A Prediction About “Draft Dodger” Discourse

Buffalo is a border city. From the observation deck at the top of Buffalo City Hall, you can look across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. We even fly the Canadian flag in front of City Hall.

Ferry service between Buffalo and Fort Erie began around 1795, to be replaced by the opening of the Peace Bridge in 1927. Many Buffalo families own vacation homes on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Before 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, a daily summer commute across the Peace Bridge was common and casual.

This easy border access positioned Buffalo to be an important stop on the Underground Railroad. which I have already written about. Historians and laypersons continue to seek evidence of the efforts and lives of freedom seekers and their allies.

In my own lifetime, Buffalo was likewise well-positioned to enable another movement of fugitives. I refer to young American men who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War and settled in Canada, either permanently or until President Carter granted amnesty. Most entered Canada illegally. The legend is that Ontario understood what was going on and the officers at the border turned a blind eye. I don’t know if this legend is true or false.

There is a lot I don’t know about how the mechanics of how these men entered Canada. For example:

  1. Did they act independently and take their chances at the border?
  2. Or did they have help from friends or relatives?
  3. Or did they get advice or assistance from organized groups on how to get past customs & border officers? If so, who were these groups? Do their records survive?
  4. What communication networks informed those deciding to leave the US at this time?
  5. What were the most heavily-used crossing points?
  6. Once they were in Canada, what assistance did they find?

These questions are critically important to answer now, while so-called draft dodgers are still living and can be interviewed. Why does this matter?

Because we’ve seen what happens when participants in major events begin dying off. This is when popular culture worship and wishful thinking begin. Underground Railroad efforts began to be romanticized in the 1920s and 1930s, 60+ years after the end of the Civil War, when few witnesses were left to refute anyone’s stories. This is when some claims about Underground Railroad sites first appear in print, to be treated as gospel truth ever after.

Across the Northeast, when people discover that a building predates the Civil War, they are eager to claim it for the Underground Railroad, without being expected to produce any evidence.

Vietnam-era draft evaders are due for a romantic revival in popular culture. When it happens, I predict that we will see the same phenomenon with automobiles that we see with old houses. Everyone near the Canadian border with a 1960s or ’70s junker in the garage will be eager to claim that it was used to sneak draft dodgers into Canada. Every activist who participated in anti-war protests will be claimed as a Draft Evasion Agent.

The best way for historians to head off these retroactive bids for glory is to find and interview draft evaders now, and get detailed accounts of the process of crossing the border, while they can still speak for themselves.

Do you know of oral history interviews with draft evaders? Suggested reading? Please drop it in the comments.


Photograph of Peace Bridge by By Óðinn, 2008 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3621392

Top Twenty Reasons for Municipal Sidewalk Plowing in Buffalo


  1. Because sidewalks, like streets, parks, and schools, are public property. Nowhere else in municipal management is it legal to fine and shame private citizens for failing to maintain public property.
  2. It promotes year-round walkability for all residents, workers, and visitors, thus serving the explicit goals of the new Green Code.
  3. It promotes better air quality. People who can count on consistently cleared sidewalks will leave the car at home more often.
  4. It promotes healthy movement and exercise. People who can count on consistently cleared sidewalks will walk more often to their destinations.
  5. Because there is no such thing as 100% compliance with private shoveling mandates, resulting in patchwork accessibility at best.
  6. Sidewalk plowing can be contracted out to bidders who provide their own equipment, thus avoiding a larger public payroll and higher capital expenditures.
  7. It makes city living more affordable and competitive by reducing the need to support a private automobile.
  8. It addresses the problem of high-vacancy neighborhoods, where there are no owners to fine for not shoveling.
  9. It saves lives of shovelers. Every year, Buffalonians suffer heart attacks when they shovel snow. In a region with an increasingly graying population, it is unethical for cities to fine people for opting out of a deadly activity.
  10. It saves lives of pedestrians. People forced to walk in the street risk being injured and killed by drivers.
  11. It enables customers to continue patronizing businesses during storms and driving bans.
  12. It reduces the demand for ever more on- and off-street parking.
  13. It serves the roughly 30% of Buffalo households who do not own automobiles.
  14. It is cheaper per household than hiring neighborhood kids to do it
  15. It complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act
  16. It enables kids to develop independence instead of having to be chauffeured everywhere by their parents.
  17. It enables senior citizens to retain their independence instead of having to be chauffeured everywhere by their kids.
  18. If private citizen shoveling actually worked for sidewalks, we would use it on streets. Sell the plows, lay off the drivers, and save all kinds of tax dollars.
  19. When taxpayers inside of motor vehicles are entitled to right-of-ways cleared at public expense and taxpayers outside of motor vehicles are not, we have an equal protection violation.
  20. It promotes Buffalo as a year-round destination and shows the world that we control snow, it doesn’t control us.

