The War of 1812 was declared 200 years ago today. Here is a piece that I was working on highlighting the role of Upper Canada's Legislature in the war, the capital of York and the Queen's Park War of 1812 artefacts. Fascinating conflict, with arguably the flimsiest pretexts for war in the history of conflict (hyperbole, but only a little). As wars go - not to make light of war - this was a mild one with some far reaching identity consequences for what would become the province of Ontario. Thanks to all the people who edited this.
On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war on Great Britain and their allies. The two years of fighting that followed would come to be known as the War of 1812. War was precipitated by numerous conflicts between these two powers. Among them was Britain’s support of the American Aboriginal tribes obstructing the American plans to expand into the Northwestern territories. In addition, the Americans objected to both the British search for deserters on American ships and the British imposition of trade blockades that slowed trade between the U.S. and France, a country already at war with Britain. A deep desire to defend its status as a new and independent nation against its former colonial ruler spurred on the American declaration of war.
At the outbreak of the War of 1812 Great Britain had been embroiled in the Napoleonic wars with France for over a decade. While they did send troops to the United States, British forces relied heavily on local colonial militia and native allies. The shape of the colony’s legislature was still being forged. The War of 1812 would have a great impact on the legislature’s location and shape, as well as the lives of the legislators then and to follow. Ontarians would later consider this conflict to be a test of the strength of the new colony of Upper Canada, just as it proved a test of the strength of the new American republic to the south.
Upper Canada in the War of 1812
Upper Canada, the region now called Ontario, came into existence in 1791 when the old Province of Quebec was divided into Upper Canada in the west and Lower Canada in the east. Upper Canada would be the setting for many of the war’s key battles. Major regions of conflict included the Detroit - Windsor area, the Niagara Peninsula and the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Ontario. There would also be many naval battles fought on the Great Lakes.
At the time of the war’s outbreak, the population of Upper Canada was less than 100,000 people. Primarily an agricultural colony, it consisted mainly of Loyalists, post-war American settlers, immigrants from Europe and allies from numerous local aboriginal nations. When local men were called to serve in the militia many would leave behind farms and homesteads to be run by their families and neighbours.
York, the Capital of Upper Canada
In May 1793, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe selected York as the capital of the newly formed Upper Canada. Located on Toronto Bay and the former home of a French fort, its island to the south, large land mass to the north, and distance from the border with United States made it an ideal location.
In 1812, the town of York was home to less than 1000 people. It hosted a dock and shipyard, with at least one warship under construction. Along the waterfront was Fort York, a garrison built in 1793 under John Graves Simcoe. It featured several defensive structures, including Government House and the Palace of Government. Fort York would be the setting for the American attack in the spring of 1813. York, now Toronto, would serve as the seat of the legislature for the majority of the time from 1793 to the present.
The Battle of York
While Kingston and Montreal presented more desirable, more fortified targets in enemy territory, American troops opted to attack the new town of York. Part of the rationale was York’s function as the capital of Upper Canada, and as the location of its shipyard. Primarily, however, the choice was politically motivated: the pro-war Republican Party needed a victory to draw support away from the anti-war Federalists, in hopes that the Republican governor of New York would be re-elected. Ultimately, the attack occurred too late to affect the election, but victory was celebrated preemptively to bolster the Republican candidate.
General Dearborn led the Americans’ departure from Sackets Harbor, New York on April 25th 1813. Their ships were spotted off York harbour the following day. British forces were under the command of Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe, an American-born loyalist who had taken over for General Sir Isaac Brock after his death in action the previous year.
On the morning of April 27th, American troops landed two kilometres west of Fort York (today, the neighbourhood of Parkdale in Toronto) and were met by an opposing force first of a small group of local Mississaugas and Ojibways. Shortly thereafter they were joined by a few regulars and several hundred members of the militia. Donald McLean, magistrate and first Clerk of the Legislative Assembly, was a member of the militia and died from wounds he received in this battle. Local forces were quickly outnumbered, and the Americans pushed the British back along the beach. When they reached Fort York, the British acknowledged defeat. The majority of the regular forces retreated, and as a ruse left the Royal Standard up to signal their presence. During their retreat the British blew up the main magazine, the weapons and gun powder storage, causing massive American casualties. It was left to local civilian and militia leaders to surrender the city.
The Occupation of York
The American occupation of York lasted just six days, the short duration owing to York’s nonstrategic location. When the town capitulated, the occupying army agreed to respect private property, although looting did take place despite efforts by officers to stand guard against their own troops. The closeness of American and Upper Canadian families meant that many were accused of being American sympathizers and it seems some locals joined in on the looting. Government House and the Palace of Government fell under the category of Public Property, and both were burned to the ground during the occupation.
The First mace
This wooden mace was made for Upper Canada’s parliament and was first used in 1792 in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), the first capital of Upper Canada. When the capital was transferred to York, the mace was relocated as well. This mace is made of wood, painted red and gold. It was stolen by the Americans as a trophy of war during the Battle of York, and was housed at the United States Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland for over a century, along with the Royal Standard left by the British during the retreat and a wooden lion from beside the Speaker’s chair. The Americans also took the Speaker’s wig, mistaking it for a scalp; this has not survived. Unlike the other trophies, the mace was returned to Canada as a sign of good will just in time for Toronto’s centennial celebrations in 1934. This first mace is now housed at Ontario’s Legislative Assembly. It has seen active service during some unscheduled meetings of Parliament when the current mace was off-site being cleaned. An image of Upper Canada’s first mace can be seen in the Ontario Legislative Assembly’s official shield.
