The early history of Niagara County cannot be told, and would have been much different, without the presence and influence of the Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers. Coming from New England and eastern New York state, members of this religious group were among the first to travel along the Ridge Road (Route 104), into the town of Hartland.
Sources vary as to who was the first Quaker to settle in Hartland, Jesse Birdsall or Jesse Aldrich, but they came in the spring of 1815. A trail was cut north from the Ridge through the forest for about a mile and a half to the property Jesse Birdsall had purchased from the Holland Land Company. This path was later widened and became what is now Quaker Road.
With improvements made to the Ridge Road in 1816, more Quakers began making the journey west to Hartland. These families settled in the vicinity of the Ridge Road and the new road that had been opened up to the north. This area became known as the “Quaker Settlement.”
A log meeting house was built at the intersection in 1818. The Quakers do not generally use the terms “church” or “congregation,” instead calling their houses of worship and their membership “monthly meetings.” Each “monthly meeting” has a weekly worship meeting and monthly business meeting. There is a quarterly meeting of all of the regional monthly meetings in an area and then a yearly meeting that encompasses a larger geographic area. The Society of Friends still use this structure today. Hartland was the first monthly meeting in Niagara County but monthly meetings were also later established nearby in Somerset, Royalton, Lockport and Shelby in Orleans County.
With the Hartland monthly meeting increasing with new settlers, the log meeting house was replaced in 1836 with a larger cobblestone building. In the 1890s, a monthly meeting was organized in Gasport and for several years the two communities alternated monthly meetings. In 1915, the Hartland monthly meeting was “laid down” and the cobblestone meeting house was sold and is now a private home. A meeting house was built for the Gasport monthly meeting which was used until recently when that too was “laid down” and that structure was sold to private owners.
A few years after the Hartland monthly meeting was organized, a group of Quakers began to locate near a ravine a few miles west of Cold Spring. News had reached them that the locks on the Erie Canal at the Niagara Escarpment would be built at that location. The Quakers knew that workers would soon be moving in who needed supplies, provisions, medical care and a moral influence to keep the work progressing. A monthly meeting was established in 1819 at the intersection of what is now Main, Market, Locust and Elm Streets. A log meeting house was erected, with a school and a cemetery. Log homes and stores lined the primitive road that is now Main Street.
Nearly all of the earliest residents of Lockport were Quakers whose names are familiar to us today: Haines, Comstock, Pound, Spalding, Hitchins and Dr. Isaac and “Aunt Edna” Smith. Although the Quaker settlement in Lockport was initially centered in the aforementioned triangle, it soon spread into other parts of the village and surrounding area. There was another meeting house on Washburn Street and Quaker residences there and on Pine, Locust, High and Willow Streets. Jesse Haines owned a huge tract of land on lower Washburn Street (now Locust Street) and Lyman Spalding owned parcels all over the village.
The Quakers of Lockport put their religious beliefs into practice. They assisted the Irish immigrant canal workers with food and medical care. They kept safe-houses for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad and helped free blacks establish churches, schools and business. They also protected and defended Native Americans against unscrupulous land agents, respected their culture and treated them with kindness.
The Quakers continued to have a strong presence in Lockport well into the 19th century, but as the original members passed on, many of their children moved away or joined other churches. Development encroached on their properties, the land was sold and divided into residential streets. The three small Quaker cemeteries in Lockport were moved to a section in Cold Spring Cemetery reserved for members of the Society of Friends.
The Quakers, though fewer in numbers, still have a few monthly meetings in Western New York including Buffalo, Orchard Park, Collins and Fredonia as well as two prison worship groups in Attica and Albion.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.