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1813 - The Raid on York

Letter As the capital of Upper Canada, York was a natural objective of the United States during the War for political and military reasons. Some shipbuilding for the Lake Ontario squadron was undertaken at York and it served as a depot for the distribution of supplies to Niagara, Detroit and the western posts on Lake Huron. The defences and garrison, however, were not significant. When the United States raided the town in April of 1813 the small garrison of regulars withdrew after a token resistance and retreated toward Kingston, leaving the local militia to make terms by giving their parole not to serve further in the war.

The bulk of the casualties suffered by the United States, including General Pike in command of the landing force, came with the explosion of the powder magazine at Fort York. The United States army returned again in the summer, but there was little left to destroy.

Drawing: Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto, 1812, [ca. 1921]

Click to see a larger image (77K)
Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort,
Toronto, 1812, [ca. 1921]
C. W. Jefferys
Pen and ink drawing on paper
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 621228

The image to the left is an artist's conception of how the fortifications at York might have looked at the beginning of the War of 1812.

At the time of the American attack in the Spring of 1813, the post was lightly garrisoned and incomplete. The blockhouse was burned during the raid; the lakeside battery was incorporated into the new fort built after the war. It is now separated from the lake by the Gardiner Expressway and nearly two centuries of landfill.

Illustration: Map of York, 1869

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Map of York, 1869
Benson J. Lossing in
The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812

Reference Code: 971 .034 LOS, page 590
Archives of Ontario Library

“Their vessels kept a constant fire on our batteries, and about an hour after 6 or 9 of them landed in rear opposite garrison & opened a brisk fire on us tho at some distance. No doubt they perceived our guns were light & kept off where we could not reach them. I came with some other officers to the barracks & we got each of us a musket, as every one expected a severe attack upon the enemy when they advanced from the woods ... we were soon after informed that our men were retreating from the batteries west of the garrison. This was a surprise to many as we expected to have been ordered up to attack near those batteries. There was an attempt made from the militia up the harbour and some formed but when the men see the troops of the line pass they refused to stand & we passed up and formed outside of the garrison …”

Extract from Ely Playter's diary
entry dated April 27, 1813
Ely Playter fonds
Reference Code: F 556, box MU 5901
Archives of Ontario

“The appearance of the Town [York] & garrison were dismal. The latter shattered and rent by the balls & the explosion of the magazine. Not a building but show some marks of it & some all torn to pieces. The Town thronged with the Yankees, many busy getting off the public stores. The Council office with every window broke & pillaged of every thing that it contained. The Government building, the Block House and the building adjacent all burned to ashes.”

Extract from Ely Playter's diary
entry dated April 30, 1813
Ely Playter fonds
Reference Code: F 556, box MU 5901
Archives of Ontario

To listen to an excerpt from this letter in wav format (455K), click here.To listen to an excerpt from Playter's diary in "wav" format (455K) click here.

It is also available in "aif" format (455K).

Thomas Ridout, father of Thomas G. Ridout author of many of the letters in this display, was Surveyor General for Upper Canada and one of the leading residents of York. His efforts to preserve the records relating to the surveys of crown lands from confiscation or destruction as instrumental in ensuring that these records are available to researchers today.

“You will please to consider the public Records in your charge as exempt from any provisions in the Articles of Capitulation, and you may depend on their being safe from damage from the troops under my Commands.”

Extract from an original letter from General H. Dearborn to Thomas Ridout, Surveyor General for Upper Canada, April 29, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

Photo: Lighthouse at Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island, [ca. 1908]

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Lighthouse at Gibraltar Point, Toronto Island, [ca. 1908]
Photographer Unknown
Rowley Murphy fonds
Black and white negative
Reference Code: C 59-2-0-13-2
Archives of Ontario, I0002481

The lower portion of the lighthouse was built in 1808, making it one of the handful of structures still in existence in Toronto dating from the War of 1812. As you can see on the map, a blockhouse to defend the entrance to the Harbour was located nearby. At this time, Toronto Island was a peninsula connected to the mainland.

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Laura Secord

Letter Laura Secord is credited with providing the warning to British forces which led to the surrender of 500 Americans troops at Beaver Dams. The story goes that she had overheard a conversation between American troops about the presence of Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Boerstler’s force in the vicinity.

So, early on the morning of June 23rd, 1813, she left her home and walked cross-country to warn Colonel Fitzgibbon and his company of 49th Foot about the approach of American forces.

It was only on June 24th, 1813 that the exact location of the American troops was discovered by scouts. Firing began around nine o’clock and the Americans surrendered after three hours.