York and the rest of the war
The new capital of Upper Canada York continued to serve as an important source of supplies throughout the war. American troops returned to York twice during the war. In July of 1813, the Americans set out to attack the British supply depot at Burlington Heights, just west of York. The troops and supplies were pulled from York in response. York was undefended and the Americans took what little that remained. They departed August 1st.
Enemy troops approached York for a third time on August 6th 1814. British troops spotted the American ship Lady of the Lake near York harbour, and guns at Fort York opened fire. The American ship retreated without coming ashore.
The American capture of York had direct consequences later in the war. In August of 1814, the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. After that victory, they took the American capital of Washington, where they plundered and burned much of the city’s public property. Famously, the White House was burned, and the original mace of the House of Representatives was lost. Many Canadians would have agreed with Sir George Prévost, Governor-in-Chief of British North America, when he called this “a just retribution,” for the burning of the Legislature. Prévost went on to say “the proud capital of Washington has experienced a similar fate to that inflicted by an American force on the seat of government in Upper Canada.”
The End of the War
By 1814 Napoleon had abdicated, allowing Britain to devote more attention to the war it was fighting in North America. Both sides began negotiating peace in January of 1814, with each side using their own victories to push for concessions. The Treaty of Ghent was signed and finalized in December 1814, but conflict continued until word of the Treaty reached the United States many weeks later. In February 1815, the United States ratified the Treaty, and borders and territories were restored to their pre-war state.
Both parties considered themselves to have been the victors of the War of 1812. Americans focused on the battles where they repulsed the British, and felt that their goal of asserting American sovereignty and expanding west and south had been achieved. In the eyes of the British, their successful repulsion of an American invasion was a clear victory to the people of Upper Canada.
Legacy of the War of 1812
After their destruction in the battle of York, the capital’s Government House and Parliament Buildings needed to be rebuilt. The first replacement Legislature was built on the ruins of the previous building. This was finished in 1820 but burnt down itself in 1824. The site of both buildings has undergone recent archaeological investigations. While they waited for a new structure the government met in several places. The Parliament eventually found its home, first on Front Street in 1834 and then, after Upper Canada had become the province of Ontario, at Queen’s Park in 1893.
One immediate consequence of the War of 1812 for Ontario was the development of supply lines across the province which were out of reach of the United States. In addition, many of Upper Canada’s legislators fought in the conflict. A lasting consequence of the war was the new unity and patriotism engendered among Upper Canadians and eventually Ontarians. Heroes were celebrated, battlegrounds memorialized, and one hundred years later, the war’s centennial was celebrated enthusiastically. Many Ontarians have come to regard the War of 1812 as definitive in shaping their province and its people.
Notable Canadian Combatants
Several key figures emerged in the War of 1812, making their mark in the history of Upper Canada and becoming focal points for Ontario patriotism.
One cause of the War of 1812 was the British support of the aboriginal nations who presented an obstacle to American expansion into the Northwest. Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief who, along with his brother Tenskwatawa (also known as “the Prophet”), organized a confederacy of many nations who allied with the British to fight the Americans. Tecumseh was particularly active along the Detroit front and assisted in the capture of Fort Detroit.
Tecumseh was killed in action at the Battle of the Thames (also known as the Battle of Moraviantown). Victory at this battle proved decisive for the Americans: shortly after Tecumseh’s death, the confederacy of nations he had organized disbanded and surrendered. Despite Tecumseh’s key role in the war, provisions for Native land rights were not included in the Treaty of Ghent.
Laura Secord was a resident of Queenstown (now Queenston), a village in southern Ontario. On the 21st of June 1813, she overheard, probably from American officers dining at her house, that the Americans were planning a surprise attack at nearby Beaver Dams. Her husband, James Secord, had been severely wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights the previous year and was thus unable to make the journey to warn the British troops himself. Laura undertook to bring the message herself, taking a long and circuitous route to avoid being spotted by Americans. Upon reaching a Native encampment she explained her intent and was brought to Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, the British Commanding Officer. It is unclear whether Laura’s message provided new information, or whether it served to confirm existing knowledge of American troops nearby. In any case, the British were prepared for the attack the following morning, and the Americans, outnumbered and outmaneuvered, surrendered on June 24, 1813.
Laura Secord remains a Canadian heroine and holds an irrevocable place in the collective memory of the War of 1812.
Sir Isaac Brock was a British military officer and administrator. He was assigned to Canada in 1802 and given charge of the forces in Upper Canada in July of 1810. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Brock reinforced the Niagara region with the plan to take Michilimackinac, the region along Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, and the city of Detroit right away. He was successful, and Michilimackinac remained under British control throughout the war. On August 16 1812, Brock led an attack on Detroit and emerged victorious. This early victory generated great optimism among Upper Canadians and British alike, and the capture of Detroit earned Brock a knighthood. When the Americans attempted an invasion at Queenston Heights, Brock led the British and allies to a great victory at the cost of his own life.
Like Laura Secord, Brock is a key patriotic figure in the history of Ontario and the War of 1812.