Share and use the hashtag #PlowSidewalksToo

Related: Why We Need Municipal Sidewalk Plowing

Edited December 3, 2022. Photograph courtesy of @D_S_F_J_, location unknown

Who Was Buffalo’s First Woman Property Owner?

I don’t recall anyone ever identifying the first woman to acquire property in the city of Buffalo so I set out to find her. The Holland Land Company, which had title to what are now the eight counties of western New York, began selling lots to settlers in 1801. Many Buffalonians reading this will find the name of one of the principals of the Holland Land Company on their deeds. Often it is Wilhelm Willink.

What makes women property owners unusual at this time is that once they married, they could not buy, hold, or sell property under their own names. On their wedding day, by law, husbands automatically acquired all right and title to whatever land or fortunes women brought to the marriage.

This did not change in New York State until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848. This law granted married women the same right as unmarried women to buy, hold, and sell property in their own names. No longer were husbands able to take control of wives’ land or money. New York was the first state to pass such a law and it was an important landmark in the emancipation of American women.

The first place I looked for our woman property owner was Tobias Witmer’s Deed Tables…in the County of Erie, originally published in 1859 and reprinted in 1981. I wish it was online for free, but it is not. Our link shows which libraries have a copy. Here is a list of more early lot holders in Buffalo.

The first feminine name I found was Letitia M. Ellicott (1782-1864), daughter of Andrew Ellicott and niece of Joseph Ellicott. On May 6, 1811, at the age of 29, she purchased a half acre in one of Buffalo’s inner (downtown) lots, next to Juba Storrs. It is possible that she did not spend much time in Buffalo; she was reportedly born and died in Pennsylvania.

Source: Witmer, Tobias. Deed tables…in the county of Erie, as sold by the Holland Land Company, the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, and the State of New York. Knightstown, IN : The Bookmark, 1981, 1859, p. 4

Letitia’s half-acre was on lot 48, between what is now Main (Van Staphorst), Eagle, Clinton (Cazenovia), and Pearl (Cayuga). Today it is the site of the Main Place Mall.

Map of Buffalo in 1805, drawn by the Matthews-Northrup Company, probably in the 20th century
Map courtesy of Buffaloah.org and Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, based on the original drawn by Juba Storrs

Her parcel was still vacant just before the burning of Buffalo in 1813.

Letitia Ellicott married John Bliss at West Point in 1819. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. His military career took them to several cities but she must had a fondness for Buffalo because she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with her husband. I was unable to find a portrait of Letitia.

Try These Five Simple Tricks to Get Research Assistance

What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family history, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, colleges & universities, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. Especially those located somewhere other than where you can visit in person. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.

What you think of as a simple request for information is actually a request for labor. If everything was digitized and online, then your search engine results would suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other offline, undigitized stuff to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may be able to refer you to stuff that you didn’t know was online. Large institutions can tap into proprietary databases to which they subscribe.

Most historical & genealogical organizations are small and have no paid staff. Sometimes they don’t have enough volunteers to keep up with inquiries. Their volunteers may be staying home in the pandemic.

Having a big budget doesn’t always solve this problem. Large, high-profile institutions get a correspondingly high volume of requests. Their staff may be laid off or working from home during the pandemic. We know of an Ivy League university who rations the time librarians spend on outside inquiries to 20 minutes per request. They actually use timers.

The desire for free labor will always exceed the supply. Here are five simple tricks to make the most of the limited time that someone can commit to your question.

Reach out by email if possible.

