This is the second installment in QMI Agency Niagara’s five-part series on the War of 1812.
Beneath the thunder of artillery, and with a wounded neighbour in his arms, came William Biggar.
Before 1812, he was a tailor living in what would become Grimsby. But on July 5, 1814, at the Battle of Chippawa, he was a seasoned militiaman saving a life, carrying a friend struck by American fire back across a besieged bridge to safety.
The records say he was honoured for his deed.
But as the old soldier’s descendant learned, they said a lot more than that.
Today, Dave Biggar of Vineland knows much more about his many-times-great-grandfather.
He can trace the War of 1812 in Niagara nearly along William’s footsteps — and he can trace his bloodline directly back to William.
Queenston Heights. Stoney Creek. Beaverdams. Chippawa. Lundy’s Lane. William Biggar fought at each of those battles.
But his rescue at Chippawa, of a man Biggar said was William’s neighbour, stands out.
“That’s an amazing feat,” he said. “At the same time, it was an everyday expectation of a man back then.”
It’s one that still leaves him in awe.
“I’m 39. We’re the same age, basically,” he said of himself and his ancestor. “I couldn’t imagine (going to war). He had several children, so there’s got to be anxiety there.”
For a long time, Dave Biggar didn’t know all that much about his ancestor.
He knew more about William’s wife, Rebecca Green, who he said was the first non-native child born on the Niagara frontier.
But a history project by his son a couple years ago changed all that.
Delving into historical records at the Niagara Falls Museum, Dave first came across William, a veteran of five battles, who eventually settled in the former township of Stamford.
William was born Feb. 9, 1777 in Bucks County, Pa. He came to Canada as a tailor 20 years later, on the heels of his brother.
When the War of 1812 came, William answered the call, took up arms and eventually became a sergeant in the Lincoln Militia.
He ended up purchasing a farm north of Lundy’s Lane, in 1813 — a year before that bloody battle in which he fought. He eventually died May 14, 1858.
“He became most interesting to me,” Dave Biggar said.
“Some of the stories you get when you go into the museums are pretty neat.”
Biggar is far from alone in having stories to sift through, though.
With so much of the fighting having taken place in Niagara, many still living here have blood ties to the war.
Take Caroline McCormick, for instance.
Her link by blood is particularly strong: She’s a direct descendant of Laura Secord, whose famous walk from Queenston to the DeCew House in Thorold was critical in helping a force of First Nations warriors and forces led by British Lt. James FitzGibbon trounce the Americans at the Battle of Beaverdams.
Secord, whose legend grew and is now one of the war’s most recognizable figures, had a son and six daughters. McCormick is descended from the youngest, Hannah Secord.
In 2013, McCormick and members of the group called the Friends of Laura Secord are planning to re-create her ancestor’s famous walk and take hundreds of others along — a 32-kilometre route she said she covered before, a few years ago.
That experience, she said, opened her eyes.
“She was alone in the woods in enemy-occupied territory,” McCormick said.
“She didn’t know who she was going to come up against. It must have been very frightening for her. She must’ve had profound courage to do what she did.
“I remember, during the walk, being very moved, embracing the fact that she walked this path 200 years ago.”
Other Laura Secord descendants are out there — McCormick said there have been 750, roughly 250 of whom survive. Some live as close as Toronto, others as distant as Guatemala.
McCormick herself was born in Montreal, and lived in Toronto and Calgary before coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where her ancestor lived.
“As a child, I didn’t really understand the story of Laura Secord,” she said.
“I related somewhat to the candies and chocolates. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to understand Laura Secord, that she’s more than a name on a candy box.”
In St. Catharines, meanwhile, Regional Coun. Tim Rigby can trace an 1812 warrior from his bloodline straight to the source of the Welland Canal. He is descended, on his grandmother’s side, from canal mastermind William Hamilton Merritt.
More than just a waterway visionary, Merritt fought in the militia during 1812, seeing action across southwestern Ontario from the Battle of Fort Detroit on up. He headed the cavalry unit known as Merritt’s Dragoons. Eventually, he was captured at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and held as a prisoner of war.
Rigby, a former mayor of St. Catharines, said he has traced his great-great-great-grandfather’s history through a book written by Merritt’s son.
“I don’t think … the fact that he was involved in the canal took away his exploits during the war,” he said.
In fact, he said, the book makes it seem like Merritt didn’t find his service very remarkable.
It put him in an awkward spot, to be sure, he said. The family originally came from Tennessee, and his wife was from New York. They couldn’t marry until after the war.
But he said Merritt didn’t seem to dwell much on the battles.
“I think the War of 1812 was just sort of an interference for them,” he said.
Though Merritt is known more for the canal than for his martial prowess, Rigby said his ancestor’s time on the battlefield likely influenced his ideas for the waterway.
He said part of the rationale behind the canal was not just to get water across the escarpment, but to enable militia to traverse the peninsula more easily while staying within Canadian borders. That idea, he said, came up when Merritt would make presentations to investors about the canal.
Robert Parker, meanwhile, can see a little bit of 1812 history every time he stands on the porch of his Lakeshore Rd. condo.
He’s across the way from a park where his family, the Darbys, once lived.
Parker said one ancestor, George Darby, was a lieutenant who resigned his commission in 1812, only to volunteer again when the war broke out. He joined the Lincoln Militia but died of “war disease” on Dec. 7, 1812. Parker said he thinks Darby might have fought at Queenston Heights.
