The infamous Devil's Hole Massacre in 1763 was an important event in the history of Niagara County, but writing a whole book about it seems a most difficult task.
But that is what Edward W. Ahrens has done in his book "The Devil's Hole Massacre," published by Rissa Productions of Sanborn. Ahrens accomplishes this, however, by delving heavily into Pontiac's Rebellion and the administration of Indian Affairs by William Johnson.
The fatal attack by some Seneca Indians took place on Sept. 14, 1763, when a wagon train from Fort Schlosser on the upper river to the Lewiston Landing was waylaid at Devil's Hole along the gorge. All but three of the 25 escorts of the wagon train were slain.
Ahrens paints a horrific and imaginative picture, probably as close to the truth as one can come without being on the scene. He writes, "Horses were rearing in panic; wagons were lurching around out of control; confusion and terror reigned. The few who naively tried to surrender were slain on the spot; the raging warriors were taking no prisoners. The precipice of Devil's Hole became a fearsome one-sided slaughter; a tangled mob of howling, cursing, screaming, red predator and white prey."
Ahrens ties this incident closely to the rebellion started by Ottawa Indian Chief Pontiac, who tried to rally all Native American tribes to rise up and cast out the white men who were stealing their lands and corrupting their culture.
Other historians note that some Senecas, who had earned money carrying goods over the portage, were upset at being fired when Portage Master John Stedman improved the trail and instituted the use of wagons to haul the goods. Some say it was the first instance of labor unrest in the nation.
Noting that Stedman procured 25 wagons and 100 horses and oxen by June 1763, Ahrens wrote that "this upset the local Senecas greatly. As many as 300 Indians could find work as porters on the carrying place -- now their very livelihoods were being threatened."
But Pontiac's successes (and excesses) in the siege of Fort Detroit no doubt played a big part in leading up to the portage massacre. The portage was the only lifeline transporting goods to the upper Great Lakes, and cutting off that lifeline would have assured the success of the siege at Fort Detroit.
Ahrens tells of the excesses of the Indians regarding British troops captured during the Detroit siege, actions designed to strike terror in the hearts of all enemies.
The area's top administrator, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, also infuriated the Senecas. Ahrens writes, "Amherst, who despised Indians, decided that Johnson's policy of buying the Indians' friendship with presents, flattery and favors was inconsistent with the dignity of England and therefore wrong."
Ahrens notes that when Pontiac tried to rally the Iroquois to his cause, Johnson went to great lengths to keep the Western New York Indians on the British side. However, the author seems to overlook the importance of Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant and his sister Molly (who was Johnson's companion and bore him several children) in persuading the majority of Iroquois to remain loyal to the British.
Ahrens quotes extensively from papers of the British involved in the incident, especially Johnson's papers. Johnson advocated treating the Indians fairly and with respect. He wrote, "Our people in general are ill calculated to maintain friendship with the Indians. They despise those in peace whom they fear to meet in war."
Ahrens has put together a comprehensive and fascinating account of an overlooked portion of Niagara County history.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Jan. 18 2005|