The tweet below explains why Calling a repository on the phone may
not be the ideal way to get the information you are seeking.
“My whole professional life until I learned to speak the truth–I can’t effectively listen,
participate, and take good notes at the same time.” –Christin Driscoll

Try This Rationale
1. Reach out by email if possible. The information you seek probably has to be delivered electronically anyway, so you might as well start out electronically. Google the repository and use their Contact Us page. The repository will then have a legible, searchable written request to work from. They will have the correct spelling of your name and the names of the people or things that you’re researching. It prevents bouncing emails because someone incorrectly spelled out or wrote down an email address over the phone.When you call with a complex request, you’re not only asking for someone to analyze your needs and determine on the spot if their repository can be of help, you’re also asking them serve as your stenographer. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access. A repository can always ask to speak with you on the phone if it would work better for them.
2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick up to three likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. Trust them to forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others. No one has an empty In box.We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it increases the chances that your inquiry will land in spam folders. It also creates extra labor for the person whose help you need. Now they have to acknowledge all the forwards from peers & superiors, which cuts into the time they could be using on your inquiry.
3. Repositories need to figure out what you don’t know about X, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. You do not have to have a lengthy family history narrative ready. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap(s) in your knowledge you hope to rectify.Government record offices which require next-of-kin relationship to release certain records will let you know. At non-governmental organizations, the individual you’re researching can be your ancestor, or not. The building you’re researching can be your property, or not. No personal connection or recitation of the forebears is required.
4. Focus on up to three life events, or up to three names, or up to three documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these three addresses?” Less is more when it comes to getting your request filled.No one is born knowing how to do family or house history research. Repositories know that and want to help you anyway. But if the only way you can answer questions about what you’re trying to find out about X is “Anything, anything!”, then we suggest starting out with a researcher for hire.
5. When you can finish the sentence, “Well, what I’m really looking for is…”, then you’ve greatly increased the chances that someone can help you. You may even get a hug.Example: if you want to learn where a factory was located and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip impossibly broad openers such as “Do you have anything on old businesses?” Indirect questions produce indirect answers.

Bonus tip: Our Guide to Vital and Archival Records in Buffalo and Erie County will help you identify which repository has what you’re looking for.

Remembering City’s Martyr in Fight Against Klan

Originally published as a My Voice column in the Buffalo News, December 7, 2017. It has since been lightly edited. Portrait of Edward Obertean courtesy of the Buffalo Courier, Sept. 3, 1924.


As white supremacists and neo-Nazis explode across headlines and screens, I thought back to events in Buffalo from 1922-1925. We were one of several otherwise progressive Northern cities that experienced a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the most inspiring books about Buffalo history is Shawn Lay’s Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995). He recounts the full story of Buffalo’s successful battle with the Klan. I am indebted to him for these highlights.

The Buffalo Klan members were not rural, undereducated whites with poor economic prospects. Here, the Klan’s 4,000 members were drawn mostly from the Protestant, educated, professional and merchant middle class. Their office was in the Calumet building on Chippewa and their base was the Delaware District.

This demographic joined the Klan because it picked a very specific battle that resonated with them. The Buffalo Klan apparently decided that it would not gain much ground by attacking African-Americans or Jews, though these communities did organize in opposition to it. Instead, the Buffalo Klan focused on lax enforcement of Prohibition.

The 18th Amendment, banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, was heavily supported by Protestants, who associated alcohol abuse with Roman Catholics and immigrants.

Buffalo’s first Catholic mayor, Francis X. Schwab, had just been elected. Schwab, who was German-American, owned a brewery that was caught selling alcohol. During Prohibition, the booze flowed freely in Buffalo. This incensed the city’s Protestant elites. They flocked to this new organization, which promised civic improvement and fraternal fellowship.

The battle lines were drawn: Protestant vs. Catholic; native vs. immigrant; upper class vs. working class. Recognizing the Klan as a mortal enemy, Schwab recruited an undercover officer to infiltrate the Buffalo chapter. Someone, probably recruited by Schwab, burgled the Buffalo Klan office and stole the membership list. It ended up on display at police headquarters. Buffalonians flocked downtown by the thousands to look for names of friends and associates. It was then published as a pamphlet, a copy of which survives in the Buffalo History Museum and is now online at NYHeritage.org.

Embarrassed by the exposure, the Klan sent its own investigator, Thomas Austin, to Buffalo. Austin soon figured out who Mayor Schwab’s spy was: Officer Edward Obertean. On Aug. 31, 1924, in front of 128 Durham St., Austin confronted Obertean. Both men drew weapons, exchanged gunfire, and died. Edward Obertean was 35 years old. He was Catholic.

Buffalo has never properly recognized our martyr in the fight against the Klan and the bigotry and hatred for which it stands.

As plans proceed to convert the Dillon Federal Courthouse on Court Street into Buffalo Police Department headquarters, I propose renaming it the Edward Obertean Building. It would be a powerful statement that we embrace the highest and best American values in the City of Good Neighbors. Let’s give our hero something more lasting than a column in the daily newspaper.


