To grow up in southern Ontario is to be smug about one fact: back in 1812, we whupped the Yankees good.
That’s my memory of what we as children were taught about the War of 1812, which took place over 1812 to early 1815 and in Europe is considered to be a colonial offshoot of the Napoleonic Wars. British loyalists, who had left the United States after it became an independent country and settled in what was then called Upper Canada, defended against American invasion.
The Americans declared war against Britain in June 1812, knowing it was preoccupied with its European battle with France, for three reasons, summarizes History.ca: the British economic blockade of France; the compelling “of thousands of neutral American seamen into the British Royal Navy against their will; and the British support of hostile Indian tribes along the Great Lakes frontier.”
For two years in a row in grade school, my class trip was to Niagara, one of Ontario’s southern dangles that borders the U.S. That meant a gander at Niagara Falls, a stop at Brock’s Monument at Queenston Heights, and then over to Fort George on the edge of Niagara-on-the-Lake before heading home.
Brock’s Monument marks the battlefield where Major General Sir Isaac Brock, commander of the British forces, was killed in October 1812. (It is actually the second such monument, the first being destroyed in 1840 during anti-British protests by those who were gunning, literally, for an independent Upper Canada.)
The truth is, the British / nascent Canadian forces didn’t whup the Americans good in 1812, although that certainly was the impression I had for years as a child. Noble Brock died! Yankees repelled! The intrepid heroine Laura Secord saved the day by marching for miles and miles to warn of an American invasion!
In fact, the battling see-sawed back and forth for more than two years. Fort George, the British defence post along the Niagara River, was occupied by the Americans for most of 1813.
Secord and her Loyalist husband, who was severely wounded during the Queenston Heights battle in 1812, remained in Queenston when the American forces took over the next year; other soldiers at that time were taken prisoner and moved to the U.S. but the wounded James Secord was allowed to stay home. Laura’s long walk to warn British leaders about a further American incursion happened during 1813, when she possibly overheard talk among the U.S. soldiers billeted at their occupied home. Her warning did allow the British forces camped further inland in Niagara, and their Indigenous allies, to prepare and repel the Americans at the “Battle of Beaver Dams” in June, 1813.
The Niagara Region now has many markers of this war, which finally resolved in early 1815 when the Treaty of Ghent, signed in late 1814, was ratified in the U.S. The borders that were in place before the conflict remained in place. And British-supported Upper Canada continued on its way, eventually finding its own peaceful independence as part of Canadian confederation in 1867.
While Fort George is now a popular spot for visitors, little remains of the original fortifications: only the stone-walled magazine, the storage building for ammunition, survived, used for many years as an agriculture storage shed by local farmers.
Enough records survived, however, that the fort, was able to be rebuilt; its reconstruction was a government-funded make-work project during the 1930s Depression. The walls and buildings were made, then as now, of wood.
There are remnants of another fort, Mississauga, just a couple miles away and, across the river from Niagara-on-the-Lake you can see Fort Niagara, the American fort base 200 years ago, operated as a museum since 1934.
There are many other historic forts along Canada’s long border with the U.S. or preserved, fortified citadels within the country’s oldest cities. Halifax’s citadel, built up high from the harbour, defended that city in a way that no-one could have foreseen: in 1917, a French cargo ship carrying explosives collided with a Norwegian ship in the narrows feeding into that harbour, resulting in the largest human-made explosion in history to that date. The force of the blast annihilated parts of the city but the citadel acted as a deflector, saving the neighbourhoods behind its protective shield.
Fort York, Toronto
You really can’t lose yourself in history at Toronto’s Fort York because when you lift your gaze, well, there’s the CN Tower and encroaching condos. However, unlike with Fort George, most of the buildings here have been maintained since the 1812 era. You get a feeling for the lives of soldiers and more-genteel officers in the furnished buildings and the site is well-used for everything from culinary events to the Indigenous Arts Festival.
Fortress Louisbourg, Nova Scotia
At the eastern edge of Canada in Nova Scotia is the remarkable reconstruction of Fortress Louisbourg, founded in 1713 by the French and “developed over several decades into a thriving centre for fishing and trade,” says the Fortress Louisbourg Association. “Fortified against the threat of British invasion during the turbulent time of empire-building, Louisbourg was besieged twice before finally being destroyed in the 1760s. The site lay untouched until well into modern times, when archaeologists began to reconstruct the fortress as it was in the 18th century.” About one-quarter of the extensive site was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s, following detailed constructions records kept by the original French builders.
I finally got there a few years ago when we made the trip to Cape Breton specifically to see the fortress. It’s much larger, with more inventive historic re-creation, than the Fort George of my childhood, but equally a reminder of the lives and struggles that came before us, upon which this country is built.
Main photo: Musket demonstration by a re-enactor in British army uniform at Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, by Kelley Teahen.