The lapse of a century casts an oblivious shade over imperfectly record events. That the two expeditions, engaged in prosecuting the Pontiac War, were wrecked on Lake Erie, the one in Autumn of the year 1763, the other about the same period in the year following, are well established historic facts. Neither authors nor tradition have, however, attempted to point out the exact locality where those events occurred.
Since the first settlement of the township of Rockport, some fifty years since, the attention of observing individuals has been awakened, by the frequent discoveries of vestiges of military implements, and other articles, not usually scattered at random in a new and uncultivated country.
Those discoveries have been made at two localities:
First-In the vicinity of the junction of Rocky River with Lake Erie, embracing the sandy beach bordering the Lake; and the right bank of the river; and the high bluff now known as Tisdale’s Point, which is an extension of the left bank into the Lake, and which presents a perpendicular rocky face, seventy feet high, on its Lake front.
Second-McMahon’s beach, which borders the Lake, under a high clay bank fronting the farms of Messrs. Brown, McMahon, Col. Merwin, and the late eastwardly from the last named farm, by the residences of Frederick Wright, John Williams, and Fletcher’s Hotel, to the present crossing of Rocky River on the Plank, Road Bridge.
The first named locality is seven miles, and the second from the eight to ten miles west of Cleveland.
A careful examination of the several discoveries, in connection with the historical items furnished by the authorities to which reference is here made, leads to the conclusion that the catastrophe which befel Wilkins’ expedition, happened at the first named locality, and that of Bradstreet’s at the second.
The correctness of this conclusion will be confirmed, by an examination of the peculiar and dangerous character of these localities during a storm, and of the manner in which these vestiges must have been lost; and a more complete comprehension of the terrific scenes attendant on those disasters would thereby be gained.
Gov. Cass, in a address before the Historical Society of Michigan, in the year 1834, though laboring under some important errors in regard to the wrecking of Bradstreet’s expedition, had a full conception of the horrors of that catastrophe.
Few of the present generation know, that either of these events have occurred; fewer still are aware of the pecuniary loss and human offering they involved.
Pontiac, with hostile tribes of savages, captured most of the British forts in the west, and murdered their garrisons, in the spring of 1763. The posts at Detroit and Fort Pitt, successfully resisted his first attacks. A vigorous siege, was carried on against them by the savages, during the summer following. While troops were collecting under Col. Boquet, (or Bouquet,) for the relief of Fort Pitt, a flotilla of batteaux from Albany ascended the Mohawk river, by portages reached Wood Creek, and ultimately, Fort Schlosser, on Niagara river, above the falls. In the autumn of that year, six hundred British regulars, with arms, military stores, and a train of artillery embarked under command of Major Wilkins, They attempted to ascend the river, and advance to Detroit.
After some delay and loss, from attacks of the Seneca Indians, they reached Lake Erie, but on the 7th of November, were driven on shore by a violent storm, lost twenty boats, with fifty barrels of provision, some field pieces, and all of their ammunition. Seventy men and three officers, including their surgeon, were drowned. These officers were Lieut. Davidson, of the train, Lieut. Paynter, and Dr. Williams, of the 80th regiment; also a French pilot. After the storm abated a council of war was held, and decided that the survivors should return to Niagara, where they ultimately arrived.
The exact locality of Wilkins’ disaster has hitherto been a matter of uncertainty. Some persons suppose it was on the north shore of the Lake. The evidences to sustain this conclusion are the following:
A published “Diary of the seige of Detroit,” kept by a private soldier in the garrison at that place, states as follows:-“Nov. 18, 1763.-This morning two Indians arrived from “Point-aux-Pins,” with a letter, one-half wrote in Erse, and the other in English, from Major Monterife, (Moncrieffe,) giving an account of the batteaux being cast away, on the 7th instant, at the highlands, beyond the said point.”
