The British Land in Ashtabula County, At Least Twice

By Kathy Warnes

Fort Hill
Fort Hill

Conneaut Ohio, August 11, 1812

For centuries, British explorers, soldiers, immigrants and ordinary Englishmen crisscrossed the surface of Lake Erie fighting wars, seeking new lives in a new country, conducting business and building states. Canoes carried warriors from warring Native American tribes back and forth across its waves and white explorers steered their batteaux and sailing ships to conquer and claim its shores. Lake Erie played a crucial role in the War of 1812, which some historians have called “The Second War of Independence.

The actions of General William Hull, commander of the Battle of Detroit, created as many destructive storm surges as a violent Lake Erie storm, when he surrendered Fort Detroit to the British on August 16, 1812. General Hull’s surrender opened up the northern frontier of Ohio to British raids and possibly invasions. As the Williams brothers describe it in History of Ashtabula County, “the British seemed to derive great satisfaction in sailing along our shore, firing cannon and making other demonstrations of hostility calculated to annoy and alarm the inhabitants.”[1]

The British proceeded to annoy and alarm the inhabitants of Northeastern Ohio. Using the raid and run tactics they learned from their Native American allies and the Revolutionary War armies that had ultimately defeated them, the British raiders anchored their ships offshore and aimed several of their raid and run adventures at Conneaut, a village in the far northeastern corner of the state. Leaving their vessels in small parties, they killed cattle and plundered the homes of settlers in the region.

Revolutionary War veterans in the area compared the perpetual state of excitement and alarm to the days of Paul Revere in Boston, when messengers from the beach arrived in town, insisting that they had seen British warships heading for the harbor. Other fearful residents spread exaggerated tales of the murders and brutalities of the Native Americans who fought on the side of the British.

Then on the night of August 11, 1812, it looked as if the Paul Revere warnings from Conneaut residents were coming true this time.  The day before Conneaut residents had observed two British vessels offshore, and many of them found hiding places in the woods to escape the British soldiers.

 

conneaut creek
Conneaut Creek

The people of the upper part of the settlement fled mainly across the creek to Fort Hill, the ruins of an ancient mound builder fortress. Fort Hill was located where Conneaut Creek bends sharply around the hills before it resumes its southwestward course along the southern boundary of Conneaut. Thick forests covered the hills, and the fugitives hoped to find a temporary refuge in the forest, but they had to ford Conneaut Creek before they could hide under the trees.

The fugitives had to flee on foot and in order to reach the safety of the ruined Fort Hill, they had to cross Conneaut Creek. The men stepped forward to carry the younger children and some of the women across the Conneaut on their shoulders. One small husband who carried his larger wife on his back, slipped on a rock in the middle of the Creek and both fell into the water.  The husband had to quickly shift his wife’s weight around to keep from drowning.

When the dripping fugitives reached the walls of the old fort, they hid in the bushes and spent an uncomfortable night on the ground. The hours passed, punctuated by coughs and groans and uneasy whispering, but when the sun appeared on the Lake Erie horizon, a messenger with good news also appeared. The ship which the sentry’s excited imagination had filled with British and Indians belonged to Captain Daniel Dobbins of Erie, Pennsylvania.[2]

 

The British Near Ashtabula, Ohio  Return trip, 1813

 Rosanna Watros and her husband John came to Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1810 with eight of their children. Their son William had come three years earlier and built a log house near the shore of Lake Erie to be a new home for his family.  William had not been able to finish the floor of the cabin because he did not have the time or tools to do it before his family arrived. Six weeks after the Watrous family arrived in Ashtabula, John hurt himself while he was lifting the planks for the floor.   He died, leaving his wife  to face life in pioneer Ashtabula alone.

After the War of 1812 broke out, the small band of settlers at Ashtabula waited in fear and trembling to see what the British would do. Scouts appeared with the news that the British were near and warned people to be sure that their family valuables were safe.  Rosanna and her family put their silver and jewelry in iron and brass kettles and buried them in the ground.

Shortly before the battle of Lake Erie which took place on September 10, 1813  the three British vessels Lady Provost, Queen Charlotte and Little Belt were sighted off Ashtabula.  About thirty men and boys, including several of the Watros sons, were hastily called together and they assembled in back of Fort Hill.

To appear stronger and more numerous than they were, they fashioned men of clothing and straw, placed sticks on their shoulders to look like guns, and carried them between them. Around this hill they marched in double and triple file, again and again, to give the appearance of large numbers of men.  This trick appeared to be successful, because the British delayed landing until a severe thunder storm crashed overhead and drove them away.

Six vessels of the British Royal Navy and nine vessels of the United States Navy clashed near Put in Bay on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, in what history calls  the Battle of Lake Erie.  The nine American vessels defeated and captured the six vessels of the United States Navy. The citizens of Conneaut and Ashtabula no longer had to fearfully search the Lake Erie horizon for British warships and could concentrate on carving new homes in the wilds of the Western Reserve.

