NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The Witmer Family

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERThis is the Joseph Witmer Farm at 8135 East Britton Road in the town of Niagara. Joseph was a son of Abraham Witmer, who came to the area in 1811. At least four Witmer houses are still standing in the town.

A few weeks ago, Niagara Discoveries looked in on the life of Frances Saunders, for whom the 15 mile-long road that runs through the middle of the county is named. Finding information on the life of Mr. Saunders was somewhat challenging; that cannot be said of the family that's the topic of today's article: the Witmers of the Town of Niagara.

The Witmer family has been written about by other historians but there are always people in the community who are not familiar with our local historical figures and might want to know a bit more about them.

The first Witmer to arrive in Niagara County was John Witmer, who came from Lancaster, Pa., in 1810. He and his family, including eight children, made their way to Buffalo in a covered wagon and headed north along the Niagara River until they reached the area of Devil’s Hole where they turned east and followed a trail to where Gill Creek crossed the Military Road in the town of Niagara bordering Lewiston (in the vicinity of what is now Reservoir State Park). Another early settler, Isaac Swain, had already built a log home at that location and Witmer bought it from Swain.

A year later, John’s brother, Abraham, and his family also came up from Lancaster and settled a short distance away on present-day Witmer Road. When the British and their Indian allies burned the settlements along the river from Lewiston to North Tonawanda in December 1813, the Witmers moved back to Pennsylvania for the duration of the war. When returning to this area in 1815, Abraham Witmer was pleasantly surprised to find his log home still standing untouched (the fate of John’s home is unknown). Being “off the beaten path” so to speak, the invaders missed his house.

Both John and Abraham had eight children, not including a few that had died young. John attempted farming his acreage but found the land was not very conducive to that occupation. With his property on Gill Creek, a much larger and flowing stream than it is today, John Witmer built a saw mill in 1817, a far-sighted action knowing that following the war new settlers would be moving into the area and building homes and outbuildings on their land. Abraham Witmer had a carpentry business on the side to supplement his farming as well. As the brothers aged, their children began to take over the farms and businesses.

John died in 1842 and was one of the first to be buried in what is now the Witmer Cemetery on Witmer Road. Of his seven sons, only Benjamin remained in Niagara County. Benjamin continued to live in the family homestead on Military and Witmer Roads until his death in 1881. He had 13 children. After his death, the homestead was sold out of the family and was later torn down.

All of Abraham’s children, except his youngest daughter, remained in the town of Niagara. In the 1830s, Abraham and his son Abraham Jr. built a brick kiln on their property to make bricks to build themselves new homes. Word had reached a Buffalo entrepreneur and speculator, Benjamin Rathbun, while he was scouting out properties in Niagara Falls, that the Witmers had a brick kiln not far from that village. He contracted with the father and son to make 300,000 bricks for the buildings he was going to erect in Niagara Falls.

After making about 200,000 of those bricks, Rathbun’s real estate and construction plans collapsed as a result of the Panic of 1837, not to mention more than a few shady deals. Stuck with all those bricks and no buyer, the Witmers began selling them in smaller lots to local individuals and businesses looking to build brick structures.

Abraham died in 1851 and is also buried in the Witmer Cemetery.

Of Abraham’s sons, several of them made a name for themselves locally and engaged in businesses of their own.

Christian H. Witmer worked for the Porter family and operated their two grist mills in Niagara Falls, one on the upper rapids and another on the high bank area below the falls. While working at the latter mill one day, he slipped and fell into the mill race and was carried over the gorge to the river below and drowned.

Abraham Jr., David and Joseph were all farmers and also had orchards.

Abraham’s youngest sons, twins Tobias and Elias, went off in different directions from their brothers. Though twins, they had very different lives. Next week we’ll look at these two Witmer brothers.

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