Sir Wm. Johnson, in a letter to the Lords of Trade, locates the disaster at ninety miles from Detroit; and Lieut. Gov. Colden, in a letter to the same Board, fixes it at “two-thirds of their way to Detroit.”
If “Point-aux-Pins” could be designated, the question would at once be determined; at the time of the writing of the diary, no locality on the shores of Lake Erie was designated by that name. Such is the inference, from the fact that on Lewis Evans’ map of the Middle Colonies, published in London, dated June 23d, 1755, eight years before the wrecking of this expedition, no locality is distinguished along the Lake as “Point-aux-Pins.”
It is true that a recent map in Bell’s History of Canada, has that name affixed to a headland in Kent District, on the north shore of Lake Erie, but it is evidently of modern application. It is equally true that for ages a similar point, covered with a tall pine and spruce trees, has been and is still a prominent object for observation, jutting into the Lake some twenty rods east of the mouth of Rocky River.
Such evergreen headlands are favorite land-marks for the voyageurs of these western waters, who have never been blessed with the knowledge of charts and surveys. They are in the practice of using “the Point of Pines” as a common term, applicable to evergreen were equally likely to use it in reference to either of those two points.
The distance from Detroit specified by Sir Wm. Johnson and Gov. Colden, are in favor of Rocky River ; and the fact that the Indians carrying Moncrieffe’s dispatch from “Point-aux-Pins” to the commander at Detroit occupied eleven days in its transmission, renders it certain that their route must have been along the south shore of the Lake, among hostile tribes, and could only have been pursued stealthily, at night. The north shore, where the population were not hostile, could have been traveled over by Indian expresses in two days.
The presence here of numerous vestiges of military implements, and their absence from the Canada locality, is almost positive evidence in favor of the former.
A trivial link, sometimes, is found to connect fragments, so as to form a strong chain of circumstantial evidence, and render it as certain as the most positive. Such a link is lying before me. The blade of a surgeon’s amputating knife, described in the annexed notes, could have belonged to no other person than the unfortunate Dr. Williams of the 80th British regulars.
By aid of the facts furnished by historians, an intimate knowledge of the locality, and the character of the autumnal storms, taken in connection with these discoveries, any, one can figure to himself the succession of tragic scenes as they occurred, without requiring much play of imagination.
Maj. Moncrieffe reported in the Newport, Rhode Island Mercury of December 19th, 1763, that “at 11 O’clock at night they were overtaken by a violent storm, which came suddenly,”——-The whole detachment was in danger of being lost, as every batteaux that reached shore was more than half full of water.”
When thus threatened they doubtless attempted to gain a safe harbor with the mouth of Rocky River. The channel is narrow, and lies immediately in contact with the high and perpendicular cliff forming the terminus of the left bank. The eastern margin of the channel is bounded by a hidden sandbar, covered with a few feet of water, extending at right angles into the Lake a number of rods. During a storm the waves sweep over this bar with tremendous force, breaking some sixty to eighty feet in height, against the cliff. A boat, to enter the river at such times, must hug the cliff, amidst the surf, in order to avoid this concealed bar.
An inexperience pilot would, however, give that surf a wide berth, and, as a consequence, would be stranded on the bar. This, no doubt, was the fate of several of their batteaux ; others were probably driven high and dry, on the sandy and marshy beach east of the bar ; and others succeeded in reaching a safe harbor within the mouth of the river. Those upon the bar, if they were not at once sunk in the changeable and engulphing quicksands, would soon be dashed in fragments by the force of the waves. The batteaux were built of light materials, to fit them for two extensive portages, over which they passed, between the Hudson river and Lake Erie. The capacity of each was adapted to the carrying of one hundred men, arms, ammunition, stores, and a small cannon, which was placed upon the bow. Such a craft was illy adapted to resist the forces here acting upon it. The crews of the boats which gained the harbor no doubt sought a landing-place. It was not afforded in those days by the eastern or right bank of the river, which then consisted of a marshy tract of bottom land, or of precipitous cliffs; and the left bank was of a similar character, except just within the point, where a gully of lower inclination, running from the margin to the level of the upland, rendered access to the latter comparatively easy. Through this gully the survivors found a refuge from the uncomfortable lowlands, inundated and swept by the surf. Here they formed a camp fire, within a circle of boulders, and around it collected the vestiges from their wrecks. They remained till the storm abated, probably three days, as that is the period usually occupied by autumnal storms on Lake Erie. A period as long as that, is indicated by the accumulation of ashes and charcoal lately disinterred.
