Plain Dealer article written by Bob Rich and published on August 13, 1995
PERRY DRIVES BRITISH FROM LAKE ERIE
The War of 1812 is one of those half-forgotten wars in American history. The results were inconclusive and left the raw young country with very little to cheer about.
But for the little log-cabin village of Cleveland, it was a life-or-death matter. Villagers weren’t concerned about an invasion of British troops. The fear was of a British-inspired Indian attack on this thinly settled, undefended part of the western frontier.
There might have been a collective guilty conscience operating here, also. Just a few weeks before the war broke out, a boisterous crowd had watched the hanging in Public Square of an Indian convicted of murdering white trappers.
Congress declared war on Great Britain June 18, 1812; 10 days later, an express rider galloped into Cleveland with the news from Washington. Cleveland’s and Newburgh’s militias promptly formed – 50 men each – every man in his own “citizen suit,” and with his own rifle or shotgun.
By August, the whole linchpin of America’s western frontier defense collapsed when Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit to the British. Cleveland panicked. Rumors of British warships on Lake Erie and British offers inciting Indians to the warpath sent the citizens running for the hills of rival villages.
But 30 Clevelanders swore they would die rather than give up their tiny Fort Huntington, on the bluff where W. 3rd St. and Lakeside Ave. meet. Julianna Long, Dr. David Long’s wife, and two other women wouldn’t abandon the garrison. She “could nurse the sick and wounded, encourage and comfort those who could fight; at any rate, she would not by her example, encourage disgraceful flight.”
By June 1813, it began to look like the garrison might have to live up to its vow when two British warships appeared off the mouth of the Cuyahoga to bombard the shipworks along the shore. Cleveland shipbuilders had been cutting down the dense forests around the village for lake schooners and had supplied the Navy with the 60-ton brig “Ohio,” a strong addition to Commodore Perry’s Lake Erie fleet.
British firepower was about to put an end to this war industry when Lake Erie came through with one of its notorious summer squalls. Crashing waves pounded the hulls of the British ships, rattled their masts, and probably their morale, too. The next morning, when a thick fog lifted off the lake, the British were gone.
They were next heard from Sept. 10, 1813, when Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet, with heavier guns, took them on in Put-in-Bay off Sandusky in the famous Battle of Lake Erie. Clevelanders swore afterward they could hear the cannon fire 60 miles away. His message to Gen. William Henry Harrison, commander in chief of the northwestern army, reflects his pride and exuberance: “We have met the enemy and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”
The battle became legend, and the victory lifted the British threat from the Great Lakes.
When peace came in 1814, Cleveland went wild. Public Square was packed with an excited, drunken, noisy crowd.
Another era ended that same year. Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland’s real founder, frontiersman, trader and adventurer, would die, and one of those dynamic Connecticut Yankees, Alfred Kelly, would lead Cleveland into a new, exciting future.
It certainly didn’t look that way at the time. Kelly had come to the village in 1810, became the first practicing attorney, and was elected to the state legislature in 1814. He quickly saw to it that Cleveland was incorporated as a village, which at the time extended from Erie (E. 9th St.) west to the Cuyahoga, and Huron St. north to the lake.
It still looked like a transplanted New England village with its frame houses set around Public Square, no more or less important than say, Lorain or Sandusky. In fact, the rivers in the latter two towns worked a lot better than the Cuyahoga. A sandbar reached out from the eastern shore of Lake Erie, blocked the harbor and forced ships to unload their cargoes offshore. The water at the river mouth was 3 to 4 feet, motionless, filled with trash and garbage – a breeding ground for typhoid fever, cholera and malaria.
Here’s what the future great educator Harvey Rice would say about his arrival in September 1824, on a schooner from Buffalo: “A sand-bar prevented the schooner from entering the river … The jolly boat was let down … and we were rowed over the sandbar into the placid waters of the river, and landed on the end of a row of planks that stood on stilts and bridged the marshy brink of the river, to the foot of Union Lane. Here we were left standing with our trunks on the wharf-end of a plank at midnight, strangers in a strange land.”
Rice describes Public Square as “begemmed with stumps, while near its center glowed its crowning jewel, a log courthouse. The eastern border of the Square was skirted by the native forest, which abounded in rabbits and squirrels, and afforded the villagers a `happy hunting-ground.’ The entire population at that time didn’t exceed 400 souls. The town, even at that time, was proud of itself, and called itself, the `Gem of the West.’
A year later, in 1825, Congress would vote funds for clearing the river and harbor, which would make a phenomenal difference, but it would be awhile before Cleveland would become a gem of the West.