Fort Erie’s most celebrated War of 1812 veteran — and notorious tough guy — Col. James Kerby had his gravestone fitted with a plaque from the federal Canadian Heritage program on Sunday.
In February, the federal government announced it would supply $140,000 from the 1812 Commemoration Fund to go towards grave plaques for veterans who fought and died 200 years ago in the War of 1812.
“Our Government is proud to invest in projects that contribute to our collective identity and define who we are as Canadians,” said James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, when he made the announcement.
The Niagara 1812 Legacy Council hosted the ceremony, which also included the 2nd Lincoln Militia, 2nd Lincoln Artillery and the Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada units, the Fort Erie 1812 Bicentennial Committee, staff at Old Fort Erie, Ridgeway and Fort Erie Legion branches and local United Empire Loyalists.
Col. Kerby, a Fort Erie resident, is the first soldier in Niagara to receive a graveside plaque as part of the 1,000 graveside plaques that will be issued through the federal program.
“I’m very honoured that the first such dedication in Niagara is right here in Fort Erie for Col. Kerby,” said Ridgeway councillor John Hill, who is council’s representative on the local 1812 committee.
Col. Kerby served extensively throughout the War of 1812 and fought in a number of engagements, including the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek, the Battle of Fort George, the Capture of Fort Niagara, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and the Siege of Fort Erie.
While Col. Kerby may be one of the more well-known and meticulously documented soldiers from the War of 1812, there are more than a dozen other veterans of that war buried alongside him at St. Paul’s. Church, and even more town-wide.
“There are at least 17 other veteran graves across town that are being identified right now,” said Larry Graber, president of Legion Branch 71 in Fort Erie. “They are being researched right now so we can get the same recognition for those graves.”
Any group or person can apply for a graveside marker, by going to www.1812veterans.ca, but must provide a bio for the particular soldier and proof of their involvement in the War of 1812.
The darker side of Col. James Kerby
In the early 1800s, James Kerby was often described as “one of the most detested men on the Niagara frontier.”
He was appointed collector of customs for the shipping port in Fort Erie in 1834 and quickly began to abuse his position to bolster his ferry business which ran people across the Niagara River. A ruthless businessman, he was known to often hold up rival ferries at customs, and frequently seized them and put them up for sale.
But before he began his shady business practices, Kerby was a highly decorated Colonel in the War of 1812, a warden of Bertie Township, a dedicated member of the church and Fort Erie’s first postmaster.
“However dubious he may have been in his business life, we remember Colonel Kerby today fondly for his dedication to defending Canada and his dedication to the church,” said Mark Gladding, reverend of St Paul’s Church where Kerby is buried. “And for the not so good things, well, God forgives him,” he added with a laugh.
Kerby saw his first action on Oct. 9, 1812 when his company was ordered to fire on a group of American ships on the Niagara River near Black Rock, Buffalo. During the battle a cannon burst near Kerby and his right hand was severely wounded. He remained in continuous service for two more years before being wounded in both the shoulder and hip during the siege of Fort Erie.
After the war he retired to the life of business but trouble soon found him.
During the war Kerby had stolen several horses from an American sympathizer living in the area, and when Kerby was visiting the United States in 1824, the man brought a legal suit against him.
Kerby was eventually dragged in front of the courts and ordered to reimburse the American for stealing his horses.
In his later life, Kerby got himself in less trouble, and even secured a number of stones from the original Old Fort and had them used to build St Paul’s Church.