June 26, 2013

A perfect masterpiece of workmanship and beauty – The HMS Nancy

The War of 1812 had many impressive warships that dominated the oceans and Great Lakes. The HMS Nancy was not one of them, but this British supply ship played a crucial role during the war.

The HMS Nancy was built in Detroit in 1789 as a merchant vessel employed in the fur trade of North America. John Richardson, who was one of the partners involved in the building of the ship, wrote, “The schooner will be a perfect masterpiece of workmanship and beauty. The expense to us will be great, but there will be the satisfaction of her being strong and very durable.” The ship, named after Richardson’s daughter, served for many years as a fur-trading vessel before the outbreak of the War of 1812.

With the outbreak of war, the Nancy was pressed into service by the British military as a supply ship that could be capable of carrying up to six 4-pound guns and six swivel guns. The Nancy primarily sailed between the Michigan area and Fort Erie transporting supplies and soldiers. In September 1813, the Americans won control of Lake Erie and captured several British vessels on the lake. The Nancy escaped capture since it was transporting supplies to British positions on Lake Huron

In August 1814, the Americans sent a naval force to the Nottawasaga Bay region in the upper Great Lakes. An American scouting party discovered the Nancy’s position and began attacking the vessel. Captain Worsley prepared to scuttle the Nancy when an American shot set the ship alight, sinking the vessel. Worsley’s crew managed to escape into the woods.
HMS Nancy
On August 31, 1814, Captain Worsley and his men reached Mackinac after paddling 360 miles. On September 3, Worsley with 92 men and four rowboats avenged the sinking of the Nancy by capturing the American vessel Tigress in the middle of the night. On September 6, Worsley and his men approached the American vessel Scorpion in the capture Tigress while flying an American flag. As the two vessels came closer, the Tigress unleashed a volley of muskets into the Scorpion followed by Worsley’s men quickly boarding and capturing the ship. The Scorpion was renamed the Confiance and the Tigress was renamed the Surprise.    

Over the years, an island grew over the remains of the Nancy, as silt was deposited by the river around the sunken vessel. The vessel was discovered in July 1911 but it was not until 1924 that money was raised in order to recover the vessel. In 1925, a salvage crew recovered an assortment of cannon shot, ship’s cutlery and a number of personal artifacts. In 1928, The Nancy Museum was opened to recognize the ship and its contributions during the War of 1812 and it even has a replica of the Nancy’s figurehead.

This Saturday and Sunday you can head to Port Dalhousie Harbour for the Tall Ships visit. Three replica War of 1812 ships will be at the harbour for visitors to tour. Click here to learn more about the Niagara Signature Event.

June 19, 2013

Canada’s heroine – Laura Secord

Many Canadians know of Laura Secord’s famous trek through the Niagara to warn the British of an impending attack, but many don’t know about Laura herself.

Laura Ingersoll was born in Massachusetts in 1775. She was the oldest of four children, and after her mother’s death in 1784 and her stepmother’s death in 1789, Laura became the primary caregiver to her sisters. Laura’s father, Thomas, fought on the Patriots side during the American Revolution but eventually became dissatisfied with the continued persecution of Loyalists and the poor economic situation in America. Thomas, along with others, petitioned Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe for a land grant in Upper Canada. Upon moving to Canada, Laura married the wealthy James Secord in 1797. Laura and James had five children before the outbreak of the War of 1812.

On October 13, 1812, James Secord was on the frontlines during the Battle of Queenston Heights when he was wounded. Laura found her wounded husband on the battlefield and nursed him back to health at their home in St. Davids. In May 1813, the Americans took over the Niagara, along with the Secord home. On June 22, Laura became aware of American plans to ambush James FitzGibbon’s force at Beaver Dams. Laura undertook a 20-mile (32 kilometre) trek through the harsh Niagara Peninsula to reach DeCew House and warn FitzGibbon. Thanks to Laura’s information, a native force ambushed about 500 Americans, forcing their surrender.
Laura Secord warning FitzGibbon
After the war, Laura did not speak openly about her heroic trek. In 1827, FitzGibbon mentioned Laura’s contribution in a letter,

“The weather on the 22nd day of June, 1813 was very hot, and Mrs. Secord, whose person was slight and delicate, appeared to have been and no doubt was very much exhausted by the exertion she made in coming to me, and I have ever since held myself personally indebted to her for her conduct upon that occasion...” 

It was not until 1860 when the Prince of Wales, later King Edwards VII, was visiting the Niagara and heard of Laura’s trek that she received official acknowledgement. Edward became aware of Laura’s plight as an aged widow and sent her an award of £100. This was the only official recognition of Laura’s heroism during her lifetime. Laura Secord died in 1868 at the age of 93 and is buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls.

