Established in the late 18th century the town of York became the new capital of Upper Canada, being in John Grave Simcoe’s eyes, less likely to be attacked by American forces should they invade the British colony, as opposed to the then current capital of Newark. Newark we know today as Niagara-On-The-Lake, which was indeed burned in the War of 1812. By the dawn of the 19th century the defenses at York were sadly under strength and under the orders of General Isaac Brock they were built up in 1807.
Through the first year of the war which saw many brilliant British victories at Queenston Heights and Detroit, the town of York was untouched. But on April 27th 1813 an American Squadron under the command of Commodore Chauncey appeared on the shores of York. Along with the Squadron were elements of the US 6th, 15th, and 16th US Infantry, and the 3rd US Artillery under the command of Major General Dearborn. Dearborn remained with the squadron as Brigadier General Zebulon Pike headed the invasion force. They originally planned to land near the ruins of the former French outpost Fort Rouille, on present-day Canadian National Exhibition grounds. But winds forced them further down the coast, with troops landing at present-day Sunnyside Beach. In the early hours of the 27th General Pike along with Major Forsyth’s company of the 1st US Rifles formed an advance guard they were met by Native allies, Sheaffe had ordered a company from the Glengarry Light Infantry to support them, but without knowing where the American force was the regulars became lost on the outskirts of the town. The native allies were driven off after a brief skirmish. As more companies of American troops were landed members of the 8th (The King’s) Regiment of foot made an attempt to repulse the invasion, a company of grenadiers made a bayonet charge, but were sadly outnumbered and were quickly repulsed by the American regulars. A second attempt was made at the Western Batteries with another company from the 8th and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment but they were also driven back by Pike’s forces and cannon. The battery’s magazine also blew up in an accident killing off a majority of the British troops stationed there.
Chauncy moved his squadron in closer to the town and opened up with long range cannon fire on the remaining Government House battery and Fort York itself. Sheaffe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada was in York at the time ordered all remaining British regulars to retreat with him back to Kingston. Leaving the 300 members of the 1st and 3rd York Militia Regiments to make the best terms they could with the Americans and burned the bridge over the Don River to prevent the American’s from following. Sheaffe also ordered the Grand Magazine at the Fort be set on fire. In all the confusion the British flag was left flying over Fort York. Pike assumed that there were still defenders in the Fort as he approached seeing the flag still flying, and ordered his troops in closer to clear out the last of them. The resulting explosion was heard at Fort George in Newark. American forces were within 180 meters of the magazine when it blew, killing off 38 troops including General Pike, and wounding another 222.
Colonel William Chewette, Major William Allen of the 3rd York Regiment of Militia with the aid of Captain John Beverley Robinson, a lawyer officially surrendered to Colonel Mitchell of the 3rd US Artillery, who agreed to the terms. The militia was held as prisoners while they waited on Dearborn and Chauncey to ratify the terms. By the 28th the terms had still not been ratified as Dearborn was still aboard the Madison, when he did come ashore he was met by Reverend John Strachan, the Rector of York who insisted that he sign the term of surrender. But by that point angry American troops had entered the town of York and began to pillage the town in retribution for the death of General Pike. They set fire to the Legislature buildings, the printing office, and the HMS Isaac Brock, still under construction in the dock yards. They also carried off weapons and supplies destined for British ships and troops in Upper Canada. Reverend Strachan accused Dearborn and Chauncey of delaying the ratification to give the Americans time to burn the capital. By the 30th the town was reduced to ashes. Dearborn insisted that he never ordered the burning of York and deplored the conduct of his troops but was unable to control their actions.
After the invasion the town was left undefended by British Regulars and even the York Militia, a second invasion on July 31st 1813 saw the town again sacked and pillaged by American forces unopposed they again burned any remaining defenses at Fort York and Gibraltar Point before withdrawing again. The force was again under the command of Commodore Chauncy. A third attempt at taking York occurred in the later years of the War of 1812, but this time the towns defenses had been rebuilt and defended by hardened British regulars who were able to drive off the American invasion force. British officials, especially those in Upper Canada did not forget the 1813 burning of York and made sure King George III did not either. Later in 1814 British forces under General Ross landed on American Soil and marched on Washington DC, burning that city’s government buildings to the ground in retaliation for York.
Toronto has few often hidden memorials to these actions during the War of 1812, notably there are several plaques inside Fort York itself. The oldest memorial is the Defense of York Memorial located at Victoria Square the former military cemetery of the town. A plaque at Coronation Park recognizes the second invasion of York in July of 1813. A plaque to Gordon Drummond is mounted inside Queen’s Park for his role in the capture of Fort Niagara, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and Fort Erie. The newest memorial stands at Bathurst and Fleet streets to the memory of the British Soldiers, Militia, and American troops who fought and died in the war. The actions of Reverand Strachan are remember by a street named in his honor. The landing site of the American forces remains unmarked.
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 – Kodak Portra 400