Historical Fiction

The Day the British Invaded and Hannah Helped Them Leave

lake erie
Lake Erie

Hannah heard the pounding in her dreams and she thought that Lake Erie waves had raced up the beach to their cabin and were pounding the door to get her to open it. She jumped out of bed and hurried to the door, peeking under it to see if the smallest waves had managed to swirl their way inside. She didn’t see any waves so swung the door open. Caleb Hardy, the boy who lived a mile west of Kinnear’s cabin stood there with his fist in the air, ready to pound the door again. His face was red and he was puffing and snorting like one of the hogs that rooted in the woods by their cabin.

“What are you doing here, Caleb? It’s barely dawn.”

“ Came to warn you.  Gabe Jenkins ran over and told me a boatload of them Britishers came ashore in one of their boats. Get your family and run across the street to the woods by Fort Hill.  Them lazy varmits ain’t gonna climb up and down the hills to catch yah!”

Hannah gathered a handful of her long black hair and began to braid it. She was in such a hurry she closed the door in Caleb’s face and then snatched it open again.  “Sorry Caleb, I gotta go tell Ma.”

“Your Pa’s already at the Fort and so’s your brother,” Caleb told her. “But he said to tell your Ma to give me two of her scarecrows. Quick!”

Hannah pulled the blanket covered the door of the room where her Ma and Pa slept. “Ma, Ma, wake up!  Pa needs the scarecrow men over at the fort.”

“I gotta go spread the alarm,” Caleb said. He darted out the cabin door quick as a humming bird.

Ma jumped out of bed and pulled on her clothes and shoes. “No time to eat but a piece of corn pone.  Where’s Tom?”

“He’s up at the Fort with Pa.”

“Then we have to do this by ourselves,” Ma said.  She handed Hannah the six silver spoons they had brought from Connecticut and the silver tea service that had belonged to her mother’s mother. “Help me put these in the iron kettle.”

Together Ma and Hannah dragged the iron kettle full of silver over the cabin doorstep, across the yard, and under the maple tree. “Hannah, call Jack,” Ma said.

“He’s probably chasing the pigs in the woods,” Hannah said.  She walked over to the edge of the yard. Lilac bushes and oak trees formed a surrounding green wall that filtered out the sunlight.

“Jack!  Here Jack!” she shouted.

A  dog with long black curly hair erupted from the middle of a lilac bush like a bolt of lightening. The dog ran over to Hannah and thumped down on her feet.

Hannah reached down and pulled burrs out of the dog’s hair. “Where have you been Jack?”

“Hannah, we have to hurry.  You can talk to Jack later,” Ma said.

Hannah pushed Jack away and took hold of the handle of the iron kettle.  “I’m ready, Ma.”

Jack was ready too. He ran alongside Ma and Hannah, barking his agreement with the fun.  Finally, Ma stopped with a sigh of relief under one of the lilac bushes.  “Let’s bury it here,” she said.

Ma and Hannah knelt in the soft dirt under the lilac bush and started digging with their hands. Hannah felt the dirt caking under her fingers and sifting into the seams of her dress. She stopped digging to shake the dirt from her skirts.

“Don’t stop, Hannah,” Ma said. “We have to bury the kettle and hurry the scarecrow men to Pa.”

Hannah and Ma started digging again, but the dirt was harder around the roots of the lilac bush and Hannah’s hands were getting sore. Suddenly, she had an idea.

“Come here, Jack,” she said.  “Dig, Jack, dig!”

Jack stared at her, wagging his tail. He wasn’t sure that Hannah really wanted him to dig.  He usually got scolded if he dug in the cabin yard.

“Dig, Jack, dig,” Hannah said.

Jack and Hannah and Ma dug, and soon they covered the iron kettle with dirt and scattered leaves over it to hide the fresh dirt on top.  Hannah and Jack put sticks over it and then she and Ma and Jack walked back and forth over the ground.

“There! Those British won’t find it,” Ma said. “Now hurry, Hannah. We have to get the scarecrow people to Pa.”

Ma and Hannah and Jack ran back to the cabin and Ma and Hannah grabbed the scarecrow men from under the bed and hurried out of the cabin. The scarecrow men were made out of straw and Hannah felt the straw scratching her arms and neck as she ran alongside Ma. Jack kept tugging at the straw from Hannah’s scarecrow and soon a trail of straw strands stretched behind them.

Jack barked his, “Look what I did bark at Hannah and Ma. Gasping for air, Hannah stopped and looked.

“No, Jack, no,” Hannah told him.  “Go home!”

She stooped down, picked up a handful of straw from the ground, and stuffed it back into the scarecrow.

Jack picked up a piece of straw with his mouth and raced ahead of them.

“He’s right. We’re wasting time,” Ma said.

Ma ran to catch up with Jack and Hannah ran to catch up with Ma. After more huffing and puffing and flying straw, they finally reached the fort.

Pa saw them approaching and hurried over to them.  “Why are you all wet?” he asked as he took the scarecrows from them. “The scarecrows are wet too, but never mind.  We can still use them.”