Here were probably brought the bodies of their drowned comrades, together with their arms, clothing, etc. among which were the pocket-case instruments of their dead surgeon. The bayonet here found belonged to some of the soldiers, and the eroded case knife to their cuisine. (Vide annexed note.**) The dead were probably buried on the adjacent plateau, in the native forest, now occupied as a lawn by Capt. Tisdale.
In due time the men were recruited, their clothing dried, and the surviving boats repaired. The ammunitionless expedition then retired down the Lake, and ultimately arrived in safety at Fort Schlosser, without having afforded any relief to the garrison at Detroit.
Two miles north-westerly from the locality of this disaster, following the Lake shore, we arrive at the long and narrow spit of land known as McMahon’s beach. Undoubted evidences determined it to have been the seat of a still more destructive catastrophe, which befell
The Indian war continuing into the summer of 1764, Col., Boquet advanced with his forces from Fort Pitt to the Muskingum river, and Col. Bradstreet, with a well appointed army of three thousand men, entered Lake Erie in a flotilla of batteaux.
After a campaign of varied success, in which the conduct of the latter compares very unfavorably with the former, who duped by the duplicity of the savages, and laboring under a heavy censure from his commander in chief, commenced his return down the Lake, with a force of about eleven hundred men.
On the 18th of October, 1764, he precipitately left Sandusky Bay, not even recalling his scouts and hunters.
“The boats of the army had scarcely entered Lake Erie when a storm descended on them, destroying several, and throwing the whole into confusion. For three days the tempest raged unceasingly, and when then the angry Lake began to resume its tranquility, it was found that the remaining boats were insufficient to convey the troops. A large body of Indians, together with a detachment of provincials, were therefore ordered to make their way to Niagara, along the pathless borders of the Lake. They accordingly set out, and after many days of hardship reached their destination, though such had been their sufferings from fatigue, cold and hunger, from wading swamps, swimming creeks and rivers, and pushing their way through tangled thickets, that many of the provincials perished miserably in the woods. On the 4th of November, seventeen days after their departure from Sandusky, the main body of the army arrived in safety at Niagara, and the whole, embarking on Lake Ontario, proceeded to Oswego. Fortune still seemed adverse to them, for a second tempest arose, and one of the schooners, crowded with troops, foundered in sight of Oswego, though most of the men were saved.”-Parkman, p. 476-7. Additional facts are furnished in Stone’s Life of Johnson, p.230, as follows:
“The sequel of the expedition was singularly unfortunate. When a few days out from Sandusky, and about to encamp for the night, Col. Bradstreet, instead of landing at the mouth of a neighboring river, [Rocky, or Cuyahoga?] where the boats could have lain in safety, persisted in disembarking at a spot which it was told him was visited by heavy surfs. The result of his obstinacy was, that a heavy storm arising, twenty-five of the batteaux were dashed in pieces, and most of the ammunition and baggage lost, together with a field train of six brass cannon. A hundred and fifty men wee therefore compelled to make the journey to Niagara on foot, through a wilderness of four hundred miles, filled with savage men and savage beasts, and crossed by deep rivers and fearful morasses. Many perished on the way, and those who finally reached Niagara were spent with fatigue, cold and hunger. On the 4th of November the main body of the army, weary shattered, entered the gates of Fort Niagara. Stragglers continued to come in, day after day, nor was it until the last of December, that all the survivors reached their homes.”
