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Choosing an Identity

On August 18, 1851, at the terminus of the Erie Canal in Buffalo, a cook on a Lake Erie steamboat docked there was attacked by a group of men wielding the power of a new federal law.

A slave-catcher named Benjamin Rust, accompanied by a federal marshal and two Buffalo police officers, grabbed the cook, a former slave named Daniel Davis, intending to take him back to his former owner in Kentucky. Davis resisted. Rust hit Davis on the head with a piece of wood, whereupon Davis fell backwards down the steps into the steamboat’s hold, directly onto his hot cook-stove, which seared his flesh. Rust and the officers then dragged the badly injured Davis out of the boat, off the wharf and up Commercial Street to Main Street about where the Aud is today, to the office of the US Commissioner, and then on to the courthouse on Lafayette Square. At the hearing, in the presence of Mayor James Wadsworth of Buffalo, this cook was found, by a commissioner appointed under the federal statute known as the Fugitive Slave Act, to be the legal property of the Kentucky slave-owner. As the proceedings adjourned and the court emptied onto Main Street, Mayor Wadsworth and the sheriff personally led Buffalo’s police force against a mixed-race crowd of citizens that had assembled not just to protest Daniel Davis’s capture, but to liberate him from a forced return to enslavement, as well.

(Luckily for Daniel Davis, he wasn’t turned over to slave-catcher Rust; instead, Davis was put in Buffalo’s jail, and Rust was charged with assault. Bizarrely, the very commissioner who had just found that Davis was a Kentuckian’s property donated $25 to help secure Davis’s freedom. Meanwhile, the slave-catcher was jailed on $1,000 bail.)

This case became an electrifying cause. Over the ensuing two weeks, until a dramatic resolution on August 31, 1851, Buffalo became a hot political, journalistic and legal battleground over what was then known in the press as the case of “the slave Daniel.”

Daniel Davis lost his freedom, and would eventually regain it, on a piece of real estate that is currently scheduled to become open to the public as a historic site in October 2007—unless New York State once again changes its plan for what has been known, since 1825, as the Canal District.

The Daniel Davis case, and its connection to Buffalo harbor, offers a window on an extraordinary and unique aspect of Buffalo history that hardly anyone has ever read about anywhere except in original documents—namely, Buffalo’s inner harbor and its pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, in immigration, in the politics of abolition and in the advancement of democracy not only in America but around the world.

The now-obscure case of “the slave Daniel” was a flashpoint for American politics when it occurred. Its resolution played a long-neglected role in ending the career of Millard Fillmore. The confrontation in Buffalo undermined the legitimacy of the Whig Party, and the New York politicians who advocated for Daniel Davis—especially governor, then senator, then Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet member William Seward—created a national politics that would no longer tolerate Millard Fillmore’s doomed compromise whereby some people in the United States could live as citizens while others lived as slaves.

The case of “the slave Daniel” lit this town on fire in the last half of August, 1851.

In churches, in newspapers, in mass meetings and in courtrooms, Buffalo’s obscure citizens and community leaders alike declaimed about the meaning of the word “freedom” and to whom it applied. Speakers spoke ex tempore and from texts as well as to what had and what had not been intended by the men who, not even 70 years earlier, had written the United States Constitution and its first 10 amendments.

Newspaper editors from the three Buffalo English-language dailies blistered each other and made no pretense to objectivity as they published commentaries, and some acknowledged facts, on the principal actions and personalities in the conflict. The famous former slave and anti-slavery advocate Frederick Douglass followed the case from Rochester, and reported on it in his own paper, the Liberator. The New York City papers published items about the case. Preachers and sermonizers in Buffalo, Rochester and Cleveland spoke and wrote about the case. Lawyers contended both in Buffalo and in the Federal District Court in Auburn, New York, near Syracuse, over whether Daniel Davis was going to have a chance to live as a free citizen in a non-slave state, or whether he had been doomed by Millard Fillmore’s law to return to bondage south of the Ohio River.

For two weeks, people wondered whether Daniel Davis’s case, should he lose, would mean that slavery would become, in effect, legal even in states like New York, where it had been illegal for decades. (A mile west across the Niagara River in Canada, slavery had been illegal since 1806, when Parliament had banned it in all British possessions.) Members of Buffalo’s 900-odd African-American residents held meetings in which they vowed to resist being made to leave their American homes.

The case of “the slave Daniel” was the first real test of the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been signed into law by a president from New York—a president from Buffalo.

