To the dismay of some, but the joy of others, the War of 1812’s 200th Anniversary Celebrations are not over! The war went to December, 1814 so we still have many events yet to commemorate. In fact, tomorrow April 27th is the day that the American’s sacked York (Toronto) two centuries ago.
A settlement on the British side of the Niagara River used to be called Butlersburg in 1781, it was then renamed Newark in 1782 and it became the first capital of Upper Canada. It was in an excellent position for commerce and quickly grew because it was on the water route through the Great Lakes, which were the super highways of the day. Unfortunately, the United States was only a short row away across the river and a little too vulnerable to the threat of an invasion.
Five years later, right when trades people had gotten comfortably set up and were beginning to show a profit, Lieutenant–Governor John Simcoe decided to move the capital to York. He then renamed the village Niagara. Today we call it Niagara-On-The-Lake.
There was only one road along Lake Ontario, which was basically an Indian trail which occasionally expanded near settlements into what we today would most likely describe as a cow’s path. Due to rain or snow it was often impassable. So it was no easy feat to transport supplies and people to the new site chosen for the capital, York. The decision to start the capital came at the wrong time of year, for there was no time to build a government wharf and homes before winter set in.
A wharf was needed to unload all the supplies, including the armament for Fort York, also being built at the same time for the military. Conditions were deplorable.
Official buildings and the more wealthy homes were little more than shacks in the beginning, but quickly expanded and were soon built up with stone.
Over the next 15 years the settlement was firmly entrenched. Governor Simcoe’s summer residence called Castle Frank (named for his son) was the largest of the wealthier homes and built outside of the capital’s limits. It was perched his over the Castle Frank Brook, which today we know near Bloor St. It was made of large logs but sported Greek Pillars. It burned down in 1829.
One reason York was positioned where it was, was because of the spit of land which curled around to create a horseshoe-like bay. It protected the town from storms and waves, however it was easily blockaded and the enemy could trap our ships in the bay.
That is what happened April 27, 1813 when the United States once again invaded Upper Canada, landing a superior force of 1,700 about four miles, to the west of the fort. They were opposed by only a few Ojibwa warriors, who were forced to retreat into the woods. British military support for the Natives had gotten lost in the woods. The Americans began moving toward the town and skirmishes began as the British forces engaged the enemy. We tried to rally about the Western Battery a mile from town, which has two obsolete 18-pounder guns however the battery’s travelling magazine (munitions) accidentally exploded killing our own men and causing great confusion. Major General Sheaffe, who was Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, happened to be in York at the time, but with only four companies of regulars. They were present, and fell back north of the fort where the militia was forming up.
The area was being pounded by American guns from the bay and Sheaffe decided that battle was lost, and told the militia and citizens in the streets, to surrender with the best terms they could while he and the regulars retreated, firing the bridge of the Don River east of the town to stop any pursuit. His lack of action that day cost him his military and public offices in Upper Canada.
You must realize there was no communications to all the splintered fighting groups of militia, Natives and citizens fighting elsewhere. They didn’t know that it was Sheaffe who had the HMS Sir Isaac Brock, under construction in the dockyard fired, nor that that he had ordered the fort’s powder magazine blown up.
Now, that was an explosion. U.S. General Pike, leading his troops, was only 180 metres from the fort when it blew and he was mortally wounded by the flying debris. Hundreds were wounded.
The battle was over. It had taken eight hours. The Americans however were not happy for they didn’t get the ships they thought were in harbour or being built, nor ammunitions and supplies. They were angry enough to not provide food or medical attention for our surrendered militia who were prisoner in a blockhouse.
The Rector of York, Rev. John Strachan who was left to capitulate to the Americans, accused them of delaying the signing of the surrender so that their forces could plunder and ‘commit outrages.’
The parliament buildings and courthouse were burned, churches robbed and the library pillaged. The Americans left after six days.
The retaliation for the burning of our capital, although it was rather small and not the most important British city on the lakes, was the burning of Washington D.C. including the White House – so named because of the colour of paint used to hide fire damage.