University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Papers of Colonel William Emerson

Volume XVIII· Spring 1963 · Number 3
The Papers of Colonel William Emerson


On December 30, 1813, the tiny, defenseless community of Buffalo, New York, experienced the terror of Indians on the attack. They crashed out of the surrounding woods and into the town, shooting, scalping and burning. Men, women and children fled before the onslaught; only a few remained in a vain attempt to protect their possessions.

Buffalo was a victim of the War of 1812. The British and their Indian allies swept through it and the neighboring village of Black Rock in retaliation for atrocities committed by Americans in Canada. They left behind almost total destruction.

One of the few persons who remained in Buffalo that day was thirty-five-year-old Mrs. Sally Johnson Lovejoy. Her story of courage, in the face of almost certain death, comes to light through the pages of a letter recently given to the University of Rochester.

The letter, which refers to the barbaric murder of Mrs. Lovejoy as she attempted to thwart the Indians, was given as part of a collection of papers owned by Colonel William H. Emerson of Rochester, a collateral descendant of the unfortunate woman. Many of his family papers and also papers relating to his work as corporation counsel for the City of Rochester are included in the collection.

Although the letter does not describe in detail the murder of Mrs. Lovejoy, it tells a graphic tale of family mourning and horror inspired by her death. It was written by Mrs. Lovejoy's brother, J. Johnson, to her brother, William; her sister, Mrs. Mary Johnson Smith, and brother-in-law, Willard H. Smith, Caledonia lawyer. The letter follows.


Sunday Jan,y 16th 1814

Brother Wm, Sister Mary & Willard H Smith Esqr
Permit me to address you all in the same letter.

Mr Smith's Letter of the 4th Inst. came to hand yesterday, the melancholy, distressing and most grievous information which it contain'd had previously come to my knowledge by the Papers and also, verbal information by a Maj. Guy who left Buffaloe the day after the most horrid and inhuman act was committed--Be assured my Dear Friends that I can truly Mourn and Sympathise with you in the loss of our most amiable and Dearly Beloved Sister--On Thursday morning Dec. 30th 1813, you state, that this most horrid and inhuman act was committed--the remembrance of this most melancholy day will ever kindle in my breast the most indignant hatred toward that brutal and savage nation who have so cruelly murdered and torn from us our beloved Sister--Our Parents, to whom I shall write soon as I close this, will hardly know how to bear up under such melancholy and distressing news--at their advanced age of life--My Mother I think can never be reconciled to such unwelcome news, it must break her heart, and still my duty obliges me to be the author of such melancholy news--the subject is too painful--let it suffice to say my Grief is almost insupportable--Harris you say is not yet heard of, I suspect he must have been killd or taken prisoner--dont fail to write soon as you get any Information--Mr. Lovejoy and Henry I am happy to hear escaped--Henry I should be glad to have come and stay with me and go to School long as he thinks proper to stay, if he cannot be more pleasantly situated with some of his other connections, I will do the best in my power to have him well inform'd, by keeping him constantly at School and by paying particular attention to his writing &c--I shall be absent the most of the Winter school keeping, and should be extremely glad to have Henry come and stay with me--He could assist Mrs. Johnson in making Fires and doing some few choars about the house before and after school-- As you will undoubtedly be unpleasantly situated in that country till the close of the present war, I think it will be the best thing Henry can do to come directly here and stay with me long as his Father shall think proper--I live in the House with Doct. Miller--we have plenty of room and a very comfortable house.

J. Johnson


Accounts of Mrs. Lovejoy's altercation with the Indians have been published in the several histories of Buffalo and in publications of the Buffalo Historical Society.

The whereabouts of her husband and her son, Henry, are explained in a paper, "Buffalo During the War of 1812," prepared by William Dorsheimer for the Buffalo Historical Society.

. . .The British Indians had left the main column before it reached the village; and, swarming through the woods, came into Main Street near Tupper. . . Mrs. Lovejoy was in her house, on the present site of the Phoenix. The night before, her husband had mounted his horse, and taking his trusty rifle, had gone to the Rock, to make such defence of his home as became a brave man. 'Henry,' said the bold-hearted woman to her little son, 'you have fought against the British; you must run. They will take you prisoner. I am a woman; they will not harm me.' The lad flew into the woods. His light footfalls had not faded from the mother's ear when a score of Indians, wild with whiskey and the rage of battle, rush into the dwelling and commence to sack it. Confident in the great defence of her sacred sex, the careful housewife attempts to save her hard-earned treasures. Poor woman, thy sex is not sacred here! A tomahawk crushes into her brain, and she falls dead upon the floor of her desecrated home.

In the Municipality of Buffalo, New York, edited by Henry Wayland Hill, the incident is described by a daughter of Mrs. Margaret St. John, a neighbor, whose house was spared throughout the British occupation:

'My mother said she saw an Indian pulling the curtains down from the window of the Lovejoy house opposite, and saw Mrs. Lovejoy strike his hand with a carving-knife, and saw the Indian raise the hatchet; but as the door closed she could not know certain that he killed her. She did not dare to go and see.