Today, at the restored terminus of the Erie Canal, there is a fence around the very area where this drama of 1851 played out. You can walk up to the chain-link fence and see the limestone blocks that line the Commercial Slip, where the Buckeye State was anchored on the day that Daniel Davis was seized. You can see the ruined foundations of buildings that had been in existence on that day. You can see what’s left of the cobblestone streets that were in use then, including Commercial Street. There’s a replica “bowstring” bridge that has been erected and that crosses the re-watered Commercial Slip. On the west side of the Commercial Slip, there’s a new building that houses the indoor exhibits of the Naval and Serviceman’s Park; the building looks like, has the shape of and the dimensions of, buildings that were in existence in the mid 19th century, when Buffalo was the major port of the Great Lakes and Buffalo Harbor saw dozens of ships a day sail or steam in with lumber, grain, coal and passengers, and sail or steam out with manufactured items, flour, livestock and European immigrants bound for the North American interior that Buffalo’s harbor and the Erie Canal had helped open.

Until a few months ago, many people believed that the fight to preserve that intersection of Buffalo Harbor and the Erie Canal had been lengthy, bitter and victorious. After years of grassroots lobbying by preservationists who were opposed to a New York State agency’s plan to pave over the site of the original Commercial Slip, newly elected County Executive Joel Giambra joined with them and authored a new memorandum of understanding that ended the lawsuits, ended the acrimony and got the restoration of three of the critical historic elements of the Canal District into active restoration.

By October 2007, the re-watered Commercial Slip in its original site, with its “bowstring” Water Street bridge, plus a re-built Central Wharf and a restored historic street pattern are all scheduled for completion.

That’s because of the agreement of 2000.

On October 26, 2000, sensing the political opportunity, Governor George Pataki re-enacted his predecessor DeWitt Clinton’s “wedding of the waters” by scooping up a pail of Buffalo Harbor water to take to New York Harbor and symbolically join the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, just as Governor Clinton had done 175 years before. The governor also formally endorsed the “history-based” project to restore the Commercial Slip and the historic street pattern of the Canal District, and to rebuild the Central Wharf—the 400-foot-long wooden walkway that had stretched along the north bank of the Buffalo River from the middle of the 19th century well into the 20th.

Tim Tielman and Sue McCartney, then leaders of the Preservation Coalition of Buffalo and Erie County, had been among the most dogged and vocal of the opponents to what had been called the Horizons Waterfront Commission plan to ignore the unique historical structures—including a brothel, boarding house, saloon and sometime sanctuary for escaped slaves known as Dug’s Dive—whose ruins adjoin the Commercial Slip.

Emeritus Professor of History Monroe Fordham of Buffalo State College filed an affidavit in that lawsuit, in which he said, “I believe this site should be preserved and developed, and not destroyed and buried for the sake of a bogus Canal-period replica.”

Scot Fisher, a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit to prevent New York State from failing to do an adequate historic as well as archaeological review, had gone to the 2000 Allentown Art Festival and then on to meetings all over Western New York, where he spearheaded the campaign that gathered over 14,000 signatures on petitions to “Save Don’t Pave” the terminus of the original Erie Canal.

In the spring and summer of 2000, columnist Donn Esmonde in the Buffalo News wrote repeatedly about the significance of the acreage around the inner harbor and specifically about the Commercial Slip, the Central Wharf and the historic remains of the old Canal District.

October 26, 2000 saw a community consensus as has rarely been achieved here. Politicians of both parties actually joined with preservationists to herald an agreement that would give the community a 12-acre site that no other community, no other city, no other country had any claim to.

In a subsequent party held in November 2000, Tielman and the Preservation Coalition awarded “Battle Stars,” little star-shaped gold pins, to public officials, citizen activists, newspaper columnists and even to teenaged kids who had carried signs—and on one occasion, shovels, when, on a Saturday morning, hundreds had demonstrated, shouting to state officials, “You dig the canal or we will.”

That was in 2000. For the past seven years, work has been proceeding. Complicated re-routing of storm-sewer pipes and of the massive Hamburg Drain has been undertaken so that the Commercial Slip, which now has water in it, could be re-watered. The once-buried streets have been unearthed. Foundations of old buildings have been exposed, perhaps even of Dug’s Dive itself.

It’s a significant historic site. More immigrants came through Buffalo Harbor, traveling by canal-boat, train, wagon, horseback or foot here to light out for the Great Lakes regions of Canada and the United States and beyond, than came through Ellis Island. Many of them debarked right there in that 12-acre Canal District. The Underground Railroad, like the Erie Canal, had its terminus in Buffalo Harbor. Between the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War, at least 40,000 Africans and African-Americans saw their liberation when they looked from Buffalo Harbor to see the Niagara River and Canada beyond. This site is where the first grain elevator was erected, a device that transformed the agricultural economy of North America and subsequently of the other continents as well. The Canal District, and specifically the intersection of the Commercial Slip and Buffalo Harbor, was the very place where America’s continental economic power was forged.

And because of the agreement of 2000, the restoration of the historic elements of the site is scheduled to be complete in October 2007. All the results of petitioning, agitating, litigation and, subsequently, the work of state and county agencies, is due to be opened to the public before the 182nd anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal, upcoming on October 26, 2007.