Sign the petition to name the new public safety building after Edward Obertean

If All of Buffalo Read About the Klan

Buffalo Takes on the Ku Klux Klan

Was the Michigan Street Baptist Church a Secret Hiding Place?

Originally published in the Buffalo News, June 13, 2013 with the headline Search Through Time Turns Up Surprises. It has since been updated and expanded.


The proud new owners had been told that Grover Cleveland was a regular guest at their property. I helped them find the building permit for their address—dated 1915. Grover Cleveland died in 1908.

In my own family, we learned of a half-sibling whose existence was secret for 50 years. It was a shock to discover that I was the 4th of four daughters instead of the 3rd of three. We found our new sister and it has been a joy.

Not everyone is so fortunate. I know of genealogists being shunned by relatives after discovering inconvenient facts that toppled beloved family legends. For decades, the descendents of Thomas Jefferson indignantly rejected the story that he had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, until DNA evidence proved the Heming descendents right.

Our city faces a similar conflict over history. The professional historians who compiled the 2013 Historic Structures Report of the Michigan Street Baptist Church were unable to find any period evidence that the church served as a hiding place during Underground Railroad days, though it furthered the cause in other equally important ways. Providing concealment is not the only possible way to assist someone who is escaping from slavery, someone who could be hungry, thirsty, cold, or sick. The report rightly documents and emphasizes the church’s local and national significance, which dwarf this one claim.

I assisted with research for this report and my peer-reviewed article on the Underground Railroad in Buffalo is cited in it. Around 2005, I started looking for eyewitness or period accounts confirming the church’s story, which first appeared in print in 1936, 70-plus years after the fact. Wouldn’t that be one of the greatest discoveries in Buffalo history? I also came up empty-handed.

Instead, I found a revealing counter-narrative. Frederick Douglass Paper of January 4, 1855 carried an extraordinary letter mentioning the Underground Railroad by name, signed by George Weir, Jr. of Buffalo. Weir described eight “passengers” from Kentucky appearing at his doorstep at “an early hour.” He conducted them to “a public house kept by one of our people.” He and Phoenix Lansing, a barbershop owner, then had a sleigh take them to the Black Rock Ferry, whereupon they were delivered to Canada.

We learn four important things from this letter:

  1. George Weir, who was African-American, could read and write. Recent suggestions that oral legend is the only possible evidence of the church’s history underestimate the level of literacy in this community. Buffalo’s African-Americans first established literary societies in the 1830s.
  2. George Weir felt safe publicizing his and Lansing’s efforts and full names. Indeed, the Provincial Freeman, a Canadian abolitionist newspaper published by Mary Ann Shadd Carey, the first African-American woman to publish a newspaper in North America, reported on Dec. 8, 1855, that the Fugitive Slave Law was “a dead letter” (not being enforced) in Buffalo.
  3. George Weir took his guests to a public place, making no effort to conceal them.
  4. Most importantly, George Weir’s father was Pastor George Weir, Sr., of the Vine Street AME Church, known today as Bethel AME. Why didn’t Weir use his father’s church? I believe that it was simply because the church lacked what his guests needed most: food, drink, and in the middle of a Buffalo winter: heat. In 1855, safe 24/7 mechanical heating systems were not invented yet. Heat came from wood or coal stoves. Left unattended in an empty building, a burning stove not only wasted expensive fuel but might ignite your building.

Nothing in Weir’s letter disproves the Michigan Street Baptist Church’s hiding place story, but it does challenge almost everything we think we know about the Underground Railroad in Buffalo. History sometimes behaves in unpredictable ways.


More about the Underground Railroad from this author. Lead photograph courtesy of Wikipedia.

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How Come No One Has Old Pictures of My House?

Illustration of woman with camera courtesy of Pixabay

Or maybe you’re looking for an old picture of your old church, school, corner tavern, or favorite neighborhood deli. The first places to check are your local library, museum, and historical society. Maybe it turns out that they have thousands of old pictures but they don’t have your house or your school or your tavern. Why not? Isn’t that their job?

