Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

January 27, 2014

Pioneer woman left account of early Niagara

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Included in the Charles Rand Penney Collection at the Erie Canal Discovery Center is a small booklet titled “Autobiography: Delilah Wisner Merritt, 1813 – 1899.” The booklet is a fascinating journey through time from the inception of the county in 1808 to the verge of the 20th century. 

William Wisner came to Niagara in 1808, the same year the county was established. He had left his hometown of Romulus in Seneca County and walked for more than a week before arriving at Eighteen Mile Creek in Kempville (now Olcott). Over the next two years, he went back and forth between Seneca and Niagara counties. In 1811, he brought his wife and older daughter to their new home 2-1/2 miles east of the Eighteen Mile Creek. 

Delilah Wisner was born in their cabin on Aug. 27, 1813. In December of that year the alarm was sounded that the British were approaching Kempville to burn Van Horn’s mill. The Wisners and their neighbors fled six miles east to the home of Jacob Fitts in Somerset. After a few days, they returned to find that their homes had been spared.

Of the next several years, Delilah wrote of going to the district school and of siblings being born and some of them dying. She herself was close to death in the summer of 1820 and weighed less than 20 pounds at the height of her illness. She married Isaac Merritt in September of 1830, at the age of 17. He built a log home on the Lake Road where Delilah “commenced housekeeping … expecting to have a pleasant home some day.”

Her husband Isaac had other plans. He learned of a new opportunity to buy land in Michigan and sold their farm without consulting Delilah. In May 1835, the Merritts, their two young sons and Delilah’s mother headed for Michigan with a team of horses, two cows and a wagon full of household goods.

It took them 10 days to cross Canada on the way to Detroit. Their journey was perilous; the horses and wagon got stuck in quicksand and without the help of two strangers would have been lost. They also had to ford a creek where a bridge had been washed out, with Delilah carrying one son over, going back for the other one and then assisting her mother in crossing. 

After staying with friends and relatives, the Merritts finally bought a 100-acre farm in Lenawe County, Michigan. The family remained in Michigan for 18 months before returning to Niagara for a visit. By this time, a second daughter was born (the first one had died). 

What had been planned as a short trip turned into a permanent relocation yet again. Isaac Merritt’s brother Shubal had found himself in financial and legal trouble, so his brother decided to stay and help him out.

The family lived at Shubal Merritt’s for the next five years. During that time two more sons were born. In 1842, a new house was built in West Somerset and another daughter was born. A brick house was constructed in 1848 and then a stone one in 1851. Twin boys were born as well as another girl, but only one of the boys survived. 

Not long after the stone house was completed in 1852, Isaac Merritt died of cholera, leaving Delilah pregnant with yet another child. Her last son was born in late 1852. Out of eleven children, nine survived to adulthood.

In 1871, Delilah moved from Somerset to Lockport until 1884, when she moved in with her daughter on the Lake Road in Olcott. She died on April 18, 1899, at the age of 85, on the Lake Road not far from where she was born.

In reading this memoir, two aspects stand out. The first is the matter-of-fact way in which she tells of the deaths of her siblings and her own children. Child mortality was a reality in the 19th century and people accepted it as part of their lives. Life went on and you had more children. 

The other is the number times she mentions moving from one home to another. Isaac Merritt apparently was not satisfied with the homes and farms he bought and was always on the lookout for something better. Only once in the journal does she complain. While in Michigan she laments, “my fears were soon realized. I was again sold out and had to move.”

She later said her happiest years were 1858 to 1871, when she lived in the same place for 13 years.

To read the complete journal, contact the History Center at 434-7433.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.