“From The Archives” - Westfield During the Civil War
“From the Archives” is our ongoing blog series, sharing the rich history of Westfield and Chautauqua County based off the documents and photographs in our local history and archive rooms. To view materials in the archive rooms, contact us at 326-2154 and ask for Nancy Ensign.
In 1802, shortly after the American Revolution and drawing of the United States Constitution, Westfield was settled. In a young America, these new citizens of Westfield had no idea what their rural community would contribute to the country, starting not too long after they had settled. Less than half a century later, in the 1850’s, the tensions and divisiveness created by slavery would begin to send America closer to civil war. These tensions did not escape Westfield. In fact, Westfield played an important role in the war effort as well as the creation of the Republican Party.
By the 1850’s, around 2,000 people lived in Westfield and 50,000 lived in Chautauqua County. There were several trains and trolleys that connected Chautauqua County to bigger cities. Important political and business figures would visit Dunkirk and other areas of the county. On the national level, there was only one major political party, the Democratic Party. The other major political parties, the Federalist and Whig Parties, had either died out or were extremely weak. At the time, the Democratic Party was pro-slavery.
Settlers of Westfield were divided on the issue of slavery. While this division existed, it did not prevent many Westfielders from working to free slaves. Westfield was located directly on the main route of the Underground Railroad. The home of Rossiter Johnson, a lawyer from Westfield, on 58 Clinton Street was a regular station on the route.
Politics became a recurring topic for many citizens during the rise of the “Know-Nothings” or the American Party, a pro-slavery political party. The “Know-Nothings” gained considerable power in New York State in 1854, taking control of the Chautauqua County Board of Supervisors and 40 seats in the state legislature. Nationwide the “Know-Nothings” gained control of 8 governorships, several House of Representative seats and 5 senate seats.
The Fugitive Slave Law was passed and began to affect Western New Yorkers. Slave catchers moved into the area and many men and women were arrested. Citizens became concerned and began organizing. Many met in Mayville to begin crafting a strategy that would combat the secrecy of the “Know-Nothings.”
Among those in the meeting was Martin Rice, a lawyer from Westfield. During the meeting, Rice was tasked with starting a newspaper that reflected the values of these meetings. At the time, Westfield was only represented by the Westfield Transcript, a pro-Democrat paper. The Jamestown Journal and Mayville Sentinel also was pro-Democrat. After this, the Westfield Republican was created in 1855, becoming the first Republican paper in the country. The Republican quickly became known as the voice of the Republican Party across Chautauqua County and New York state. The Sentinel, Transcript and other pro-Democrat papers of the time criticized the Republican.
The tipping point in the country was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Two-thirds of Chautauqua County supported Lincoln in the election. On April 15, 1861, Lincoln issued a proclamation after the seizing of Fort Sumter. On April 20, 1861, a crowd packed into Wells Opera House in Westfield for a meeting. By the end of the meeting, it was concluded that they supported the President.
By June 1861, 30,000 men from New York state volunteered for the war. Of those 30,000, 2300 were from Chautauqua County and 93 from Westfield. At times, many businesses in the village would close early to go to meetings, where both men and women would sell watches, diamond rings and pictures to contribute to the war fund. Women would continue to play an important role in the war effort. The Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society was formed, where they would coordinate mass sewing meetings.
Unfortunately, the war took its toll on pricing in Westfield. Food prices raised from 100 to 150%. Coffee and tea prices skyrocketed. Cotton and wool fabric became scarce and expensive due to the south no longer providing what they farmed.
In the end, the dedication, sacrifice and resilience of Westfield citizens paid off. The Union was restored after the Civil War and slavery was eradicated. The Westfield Republican is still in print today. While many are aware of how the Civil War affected our country, it is interesting to see how it affected Westfield as a community. Our local history file has many more photographs and documents that provides a more detailed look at Westfield during the Civil War. For more information about these files, contact us at 326-2154 and ask for Nancy.