For an organization to provide an old photograph, five things need to happen, in this order:

  1. Someone has to take a photograph of that person, place, thing, or event. Today, thanks to advanced cell phones, nearly all of us carry portable cameras everywhere we go. We can take unlimited numbers of instant, good-quality color pictures and videos without having to pay for film, developing, printing, sharing, or storage. Consider this thought experiment: even though photography is now free, what are all the things did you NOT take pictures of today? This may help you appreciate the pictures that our predecessors did not take, back when they were limited by bulky cameras, 12 to 36 exposures per roll of film, and the expense of developing and printing their images. There is no guarantee that someone with a camera was present to document any particular person, place, thing, or moment. Even newspapers and broadcast outlets, who have full-time photographers & videographers on staff, cannot be everywhere.
  2. Someone has to save that photograph. And not discard it or lose it in a fire or a flood.
  3. Someone has to ID that photograph. Ever inherit photos of long-dead ancestors and wonder who those people were because no one wrote names & dates on the back? Old photographs are useless without metadata, a word that means “information about information.” In the case of photographs, metadata is everything you hope is written on the back: who, what, where, when. Unidentified photographs often end up in recycle bins or yard sales. They make delightful decor and art project fodder but they’re of little value to researchers, libraries, archives, or museums.
  4. Someone has to donate that photograph. No matter how good a curator, archivist, or librarian is, they cannot find a photo if it exists only in a shoebox in someone’s closet. They cannot make that someone fork it over. Granted, some municipalities commissioned photographs of all properties in their jurisdiction for tax purposes. New York City did so. I know of no such effort at Buffalo City Hall. If your city or town government, with all of its logistical, labor, and funding advantages, did not attempt any mass photography projects like this, you can assume that a small library or historical organization, which might have few employees or an all-volunteer crew, also never accomplished it.
  5. Someone has to catalog or inventory that photograph. There’s a saying among librarians, archivists & curators: ownership is not access. An organization that owns a dozen boxes of photos donated by Mr. Smith stacked in a storage room has an inaccessible collection. They cannot tell you if there’s a picture of your house in one of those boxes until someone goes through those boxes and compiles an inventory and imposes some sort of order on them. Once the organizing and metadata labor (called processing or arrangement and description) is done, then they can consider digitizing a photographic collection. Which is a big topic for another time.

If these five steps have not occurred, then a repository cannot supply the old photo that you need. Here are some other picture research strategies to consider.


Buffalo Takes on the Ku Klux Klan

On the evening on August 31, 1924, shots rang out in front of 128 Durham Street, near Delavan and Grider in Buffalo. Moments later, Special Officer Edward C. Obertean lay mortally wounded; Klansman Thomas Austin was dead; and a Ku Klux Klan recruiter, or Kleagle, had a gunshot wound in the groin. Armed warfare had broken out in the streets in Buffalo. How had it gotten to this point?

Originally published in Western New York Heritage Magazine, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 2012.
This essay draws heavily from Hooded Knights on the Niagara (1995).

Back Cover Blurb for City on the Edge

Front cover of City on the Edge, originally written in 2007. Order through our affiliate link and we earn a small percentage.


It is easy to dismiss Buffalo as the poster child of urban decrepitude and dysfunction.  It is also wrong. Mark Goldman resurrects Buffalo’s forgotten role on the cutting edge of the literary, artistic, and musical avant-garde. Here is how Buffalo, much to the envy of Boston, peacefully and successfully implemented a court-ordered school desegregation program. Here is how Buffalo, with diminishing resources and little outside help, saved some of America’s finest architectural treasures; and how Buffalo integrated one of its most desirable neighborhoods without rancor or white flight.

Author James Howard Kunstler, a noted critic of suburban sprawl, has argued that after decades of massive investment in suburban expansion, the result is places not worth caring about, not worth defending. In City on the Edge, Goldman shows us a city that, even after massive disinvestment, survives as an inspiring and magical place worth caring about and worth defending.

Goldman tells the story of a passionate and committed citizenry betrayed by inept if not corrupt leadership. On the one hand, City on the Edge is a painful history of desperate politicians who squandered scarce dollars on worthless if not damaging development, which resulted in sickeningly gleeful architectural and urban amputation. It is also homage to a city blessed like few others with engaged caretakers and activists, people who stay and fight to mend the city they love. Goldman’s final chapter is an anthem to the extraordinary sense of place that seizes the hearts and minds of those who are lucky enough to make Buffalo their home.  

Goldman’s Buffalo is a city on the edge of rediscovery, renewal, and regeneration—if only its officials will respect the leadership, wisdom, and passion of its citizens. Read it and be prepared to discard your most cherished stereotypes.

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