“She had nowhere to go to, only out in the cold and perish in the snow”

When British soldiers burned Buffalo in revenge, Margaret St. John defended her home and saved it from the flames.

“she had nowhere to go to, only out in the cold and perish in the snow”
- Margaret St. John’s situation during the capture and burning of Buffalo

The Margaret St. John house
The St. John’s home was one of the only homes that survived the burning of Buffalo. Margaret convinced British officers to spare her home because she was a widow with children.

Frank H. Severance, ed., “The St. John House, Now 460-470 Main Street,” in The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16 (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1912), 310.

Following the burning of the Canadian town of Newark (now called Niagara-on-the-Lake) by American soldiers, British commanders sought revenge by invading New York State. They crossed the Niagara River at multiple points, capturing Fort Niagara and setting fire to many towns along the river.

By the time British regulars and their native allies reached Buffalo, many of the residents had fled. Some locals, however, had remained to look after their homes and businesses. Margaret St. John was one who stayed behind. A widow, St. John owned a house and inn near the center of town that she hoped to spare from the invaders.

According to contemporary accounts, St. John witnessed one of her neighbors being attacked by native warriors, but refused to flee. A British officer stopped to ask “Why are you not away?” She explained that she had missed the evacuation.

St. John sought out the commanding British officer and said, “I came to ask you to send a guard to keep the Indians from burning my house and from plundering our goods and clothing.”

The British officers agreed to set a guard at her house, but her inn was eventually destroyed with the rest of the town. According to one story, an officer explained, “we have left you one roof, and that is more than the Americans left for our widows when they came over.”

Most of the inhabitants of Buffalo returned to smoldering ruins and plundered supplies when the British retreated across the river. Many who stayed behind were attacked by native warriors. Surprisingly, Margaret St. John survived the capture of Buffalo, and even managed to save her home from burning. Not many people were so fortunate during the brutal fighting along the border.

Last updated: September 14, 2017