ST. CATHARINES – This story is the first installment in a five-part QMI Agency Niagara series on the War of 1812.
Everywhere you turn, there they lie.
The persistent footprints of history.
Battlefields nestled between and beneath neighbourhoods and cities. Old forts still standing after the pounding of war. A university named for a fallen warrior.
It’s been 200 years, but across a 21st-century Niagara, the little signs of the War of 1812 are inescapable. And Niagarans, say some honouring the war’s bicentennial, are more keenly aware of that legacy than most.
They’re not nebulous happenstance from some place far away – for Niagarans, they happened right here, in the places we live.
“So many of us in Niagara grew up in and around the various battlefields,” said Brian Merrett, CEO of the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council. “The ball field I grew up on was right next to the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
“That’s the advantage Niagara has – up close and personal.”
The war’s left behind a huge historical legacy, said Merrett. And we feel it more keenly than most, he said, because many of the big events that shaped what Canada would be happened practically in our backyards.
Merrett said Niagara’s legacy comes in part from helping to define the future Canada. The battles here were key in deciding that future, he said.
But so too, he said, was what came afterward. When the war ended, he said, Niagarans had to go right back to trading and living peacefully with the Americans across the Niagara River, regardless of the negative feelings that came out of the war.
He said that was key in leading to the lasting peace between Canada and the U.S.
And if there had been no war?
“Niagara would look very different,” Merrett said. “There’s a good chance we would be part of the United States.”
The war ran beyond 1812 – it raged through 1814 – as the United States moved to strike back against Britain and try and snap up the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, present-day Ontario and Quebec.
With Canada thinly-populated, the U.S. expected little resistance, with former President Thomas Jefferson infamously saying conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.”
Instead Canada held on, challenging the Americans in several battles, many of them in Niagara. The war ultimately ended with the border between Canada and the U.S. unchanged after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815.
But at that point, a line was drawn in the sand. Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Dave Eke, whose town saw much of the fiercest fighting around Fort George and Queenston Heights, said the war left behind a certain distinction between Canadians and Americans.
“I think it’s the most important period (of) what really separated the people of North America,” he said. “It separated what we now call Canadians from what we now know as Americans.”
That legacy lives on in the town, he said. Fort George saw both sides take it over at one time or another, and what we know now as Old Town was burned down by American troops.
Residents have grabbed ahold of the 1812 craze, he said. He said the town’s flush with volunteers for many of the bicentennial celebrations set to take place.
They don’t have to look far, he said, for the visible signs of what 1812 left behind.
“We have the real thing here,” he said. “We have the forts. We have the history. It’s kind of the romance of the development of Canada.”
Still more of those key battles raged in Niagara Falls, including the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, one of the bloodiest battles ever to take place on Canadian soil. That’s lent a touch of historical legacy to a city known for its big hotels and thundering waterfalls.
The history isn’t the first thing people see, conceded Mayor Jim Diodati.
“It definitely gets lost,” he said.
“There’s no question historical tourism has taken a back seat to recreational tourism. But it’s important to know the history.”
To Diodati, the clashes across Niagara were something of a trial by fire for the beginnings of a nation.
“Sometimes you need to fight for something to appreciate it. Once you’ve suffered for a cause, you’re stronger,” he said.
“In the same way that pressure turns coal into a diamond, I think the war turned a bunch of different regions into a country.”
Though none of the major battles took place in St. Catharines, the war still shaped the city’s growth, largely by influencing the Welland Canal, said St. Catharines Museum curator Kathleen Powell. She said when the canal was conceived, it was realized it’d be more secure further from the border, hence its building at Twelve Mile Creek.
And she said Welland Canal mastermind William Hamilton Merritt fought in the war, too. She said he was captured by the Americans at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. He was held until 1815.
“A lot of people living here at the time were affected,” she said, often through damage to their homes and farms.
“The armies marched right through here. We weren’t immune to the effects everyone else had as far as being a country under siege.”
But St. Catharines does have a few claims to fame, she noted, pointing to Laura Secord’s famous trek, which took her through what is now downtown St. Catharines and into Western Hill and Power Glen. And she said Richard Pierpoint, a key part of the all-black Coloured Corps, lived in Grantham.
