September 25, 2013


During the early 19th century, the wealthy had many ways to show their high social standing and one of those ways was by using snuff.

Snuff is a smokeless tobacco made from ground tobacco leaves. Snuff is inhaled through the nostril, giving the user a shot of nicotine and a lasting flavour scent. The elite used snuff to help distinguish its members in society from the common people who generally smoked tobacco. Snuff originated with native tribes in South America and was adopted by the Spanish in the early 16th century, quickly spreading to other European countries.

Not everyone liked using snuff. Pope Urban VIII banned the use of snuff in churches and threatened snuff-takers with excommunication. In Russia, Czar Michael prohibited the sale of tobacco in 1643 and instituted the punishment of removing ones nose if caught and repeat offenders would be killed.
Snuff Box

During the early 19th century there were some prominent snuff users, including King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte, who was called ‘Snuffy Charlotte’ for having an entire room at Windsor Castle devoted to her snuff stock. Some other prominent snuff takers included Napoleon, Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington. Snuff was so popular among officers that it was not uncommon to have snuff boxes on tables in the officers’ mess.

Due to snuff’s image as an aristocratic luxury, the U.S. introduced a federal tax on tobacco in 1794. Despite the tax, snuff was still popular among many Americans, including members of Congress as a communal snuff box was installed in Congress for its members until it was discontinued in the 1930s.

If you want to learn some more interesting facts about the early 19th century and the War of 1812 join Heritage Niagara for their 10th annual 1812 dinner. Click here for more information.

September 18, 2013

A long time it appears to me – Prisoner of war

Being captured during the War of 1812 was not a welcome occurrence for officers. However, the treatment of officers in captivity varied greatly from regular soldiers as William Hamilton Merritt’s experience can attest.

On July 25, 1814 during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Merritt was with the Niagara Light Dragoons during the battle when he got word that Major-General Riall had been taken. Merritt left his unit to report his intentions to attempt to rescue Riall. Upon Merritt’s return to his troops, he was lost in the darkness and smoke on the battlefield and found himself surrounded by the U.S. 28th Regiment. Merritt was quickly transported to the American side of the Niagara were he was joined by 18 fellow officers and 116 privates.

Merritt left a memorandum book highlighting his days as a prisoner. Merritt was paroled to Greenbush, New York, and during his time as a prisoner he visited museums, went to church and had parties with fellow officers and prominent Americans, among other leisurely activities. On August 25, 1814, Merritt wrote “Pleasant Weather. One month since I was made prisoner – a long time it appears to me. Read the Newspaper, strolled, returned and enjoyed a good dinner.”

After three months of being a prisoner Merritt writes, “Three months have passed away since I was made prisoner, and no prospect whatever of an exchange.” He goes on to write about the boredom he faces and that reading books is one of his only salvations. Throughout his time as a prisoner, Merritt wrote to Catherine Prendergast and when he was finally released from the U.S., he married Catherine.

If you want to learn more about prisoners during the War of 1812, you can head to the Jordan Historical Museum on September 21 to listen to author David Hemmings talk about this topic. In addition, on September 19 you can listen to Dan Laroche talk about the Burning of the Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Click here to find out more about these events.

September 11, 2013

The brave and loyal old man – James Kerby

Kerby was born in 1785 near Sandwich (Windsor) Ontario. By 1805, he was working in Queenston as a clerk-bookkeeper for Thomas Clark. Kerby’s connection to Clark led him into the militia when Clark became the commanding officer for the 2nd Lincoln Militia in 1809. Kerby was appointed regimental adjutant to the 2nd Lincoln Militia.  

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Kerby was placed in command of an artillery company. On the morning of October 9, 1812, his company was manning the British batteries on the Niagara River opposite Black Rock (Buffalo, N.Y.) when it was ordered to open fire on the Detroit and Caledonia, ships which had been captured by an American raiding party. Kerby performed well in this action and it was not long before he would see combat again. On November 28, 1812, the Americans launched an offensive at Frenchman’s Creek. Kerby received his first official commendation for his service during the failed American attack. By December 1812, Kerby was still serving along the Niagara by firing at American troops moving along the American shore. During one action, a 24-pound gun burst and severely wounded Kerby’s right hand.

