The war winnings of Beaverdams were the warriors’ for the taking.
With them came a quiet tension two centuries old.
The Battle of Beaverdams is most known for Laura Secord’s famous walk, but the 1813 clash with American forces was also a high point for First Nations warriors, who fought and won the actual battle.
But it wasn’t without rough spots, said Rick Hill, chair of the Six Nations Legacy Consortium. He said Six Nations warriors, unpaid going into the battle, went on strike halfway through the clash and left a larger group of Kahnawake warriors to finish up — and in the end, the British gave the Six Nations the war booty the Kahnawake felt they had earned.
“That little bit of tension has existed between our communities ever since,” Hill said. “Which you particularly see whenever we play lacrosse around them.”
Two centuries ago, the decision rankled. Hill said the offended Kahnawake, under Captain Dominique Ducharme of the Indian Department, took offense and went back to their homes near Montreal.
“They felt they were being denied for what they did do,” Hill said.
The grudge, though, will be settled Sunday, when a ceremony will also see the Six Nations and Kahnawake reconcile, said Tony Vandermaas, events co-ordinator for Thorold’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee. That ceremony will also unveil a new plaque on the battlefield honouring the warriors who fought 200 years ago.
That battle saw about 400 natives — about 300 Kahnawake and another 100 Six Nations — ambush an American force of 600 men near what is now Davis Rd. and Old Thorold Stone Rd. The smaller force of warriors routed the Americans, who surrendered in the end.
“This battle, it was almost all native,” Vandermaas said.
“About the only contribution for British soldiers was (Lieutenant James) FitzGibbon tricking the Americans into surrendering to inferior numbers.”
In the end, he said, FitzGibbon wasn’t above taking the credit, while the role of the warriors has received much less attention.
“It’s as if this victory just fell out of the sky,” said Hill.
“When war myths become more patriotic, of course you’re going to pump yourselves up,” he said. But as more people dig into the history, he said, the record is being re-organized.
Hill said history also bears out classic heroes like Secord. He said records show a Six Nations scouting party spotted Secord and took her to their chief, John Norton. When she shared her warning the Americans were coming, Hill said, the warriors shook her hand.
That, he said, showed the warriors valued her contribution.
“That act of hand-shaking was very important for me to be able (to find), from at least an eyewitness point of view.”
Uncovering stories like those of the Six Nations and Kahnawake warriors is part of what celebrating the bicentennial is all about, said Brian Merrett, CEO of the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council.
“Part of the reason we’re doing this is to let people know the rest of the story,” he said.
“I have learned so much in the last two and a half years about Niagara bicentennial history — and I thought I was a pretty good student.”
The story went well for Six Nations fighters, Hill said. He said British officers praised the warriors’ contributions at Beaverdams and Queenston Heights.
For him, there’s more to the war than a commonly-touted narrative in which Canada and the U.S. both gained while First Nations peoples lost. He said Britain only went back on its promises to indigenous peoples after the war.
“Show me where we were defeated on the battlefield. Show me where we signed a capitulation,” he said.
“The idea of us being played as losers and victims is maybe well-intentioned, but it kind of undermines what our warriors actually did.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“The Cognauaga Indians fought the battle, the Mohawks got the plunder, and FitzGibbon got the credit.” — Attributed to Capt. John Norton in the writings of William Hamilton Merritt
HEROES OF BEAVERDAMS
Here are a couple of notables at Beaverdams who have been less celebrated than Secord and FitzGibbon.
Dominique Ducharme: Born in 1767 in Lachine, Que., Ducharme followed his family into the fur trade in what was then Lower Canada. His work saw him trade with various native cultures and master several of their languages. When the war broke out, he joined the Indian Department as a lieutenant. He wound up leading 300 Kahnawake at Beaverdams, where he led his warriors to do the heavy lifting that actually ensured victory.
After the battle, Ducharme, apparently unhappy with the Kahnawake being denied credit for their deeds at Beaverdams, hustled back to Montreal. He took part in the Battle of Chateauguay later that year and won a medal and clasp.
After the war he returned to Quebec and was made an interpreter for the Indian Department. He had some presence in local politics before dying in 1853 at Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes.
William Johnson Kerr: Born in 1787, Kerr was an officer in Canada’s Indian Department and gained prominence when he helped lead a band of Six Nations warriors at the Battle of Queenston Heights. At Beaverdams, he was the man in charge, leading 100 warriors into battle. Later in the war he was captured. When the fighting wrapped up he went into politics in the area, highlighted by an 1832 incident in which he hired thugs to beat up William Lyon Mackenzie. He died in 1845 in what is now Burlington.