Interview with Dr. Robert Kerr, Niagara, 1815
This “interview” took place in September 2010 with Dr Richard Merritt who assumed the “persona” of Dr. Robert Kerr circa 1815. Dr. Kerr was well known physician who lived in Niagara during the War of 1812. The Interview was photographed by Cosmo Condina in Dr. Kerr’s original house on Prideaux Street. The home was recently restored by the current owners, Sam and Robin Ridesic.
Q. Where were you living in 1812?
A. On the eve of the war I owned two houses in the town of Niagara (Governor Simcoe had named the town, Newark when it was the first capital of Upper Canada, but all the locals much preferred the name Niagara which was adopted officially in the early 1800s). The one house, down near Navy Hall was rented out but my home was situated one street back from the front street and the river on lot 26..
Q. Tell us about your family.
A. My beloved wife Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of Molly Brant and Sir William Johnson. Together we had one daughter, Mary Elizabeth and three sons, Walter, William Johnson and Robert John. Elizabeth died from complications of childbirth in the winter of 1794 at 32 years of age. I will never find anyone to take her place!
Q. What is your profession?
A. I am the Surgeon to the Indian Department at Niagara and on occasion serve as Regimental surgeon to several regiments at Fort George. I am also a busy physician here in town.
Q. Tell us about your work in the Indian Department.
A. The purpose of the Indian Department is to maintain good relations between the British Army and their native allies. My job with the Department is to look after the medical needs of the employees of the Department but more importantly, looking after the sick and injured natives when they are brought into the Indian Council House on the Military Reserve. On occasion I will be called up to Burlington Heights or even Six Nations on the Grand River. As you know the natives seem to be especially susceptible to some of our diseases such as small pox, measles and consumption. I am especially proud of our practice of successfully inoculating for small pox all the native men, women and children in our area.
Q. Tell us about Niagara during the war
A. At the start of the war, Niagara although no longer the capital was still the County town for the two most populated and advanced counties in the province: Lincoln and Welland Counties; it was the headquarters for the British Army in Upper Canada and the site of the Indian Council House. Many visitors passed through Niagara on their way to see the Great Falls; Niagara was a common resting point for ships headed for the lower end of the portage at Queenston. It still rivaled York (sometimes called Toronto) in population and influence.
Q. What is the nearest big town?
A. York which has the same population of about 600 souls as Niagara is directly across Lake Ontario…about a 6-12 hour sail depending on the weather. In April 1813 when the Americans invaded York we could clearly hear the tremendous explosion when the Powder Magazine blew up!
Q. What was the impact of the war in your life?
A. This unnecessary war had grave consequences for my family and for this town... My two eldest sons fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights. Walter served as Lieutenant in the Glengarry Light Infantry and was mentioned by General Sheaffe for “outstanding service”. Meanwhile our eldest, William, was a Lieutenant in the Indian Department and fought alongside his cousin John Brant under my friend Chief John Norton. Now there is a remarkable man. “Of course he is fellow Scot” through his mother but his father was Cherokee. Norton is an outstanding leader, a gifted orator and writer with great compassion for his adopted Mohawk people].
When the Americans invaded the town the following May, I was in York at the time. William was badly wounded as was Walter…when I later learned of their injuries, as their loving father and surgeon I felt so guilty for not being there for them. Later William served with distinction at the Battle of Beaverdams but was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and taken to Albany for the rest of the war.
Walter was wounded again at the same bloody battle.
When the Americans first occupied the town in May 1813, General Henry Dearborn had promised that the citizens would be allowed to carry on as usual so long as they stayed away from the Fort and didn’t try to communicate with the British Army. Yet despite this promise from Dearborn… a fellow Mason!…within three weeks over 25 prominent citizens of the town were suddenly rounded up and taken across by boat to Fort Niagara and within days we were force marched 300 miles to Flatbush near Albany, New York. There we were held under house arrest till January 1814 when we were allowed to return. As we approached the Niagara frontier we began to hear stories of the burning of Niagara … at first we thought it was perhaps just the fort which had been torched. However,when we finally reached the edge of the Niagara River we were all overwhelmed by what we saw: where our lovely little town had once stood proudly, there were now only a few remaining chimneys standing, and the blackened stone walls of the English Church. There were piles of collapsed charred timbers everywhere, furniture in the streets, some covered with blankets but most just covered with snow. There was an eerie silence broken occasionally by a squalling baby or a barking dog. As we trudged through the streets we found a few poor souls living in root cellars, or in back kitchens which had escaped the flames or inhabiting partially burned stables but most people had abandoned the town to live with friends or relatives in the township.
There was nothing left of my house or outbuildings...and my wonderful orchards all cut down for firewood!
I eventually found my former housekeeper who was staying with relatives on the River Road. She told me over and over again how one cold and snowy December morning a ‘Yankee’ soldier came pounding on the door warning us to get out and take what we could…..soon, there appeared our former neighbour, my former patient and one time Member of the Assembly, Joseph Willcocks walking up and down the street exhorting bewildered American soldiers to torch our beloved home and all our neighbours’ homes along the once peaceful street….. what treachery!
For the rest of the winter and spring with my fellow physicians James Muirhead and Cyrus Sumner (my former apprentice) we tried desperately to administer to the sick and injured with our dwindling medical supplies. Several babies died during that cruel time. We were often called out to the township as well as the villages of Queenston and St. Davids. For weeks I was uncertain of the fate of my own family members. And then with summer, came more fighting. Of course we were called upon to attend to the wounded and dying after the Battle of Chippawa and the horrific Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
The heat and the flies and the stench of death were almost unbearable! What a relief at last when word arrived by Indian runner from Kingston in early 1815 that the war was finally over!
Q. Did you know Isaac Brock and what were your impressions of him?
A. On first meeting him, one was very impressed by his presence: he was a big man, quite a bit taller than my 6’. He exuded confidence and yet he was very friendly to all and had a wonderful rapport with the men in his regiment. When I served as surgeon to his regiment he consulted with me personally on occasion; he was always very concerned for the welfare of his men as well as the women and children of the regiment.
It was a terrific blow to both the military and civilian population when he and young Macdonell were killed at Queenston. I was very honored to be chosen as a pallbearer at their funeral.
Thank you Dr. Kerr
Please note that the above ‘interview’ is historical fiction. However, Kerr’s comments are based on contemporary sources and diligent research.
Richard D. Merritt, September 2010