St. John’s place is a short, one block long street located in Allentown. The street is named after the St. John family. The St. John family had a significant role during the Burning of Buffalo 200 years ago, on December 30, 1813.
The St. John House was the only house to survive the burning of Buffalo. Only three buildings remained after the burning: The St. John House, the jail on Washington Street near Eagle Street and David Reece’s blacksmith shop on Seneca Street.
Gamaliel St. John was born in Norwalk Connecticut on September 22, 1766. Margaret Marsh was born in Kent, Connecticut. Margaret’s father was among the first class of graduates at Yale College. Gamaliel and Margaret were married in Kent on October 16, 1788. They moved to Danbury, Connecticut where they lived for several years, before moving to Oneida County, New York. While there, Gamaliel worked on constructing a portion of the turnpike from Albany to Cayuga Lake. They had many children: Elijah, Northrop, Maria, Aurelia, Cyrus, Sarah, Margaret, Parnell, Martha, John and LeGrand, and Orson.
In 1807, they moved to a farm in Williamsville. Their farm was located near where the historic mill is now located in Williamsville. They lived on the farm for three years before moving into Buffalo in the spring of 1810. The family settled on Main Street. Mr. St. John kept a tavern on the corner of Main and Court Streets.
Cyrus St. John died in December 1812 of camp distemper (also known as diphtheria). Gamaleil and his eldest son, Elijah died on June 6, 1813, drowning in the Niagara River when their boat capsized after coming into contact with the war vessel John Adams, which was anchored in the River. Gamaleil and Elijah were bearing dispatches from army headquarters in Buffalo to a division in Canada.
Just before the burning of Buffalo, there were approximately 2,000-4,000 drafted and volunteer militia encamped in front of the old courthouse. Recollections of the St. John children indicated that the citizens of Buffalo felt safe due to the presence of the militia, who could be seen marching through the Village. When the alarm rang for people to evacuate Buffalo on December 30, 1813, the St. John family planned to leave in two trips. Mr. Asaph Bemis, the husband of Aurelia St. John, accompanied the family. Conditions along the roads prevented Mr. Bemis from returning. Margaret St. John was left in the house with her daughters Maria and Sarah.
The St. John house was located at 437 Main Street, near Mohawk. The house was demolished in 1871. Today, the location is marked by a plaque.
As Buffalo settlers returned to town on New Year’s Day, Mrs. St. John and her daughters took in the refugees, while warding off constant threats to their home. Many of the settlers returned to town and constructed makeshift roofs over their former basements, living in them for the rest of winter until a new house could be constructed.
Following the fire, a relief committee provided money, supplies and clothing. The committee raised $13,000 quickly to help the citizens of Buffalo. The State Legislature also contributed nearly $60,000. Reconstruction of Buffalo happened quickly. By April, Joseph Pomeroy had rebuilt his hotel. After only five months, many stores and taverns were erected.
While the St. John family had its share of hardships, the family prevailed. The women sold their needlework and managed to survive on that income, keeping their place in society of the time.
Sarah St. John was only 16 at the time of the fire, spending her days putting out fires set by the Native Americans and foraging for food under the cover of night. At one point, the Native Americans entered the St. John home. Sarah fled in terror, chased by a man. It is said that he raised his tomahawk to kill her, but she laughed at him. He was so taken aback that he could not kill her. He instead painted her face and let her return to her home. Sarah went on to become the second wife of Samuel Wilkeson. She was among the first to dig the earth for what became the Erie Canal on August 9, 1823. She was beloved by the people of Buffalo; they reopened the Franklin Street Cemetery to bury her when she died in 1836, despite the cemetery being closed due to cholera fears. (The Franklin Street Cemetery was located where the present County Hall is now).
Sarah’s grandson by marriage, Tellico Johnson, was one of the earliest developers of the Historic Plymouth neighbrohood. He developed Orton and St. Johns Places and lived at 22 Orton Street. The streets were created in 1884, from what was the Buffalo Circus Ground. Several big name circuses performed there, including WW Cole Hippodrome, PT Barnum Circus, John B. Doris Inter-Ocena Show and the Adam Forepaugh Show. In 1882, PT Barnum brought the elephant legend, Jumbo, to the grounds from London.
So remember the St. John family, all of the settlers of Buffalo, and all who fought in the War of 1812 today. Remember that we’ve since had 200 years of peace between the United States and Canada. The Peace Bridge plaza today stands where Fort Porter was located, a fitting tribute to the years of peace replacing a military establishment. Remember the spirit of the earliest settlers of Buffalo, who were not afraid to brave a winter in makeshift home in order to build what became our city. I believe that pioneer spirit still lives in Buffalo today….and that we can rebuild after 50 years of decline.
Be sure to check out the street index to learn about other streets.
- Mrs. Jonathan Sidway. “Recollections of the Burning of Buffalo and Events in the History of the Family of Gamaliel and Margaret St. John”. Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Volume 9. Buffalo NY. 1906.
- Brown, Christopher. “Historic Plymouth Avenue in the Kleinhans Neighborhood”. Kleinhans Community Association. May 2008.
- Severance, Frank, editor. The Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo. Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16, 1912.