We gained more than just a national mythology and a sense of pride from the war, Brock University history professor Renee Lafferty wrote in an email. She said the colonies that would become Canada also came away with perks like paper money and more solid infrastructure.
And she said Canadian leaders gained political savvy from their clashes with the Americans.
“While the idea that the Canadian militia ‘won’ the war has more or less been discounted, it is a fact that the militia — French and English — showed enormous skill, courage, and determination in this conflict,” she wrote. “The effects of this sort of experience are immeasurable, but surely very important.”
As to a sense of peace between Canada and the U.S., she said the war actually hurt that kinship and left behind a legacy of quiet suspicion and fear between the two countries. The U.S., she noted, kept plans to invade Canada on file until at least the 1930s.
The celebrations come hand-in-hand with Niagara being named a Cultural Capital of Canada.
There’s ample reason for that, said St. Catharines MP Rick Dykstra. The fighting didn’t quite reach his own riding, but as a region, the heritage is there.
“I think we’re deemed to be very very important and strategic in terms of the overall celebrations across the country,” he said.
“Historically, over those 200 years, it’s extremely significant, the role that we played in terms of those celebrations.”
FACTBOX: THE PART WE PLAY
Today’s story is the first of a five-part series by QMI Agency Niagara focusing on the War of 1812.
With the war’s bicentennial upon us and an opening-ceremony blowout planned for this weekend, we’ll take you through not only the history of the war, but the way it affects us 200 years later. Here’s a look at the stops we’ll make with you on our journey back to 1812.
* WEDNESDAY: The Descendants. We meet Niagarans with ties of blood to 1812 warriors.
* 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 Opening Ceremonies, including the official “Declaration of the War of 1812.” Stay tuned for a our special-looking front page.
But it doesn’t end there. QMI Agency Niagara will continue comprehensive coverage of the War of 1812 bicentennial throughout the celebrations, touching on everything from modern events to looks 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: 1812 OPENING CEREMONIES (June 16 to 18)
Key event: Commemorating the official “Declaration of War”
When: June 16 at 10 a.m.
Where: Queenston Heights
What: Ceremony to mark the start of the War of 1812
Who: Local dignitaries, Governor General David Johnston, Six Nations Legacy Consortium, Queen’s York Rangers, and the Lincoln and Welland Regimental Band and the Niagara Regional Police Colour Guard.
There’s also a Heritage Fair from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Queenston Heights.
For a complete list of events go to www.discover1812.com
FACTBOX: LITTLE PIECES OF 1812
Seen any 1812 around? Here’s a few sites where the war might pop to mind.
* Brock University: Named of course for Sir Isaac Brock. Its motto, “Surgite,” is taken from what some say were Brock’s last words.
* Brock also lends his surname to streets across Ontario. In Niagara you can find them in Port Dalhousie, Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Thorold, Pelham, Port Colborne, Smithville and Fort Erie.
* The village of Queenston practically oozes legacy features, from the rebuilt house where Laura Secord lived to the huge monument under which Brock and aide John MacDonell are buried. It’s actually not the original monument. The original was opened in 1824 but blown up in 1840, allegedly by an anti-British radical, Benjamin Lett.
* Wherever a battle raged here, you can usually find a cairn. They’re pyramid-like heaps of stone truncated at the top and holding big votive plaques. For instance, there’s one at the golf course in Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake commemorating the Battle of Fort George.
* There’s a Drummond Road in Niagara Falls. Gordon Drummond was the Canadian general who won the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and the road bearing his name in fact crosses the Lane.
* Two 1812 forts survive here despite changing hands between the British and the Americans. Those, of course, are Fort George and Fort Erie. Further inland, the foundations of the DeCew House are still around.
* Battlefields dot eastern Niagara in numbers, with a couple more inland, at Thorold and Welland respectively. We’ll explore those with you on Thursday.
* Live in the neighbourhoods north of the old Fort Erie? You’re atop what used to be British siege lines. On Battery St. in Fort Erie? It used to be a British gun battery during the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek.
FACTBOX: WHERE HEROES WERE MADE
The War of 1812 gave Canada not only a national victory to be proud of, it proved to be a stage for some of our country’s earliest heroes. Here’s a quick look at a few of the more famous ones.
