A History of Independence Day Celebrations

We are here today for a slightly delayed celebration of July 4, American Independence Day, one of the most thoroughly covered subjects in American history. Of course we are interested particularly in local aspects and even more particularly, Governor Reuben Eaton Fenton, born on July 4, 1819 in the nearby Town of Carroll.

Chautauqua County is actually mentioned, in a manner of speaking, in the Declaration of Independence, itself. One of the list of complaints against King George and the British government enumerated in that document is this one. “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.” The neighboring province the Declaration is talking about here is Quebec which the British crown acquired by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. By the Quebec Act on June 22, 1774, the British expanded that province to three times its French size to include Ohio, Michigan and even out to what are now Minnesota and Wisconsin. Previously, New York had asserted claim to much of that territory. The new boundary was the south shore of Lake Erie. Today Chautauqua County extends out to the international boundary at the middle of the lake, so technically, all that under-lake portion of Chautauqua County was included in this grievance expressed in the Declaration.

During the Revolutionary War a major force moved and a minor skirmish happened as close as Warren County. Late in the war a substantial raiding force of Senecas under Sayenghquarghata, not Guyasthuta as the history books tell you, passed through here and raided Hannastown, Pa. on July 13, 1782. So they may have been encamped on Chautauqua Lake as early as July 4, but probably a few days later.

Of course we are all familiar with the facts that the names of six of the Signers of the Declaration are memorialized as names of as many of our towns: Sherman, Clymer, Carroll, Ellery, Stockton, and Gerry. We also have record of 367 veterans of the war buried in the soil of Chautauqua County, all of them, of course having moved here well after the termination of the conflict. And surely a sizable additional number lived here for a while then moved on to have died and been buried elsewhere.

We know that in the 1780’s Cornplanter and his large extended family enjoyed bear hunting on the shores of Chautauqua Lake every summer, but I’m sure they did not celebrate the 4th or even keep track of calendar days.

In the summer of 1798 Holland Land Company survey crews were crisscrossing the county laying out the township and range lines every six miles. July 4 was another work day, but many of the surveyors paused or observed the day in some small fashion. The head surveyor of the later (1807 and 1808) lot surveys, John Lamberton, was born on July 4, 1776.

On July 5, 1812, 113 Chautauqua County men marched off to fight a second war with Great Britain. There is a story recorded of county residents being surprised by the opening shots of the war on the Lake Erie shore as they were listening to a patriotic speech, but this had to have been a product of confused later recollections. 

In 1816, Stephen Frank, in what is now Busti held a 4th of July party that was remembered as long as the pioneer generation survived. Ellicott Republicans predominated and partisanship, along with drinking, ran quite strong. The Republicans were celebrating a sweeping victory in the April town election where John Frew unseated James Prendergast as supervisor, and the opposing Federalist Party was in the process of dissolving. Nevertheless, some Federalists staged an allegedly less partisan and less successful celebration in Jamestown.  Ellicott then embraced its present territory plus Jamestown, the east part of Busti, and all of present-day Kiantone, Carroll, and Poland. At least seven Revolutionary War veterans were in attendance: Jacob Fenton, Homer Wellman, John Owens, Jasper Marsh, Stephen Wilcox, Joseph Loucks, and Eliphalet Steward.

People arrived on foot or horseback. The liquor was plainly awful and no one got excessively drunk. Rev. Lemuel Smith of Sugar Grove gave an invocation and there was a dance at night done to the fiddle of Ebenezer Davis of Kiantone. The ladies wore white dresses and got very cold on the trip home. There was a hard frost.

At the Jamestown party, James Prendergast was elected “President of the Day,” and other officers including an orator (Abner Hazeltine) were installed. The Declaration of Independence was read aloud at all such parties. Ebenezer Cheney organized a “military style band” consisting of three clarinets, two clarions, and a bassoon. Actual brass bands were yet in the future.

In 1817 some partyers from Dunkirk took a jaunt out on Lake Erie and saw a sea serpent. There had been some drinking.

The first steamboat on Chautauqua Lake made her maiden voyage July 4, 1828, from Jamestown to Mayville. It carried a cannon and another was fired at Mayville. Mayville merchants had acquired fireworks from Buffalo, the first seen in the county. Everybody enjoyed a picnic when the boat arrived, the earliest picnic I know of recorded in Chautauqua County.

In the 1830’s local Independence Day celebrations were typically conducted by Sunday schools and their choirs. Jamestown and other communities also had “glee clubs,” small singing societies, that performed.  In 1840 Jamestown held a temperance party with the glee club performing.

