The town was York, later becoming Toronto. In 1813, the town was twenty years old. It had merchants, builders, carpenters, storekeepers, surveyors, soldiers, sailors, free and enslaved blacks, civil servants, drunks, petty thieves, remittance men, doctors, judges, clergymen, land speculators, a midwife, a baker, a brewer, and ordinary folk. Not to mention transient farmers, natives, peddlers, and con men. It had a newspaper, a church, a school, a courthouse, a jail, a post office, a tannery, shipbuilding, wharves, hotels, theatrical performances, outdoor winter amusements, and some fine social distinctions. Altogether your normal little town.
|"York on Lake Ontario," [looking west from the blockhouse, the fort is far in the distance]; print of engraving by William Leney; Toronto Public Library.
Fort York to the west of the town guarded the entrance to Toronto Harbour (there was no Eastern Gap in those days). Upper Canada did not have an army. It was a British colony and British troops manned a network of fortifications along the Great Lakes system. By law, a sedentary militia of able-bodied inhabitants was required to muster once a year, when training was minimal if anything.
|Map of harbour: Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, Archives of Ontario Library; as seen in the AO online exhibit, "Commemorating the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the War of 1812." [URL below]
On 19 June 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. One of their intentions was to gain and absorb the British colonies to the north. By 1813 the majority of our troops were occupied at the Niagara border, along the eastern waterways, at Lake Erie, and westward to Detroit. York was safe, wasn't it? ... because it was well away from border territory.
Wrong. On 27 April 1813 the Americans sailed across Lake Ontario, reinforced by their naval guns, and overwhelmed the inadequate garrison numbers at Fort York. The British soldiers finally retreated to Kingston after blowing up the fort's powder magazine—a huge explosion that killed or wounded hundreds. During six days of occupation, the fearful citizens of York saw American commanders lose control of their troops who pillaged and looted, burning homes and buildings. Torching the Parliament buildings was a final insult.
In December 1813, invading forces also burned down the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) to leave the residents homeless in winter. Retaliation was inevitable. Part of it came the following year in August when the British Navy burned Washington and its White House. Fight and burn. What were we all thinking?
|The Market Gallery, poster for "Finding the Fallen: The Battle of York Remembered."
In 1934 the U.S. government returned the stolen ceremonial mace of Parliament to the Ontario legislature. One American officer managed to retrieve and return numerous books take from the library. I don't know if plunder was ever returned to St. James Church. York's first fire engine, a gift to the town from early Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter, had been carried off by the invaders and the trophy is said to remain in “a Washington museum.”
Granted, my post barely scratches the surface of one event in the War. See more of the bigger picture from historians and records-keepers; here are but a few of the Canadian dedicated websites:
Toronto Bicentennial, The War of 1812: http://www.toronto.ca/1812/index.htm
The War of 1812 Website: www.warof1812.ca
Casualty Database: http://www.1812casualties.org/
1812 and All That: http://www.ontopoftheworld.net/category/1812-and-all-that/
Archives of Ontario: http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/english/1812/index.aspx
Library and Archives Canada: http://1812.gc.ca/eng/1305654894724/1305655293741
Revival of the great debate--Who Won?--should educate younger generations in both nations; it's being conducted, on the whole, with better humour than the original conflict. After all, Americans did not win the British North American colonies. Canadians defeated a takeover (thanks to regular troops and a resurgent militia). Sadly, our staunch Indian allies were the main losers; the proposal for a neutral Indian zone in the west was rejected in the Treaty of Ghent.
Repeat: What were we all thinking?
History, or historians, tell us that the War was the birth moment of pride in our own country. Canada .. and Ontario .. and Toronto .. have hundreds of events planned to commemorate the War of 1812. A shot of adrenalin for our modest but committed patriotism. We want to share everything—no holds barred—with our cousins across “the world's longest undefended border.” Or does that mean downtown Toronto bars will be open all hours. Debatable.
In this city, military and civilian reenactors will be appearing on the streets. The First Parliament Interpretive Centre is already exhibiting “Foundations & Fire: Early Parliament and the War of 1812 Experience at York.” From March 3rd the St. Lawrence Market Gallery will feature “Finding the Fallen: The Battle of York Remembered.” Fort York itself will have any number of spectacular events in the spring and summer, and yes! oh thank goodness, a grand military PARADE!
I'd really like to know where that fire engine is!
 Eric Wilfrid Hounsom, Toronto in 1810 (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1970), 180. So far, I have not determined what museum this would be. Any help from readers?
© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2012