Franklin B. Hough, M.D., of the Bureau of Military Statistics, at Albany, N.Y., has had the goodness to furnish me with copious extracts from unpublished letters of Sir Wm. Johnson, written in the winter of 1763, and spring of 1864, and now on file in that bureau. They were addressed to Gen. Gage, Charles Lee, Lt. Col. Eyre; also, to the Lords of the Board of Trade, and to some unknown person. They confirm the statements of the foregoing quotations, and furnish other particulars.
In his letter to Gen. Gage he imputes the wrecking to Bradstreet’s relying solely upon a Detroit pilot, “a notorious villian,” -a Frenchman, who had been in the confidence of the late Capt. Dalyell or Dalzell, whose death he caused the year before, by betraying him into an ambuscade. This pilot, it seems, refused to run into a large river [Black River] after the storm commenced, and at length persisted, contrary to the sentiment of the army, in drawing up his boats along an open and exposed beach,[McMahon’s,] though, had he gone a little farther, another large river [either Rocky or Cuyahoga,] afforded a safe harbor. As a consequence, before the following morning one-half of his boats were lost, and he buried his cannon and ammunition “by day, all in the sight of ye French villian,” whom he fears, will. On his return, cause them to be taken up, and employed against Detroit.
He also alludes to the overland return of 170 Indians and Rangers, without an ounce of provision at their starting , and speaks of the kindness of the Seneca Indians of Chenusio, [Genesee,] treating famished soldiers with great humanity, feeding them gradually till they recovered, &c. The loss of officers and men by the wreck, was, it is said, made the subject of legislative action, reports and petitions, in the colony of New York. If the records and documents should be examined in relation thereto, more light would no doubt be obtained on the subject.
That the storm must have overtaken the expedition somewhere between Sandusky and Black river, is evident from the fact that of the latter place, the army had already become alarmed, and were anxious to run into that port. That McMahon’s beach was the place where the disaster occurred, is equally evident, for no other “open beach.” such as the one described, is to be found east of Black river and west of Rocky river, and along this beach vestiges of an extensive wreck have been found.
It appears that that boats were closely drawn up against the shore, without any special precaution, the crews and troops encamped on the then dry beach. A furious north-westerly storm soon raised before it the waters of the Lake, swept the surf over the beach, and broke with terrific force against the abruptly clay banks. This occurred suddenly, during the night. The frail batteaux were either sunk, dashed to fragments, or driven high over the bar, to the base of the cliffs. One-half of their number, it seems, were destroyed before morning. The men, amidst these horrors, in darkness and confusion, could only find safety by reaching the overlooking plateau, through several gullies which are cut through it down to the level of the Lake-and also through the narrow interval skirting McMahon’s run. The banks of these gullies, are also nearly as inaccessible at many places as the clay cliffs fronting the Lake; and in wet weather are equally as slippery and impassable.
In a bank of a gully on Col. Merwin’s farm, a bayonet was found a few years since, forced to its base into the tenacious clay, some six or seven feet above the bottom of the run, which had evidently been used as a fixture, by which the retreating soldiers drew themselves up to the top of the bank.
In another instance, a company or soldiers, invested with their bayonets, belts and cartridge boxes, gained the upland skirting the right bank of McMahon’s run, probably wet and fatigued, stripped themselves of their cumbersome implements, and piled them systematically and soldierly-like, against the foot of a chestnut tree. After the lapse of more than half a century, the bayonets were found by McMahon, covered with leaves and herbage. Near by a musket barrel was also discovered by him, enclosed in the fork of a tree by the growth of wood. It had been placed in an inclined position, and had there remained undisturbed until the tree had completely invested it.
The morning ensuing found the survivors in melancholy groups, overlooking an angry and tumultuous lake, the beach strewed with the bodies of their dead comrades, and the remains of their boats, arms and provision. The number of lives here lost is not known.