Their capture by this small force of First Nations, British regulars and militia at Beaver Dams influenced the American decision to withdraw into their defences around Fort George.


Drawing: Laura Secord on her Journey to Warn the British, [ca. 1921]

Click to see a larger image (264K)
Laura Secord on her Journey to
Warn the British, [ca. 1921]
C. W. Jefferys
Pen and ink drawing on paper
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 621223

Photo: Laura Secord's house, Chippawa, 1914

However, it is Laura Secord that holds a place in the eye of the public, comparable to Tecumseh and Brock.

Click to see a larger image (61K)
Laura Secord's house, Chippawa, 1914
John Boyd
John Boyd fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: C 7-3, 11082
Archives of Ontario, I0003489


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Small Actions around Fort George

Letter The Niagara Peninsula was the scene of many skirmishes during the summer of 1813, as the American forces holding Fort George attempted to push out for supplies and to attack British outposts.

Beaver Dams is the best known of these engagements, but the skirmish described by Thomas G. Ridout was more typical of the indecisive nature of the fighting. The role of the western and Grand River First Nations in the campaign is also well illustrated in this extract.

“Saturday 17, Henry Nelles & I rode down to the cross roads three miles from Niagara when the Royals Kings & 6 or 700 indians are posted. I understood the Americans were advancing into battlefields. Immediately the yell was given & Blackbird & Norton set out with their indians to meet them. Nelles & I rode along. And in a few minutes the skirmish began by the western Indian getting upon the left Flank and the 5 Nations upon the other. The enemy consisted of 500 men soon retreated, firing heavy vollies upon Blackbird party which was the nearest. ... And they again advanced with a large front, firing grape shot the indians scattered in the woods. But we were obliged to keep the road. By this time 3 companies of the Royals & a brass 6 pounder came up & posted on this side battlefield the Yankees on the other & I fired for sometime when the Americans thought fit to retreat. ... A young Cayuga had his arm & side carried away with a cannon ball & another a ball through his arm. Some of the musqet [sic] balls came pretty close…”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout (St. David's)
to his father Thomas Ridout, July 20, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

"Grape shot" was fired from artillery to give the effect of a shotgun blast, with a dozen or more small shot scattered over a wide area to maximize casualties.

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Fort George and Fort Niagara

Letter The only original structure in Fort George, Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to survive the War of 1812 is the powder magazine shown to the right. Most of the buildings were destroyed when the fort was captured by the United States in May 1813.

A smaller post built on the site was burned by the Americans when the region was evacuated in December, along with the Village of Niagara. In 1814 a new fort was started on Point Mississauga and Fort George was abandoned. The current reconstruction was built in the 1930s. The photograph seems to indicate that the magazine, long abandoned as a military facility by 1931, was being used as a residence at that time.

Photo: Fort George [ca. 1931]

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Fort George, [ca. 1931]
Eric Arthur
Eric Arthur fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: C 57-1-2-222
Archives of Ontario, I0002574

Watercolour: Navy Hall, [ca. 1793]

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Navy Hall, [ca. 1793]
Elizabeth Simcoe
Simcoe family fonds
Reference Code: F 47-11-1-0-99
Archives of Ontario, I0006951

The watercolour above, dated ca. 1793, shows the American fort [on the right in the picture] essentially as it was in 1812, the primary defence works date from 1720 to 1783. The forts at the mouth of the Niagara River were the scene of several battles during the war. The Americans seized the British post at Fort George, shown on the left, above, in the spring of 1813.

In December the British reoccupied Fort George and captured Fort Niagara. This set the stage for the battles of Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane and Fort Erie in the summer of 1814, the largest and hardest fought battles in Upper Canada.

“… the strong fortress of Niagara was taken by the advance of General Rial's Division on the morning of the 19th December one hour before daylight after a short but severe contest with a very slight loss on our part. That of the enemy was 65 killed and 15 wounded all by the bayonet; the remainder of the garrison to the number of 350 Regular Troops & Artillery were made prisoners; 27 pieces of ordnance [artillery] were found in the fort. Our loss does not exceed 5 killed and 3 wounded…This brilliant affair gives us the command on the Lake Ontario and distresses the Enemy from the vast quantity of different stores taken it being the principle Depot. From 10 to 15,000 pair of shoes; several thousand stands of arms, all the medical stores for their army, all most [sic] all their clothing etc. etc.”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas Stirling (Cornwall) to
Cox and Son (London), January 2,1814
Miscellaneous collection
Reference Code: F 775, box MU 2102
Archives of Ontario

In addition to the strategic advantages from taking the American post, the British gained much needed equipment, always in short supply due to the long and tenuous communications between Lower Canada and the British Isles.


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