In 1845 Dunkirk residents took advantage of the short stretch of tracks that had been laid east from their village for the uncompleted Erie Railroad. They mounted a horse car on the rails and rode out to have a picnic, anticipating by 35 years the era of horse drawn street cars.

In 1842 Jamestown got its first resident brass band but there is no mention of a band performing on the 4th until 1843. In 1844 the band played at the Whigs’ celebration and in 1844 it was at Sugar Grove. 

In 1846 according to Kiantone’s Mark Cheney there was a large celebration featuring four surviving Revolutionary War soldiers riding in wagons and a squad of War of 1812 veteran along with a 12 piece band, 11 woodwinds and a trombone. The Jamestown Journal on the other hand reported the day was not celebrated in any formal manner. There were fireworks, bell ringings, cannons fired and as in 1816 the very dangerous practice of anvil firing.

In 1861, just three months after the Civil War broke out, Jamestown people held a deliberately low key observance. Not so in 1865 two months after its victorious termination. Their efforts were blessed by felicitous weather. Cannon firings, as we have seen, were a popular element of 19th century celebrations and Jamestown had just acquired a 12 pounder, which, along with ringing bells, was heard for 30 miles. Edward R. Bootey, an English immigrant, was in charge of the firing. On the 31st round, it fired prematurely and slightly injured John Tuttle. The ramrod has still not been found. 

At  9 or 10 a.m. the parade procession formed at Third and Main under the direction of Lt. Col. Dunham. There was no standard time then and the two local newspapers disagree by an hour on everything. One may have been using sun time and the other railroad time. At 10 or 11, parade participants began marching out Third Street to La Fayette, then down to Second, east on Second to Fourth, Fourth to Main, down Main, across the old wooden bridge and through the flats only recently then called  Brooklyn and up to the grove between the Hall House and the Fenton mansion. There was Bootey and his artillery piece and a float with pretty girls decked out in patriotic colors and each carrying a flag with the name of one of the then 36 states, the names, not the state flags. I don’t think they had state flags then. 

It isn’t clear how young these girls were, but I suspect about 10 to 13 because older girls and young women then didn’t publicly flaunt their beauty not if they were well mannered anyhow. The float also featured evergreen boughs and American flags. The float was the entry of the Mineola Boat Club, which I never otherwise heard of. A Mr. A. Tallent, piano maker and some 70 employees, led by a mule and holding a banner made of shavings was a big hit.

Some members of the general public joined the parade and others came directly here, about 4 or 5 thousand of them. Seating was inadequate and many sat down on the grass. Richard P. Marin was President of the Day. He called the assembled to order. The Ellington Brass Band played. Rev. Henry Benson, lately chaplain of the 49th New York Volunteers delivered a fervent prayer. The two papers don’t agree on the order of events. I’m mostly following the Chautauqua Democrat here. A choir sang. William Bradshaw read the Declaration of Independence. The band played. Then Alex Sheldon delivered a welcoming address to the returning soldiers. The choir sang and Col. C. B. Curtis from the 55th Pennsylvania Volunteers gave an eloquent speech. Marvin made a few more remarks and everyone adjourned to eat. 

The food was prepared by volunteer local women, the crowd being more than any local restaurant or caterer at the time could handle. The returning soldiers and their wives and the veterans of 1812 had seats of honor and ate free. The ticket holding public was fed 600 at a time, four times in succession. 

In late afternoon balloon ascensions were scheduled but were at best partially successful. These were probably war surplus balloons floated with hydrogen generated by dropping zinc into hydrochloric acid. The first balloon, supposed to represent the Union broke free and ripped. It was patched up and managed to make it half a mile. Another balloon representing the Confederacy was sent up. “After a very brief ascent it took fire, and disappeared.” Presumably these were unmanned. 

The subsequent “Dead Beats” comic costume parade seems to have been the hit of the day. Eighty people participated, some mounted on horses or mules. I can’t figure out what all was involved but I suspect it may have been politically incorrect by modern standards. This either included or was followed by a parody re-enactment of the capture of Jefferson Davis, not as it really happened but according to the then universally believed legend that he was trying to escape in women’s clothes. 

Fireworks climaxed and closed the celebration. The Democrat put the number of people in town at 12,000, the Jamestown Journal said 13 to 20,000. The population of Jamestown was then a little over 3,600. 

In 1922, private fireworks were outlawed in Jamestown. In 1936 we had our first Chautauqua Lake flare lighting and in 1934 the statue of Governor Fenton was unveiled in front of the mansion.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment