“Commemorating the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, a war two hundred years ago, well beyond living memory, is critically important. … It shaped our past, shaped our past, our world and continues to shape our future.”
By John Armstrong
(A Foreword from Niagara At Large – This post features the full text of an address delivered by John Armstrong, Chair of Niagara, Ontario’s War of 1812 Legacy Council, at opening ceremonies for Bicentennial Commemorations for the War of 1812 at Queenston Heights on Saturday, June 16. His brief account of discovering family roots stretching back to one of that war’s defining battles at Queenston Heights, 200 years ago this coming October, touched a chord with many who gathered for these ceremonies. Niagara At Large is pleased to have received permission from John Armstrong to post his address here.)
Thank you Brian. Excellency, Ministers, Lord Mayor, Chair Burroughs, ladies and gentlemen.
I am descendent of 1st. Lieut. George King of the1st Flank Company, Second Regiment of the York Militia.
John Armstrong delivering his address at Queenston Heights opening ceremonies this June 16. Photo by Denis Cahill.
We were farmers from East Flamborough, (and) for those who don’t know, that is at the head of Lake Ontario in what is now Burlington (Ontario).
Lieut. King joined the York Militia on May 9, 1811 and he died December 1812 after seeing action at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October of 1812.
It’s unclear if he died of illness, or from wounds received in that Battle. It is unclear if he died at home with his wife Barbara and his two sons, or if he died somewhere near Fort Erie. I have read both.
His wife Barbara died a few years later in 1817, leaving his two children to be raised by his brother-in-law.
We do know that they named a street after him, in Oakville. I didn’t use to know that. I know it now, but I doubt many people do. I doubt many people care and don’t even really know if they should.
I didn’t know I had a descendant who fought in the War of 1812 before I took on this role as Chair of Niagara’s 1812 Legacy Council.
My father knows, and I do enjoy listening to him talk about the family tree he has spent many hours putting together, but sometimes I don’t pay as much attention as I should, or at least don’t always remember like I should.
You know it leads you to think about history. We hear endless criticism about people for not knowing our history, not knowing who our Prime Ministers were, who our Premiers were, what any of them did, when what province joined confederation, and on and on. And that collective history, that collective memory is important. It defines us as a culture and people. It is our national tree.
But this got me thinking, what do we really know about but our own personal histories, about our family histories, beyond a few tidbits and quirks and maybe a spot on a map, or village or town in an old country.
And how far back can our memories take us, and how little we really know about our own descendants.
Memories fade, our stories about our grandparents fade and about our great grandparents and great great grandparents fade even further into the distance.
All this is why commemorations of our past are so important. Our job as a nation is to remember this past, to remember our descendants, their lives, their joys and struggles and dreams, and to seek the help of historians, chroniclers and story-tellers, both national and local, to tell our stories, keep the memories safe, alive and real. And to keep our national tree strong.
Commemorating the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, a war two hundred years ago, well beyond living memory, is critically important as we have witnessed here today, it shaped our past, our world and continues to shape our future.
And when we reach forward and look at the fading memories of World Wars I and II, and reach closer still to our UN peacekeeping missions, to Afghanistan and struggles yet come, keeping our history alive, shapes our culture and who we are as a people.
On this day, I would also like to ask of us all, one other thing, to do our best to find our own stories, our personal histories. To see if we can reach back 200 years ago, try to find our great, great, great, grandparents. What were they doing when there was this war defining Canada and North America?
Like the beautiful trees that surround us here today, we must keep our national tree strong and the mighty forest of each of our individual family trees flourishing.It is truly an honour for me to be here. Thank you.
John Armstrong is a Niagara resident, Chair of Niagara’s 1812 Legacy Council, and senior communications consultant in the region.