But in 2006, a new state agency—the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation—put forward a different plan for the site. The new agency’s proposal, which has been revised several times since its initial formulation, would leave the re-watered Commercial Slip and bowstring bridge in place, but would turn over the historic street pattern—including the streets themselves and the remnant building foundations—to a proposed new retail development, which has pledged to include a museum element in or next to its retail space.

So far in 2007, there has not yet been a legal fight over whether the current master plan (based on the 2000 memorandum of understanding, and upon which all the environmental reviews have been conducted) is going to remain the plan or not.

But if the 2006 plan is to go forward, then the 2000 master plan—which currently has the force of law—will have to be altered. New environmental impact reviews would have to be undertaken. New public hearings would have to occur. Preservationists have already announced that they would once again turn out in force to support the 2000 master plan, and would turn to the courts if necessary.

What’s undeniable is that, since 2000, when the broad community consensus was reached, there has been only intermittent publicity about the 2000 master plan. The 2006 plan has a Web site, animated computer graphics, paid spokesmen and a large staff to advance it.

The Empire State Development Corporation, a New York State government entity, has been quietly (and some say far too slowly) building out the elements of the 2000 master plan, the one that is scheduled for completion in October 2007. But unlike the state, county and donor-funded Darwin Martin House restoration, where each increment of restoration has been accompanied by press conferences, cocktail parties and speeches, plus a groaning bookshelf of flyers, brochures, pamphlets and books, plus a PBS special, and ongoing tours and merchandise sales and out-of-market newspaper stories, there has been just an occasional TV piece about the Commercial Slip and the Canal District. Neither Tim Tielman, Sue McCartney, Scot Fisher nor any of the 14,000 signatories to the “Save Don’t Pave” petition have been invited to any press events or cocktail parties, and there haven’t been the public relations events or publications or promotions that the Darwin Martin House, the Roycroft complex, Graycliff or the Fontana Boathouse have all occasioned, notwithstanding the expenditure of $41 million of New York State and Erie County funds in the project. County Executive Giambra asked the new Erie Canal Habor Development Commission, which is advocating the 2006 plan, to include a representative of the preservation community, but his request was tabled without action.

The Buffalo that Daniel Davis found in 1851 was a very busy city, especially at the intersection of the Erie Canal and Buffalo Harbor.

Buffalo in 1851 was a city of about 43,000 people, including 556 African-Americans. It occupied an area that today is bounded by North Street on the north (Black Rock was annexed in 1853, but Delaware Park only came about after the Civil War) and Bailey Avenue on the east. There were farmsteads adjacent to the new railroad yard in the area of Buffalo, above the Buffalo River, that had for a brief time (1790 to 1838) been the Buffalo Creek Indian Reservation. South of the Buffalo River, there were a few thousand people living near the confluence of Cazenovia Creek and Buffalo Creek, many of them Irish immigrants who had come beginning in 1825, when a largely Irish labor-force had set the blocks of limestone for the Erie Canal. The action in Buffalo in 1851 was downtown, near the Central Wharf.

On the day that the steam-powered, 132-foot boat Buckeye State pulled into Buffalo Harbor with Daniel Davis and a dozen crew, and then docked at the Commercial Slip at the foot of Commercial Street, there were at least two dozen other freighters and passenger ships in the harbor. (In the shipping season, between two and 20 lake boats arrived daily.) If you were to walk the length of Central Wharf along the Buffalo River waterfront from the mouth of the Buffalo River, over the Water Street bridge, past Commercial Street to Prime Street, you would have been able to see a network of canals—including the “Grand Canal,” the Erie Canal, that Governor DeWitt Clinton had inaugurated 26 years earlier at the place where the Commercial Slip intersects the harbor—carrying dozens of shallow-drafting, mule-towed canal boats. The towpath, itself now under the New York State Thruway, ran along the calm portion of the Niagara River to Squaw Island, where the channel becomes the Black Rock Canal, up to Day’s Slip, used by rowers of the West Side Rowing Club. The original limestone blocks set in 1825 still line the east bank of the Black Rock Canal. Back in 1999, when a UB historian warned that weather exposure could cause the old limestone blocks that had been buried in the Canal District to “blast apart,” many oarsmen and oarswomen had a good laugh, because from April to November, every year since West Side was founded in 1912, nobody has ever seen a block of 400-million-year-old canal limestone explode.

Buffalo in August 1851 was bigger than Chicago, bigger than Milwaukee, bigger than Cleveland, and it was also a city hot with political friction over how, or whether, to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

The heat had been building for months, and not just among abolitionists and the small African-American community.

In 1848, there had been a series of democratic rebellions or “revolutions” in Europe. Tens of thousands of French, German, Hungarian and other opponents of the monarchies had found refuge and political liberty in New York—and in Buffalo.