This Saturday you can celebrate the 200th anniversary of Laura’s heroic trek through the Niagara Peninsula by retracing her steps. The Friends of Laura Secord have put together a commemorative walk for all abilities. Click here for more information on this Niagara Signature Event.

June 12, 2013

Pain, suffering and death at Snake Hill

In 1987, Vincent Dunn was planning to construct a house in Fort Erie. When construction began, excavators uncovered a gruesome reminder of the War of 1812. Bones were discovered during the construction, which led to Dr. Ronald Williamson’s archaeology team taking over the site. Dr. Williamson’s team uncovered 28 American bodies along with medical waste pits, an ox burial and artifacts from the war.

The bodies and artifacts were uncovered at the Snake Hill site that was part of the American defences at Fort Erie in 1814. On July 3, 1814, American forces under the command of Major-General Jacob Brown forced the small British garrison at Fort Erie to surrender. After this action, American forces fought the British at the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane before withdrawing to Fort Erie.

The Americans improved Fort Erie’s defences with massive earthworks that extended 800 metres (1/2 mile) to the shore of Lake Erie. The Snake Hill site was the location of Towson’s battery during the Siege of Fort Erie and it was attacked on August 15, 1814 as part of the failed British assault to retake the fort. The British continued to bombard Fort Erie until mid-September. During the fighting, the Americans established a field hospital near the Snake Hill site. The hospital saw victims of the British bombardment, those wounded in skirmishes and men who were stricken with disease.

The bodies uncovered at the Snake Hill site came from the American field hospital. One of the soldiers was believed to be 27 to 33 years old and may have been a sickly child. According to Dr. Williamson, the soldier had bad teeth that probably hurt constantly and he had multiple fatigue fractures from carrying heavy loads on the march. From the 28 bodies researchers discovered that 16 died from illness and 12 died from battle wounds. It was also discovered that the youngest of the 28 soldiers was 14 years old.

Repatriation ceremony at Old Fort Erie, 1988
Once the archaeological dig was completed, all 28 bodies were placed in flag draped coffins and each coffin was driven in its own hearse to Bath National Cemetery in New York State. Dr. Williamson remembered the repatriation by stating, “At the ceremony no one had a dry eye. All of the pain, suffering, and death…. We knew what was going on in that horrible land. This was the time we realized that they were getting to go home."

On Thursday, June 13 and Friday, June 14 Old Fort Erie will be hosting two lectures on archaeological digs at Fort Erie. On Thursday, Dr. John Triggs will be talking about the archaeological dig that took place last year at Old Fort Erie. On Friday, Dr. Williamson will be talking about the Snake Hill archaeological dig that took place in 1987. Both talks begin at 7 p.m. and are $5. Click here for more information.

June 05, 2013

Flight and terror – Engagement at the Forty

After the Battle of Stoney Creek, the Americans were left in a tough position. With their two commanding generals, Winder and Chandler, captured by the British there was some question as to who was left in command of American forces. Command fell to Colonel James Burn of the Second Light Dragoons based on seniority. Burns ordered a withdraw of a least one mile from the battlefield to collect stragglers from the woods and to consolidate a new position.

Colonel Burns admitted in a private letter that he was unprepared to take command by writing, “I was so much at a loss on that occasion as you would be if you were to be made President of the U.S. without any previous notice.” Burns called a council of war with most of the senior officers and decided to withdraw to Forty Mile Creek where the army could resupply.
Engagement at the Forty 
Upon reaching Forty Mile Creek, the army had lost all its courage and resolve. In the early hours on June 8th the British squadron under James Yeo approached Forty Mile Creek and began bombarding the American position. John Norton’s native warriors attacked the American camp from the rear as the Royal Navy attacked from the lake.  The Americans responded with four 6-pdr. guns positioned along the lakeshore. As the bombardment continued, the Americans received orders to return to Fort George

Aboard Yeo’s ships, five companies of the King’s were preparing to land at Forty Mile Creek when word was received of the American retreat. Major Evans and his troops landed at about 7:30 p.m. to find an abandoned American camp of 500 tents, 200 camp kettles, 150 stands of arms and a large number of burnt baggage. Evans described the scene, “The enemy’s flight and terror is best evidenced by the precipitate manner in which he abandoned everything which was valuable or could be called to constitute his equipment for field operations.” The Americans continued their retreat to Fort George and began contemplating their next move on the Niagara. 

This Saturday, June 8th you can head to Grimsby to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Engagement at the Forty. There will be demonstrations, events for the kids, and a battle re-enactment starting at 3 p.m. Click here for more information about this Niagara Signature Event.