September 24, 2014

The Devil for us all – Dr. Cyrenius Chapin

After the capture of Fort George in 1813 by the Americans, the British set up a loose blockade. Both sides suffered from shortages of supplies and sickness. The Americans took to looting farms and mills in order to sustain their position. One of the most prolific plunderers was Major Cyrenius Chapin.

A doctor by trade, Chapin was the 44-year-old commander of the mounted volunteers recruited at Buffalo. Chapin as a rare Federalist who broke with his party and supported the war. He was fond of profanity and alcohol, and after ten years of practicing medicine, he decided to seek thrills and profits by conducting cross-border raids. Chapin insisted that his men only stole from public property, but that was not always the case. His group quickly earned the name “the Forty Thieves” for their rampant looting.

Chapin and 28 of his men were taken prisoner during the Battle of Beaver Dams. When being transported to Kingston, Chapin and his men overpowered their 16 guards when they stopped to drink grog. The boats were redirected to Fort George where a crowd of Americans watched Chapin come in with his new prisoners. One officer said that Chapin was bearing a “sort of triumph in his look.”

In December 1813, Chapin was in Buffalo ready to defend the area from advancing British troops. The men in Buffalo preferred Chapin’s command over General McClure’s since McClure was blamed for letting Joseph Willcocks burn the town of Newark. McClure had Chapin arrested on charges of mutiny and treason, writing, “there is not a greater rascal [who] exists than Chapin, and he is supported by a pack of tories and enemies to our Government.” Local volunteers soon rescued Chapin and sent McClure running for his life.

When the British arrived on December 30, 1813, the American defenders did not last long before fleeing for safety. Chapin yelled, “Every Man for himself & the Devil for us all.” The British and Native allies burned the town, leaving the American side of the Niagara devoid of 12,000 inhabitants whose flight depopulated 160 square miles.

Chapin became synonymous with destruction. In 1814, Brown commented on his new army mustering around Buffalo that “All private property, ever has been, and ever will be, by me, respected. No such man as Dr. Chapin, will I hope accompany an army that I have the honor to command.”  

If you want to find out more about Cyrenius Chapin, head to Old Fort Erie on Friday, September 26, to hear Doug Kohler speak about Chapin. In addition, on Saturday, September 27, the Heritage Arts Legacy of Fort Erie will be holding a Bi-national Peace Celebration at Old Fort Erie. Click here to find out more.