Buffalo Barracks

Map of the Buffalo Barracks
Detail of a c. 1840 map showing the Buffalo Barracks.


In 1817 the Rush-Bagot Treaty had restricted military forces along the Canadian-American border. That didn't mean, however, that everyone had learned to just get along. In 1837 a civil uprising would erupt in Canada that would bring the United States and Britain to the brink of war.

The Patriots' War had started in November of 1837 with a largely ethnic uprising of French-speaking Canadians against British rule of Lower Canada (now Quebec, downriver on the St. Lawrence). This drew British forces and Canadian militia northward, and in Upper Canada (now Ontario), a liberal Reform party leader named William Lyon MacKenzie would perceive an opportunity. A long-time advocate of increased self-rule, MacKenzie had become frustrated with the unresponsiveness of British authorities and called upon Canadians to join him in a march on Toronto to seize arms stored in the city hall. Possessed of more initiative than tactical ability, MacKenzie was doomed from the start. As several hundred patriots advanced southward down Yonge Street, Toronto lay virtually undefended. However, on the outskirts of the city, a small detachment of loyalists fired upon them. The front rank of patriots dropped to the ground at the sound of the gunshots and the second rank, thinking those in front had all been killed by the volley, broke and ran. The patriots were unable to regain momentum and were dispersed by loyalist reinforcements four days later. Yet MacKenzie managed to escape, resurfacing across the border in Buffalo, N.Y.

There he found a sympathetic audience of Americans, still resentful of the 1813 burning of Buffalo and holding little love for their British neighbors. To many Americans, the Canadian uprising represented a belated continuation of their own revolution. While other reformist Canadians rallied around MacKenzie, he also received substantial aid from like-minded Americans who provided money, provisions and arms. Increasing numbers of Americans volunteered to fight as well, and it is probable that they eventually came to represent a majority of his patriot "army." Further infuriating British authorities was the reluctance of local authorities in New York State to curb very public efforts by MacKenzie to raise his army. Indeed, many of the legal authorities were themselves sympathizers and many of the arms provided to MacKenzie, including several cannon, probably came illegally from New York State arsenals.

Emboldened by this support, MacKenzie occupied Navy Island in the Niagara River on December 13. The virtually uninhabited island held little strategic value, but retained a ready supply line to New York, while nevertheless placing him in possession of Canadian soil and enabling him to declare an independent provisional government. To British authorities, the internal protests had been half-hearted and swiftly quelled, but the occupation of Navy Island represented an unprovoked and illegal invasion by foreign nationals. Provoked beyond the limits of patience, Canadian loyalist Col. Sir Allan MacNab took an astonishing step. Knowing that the American steamer Caroline was being used to supply Navy Island, he ordered a party of militia to cross the river on the night of December 19 and seize her. Finding the Caroline docked at Schlosser, N. Y. (near the current Power Authority intakes), they seized her, towed her into the current, set her afire and cast her adrift. While it was often luridly reported that trapped victims wailed from the deck as she went over the falls, the Caroline was likely abandoned by that point and probably broke apart or ran aground before reaching the falls. While reports also claimed dozens of American deaths, the sole confirmed death was American Amos Durfee.

This violation of American territory sparked a rapid response by the American government, which dispatched General Winfield Scott to assume command of US regulars and state militia on the border. Beefed-up garrisons of US regulars offered security from further British incursions, and on one occasion they warded off a British schooner from American waters off Black Rock. However, they also enforced American neutrality by cutting off illegal aid to Canadian patriots. On January 14, 1838 the disheartened patriots abandoned Navy Island. The Niagara frontier cooled and war was averted, but tension would persist for years and lead to a buildup along the frontier.

Initially federal troops had been housed in rented quarters in downtown Buffalo, but the army's decision to dramatically increase the garrison size forced the construction of new facilities on the north edge of the city in the fall of 1839. On October 5, 1839 a lease was signed with Ebeneezer Walden for use of eighteen acres encompassing most of the land bounded by Main, Allen, Delaware and North streets. Between October and December numerous structures were erected and the installation was occupied by the arrival of winter.

Most frequently referred to as the Buffalo Barracks, the new facility was also occasionally known as the Poinsett Barracks after Secretary of War Joel Poinsett. The majority of the buildings surrounded a rectangular parade ground on the northern end of the post. Among the first structures erected were the company quarters (or enlisted men's housing), junior officers' quarters, storehouses, a guardhouse and stables. This hastily-constructed post contained only the barest essentials and other structures were added later. The building which was to later become the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site was most likely not erected until mid-1840.

The Inaugural Site was intended as senior officers' housing and as such was more spacious than what most soldiers enjoyed. Nevertheless, it was much smaller than its present size, comprising the present-day library and exhibit room and the second floor above. It was designed as a duplex to house two officers and their families, one on each side. Each family would have enjoyed two small parlors on the ground floor and two bedrooms above. Among the persons to reside in the Site at the time were long-time post surgeon Dr. Robert Wood and his wife Ann, a daughter of future president Zachary Taylor.

The first regiment to occupy the barracks was Col. James Bankhead's 2nd Artillery, with the entire regiment stationed in Buffalo for a time. It was later replaced by Lt. Col. Crane's 4th Artillery and later still by Bennett Riley's 2nd Infantry. The busy post quickly became a center of social life for Buffalonians who thrilled at the sight of military parades and enjoyed the fine military band. The colorfully uniformed and West Point-trained officers were also fixtures at society functions, with numerous officers marrying Buffalo ladies.

While beloved by local citizens, the soldiers' stay would not be a long one. As normal relations were restored with Britain and Canada by the mid-1840's, tensions began to build which would soon lead to war with Mexico. Furthermore, the completion of nearby Fort Porter had rendered the temporary barracks redundant, and in September of 1845 it was formally abandoned by the army. Over the following year most of the buildings were dismantled and removed. The Inaugural Site is the only known barracks structure to survive to the present day.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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