War of 1812

The Story of the Battle of Sodus Point, fought during the War of 1812.

Early Life Around Sodus Bay

It is hard to imagine what life was like around Sodus Bay for early settlers. The town of Sodus was founded in 1794, with the first village at what is now Sodus Point. The area was heavily wooded (all the way up to the western edge of the village square at Bay and Ontario streets), and there were only two north-south roads leading up to Sodus Town. There were only about thirty buildings in the village. (The original lighthouse had not yet been built.) Wayne County did not yet exist; the area was still part of Ontario County, with its seat of government in Canandaigua—a difficult journey to make from Lake Ontario. This was the northern frontier of the United States, and settlers had to be hearty. Wolves, panthers, coyotes, and rattlesnakes were encountered regularly.

Captain Charles Williamson, land agent for Sir William Pulteney, had envisioned a “City of Great Sodus,” extending two miles from the west side of the bay. Although surveys were drawn and lot prices set, this city never came to be. Williamson was succeeded by Colonel Robert Troup who had the settlement at Sodus named after him. Thus, when the War of 1812 started, what is now known as Sodus Point was called Troupville.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 has been called “The Forgotten War” by some historians and “America’s Second War of Independence” by others. Both of these monikers are accurate. Although few of us can recall learning about this war in history class, it did firmly establish the United States as an independent nation on the international stage. In a very simplified version, war was declared for three reasons: British naval blockades and impressment, Native American attacks, and a desire for Canadian territory.

In the early 1800s, England and France were at war, with Napoleon enjoying his meteoric rise to power. The fledgling United States, meanwhile, were engaging in robust trade of natural resources with European nations. France did not want the United States trading with Britain, and Britain did not want the United States trading with France. As a result, both countries established naval blockades of American ships. After The French navy’s defeat at Trafalgar, only England continued these blockades. The British also began to board U.S. merchant ships and press American sailors into service of the crown. This did not sit well with a country that had recently won its independence from Britain. Additionally, on the western frontier of the United States and the Niagara region, the British were accused of encouraging the Native Americans to attack American settlers, causing great unrest. Additionally, some people thought the United States could invade and annex Canada while Britain was otherwise engaged.

In June 1812, President James Madison sent a list of grievances against Britain to Congress, which deliberated and declared war on June 18, 1812. (Because this conflict is called the War of 1812, many people have wondered if we missed our Battle of Sodus Point bicentennial commemoration by one year. We have not; the battle here was fought in June 1813.) The war was officially settled by the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, although fighting continued until February 1815.

Sodus Point Attacked

The Great Lakes marked the United States’ northern frontier and provided the most efficient east-west means of transportation. Control of the Great Lakes, especially Lake Ontario, was critical for a successful campaign. At various points along the lake, the government kept supplies for the military in storehouses. One of these warehouses was in Charlotte, at the mouth of the Genesee River; one was in Pultneyville; and yet another was in Sodus Point.

On June 15, 1813, a British landing party confiscated provisions at Charlotte. Hearing of this attack, a portion of Philetus Swift’s regiment (the 71st Infantry) and of Major William Rogers’ battalion were immediately ordered to Troupville (Sodus Point). This “advance warning” gave citizens a chance to prepare for the coming of the British. Those who had valuables removed them or buried them in their yards so they would not be stolen; some people left the village. The Lighthouse Museum is fortunate to have a silver teapot and sugar bowl—part of a tea service that belonged to the family of Captain William Wickham—which his wife supposedly buried in the ground so the British would not steal. This warning also gave the militia and citizenry the opportunity to remove supplies from the storehouse. Daniel Arms (who settled at Arms Cross Roads—now Wallington) made sure that those supplies necessary for survival—barrels of flour, pork, and whiskey—were removed and hidden in the woods.

The militia encamped in Sodus Point until the morning of June 19 when, since no enemy had appeared, they were dismissed. On the afternoon of this same day, the British squadron hove into view from the east. Two men—our local versions of Paul Revere—rode on horseback, one to the west and one to the south, calling, “The British are landing! Turn out!” in an attempt to recall the militia and arouse the citizenry. Approximately sixty ordinary, untrained men—farmers, millers, merchants—dropped their tools, grabbed their weapons, and headed to the Point. Elder Seba Norton, pastor of the Brick Church on Geneva Road (the oldest church in Sodus) was a Revolutionary War veteran, so he was chosen to lead the gathered men. When a militiaman, Captain Elias Hull of Lyons arrived, he took command.

The men lined up along the woods at the edge of the village square. The plan was to shoot, then turn around and run—every man for himself. Shortly before midnight, the British landing party of 100 to 150 men came ashore. As they advanced up the rise from the lake (near the present-day intersection of John and Bay streets), American Amasa Johnson immediately shot out a British lantern. The British returned fire and the battle was underway. As it was so dark, neither side could determine the size of the force they were facing. Both sides retreated: the British to their ships and the Americans into the woods. During the skirmish, two British soldiers were killed, two Americans—Asher Warner and Charles Terry—were mortally wounded, and several others were injured. On retreat, the British carried the injured Asher Warner to a tavern, leaving him with a pitcher of water while he succumbed to his wounds. The British captured three Americans: Christopher Britton, Harry Skinner, and Gilbert Saulter.

Sodus Point Burned

The next day (June 20), the British opened a slight cannonade upon the village. They landed a small force, seized the few stores remaining in the warehouses—and anything else of value—then set all the buildings on fire, except for the tavern where Asher Warner lay. (Unfortunately, this building, the Mansion House, burned down in the 1890s.) Perhaps the Wickham family suffered the greatest loss. As Captain Wickham was a merchant, he lost not only his home but also his storehouse and shop. His finely appointed, two-story home was valued at $6,000—an enormous sum in 1813. For over thirty years, he filed claims for compensation with Congress, claiming that the British only destroyed private property because the public supplies were not forfeited; he never received any payments.

Sadness and Heroism

One of the more heart-wrenching stories of this battle involved the retrieval of Asher Warner’s body by his young son. Asher Warner, his wife, and his two sons by his first wife—twelve-year-old Daniel and five-year-old Jonathan— had been living just north of the Brick Church on Geneva road. When news of his death reached his family, young Daniel drove a horse and wagon alone through miles of woods to the village. With help from two men, he loaded his father’s blood-soaked body into the wagon and set out on the lonely return trip. He found his house dark and deserted; his stepmother had taken Jonathan and gone to a neighbor’s home some miles away. Daniel went a mile for help from John Peeler, a boy his own age, who helped him carry his father’s body from the wagon into the house, where Daniel kept watch for almost ten hours, until neighbors came to prepare Asher’s body for burial.

History is not just a collection of dates, names, and events. Instead, it the sum of the causes and effects of deeds performed by people—ordinary and extraordinary—that define a time. When the War of 1812 was settled, all land boundaries were reset to those that existed at the start of the war; there were no gains or losses. However, the United States was now seen as a true independent country on the world stage, and a period of strong relations with Britain began to develop. Although one can argue that no one ever really wins a war, we can admire the heroism our predecessors displayed here on our northern frontier and their bravery in standing up to the might of the British navy, defending the freedom that had so lately been won. These men risked all in defense of their country. In short, this sadness, humor, and heroism represent the best of humanity in the worst of times. That is history.

This article was written by Joe O'Toole in June 2013 in commemoration of the bicentennial of the Battle of Sodus Point.  © Sodus Bay Historical Society