“We had to cross Conneaut Creek to get to the fort, remember?” Ma said.

Pa grinned. “Jack was up to his usual tricks.”

“Pa, Jack tripped me and then I fell in the water with my scarecrow. Then he pulled us both out of the water,” Hannah told him.

Jack walked over to Hannah and shook his body from head to toe. Drops of water flew like a rain shower over Hannah and her family. The two scarecrow men dripped water.

Pa and Hannah laughed and petted Jack. Jack wagged his tail and grabbed another piece of straw from the scarecrow man’s arm. Pa stopped laughing. “We’ve got to hurry,” he told Hannah and Ma and Jack. “There’s a British landing party down on the beach.”

“How many of our men are here?” Ma asked.

“Just four of us. Five counting me and six if Caleb returns from his Paul Revere trip. Seven, counting Tom.”

Jack barked furiously, running circles around Pa.

“All right, Jack,” Pa said. “Eight.”

“Then we’ll have to work hard,” Ma said.

Just then Hannah saw Job Turner burst from behind an oak tree. He  ran over to them. They are on the beach and ready to climb the hill,” Job shouted.

britishsoldiers

 

Hannah’s brother Tom jumped from behind another oak tree. I’m here, Pa.”

Hannah walked to the edge of the hill. She peered over and she saw the British soldier in front stop and pour a stream of water from his boot. “I see them.  There are at least twenty of them,” she said. “They stopped while the soldier’s pouring water from his boot.”

“Good! That slowed them down a little,” Pa said. “Now here’s the plan.

“We are going to be an American Army party, armed and ready to defend our homes. We will hold this fort.”

“How, Pa?” Tom demanded. “There’s nobody here but us.”

Hannah held up her scarecrow man. “And two scarecrow men,” she said.

“They will help,” Pa said.

Then Hannah understood Pa’s plan. We have enough us,” Hannah said. She stood the scarecrow man up straight and put her arms around it. “Soldiers march, “ she said.

Ma and Pa and Tom and Job and two other men marched around shouting out cadences. Caleb arrived, beating a drum. Jack danced around the entire army, barking like a thunder roll. Hannah and Tom took turns passing the scarecrow men around so it looked like there were twenty scarecrow men instead of just two.

Hannah crept over to the edge of the hill and peered over. The British soldiers had stopped on the path. The one pouring water out of his boot had stopped, even though the water continued to trickle out of his boo0t.

Hannah ran back to the fort. “Keep shouting and passing the scarecrow men around,” she said. “Keep barking, Jack.”

They kept passing the scarecrow men around. Hannah kept marching and Jack kept barking. Hannah marched over to the edge of the fort to see where the British soldiers were, with Jack running beside her. She peeked through a screen of bushes. She saw the retreating backs of the British soldiers. The soldier with the watery boots was hopping on one foot, holding the boot in his hand, brought up the rear.

Everyone kept marching and shouting for what seemed like another hour to Hannah, but finally Pa put down his straw man. “Enough, “ he said.

Hannah hurried to look over the hill. She watched the British ship disappearing over the Lake Erie horizon. “They are gone,” she shouted.

As she ran back to where Pa and Ma and Tom and the rest of the soldiers waited for her, Jack pawed at Hannah’s skirts.  He held a piece of straw in the corner of his mouth.

“Wait, Jack.  We’ll have to see,” she told him.

Jack kept pawing.

“Let’s go home,” Pa said. “It’s sunset and we’ve lost a day’s work.”

Hannah walked alongside Ma and Pa holding the straw man and Jack walked under her hand, nudging it. He still had the straw in his mouth.

“Jack wants the straw man to play with,” Hannah said.

“No, we need to use it for a scarecrow as it was intended to be used,” Ma said.

“But Ma, he earned it didn’t he? He helped us defeat the British soldiers.”

Ma looked thoughtful.  “Yes, he did that.”

Hannah thought for a minute. “ I know what we can do. Why don’t we give Jack the strawman’s hat.  That’s small enough for him to play with and it has straw in it.”

Ma smiled and pulled the strawman’s hat from his head. She handed it to Hannah and Hannah handed it to Jack. Jack ran ahead of them down the trail, holding the hat carefully in his mouth and wagging his tail non-stop.

Ma called the hat Jack’s British hat and Hannah handed it down to her children.  It is still in her family today.

jack

 

References

[1] Williams Brothers, “History of Ashtabula County Ohio,” Philadelphia, 1878

[2] Excerpts from a series of articles about Ashtabula history by Harvey Nettleton, featured in the weekly Geneva Times in the late 1860s. Harvey Nettleton wrote his account in 1844, and probably appeared in print before the Geneva Times published it. Reverend John Hall retold most of the same story in his series of articles, “A History of Ashtabula Township, which appeared in the Star Beacon in 1856.

References

Dale, Ronald J. The Invasion of Canada: Battles of the War of 1812, James Lorimer & Company, 2001.

Francis A. Dewey, “A Sketch of the Marine of Lake Erie Previous to the Year 1829,” January, 1881.Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. Knopf, 2010.