* Sir Isaac Brock: Born in Guernsey on Oct. 6, 1769, Brock joined the army at age 15 and began to climb his way through the ranks. By 1797 he’d bought the rank of lieutenant colonel, and in 1802 was sent off to the fledgling colonies of Canada. He was promoted to major general in 1811.
When the war first broke out, Brock quickly took the fight to the Americans, teaming up with Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh. He leapt across the Detroit River to Fort Detroit on Aug. 14, 1812, where the pair bluffed out Brigadier General William Hull by decking out civilian militia officers in cast-off uniforms from British soldiers and parading Tecumseh’s warriors through the trees to give the illusion of numbers. Hull quickly surrendered the fort despite the Americans heavily outnumbering the British and their native allies.
The victory secured a big cache of guns for Brock to arm his militia and pulled the teeth of the American presence near what’s now Windsor, but also cemented Brock’s reputation as a great leader and sparked Upper Canada’s will to fight.
From there Brock hustled northeast to Niagara to shore up the defenses here. On Oct. 13, the Americans attacked at Queenston Heights and overran a key gun battery. Brock rode out to try and recapture it but was ultimately shot dead by an American sharpshooter. In the end, a force of Mohawk Indians arrived to oppose the Americans before Maj.-Gen. Roger Hale Sheaffe showed up to win the battle.
The Latin translation of his supposed last words – “surgite” – is now the motto of Brock University in St. Catharines. That’s likely been cleaned up from something closer to “get your butts moving,” said Niagara Parks Commission heritage manager Jim Hill.
* Laura Secord: More than just a box of chocolates, of course. She was born Laura Ingersoll in Great Barrington, Mass. in 1775 but ended up in the modern town of Ingersoll in 1795 when her family crossed the border. She married a Queenston merchant, James Secord, in 1797.
During the war, as the story goes, a few American officers took over her house to eat on June 21, 1813. While they were there, she overheard their plans to strike into Niagara at DeCew’s house in Thorold, command post of British Lieutenant James FitzGibbon. With her husband wounded after the Battle of Queenston Heights, Secord took on the mission herself of warning FitzGibbon of the attack.
She struck out the next day, plodding the long way through what’s now southern Niagara-on-the-Lake and downtown St. Catharines, through Western Hill and into Power Glen, before crossing Twelve Mile Creek and picking her way up the Niagara Escarpment. Eventually she ran across a native camp and was taken to FitzGibbon, where she delivered her message.
The attack came two days later, on June 24. What ensued was the Battle of Beaverdams, as native warriors ambushed the Americans and threw them into disarray before FitzGibbon stepped in to secure an American surrender.
Join us Wednesday when we’ll meet one of Secord’s descendants, who seeks to recreate her historic walk, 200 years to the day later.
* Tecumseh: We didn’t see much of him in Niagara, but the Shawnee chieftain still found his way into Canadian lore. Likely born around 1768 in Ohio, he sparred with the Americans as they expanded westward, ultimately rallying the increasingly landless natives into a confederacy aimed at holding on to their territory. In the wake of the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, he ended up siding with the British when war broke out in 1812.
Though he’s often tied to Brock, Tecumseh only met him face to face once, in Amherstburg, where he’s said to have said of him, “This is a man!” They went on to seize Fort Detroit, where Tecumseh outfoxed Hull into surrendering by marching his warriors through a gap in a forest over and over again, giving the illusion of a vast native army.
In the end, though, his forces couldn’t hold off American efforts to retake Detroit, and Tecumseh and the British were pushed back into Ontario by future U.S. president William Henry Harrison. With Brock dead, Tecumseh was paired with Major-General Henry Procter, but the relationship between the two was lacking.
In the end, Tecumseh put his foot down and made his stand at Moraviantown alongside Procter’s troops. The Battle of the Thames ensued. Procter and many of his men fled quickly, and Tecumseh was killed.
It’s not actually clear who shot Tecumseh, but American trooper Richard Mentor Johnson was given credit by some. He was ultimately elected vice-president of the United States under President Martin Van Buren in 1837, campaigning with the slogan “Rumpsey dumpsey, rumpsey dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”