'Soon there came along an advance guard with a cannon, and a British colonel on horseback . . . He said, "I have just now seen a very unpleasant sight in the house over the way. The Indians have killed a woman and I am very sorry any such thing should happen." "Well," said mother, "I was fearful she would provoke them to kill her. I spoke to her and said: 'Do not risk your life for property'; she answered: 'When my property goes, my life shall go with it.'"'

In Our Country and Its Peoplea Descriptive Work on Erie County, New York, edited by Truman C. White, another version of the incident is given.

'. . .At the same time Mrs. Lovejoy had become involved in an altercation with an Indian over a shawl. Mrs. St. John besought her to give it to him and come into her cottage for safety, but she declined to do so. Only a little later other Indians came to plunder and burn Mrs. Lovejoy's dwelling, but she placed herself in the doorway and resisted them. Suddenly a savage drew a knife and plunged it into her breast. Her body was dragged into the yard where it lay for hours on the snow.'

According to this account a British officer excused this piece of barbarity on the ground that Mrs. Lovejoy resisted those who entered her house and maintained that the responsibility for her death rested with herself, owing to her "indiscretion and desperation."

As other accounts describe the incident, neighbors saw the Indians set Mrs. Lovejoy's house on fire. They went to her house and carried her body outside. When they noticed the fire burning slowly they returned and managed to put it out. Later that night they decided to carry the body back into the house and with the help of a Judge Walden returned the body to a bed inside.

In an account in the Sandusky, Ohio, Clarion one man reported that when he was a boy he and his parents fled from the Indian attack and found refuge at night at the home of Mrs. St. John. The next morning, he said, they all went over to see Mrs. Lovejoy. "She was lying on the bedstead; she was a tall woman, was dressed in a black silk dress, with her long black hair hanging down or reaching through the cords and lying on the floor." They all stood about her and shed tears.

Martha St. John Skinner, daughter of Mrs. St. John, who reported this account, concluded by saying, "Then the Indians came again the third day and set the house on fire and she was burned in it, and Mr. Lovejoy came and gathered her bones in a handkerchief and buried them."

What happened to Mr. Lovejoy and Henry immediately following the burning of Buffalo by the Indians is not known, although some records show that Joshua Lovejoy died in New York City in 1824, at the age of fifty-three. According to William Ketchum's history of Buffalo, Joshua Lovejoy was a tavern keeper at Avon in 1805-1806, in a hotel erected at that place by James Wadsworth. He went to Buffalo in 1807 or 1808.

Henry Lovejoy, who was twelve years old in 1813, later became a well-known surveyor in the City of Buffalo. What little is known of him is reported by William Hodge, whose papers were published by the Buffalo Historical Society:

After the War, in the Winters of 1815-16 and 1816-17, Henry Lovejoy was our teacher. . . . By application to study he had acquired as good a 'common school education' as the times would allow, and turned his attention to the art of surveying, in which he became proficient. He continued its practice, as his business, in Buffalo, to the end of his long life. No man knew better than he, the original boundaries of our city lots, and of the farms adjoining. Indeed, in later years, in cases where the old land-marks were not to be found, he would sometimes trust too much to his own knowledge, to satisfy some, for, standing at a corner, and 'sighting' in different directions with his eye, he would strike his hickory compass-staff into the ground, saying 'That is near enough for all practical purposes.'

Other early material in the collection of papers given by Colonel Emerson to the University in 1961 and 1963 includes two diaries, one written by Caleb Johnson of Hampstead, N. H., father of Mrs. Lovejoy, and one by Frances Connor (Smith) Wells, daughter of Willard H. Smith, when she was a student at the Ontario Female Seminary, Canandaigua, from 1831 to 1837.

There are also letters and papers written by William N. Emerson, State Senator and member of the Rochester Common Council. Senator Emerson was married to Sarah Lovejoy Smith, daughter of Willard H. and Mary Johnson Smith, and niece of Sally Lovejoy.

Senator and Mrs. Emerson were the parents of Willard J. Emerson, Colonel Emerson's father. Among the letters are several written by Senator and Mrs. Emerson to Mr. and Mrs. Willard J. Emerson during their trip abroad, 1889-1890.

The personal papers of Colonel Emerson include letters he wrote to his mother, Harriet Hubbell Emerson, during the period of his World War I military service, 1917-1919.

Colonel Emerson was born in April, 1893, in Warsaw, N. Y. He was educated at Syracuse University and practiced law before entering Army service in 1917. He began his association with the City of Rochester as corporation counsel in 1938, retiring in 1952. From 1942 until 1945 he again served with the Army, and attained the rank of colonel.

Most of the business correspondence, relating to his work as corporation counsel, is for the period 1945-1952.

Another picture of World War I experiences is given in the letters of Colonel Emerson's sister, Carolyn Emerson. She wrote her mother while serving the YMCA canteen service with the AEF in France during 1918-1919. Miss Emerson was a graduate of the University of Rochester, Class of 1908, and for twenty years was senior French teacher at Charlotte High School.

Additional resources:

  • The register for the William Emerson Family Papers