The Curious Case of Hezekiah Gear

Hezekiah Gear
This past year has brought me some very unusual stories about the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial from even stranger sources. Such is the case of one Hezekiah H. Gear, a very successful lead mine entrepreneur from Galena Illinois. Last fall when a group of visiting Road Scholars (formerly Elder Hostile) was in town bird watching, I was talking to one of the scholars. This fellow told me that they had recently been on a trip to Galena Illinois and seen “Commodore Perry’s Battle Flag” from the Battle of Lake Erie on display at the Galena-Jo Daviess Historical Society & Museum.

 
First you might wonder like I did, “Where the heck is Galena?” Well Galena is in the most northwestern part of Illinois just a few miles east of the Mississippi River and just south of the state of Wisconsin. It was barely an encampment on the river at the time of the Battle of Lake Erie. It later became a town of some prominence on the shoulders of the many lead veins that were discovered and subsequently mined in the surrounding area in the mid to late 1820’s. Today It is a beautiful serene “New Englandesque” town and certainly worth visiting (www.visitgalena.org).
Our part of the story centers round Hezekiah H. Gear, oldest of 8 children born in Connecticut in 1791. The version that has been told about young Hezekiah is that he enlisted into the Massachusetts Militia at about the age of 19 or 20 for a very short stint that may have included being in or assigned to the US Navy. We have no documentation that Gear was ever aboard the Lawrence or any of the ships used in the Battle of Lake Erie. Not in the Captain or pursers log or even in any historical retellings of that fateful day. But like many stories from this period in history it has been retold and perhaps embellished over time.

 
By many “post war” published accounts I received from the Galena-Jo Davies Historical Society, Hezekiah was aboard the Brig Lawrence with Commodore Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie. As the ship and crew became overwhelmed by enemy fire, most of the crew dead or mortally injured, Commodore Perry prepared to move his command to the Niagara. Just as he was about to depart, young Hezekiah bravely turned back to fetch the captain’s “ensign”. In this case a hand-sewn American flag with fourteen (and later seventeen) randomly placed stars and nine red and white stripes. Often this type of “Captain’s” burgee or ensign was flown on board when the commanding officer was present and had great sentimental value for its owner.

 
According to an account in the Galena Museum about the flag, written by Curator Daryl Watson, Gear was a hero. He wrote, “Amid a hail of enemy fire, he frantically climbed the rigging and snatched the flag. Dropping back to the deck, he raced to Perry’s side, where the young Captain wrapped the tattered cloth over his arm as the abandoned ship”.

 

Supposedly, soon after the battle, safe on the shores of Put-in-Bay Commodore Perry presented the tattered flag to Hezekiah for his bravery. Some accounts have this actually taking place years later and not by Perry at all. Never the less, he kept the cherished flag in his personal affects and the legend of the flag traveled with Gear.

 
Young Hezekiah Gear went west 1827 after the war filing a claim for land that might be mined for lead. Both the Native Americans and the US Government disputed the land’s ownership. Both believed it was theirs through a treaty. After much court wrangling and even a short stint in jail Gear prevailed and was awarded clear title. The land was very fruitful and Gear became “one of Galena’s most prosperous and philanthropic citizens. He became an Illinois State Senator and commander of the Illinois “Young America” Militia.

 
Today the ensign remains on display at Galena-Jo Daviess Historical Society Museum, though its provenance is now unclear. It has traveled to other museums at times as part of War of 1812 exhibit adding to its lore. The real story of the flag remains a bit murky but the story provides a “great and glorious” picture of the times. What we know for certain is that Gear spent a very short time in the Massachusetts Militia, though in 1871 he was declared eligible for a pension. Before he died in 1877 Hezekiah transferred ownership of the flag to the Customs House near Galena under the watchful eye of the “Young America” and “Wide Awake” guards. In a short address to “Young America” Hezekiah Gear kept the legend of the flag aloft evoking Perry’s bravery in his address “long may it wave over your heads and may the same Almighty Being that shielded the brave Perry and gave him victory in defense of your country and your countries cause”. He closed his speech with those immortal words “we have met the enemy and they are ours.” As Napoleon Bonaparte once said “history is written by the victors”.

 

5 Responses to “The Curious Case of Hezekiah Gear”


  1. 1 Paul July 18, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    I have had similar misgivings about this flag ever since visiting the Galena museum in 2007. This incident is mentioned in neither George Bancroft’s detailed (and florid) history of the battle nor Perry’s own dispatches (as printed in the Baltimore Intelligencer). Further, and more damningly, Hezekiah Gear is not listed among the crew (as officer, seaman, or infantry) by the Lake Erie Heritage Foundation. It would seem old Hezekiah may have been a social-climbing fraud, but greater fortunes have been made on less veracity.

    • 2 hiddenarts July 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      Hi Paul,
      In 1913 it was accepted as “fact” that this flag was real. Unfortunately there is no other corroboration of the flag’s existence. I think it is possible that Hezekiah was one of Harrison’s men. There are other documented cases that have been identified that show that militia from Harrison did not appear on the purser’s list.
      Thanks for your thoughts on the story.
      Peter Huston

  2. 3 Cher'rie Yoss February 2, 2019 at 12:41 am

    My Great-Great-Great-Great grandfather, on my mother’s side.


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