He said family tradition holds that George’s son, George Adam Darby, drove an ammunition wagon during the war at age 12.
Beyond that, he said, the family’s St. Catharines farmstead was raided by a party of Americans in December 1813. The Americans made off with a horse and bridle.
George’s widow, Margaret, put in a statement of claim for them and got 25 pounds for the horse and 15 shillings for the bridle.
“This isn’t a General Sir Isaac Brock story by any means, but it shows one family’s involvement,” he said.
Parker said members of the Darby family are still buried in the park, but after the 1960s the once-fenced cemetery was lost. He has tried to get the city to rename the park in honour of his ancestors, but city council didn’t bite.
He wasn’t aware when he moved into the neighbourhood that his ancestors had lived practically across the street, he said.
But because of it, he’s discovered a broader family. He is connected with distant cousins in the U.S. who descend from the Darby line.
“Learning about this has connected me with family I never knew I had,” he said.
For Biggar, learning about his ancestor proved a fascinating process. He said he didn’t want to leave the Niagara Falls Museum, where he sifted through the documents about William.
Even with the bicentennial looming, though, he played down notions of being proud of his ancestor’s deeds.
“I don’t know if it’s pride or just interest,” he said. “To not know the man and be proud, I don’t know if they’re things that go together.”
Still to come in this series:
THURSDAY: The Battlegrounds. We walk the fields where the war waged and see what traces linger.
FRIDAY: The Winners. We look at who really won the war.
SATURDAY: The Memories. We look at how 1812 is passed down to us today, from our youth on up.
MONDAY: Coverage of the 1812 bicentennial opening ceremonies, including the official “Declaration of the War of 1812.” Stay tuned for our special front page.
QMI Agency Niagara will continue comprehensive coverage of the War of 1812 bicentennial throughout the celebrations, touching on everything from modern events to looking back at the people and places of a conflict that shaped the nation
Got an interesting 1812 story of your own? Drop us a line at 905-684-7251, ext. 260.
FACTBOX: MIXED CHOCOLATES
Though Laura Secord gets the nod today for her famous walk and words of warning to the British at Beaverdams, there were actually several players in her story. Here’s a look at some of them.
Lt. James FitzGibbon: The lucky soldier who received Secord’s warning. FitzGibbon was born in Ireland in 1780. By age 15, he’d joined the army and first fought in the Netherlands.
Eventually he ended up in Canada, where then-Lt.-Col. Isaac Brock pulled him up through the ranks. Normally, soldiers of the day bought their commissions. Brock waved that off, and by 1809 had furnished FitzGibbon with the rank of lieutenant.
He went on to fight at the Battle of Stoney Creek. From there, he took 50 men and based his unit at John DeCew’s house in what’s now Thorold, harassing American troops. That’s where Laura Secord arrived on June 22, 1813 with her warning that the Americans were coming.
Two days later, a force of native fighters ambushed the Americans. FitzGibbon arrived on the scene hours into the battle and bluffed the Americans into surrendering.
FitzGibbon was rewarded with a promotion to captain, but beyond fighting at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, he spent most of the rest of the war spying on American troop movements. He eventually went into public service and was active during the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion, quelling a rebel march on Toronto, before dying in 1863.
Dominique Ducharme: Not a native himself, but he led the party of First Nations warriors who won the Battle of Beaverdams.
He was born in Quebec in 1765 and spent his early life as a fur trader. The family business gave him ample opportunity to get to know the natives in the area, and he quickly mastered several native languages while snapping up some local territory.
In 1812, Ducharme was made a lieutenant. By the time he made it to Niagara, he was a captain with the Indian Department, leading a party of Six Nations warriors from southern Quebec.
Two days after Secord’s warning, Ducharme’s scouts spotted 500 American soldiers on the approach. Joined by 100 Mohawks under Capt. William Johnson Kerr, Ducharme and his 300 natives ambushed the Americans from behind. A three-hour running battle ensued before FitzGibbon showed up to secure the American surrender.
From there, Ducharme went back to Lower Canada and fought at the Battle of Chateauguay, where he earned a medal. After the war, he went on to become an interpreter for the Indian Department and died in 1853.
Cyrenius Chapin: One could make a case for Dr. Chapin as a villain of the Laura Secord story.
A biographical sketch dated to just after Chapin’s death says he was born in 1769 in Massachusetts. He became a doctor and ended up practising in Buffalo, but when the war broke out he put together a volunteer force and fought for the Americans.
Chapin’s deeds include being part of a force striking across the Niagara River in October 1812 and capturing two ships, HMS Caledonia and HMS Detroit, from under the guns of Fort Erie. The Americans made it back to Black Rock with the Caledonia, but the Detroit ran aground and was destroyed.
From there, he commanded a militia squad, causing havoc throughout the Niagara Peninsula. But he comes into the Secord story, too. Some sources credit him as being the leader of the soldiers who parked themselves at Secord’s house and let slip that they were planning a surprise attack on FitzGibbon’s headquarters.
One way or the other, he was part of American Col. Charles Boerstler’s attack force at the Battle of Beaverdams. The force was ambushed by Ducharme’s natives and surrendered to FitzGibbon, and Chapin was taken prisoner.
Chapin escaped fairly quickly and went on to fight at the burning of Black Rock (now Buffalo). Eventually, he surrendered to the British and was again taken prisoner, this time held in Montreal before being sent home to Buffalo after the war.
He remained in Buffalo after the war and died in 1838.