The tourist town of Niagara-On-The-Lake has not always been a town of boutique stores, fancy restaurants, and theaters. With horse drawn carriages carrying tourists along it’s quiet tree lined streets and the broad main street. In fact, the town has only been known as Niagara-On-The-Lake since the 1880s (officially recognized in 1970). In 1813 it was known simply as Niagara (renamed from Newark in 1798 when General Simcoe moved the capital to York), and it was under occupation of American forces.
One of many upscale hotels in modern Niagara-On-The-Lake
Following the Battle of Fort George in May of 1813 British forces had withdrawn to their strong hold at Burlington Heights, working towards building themselves back up to strength, leaving the entire Niagara region occupied by American troops. However the invasion force moved slowly through Upper Canada, only to be repulsed by the British at the Battle of Stoney Creek and Battle of Beaverdam. And now the British marched on Fort George, and winter was coming. General McClure faced with these, along with dwindling supplies. He made the choice to withdraw to winter quarters across the river.
St. Mark’s Anglican church dates back to the late 18th century. It was the home parish to many officers from both Fort Niagara and Fort George including Sir General Isaac Brock. The building they now worship in was rebuilt after the town was burned.
Usually such a retreat was a peaceful operation, military supplies were taken with the invading force, military outposts destroyed and the civilian population left alone or given a chance to leave with their possessions and supplies and seek shelter. But one man had another idea. Joseph Willcocks, who had earlier in the year turned to the Americans offering his service along with like minded men who have become disenchanted with British rule now served the American army as the Canadian Volunteers. Willcocks approached General McClure with the suggestion to burn Niagara, to give the British no quarter, supplies, or shelter when they returned and to turn the civilians against the British. McClure agreed. American Milita and Canadian Volunteers flooded the streets giving the populous mere hours notice before their town was going to be put to the torch. By the time British forces arrived the town had been reduced to ashes, the population seeking shelter from the harsh winter in the ruins of Fort George or makeshift structures constructed in the ruins. Willcocks’ plan backfired, instead of turning the population against the British, it united them, against the Americans. British troops launched an all out, no holds barred assault against the American side of the Niagara River. Starting first with taking back Fort Niagara and the end of a bayonet, then burning everything from Youngstown to Buffalo. By the end of 1813 the entire region had been reduced to ashes.
Niagara probably had many carriages, but probably not as fancy as this one today.
McClure for his part was stripped of command, Willcocks was branded a traitor and a warrant was put out for his capture. Willcocks eventually was killed in action at the Siege of Fort Erie in 1814. Both sides committed atrocities by the standards of the day. There were certain rules of engagement that were followed, and if they weren’t often officers, usually exempt from punishment, were forced to answer for their crimes. These actions also set a dangerous precedent for the remainder of the war, leading to the invasion of the US east coast in 1814 and ended with the burning of Washington DC. The citizens of Niagara however were undaunted and eventually rebuilt their town, which now stands as the Loveliest Town in Canada, a plaque in the historic downtown, and Fort Mississauga’s blockhouse (constructed of brick from the ruins of the town) are the only reminders of the dark chapter in the town’s history.
A block of buildings along the main drag of Historic Niagara-On-The-Lake.
Written with files from:
Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 Second Edition by Gilbert Collins – 2006 The Dundurn Group Publishers
Photos: Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax A 645 35mm 1:3.5 – Ilford Pan F+ (ISO-50)
Dev: Blazinal 1+50 11:00 @ 20C