On Saint John’s Day, June 24, 1851, a crowd of around 3,000 German immigrants gathered at a private grove between Delaware and Main, just south of Forest Lawn cemetery. They came out to hear August Thieme, a member of a short-lived parliament, speak about the universal rights of man, democracy, and freedom for the oppressed.

Later in 1851, 20,000 people—almost half the city’s population—massed in downtown Buffalo when the revolutionary Lajos Kossuth came to town. Kossuth had led Hungary’s failed rebellion against the Austrian monarchy in 1848. Kossuth was lionized in the American press, welcomed by huge crowds in New York City and wherever else in the United States he went to deliver his message about self-determination, democracy and the universal rights of man.

And there was Buffalo’s Liberty Pole, a tall structure erected to commemorate American independence. From the top of Buffalo’s Liberty Pole, in the summer of 1851, flew the flags of France, Germany, Hungary and the United States.

So for the whole summer leading up to the case of “the slave Daniel,” Buffalo politics and Buffalo civic life and Buffalo parties and gatherings and picnics were all engaged in questions of human freedom, human rights and with the question that the “accidental” President, Buffalo’s own Millard Fillmore, had tried to answer with an equivocation.

Here was the question: Should slavery be legal in America, or should it be made illegal, as it was in Canada?

Buffalo was never going to escape this struggle. Whereas the political activists of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and the other large cities could argue about what the authors of the Constitution had meant when they’d failed to explicitly outlaw slavery yet had written “all men are created equal,” Buffalo was on the hard edge of experience, because thousands of people fled to Buffalo so that they could get free—and thousands of Africans and African-Americans came to Buffalo Harbor on the last stop on their voyage to freedom in Canada. Long before Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law in October 1850, the entire length of the Niagara River on the American shore was well established as the region of the Underground Railroad’s last stations. The Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, were the nucleus of the movement here, a movement that made white rural farmers in Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara and other counties into “conductors” of African escapees from enslavement.

And as Daniel Davis would learn, the Canal District was the precise spot in Buffalo where the fight for freedom had to be won, or lost.

While Federal District Judge Conkling deliberated Davis’s writ of habeas corpus, Davis’s assailant Benjamin Rust was found guilty of assault and fined $50. He paid and he left.

Meanwhile, the Commercial Advertiser newspaper, Buffalo’s staunchly pro-Democratic paper, published a letter that was about as believable as the UB professor’s assertion that blocks of Erie Canal limestone would explode if unearthed by restoring the Canal District.

The author of the letter, allegedly Daniel Davis and addressed “To the Colored Population of Buffalo,” claimed that Davis wanted to return to slavery in Kentucky. “We are about as well off in Kentucky as you are here…We have plenty to eat and to wear, and are not so badly worked—this everybody knows who has been in Kentucky,” the alleged Davis wrote on August 28, 1851, 10 days after he was beaten, captured and jailed.

From papers in New York City, Rochester, Buffalo and Cleveland, the denunciations were fast and furious. Not only was the premise of the letter judged to be absurd; the Buffalo Express opined, in very derogatory terms, that an illiterate escaped slave would never be able to write such prose.

Three days later, the federal judge writing from Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman’s hometown of Auburn, New York, decided that there was no legal basis on which to deprive Daniel Davis of his freedom.

So Davis, accompanied by his lawyers and a group of his supporters, both African-American and white, left the jail, walked down Commercial Street to the Commercial Slip and the Central Wharf, where he boarded the Buckeye State, gathered up his belongings and immediately left for Canada. For freedom.

“There are thousands more stories from the Canal District, and they’re just waiting to be told,” said a preservationist involved in the activism of 2000.

Back in 2000, when the community consensus resulted in the restoration plan that is soon to be completed, experts and citizen activists alike agreed.

“Buffalo’s Inner Harbor needs something special that will distinguish it from all the other cities which have waterfronts,” wrote then Mayor Masiello’s Inner Harbor Task Force of John Conlin, Tony Fryer, David Gerber and Barbara Kelly. “The western terminus of the Erie Canal, one of the most important locations in American history, is indeed something special,” they said.

Cornell University’s Michael Tomlan was emphatic that historians’ and preservationists’ concern “…goes well beyond simply the slips, but includes several building foundations, streets [and] sidewalks,” and advocated restoring the whole district as an “urban landscape in need of rehabilitation, and not simply as an archaeological site.”

All this was settled in 2000. The question now, as Buffalo marks the 156th anniversary of Daniel Davis’s liberation at the Commercial Slip on August 31, and the 182nd anniversary of the Erie Canal on October 26th, 2007, is simple: Will plans for the historic Canal District change again?

And if they do, will a modern-day federal district court judge end up deciding the outcome?

Bruce Fisher is deputy county executive for Erie County and a rower.