By March 1813, Kerby joined the Volunteer Incorporated Militia Battalion, essentially a full-time militia unit composed of volunteers, in which Kerby was appointed captain. In May 1813, the British retreated from the Niagara after the Americans captured Fort George. Kerby participated in the British advance guard in the Niagara until the Americans withdrew from Fort George in December 1813, after burning the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). When the British launched their attack on Fort Niagara in December 1813 Kerby directed the embarkation of the troops for the assault and participated in the storming of Fort Niagara in Youngstown. For his actions, Kerby was awarded a sword valued at fifty guineas. 

Kerby's gravestone
By July 1814, the Americans launched another assault on the Niagara. On July 25, 1814, during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Kerby, who had been promoted to Major, found himself in command of the battalion after his commanding officer was wounded. Kerby remained in command of the battalion during the Siege of Fort Erie where he was wounded in the shoulder and the hip. By February 1815 with the War of 1812 over, Kerby after serving for two years of continuous military service was able to resume his civilian life.  

After William Lyon Mackenzie’s unsuccessful insurrection in 1837, Kerby was authorized to raise a militia force to resist any renewed invasion by Mackenzie. Kerby formed the Queen’s Niagara Fencibles and he was placed in command of all troops on the Niagara frontier from April to June 1838.

Kerby’s wife and mother both died in 1839; in 1846 his son died at 24 and the death of a son-in-law meant that one of Kerby’s daughters and her small child became dependent on him. Kerby continued to be active in the militia and in 1846 he became commanding officer of the 1st battalion of the Welland Regiment.

Throughout his time in Fort Erie, Kerby served as warden of St Paul’s Anglican Church until his death. Kerby was instrumental in the establishing of the church by successfully petitioning the government to use stone from Fort Erie to construct part of the church, as well as donating a silver chalice. On June 20, 1854 Kerby died in Fort Erie and is buried in the cemetery of the church he was so influential in establishing.

Kerby’s obituary notice was published in “The Church” of Toronto on the June 29th, 1854. An excerpt reads: “Many a tear has fallen, and more will fall, on the grave where the brave and loyal old man reposes in the quiet cemetery of the little village church, on the bank of the noble river, which was witness to his gallant achievements in his country’s cause.”

On Sunday September 15 at 2 p.m., a plaque will be unveiled for James Kerby through the federally funded Graveside Recognition program. Kerby is the first War of 1812 veteran in the Niagara to receive this plaque. For more information, please click here  

September 04, 2013

Gallantry and good conduct – Peter Buell Porter

Peter Buell Porter, born in 1773, graduated from Yale College in 1791 before becoming a lawyer. He was a wealthy landowner and businessman who was active in state and federal politics. He entered Congress in 1809, where he was a great public speaker and a prominent member of the ‘war hawks’ where he pushed for the annexation of Upper Canada (Ontario).

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Porter served as quartermaster general of the New York State militia. In 1812, Porter criticized General Smyth’s aborted invasion of Upper Canada that resulted in a bloodless duel in which one commentator remarked, “Unfortunately, both missed.”
Peter Porter
By 1814, Porter assumed command of the Third Brigade in the Left Division, which primarily consisted of militia, volunteers and native warriors. Porter was influential in obtaining the assistance of the native warriors for the Niagara 1814 campaign through his diplomatic skills with Red Jacket. Porter and his brigade fought well at Chippawa, Lundy’s Lane and Fort Erie, earning him a gold medal from Congress for his “gallantry and good conduct.”

After the war, Porter returned to politics and was re-elected to Congress in 1815. Porter served on the US-Canada Boundary Commission and he spent a year as Secretary of War in John Quincy Adams cabinet, among other political achievements. Porter retired from politics in the 1830s and spent the rest of his life on his extensive property along the Niagara River. He died in 1844 at the age of 71.

If you want to find out more about Porter, you can head to The Buffalo History Museum on Friday, September 13 to see the unveiling of four new War of 1812 exhibits. Click here for more information.