Samuel Wilkeson - LINKS

Samuel Wilkeson

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Judge and Mayor Samuel Wilkeson

Wilkeson's house was located on Niagara Square in Buffalo, NY

Built 1823; demolished 1915 for a gas station. . Later the site of City Hall

In 1836, Samuel Wilkeson became Buffalo's fifth mayor (between 1832 and 1839 the mayors were appointed by the City Council for a one-year appointment).

Born at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, June 1, 1781, he passed his early childhood amidst the many hardships of frontier life. His early education, limited to the few months of winter, was often interrupted by the troubles of the times.

He married Jane Oram, the daughter of William Oram, a Revolutionary War veteran as was Samuel's own father, John Wilkeson of Allegheny Co., PA who lived outside of Pittsburgh near what is now Carnegie, PA. (After Jane Oram died he married twice, both wives predeceasing him.)

Sometime between 1807 and 1810 he moved his family to Portland, NY, near Westfield in Chautauqua County. During this time he engaged in shipbuilding but continued the salt trade.

In 1812, during one salt trip, he was stopped by General William Henry Harrison who was commanding the American troops during the War of 1812. Wilkeson was asked to build a fleet of ships, similar to the one he was using, for the Army. It is assumed that the ships were built in a short time, and used in the invasion of Canada. Wilkeson apparently joined the Chautauqua militia and headed to Buffalo  to help defend the village.          

Even though the battle at Buffalo  was lost and the city destroyed by the British, Samuel Wilkeson  was attracted to it. When he returned home he "loaded an open boat with his wife, four children, and the lumber to build a house" and headed to start anew in Buffalo Almost immediately he opened a general store on Niagara Street near Main. In 1815 he opened a meat market.

- Michael Rizzo, Samuel Wilkeson

By nature a man of action, it wasn't long before he was taking an active part in community affairs. From 1816 to 1817, he held the position of village trustee. In 1819, he was re-appointed, and in that same year, he was elected to the directorate of the Bank of Niagara. During these years, he also held a position as Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Niagara County. When the counties were divided, Wilkeson became the first to hold a judgeship in Erie County.

House on Niagara Square
In 1832, when the town incorporated as a city, Niagara Square was its chief residential quarter. Comfortable, freestanding residences must have given it more the air of a New England town commons than the look of urban residential squares in eastern cities. One of the early residents of the square was Samuel Wilkeson, the man largely responsible for the creation of Buffalo's harbor and one of the promoters of the Erie Canal. His handsome dwelling, erected in the 1820s, was one of the best examples of the late Federal style of domestic architecture that New England settlers had brought with them to western New York.

The Wilkeson homestead was occupied by members of the family for years and stood as a monument to its builder, Samuel Wilkeson, for nearly a century. It was torn down in 1915. Its plot was for a time a parking lot and the city's first drive-in service gas station.

The Erie Canal
Wilkeson's most impressive record was made by his canal efforts. He was known as the "greatest canal man." Since the late 1790's, the Canal question had been a national problem. Eventually, Congress overcame all obstacles and plans were made for the construction of the Erie Canal which was to terminate at Black Rock or Buffalo. This was the state of affairs when Wilkeson arrived in Buffalo. Being in more fortunate circumstances than most of the citizens, he could readily turn his attention to such matters. Canal Commissioners came in 1816, and although they considered Buffalo favorable, yet they could not ignore the lack of ready cash for construction. This problem was solved, however, when the townspeople decided to appeal to the State for aid. On April 7, 1815, an act passed the Assembly providing an appropriation for the canal. Buffalonians accepted the funds at a great risk, however, for certain conditions were attached to the act. According to Johnson's History of Erie County,

The State passed a law to loan twelve thousand dollars for the required purpose, to be secured by the bonds and mortgages of individuals for the amount. If the State officials should approve the harbor when finished, the had the privilege of taking it, and canceling the indebtedness; if not, the company would have to pay the bonds and reimburse themselves out of tolls.

However, few people had the money to share the expense and things had come to a a complete standstill when Wilkeson stepped forward and offered to pay the required amount and save the company from going defunct. Not able to find a competent, honest man to supervise the project, Wilkeson himself offered to undertake the responsibility. In his own terms, "I had never seen a harbor and was engaged in business that required my unremitting attention." However, putting the common good before his own, he "leased" his time and energy to the public service for the next five years. He afterwards wrote a detailed account of these years in "recollections of the best and the First Building of Buffalo Harbor." This is preserved in one of the Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society.

Other Elected Offices
In 1826, he was elected State Senator, a position which he held until 1829. His fellow citizens further honored him in 1836 when they appointed him mayor in 1836.

Although he was not a learned man, Wilkeson proved himself as a true "City Builder," in the valuable service which he rendered to is adopted city as "lumberman, boat builder, government contractor, soldier, merchant, banker, judge, mayor, and senator." He was zealous and impartial in his fulfillment of all public offices. Concerning his judicial decisions, it was said that "his judgment and vigorous common sense enabled him in most cases to form quite correct opinions." His death is recorded as occurring in July of 1843.


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