When the storm abated, Bradstreet proceeded to launch and repair such of his boats as had escaped destruction, and to collect and bury the cannon and ammunition which could be recovered. The place of their deposits, was probably at the eastern part of a clay cliff, some ten rods west of the mouth of McMahon’s run. From time to time the lake has infringed on this cliff. Some years since two six pound cannon balls, and numerous musket balls were washed out. The cannon had either been disinterred and removed in early days by the British, or washed into the Lake by the wearing away of the shore.
One of the batteaux, cast high upon the bottom land near this cliff, and probably rendered unseaworthy, was burned, to prevent its falling into unfriendly hands. The nails, rudder hangings, bow ring, and other irons, as well as the ashes and charcoal remaining after its destruction, were ploughed up McMahon many years since.
The other vestiges that were discovered in this locality are referred to in the annexed description.
What became of the British regulars belonging to the expedition we know not, but it is referred that they embarked in the surviving boats, on their way to Niagara, taking with them all the provisions; leaving the Provincials and friendly Indians to make their way provisionless, through an inhospitable wilderness to the same point of destination. These Provincials were under the command of the then Maj. Israel Putnam, subsequently Major General in the service of the United States; and with him was the same Indian Chief, who captured him near Ticonderoga, in the year 1758. After the surrender of Montreal to the British, these two renowned partisans met, became friends, and the latter joined that part of Bradstreet’s expedition, under Putnam’s command.
This body of Provincials was raised in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Massachusetts refused to participate, in furnishing her quota.
It is remarkable that no minute history of the overland journey which closed this campaign has been preserved. The individuals who went out from those three colonies were intelligent, and in the practice of writing. It is very probable that some neglected garrets contain diaries and correspondence, filed away with forgotten papers, which would furnish details of this expedition. Their track from McMahon’s beach to the crossing of Rocky river, near the present plank road bridge, is made evident by the various articles dropped along the way. The immediate shores of the Lake between these two points, though seventy feet above the water, was wet and swampy. To avoid this they resorted to the dry running through the premises of Frederick Wright and John Williams, and curving parallel to the river through Mr. Patchen’s grounds, to the place of the present plank road gate. Here they prepared for their tedious march, disencumbered themselves of all useless and perhaps some valuable articles; before attempting to pass the high and precipitous banks of the river. Many of these articles have been discovered in recent times.
Someone entrusted with a sack or box of gun flints, containing several quarts, threw down his charge near the residence of Frederick Wright, by whom it was disinterred a few years since. An antique silver teaspoon, was ploughed from the earth at the earliest cultivation of John Williams’ orchard, forty-years ago-an utensil that no doubt belonged to some officer’s mess. A sword and several bayonets were also ploughed up, a little north and east of that place, according to common report.
In the gardens of Mr. Patchen, at the Plank Road House, coins have been found, bearing date early in the last century ; one, a French silver coin, of the year 1714, and a English copper penny, of 1749. These coins were probably thrown down in discarded clothing, or in forsaken knapsacks.
Nothing more is known of their sufferings during their march to Niagara, than is contained in the letters of Sir Wm. Johnson. On their arrival at Albany the Regulars went into winter quarters; the Provincials proceeded to their homes, and were disbanded.
Gen. Bradstreet died at New York in 1772.
From the time of these disasters to the war with Great Britain, these localities were not much frequented by the Indians, and only cursorily visited by the white hunters; hence these relics escaped observations, until the present population commenced their settlements about the year 1815.
These views are believed to afford a correct solution of the historical problem, involved in the above discoveries. They are left for either confirmation or rejection by future investigations.
Ample room remains for further research at both localities. A number of cannon are doubtless concealed in the sands, fronting McMahon’s beach, and the right bar extending into the lake from the right bank of Rocky river. Storms and fishermen’s nets, are annually revealing other vestiges of these disasters.