conference and asked if Red Jacket remembered and knew what became of the young Indian who eloquently argued against the treaty.

Red Jacket replied, “He is before you.”

Red Jacket’s Seneca name, Sagoyewatha, translates to Keeps Us Awake, referring to his ability to talk articulately and argue his point, something that must have made a lasting impression on the general.

Forty-one years had passed since a young French Officer met a young Indian Chief in upstate New York. Lafayette reminded Red Jacket, “Time has changed us very much.”

Red Jacket responded that father time had been kind to Lafayette. “ … he has left you smooth face, and a head well covered with hair.”

Removing his bandana, Red Jacket revealed that he was now bald. The chief seemed to be unfamiliar with French cosmetics and fashion. No one explained that Lafayette was wearing a wig, possibly fearing that the chief would think the general was at war with father time and that the wig was actually someone else’s scalp.

Finally with the meeting and greeting done, at 5:00 pm Lafayette and local dignitaries sat for dinner at the Eagle Tavern. After dinner and entertainment, Lafayette retired for a well-earned sleep.

Bright and early (6:00 am), Lafayette and his party boarded a carriage for an hour-long ride to the home of Peter B. Porter in Black Rock. However, there was a brief stop at the Thayer Hotel, where Lafayette met local officials and the Erie Canal Commissioner William Bouck. Also in attendance was an old friend, Captain Rowland Cotton, who was a sergeant with the General at Yorktown. The room became noticeably quiet; all ears came to attention as Lafayette and Cotton reminisced about their days during the revolution.

After meeting the officials, Lafayette was taken out to have a quick look at the small but busy port. Lafayette was impressed by the wharf that had been built to accommodate new steamboats.

After breakfast and visiting the harbor, Lafayette and his party traveled on, as millions of other visitors in years to come, to Niagara Falls. But their visit to the Great Lakes was not over.

After an afternoon of seeing the wonders of Niagara Falls, Lafayette and company traveled further downriver to the village of Lewiston where he spent the night at the tavern owned by the widow Mrs. Catherine Kelsey. The General had accepted an invitation from Major Alexander Thompson to visit and review the troops at nearby Fort Niagara.

Before dawn on Monday, Lafayette traveled outside Lewiston to Fort Niagara, located at the mouth of the Niagara River on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

Upon arrival, a 21-gun salute was given. Lafayette was escorted to the Officers’ Mess where breakfast had been prepared. After dining with the officers, Lafayette was given the honor to review the troops.

During his visit, Lafayette was reminded that the Officers’ Quarters and Mess was called the French Castle and that the fort was originally a colonial French fortification. Yet over the years, the fort had been modified and a new feature was shown to Lafayette. On the roof of the Castle was a large platform and a navigation light. Now the Castle also functioned as a lighthouse and a weather recording station.

Lafayette was taken up to the roof and out onto the light. From the roof he looked out and saw Lake Ontario, the Canadian shore and the Niagara countryside … his final glimpse of the Great Lakes.

Lafayette departed Fort Niagara returning to Lewiston. From there they continued onto Lockport. By early evening (6:00 pm) he, his party and luggage were aboard a canal boat heading east. (The Erie Canal had not yet been completed. The section from Lockport to Lake Erie was still under construction.)

Lafayette would spend the summer of 1825 visiting New England and the east coast. His grand tour of America came to an end on September 7 when he sailed from Washington and returned to France.

“Wedding of the Lakes with the Oceans”, etching by Felix O.C. Darley, 1895.

Sadly, he missed a great celebration that took place two months after his departure when on November 4, a ceremony took place in New York Harbor. Governor DeWitt Clinton consecrated the arranged marriage, made by the hands of man, of the Great Lakes with the Atlantic. With great ceremony, the governor poured a cask of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic.

An earlier part of the ceremony was the filling of several commemorative bottles with water from Lake Erie. A finely made cedar box, from the master American furniture maker Duncan Phyfe, was presented and the bottles placed inside. The box containing Lake Erie water was sealed and sent to Lafayette’s home in France – a commemorative gift celebrating the Marquis’ visit to the Great Lakes.

The ceremony of the opening of the Erie Canal would not be completed for a few more weeks. On November 23, the canal boat Seneca Chief, which had delivered the kegs of Lake Erie water to New York City, returned to Buffalo. In her cargo were kegs of Atlantic sea water. A final ceremony was held pouring water from the Atlantic into the Great Lakes – a symbolic ritual of the marriage between the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard.

Read More of Inland Seas Online

About the Author: James McHugh, having earned a BA in Social and Behavioral Science, with a minor in History and Philosophy, spent more than 30 years working in social services. He is now semi-retired, works part-time in home health care, has returned to school and spends time researching and studying an almost forgotten time in Great Lakes History: 1815 – 1860.

Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member