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Commentary: Lewiston battles and the California gold rush touch Buffalo history

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This morning, The Buffalo News carried vivid photos and stories about the Lewiston reenactment of the War of 1812. Just two hundred years ago, the village was burned by British soldiers, and the Tuscaroras helped survivors escape to Batavia.

Youngstown, just short of six miles from Lewiston, also spawned an adventuresome, documented history, this one during the California Gold Rush. William Swain, a fruit farmer, had kept a diary of his trip West and his safe return.

His diary became the core of a book written by J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West. “Take care of yourself, my dear, for I am coming back again with a pocket full of rocks,” Swain wrote to his wife of two years, Sabrina, on April 11, 1849.

Holliday notes in his book that Ed Eberstadt, a well-respected New York book dealer, had found Swain’s diary in a collection of papers about the Westward Movement. Eberstadt believed it was the most important of its type written by those who made the trek west.

The very first entry is precursor to the weight of history and the amenities that hadn’t yet been invented. Swain and his three traveling companions initially left Youngstown at 8 in the morning and arrived in Buffalo at 4:30 that afternoon. It was only a 32 mile trip, but, he notes, the roads weren’t good. Staying with his companions at Huff’s Hotel near the waterfront, he made purchases for the trip and for $2 had his photograph taken and framed to send home to his wife.

His diary also provides new information for those of us who imagine only covered wagons as transportation across country at that time. Swain writes home that he has his $5 passage already booked on the “London,” a steamer which takes him through the Great Lakes to Detroit. At the time, there was even a larger steamer every evening to Chicago, he notes. He says that he will write from Detroit and that family should write to him at Independence.

Clearly, in 1849, there were choices that, looking back, seem quite up-to-date and weren’t the test of self that the later miles of the trip would prove. And Buffalo has always been about more than snow, although long-time Buffalonians have become inured to newcomer remarks about the famous blizzards. We’re too busy shoveling each other out to mind. Or browsing in used bookstores, where I found Holliday’s book several years ago in East Aurora.

Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column. She teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. Her new book, COUSINS, is available on

Contact Linda at


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