War Hits Niagara Border 1812

When war came in June of 1812, it impacted the Niagara Peninsula from 1812 to the end in 1814. Fighting and raids resulted in widespread destruction of property and crops and casualties to both military and civilians. Much of the burden of war was borne by civilians and particularly of women whose men were serving in the militia or POWs in U.S. So from outset, this was a people’s war not just one involving professional armies and navies. An American spy near Fort Erie wrote to the American general opposite (about mid-Sept. 1812) and his report showed that this would be a people’s war:

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BURNING of NIAGARA:    Can you imagine living in a town that came under heavy artillery bombardment from both ships and batteries on other side of river? This happened in May of 1813, when a fleet of U.S. warships close to the shore and mounting at least 24 guns (+ 12 from opposite bank) fired shot and shell at fort and town. They were covering the landing of American troops. Outcome was a fierce battle which the Americans won, leading to the occupation of town until December. The most devastating impact on the civilian population was the burning of homes and shops, and the destruction of mills and crops.

misc-6Queenston, St. David’s, and rural homes were burned but most shocking was the burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake in 10 Dec. 1813. Residents (mostly women, children, old men) were given only a few hours warning before being turned out at night, in a snowstorm. They were barely able to retrieve only a few belongings or necessities for survival. Imagine shivering outside your home, seeing part of your life being destroyed (furniture, clothing, food, pictures,books, children’s toys etc)[3] And this destruction served no military purpose; indeed it turned out very unwise because later that month British forces crossed the river and retaliated by burning all settlements on American side from Lewiston to Buffalo. As wars go, this one was small in scale and short in time, but was as deadly as any war.

WHAT DOES THIS WAR MEAN?

Taking a large view, the treaty that ended this brief war had great significance and long lasting effects. This war and subsequent treaties, defined Canada in many ways, the most important being whether or not it would exist separately or become part of the United States. If the Americans had conquered Upper Canada (Ontario) they probably could have proceeded to capture much of Lower Canada (Quebec) and it would have been very, very difficult for Britain to recover these territories. In that situation, it’s most likely that territories north and west of Ontario would have been occupied by Americans. As Canada and the U.S. expanded across the continent they experienced many differences and problems in their relations, but, since 1815, these have been dealt with by negotiation and compromise, not by force of arms. This kind of peaceful relationship between 2 countries sharing a common border is far from usual in the world. It is a magnificent example of how countries can deal with problems; unfortunately, an example little followed.

This region, and Niagara-on-the-Lake in particular, was at the forefront of the war from beginning to end so successful defence of Canada against American conquest depended heavily upon the forces and people in this region. Given that so much fighting took place in this area, it is not surprising that some of Canada’s best known heroes and heroines,including native peoples, are found here. The town of Niagara experienced in 1813 one of the longest occupation by foreign military force of a Canadian town. Furthermore, this occupation ended during a December snowstorm when the withdrawing American forces burned almost every building in town.

Although facing a smoldering ruin, with the war continuing for another year, the spirit of the people revived this town and restored its life. As Ron Dale has written, “the people of Niagara were made of stern stuff. Returning to the ruins of their village, they began to rebuild, and like a phoenix, Niagara rose again from the ashes.” [4] Thus, in many ways, the experiences undergone by thepeople of this frontier and this town were unique in Canadian history. Much is known about events here and the consequences.

misc-7Nevertheless, there are still many stories to be told about the lives of ordinary people and families who lived through those tumultuous and history-making years.

For Instance: ” Mrs. William Dickson, ill in bed, was carried out of her house and watched it burn. Mrs. McKee, “to save her little girl from standing inthe snow while watching the conflagration, placed her on a large tea tray; [nevertheless] her toes were partially frozen.” (J.Carnochan, History of Niagara (1973)

 

The Niagara Region has been a strategic location for thousands of years. In ancient times, this area was settled by people who farmed the land, fished along the shorelines, quarried the stone and used two Great Lakes and the Niagara River as important trade routes. This did not change when Europeans arrived centuries ago. Today, we think of the beautiful Niagara River and its lovely parkway but two hundred years ago it was not as idyllic.
During the War of 1812 the Niagara area was recognized as an important location by both the British and the Americans. Fortifications were improved and strong points established on both sides. The most placid stretches of the Niagara River became some of the most dangerous parts of the waterway. Fort George, and later, Fort Mississauga guarded the northern approaches to the river. Gun batteries at McFarland, Brown’s Point, Vroomans, Queenston heights and Fort Drummond watched over the lower river.     Fort Chippawa, gun batteries at the ferry crossings and Fort Erie protected the southern approaches and the upper river. Militia troops and Native warriors patrolled the shores of both lakes. They kept an eye on all the creeks along Lake Ontario that enemy troops could use as safe landing sites away from the forts on the Niagara. On Lake Erie, they established positions at Sugar Loaf Hill (Port Colborne) and the Grand River (Dunnville) to watch for enemy soldiers who could be crossing the lake or marching across on winter ice.
The Americans strengthened Old Fort Niagara and built gun batteries in the bend of the lower river at Youngstown to surround Fort George with cannon fire. Fort Gray looked across from Lewiston Heights and mortar positions were sited in the village of Lewiston. Fort Schlosser countered Fort Chippawa at the southern end of the American portage. A series of gun batteries at Black Rock and Fort Tompkins opposed Fort Erie and its own string of artillery posts at the mouth of the Niagara.
Thankfully, we now live in a more peaceful place. Today, plaques, monuments and even two kids’ pools, mark where the guns of war once stood.