June 25, 2014

The Covenant Chain

The British Empire and Iroquois Confederacy fought side by side during the War of 1812, for the most part. The alliance between these two groups was based on the Covenant Chain established years before.

The Covenant Chain was a series of alliances between the British and Iroquois beginning in the seventeenth century. These agreements were designed to support peace and stability while preserving trade. The agreements attempted to settle disputes between tribes and colonies in North America.

The Covenant Chain between the Crown and the Iroquois is based on the metaphor of a silver chain holding a British ship to the Iroquois Tree of Peace. A three link silver chain symbolized their first agreement with the links representing peace, friendship and respect.
A representation of an original Covenant Chain treaty belt

When one member of the agreement pulled on the chain, the other participant responded. A number of agreements between the Crown and the Iroquois have been made and it was the bases of these agreements that many Iroquois used for justification in supporting the British during the War of 1812.

In 2010, Queen Elizabeth II renewed the Covenant Chain Treaties by presenting eight silver hand bells to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and Six Nations of the Grand River in recognition of the first Covenant Chain Treaty signed 300 years before. The bells were inscribed with the words “300 Years of Peace and Friendship.”

If you want to find out more about Covenant Treaties and First Nations culture, head to Fort Niagara on June 28 and 29 for a presentation of The Honouring. Doors open at 8 p.m. both nights and admission is free. Click here for more information.

June 18, 2014

The original national anthem – Chester

Before the U.S. had the Star Spangled Banner as their national anthem, a tune called Chester was the unofficial anthem.

William Billings wrote the tune Chester as a patriotic song used during the American Revolution. Billings was born in Boston in 1746 and by the age of 14, his formal education ended with the death of his father. Billings pursued music as a way to help support his family. He had a strong addiction to tobacco, which he indulged by inhaling handfuls of snuff. One contemporary described him as “a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address & with an uncommon negligence of person. Still, he spake & sung & thought as a man above the common abilities.”

Billings wrote the first verse for Chester in 1770 and made improvements on it in 1778. The song quickly became the second most popular patriotic song during the American Revolution, behind the song Yankee Doodle. By the time of the War of 1812, Chester was played as the unofficial national anthem in military camps and at public functions.

It is believed that these lyrics were written by Billings himself:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join'd,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin'd.

When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were Shatter'd in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet'rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen'rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off'ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev'ry Chord.

On September 26, 1800, William Billings died at the age of 54 in poverty, leaving behind a widow and six children. 

June 11, 2014

The Wendigo

A demonic beast that appears in the legends of the Algonquin people, the Wendigo is a half-beast creature of legend. The legend says that the Wendigo can either have characteristics of a human or a beast and can transform from a human.

One description of the Wendigo is that it has no eyes, instead the empty sockets glow red and it has no lips, making it hiss and drool as it breathes through its jagged teeth. Some say that it will dart about in the shadows and fog of the forest and at times, you can see a faint glimmer of its glowing red eyes.

For humans to turn into the Wendigo, a demonic spirit visits an unsuspecting victim in their dreams. The most common cause of being transformed happens when one resorts to cannibalism during times of great hardship, such as a famine. The Algonquin used this story to reinforce the taboo against cannibalism by showing that people would turn into this creature.

One famous case involving the Wendigo story involved an Oji-Cree chief and shaman known as Jack Fiddler. Fiddler claimed to have powers to defeat Wendigos and in some cases, he was involved in euthanizing people he believed were afflicted. In 1907, Jack and his brother Joseph were arrested by Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide and his brother Joseph was sentenced to life in prison. Joseph was granted a pardon but died in jail before receiving the news.

If you want to find our more about the Wendigo and other supernatural tales, head to Old Fort Erie or Fort George this summer for their ghost tours. 

June 04, 2014

Good sense & manly spirit – John Vincent

Born in Ireland in 1764, John Vincent entered the army in 1781 as an ensign. By 1783, he transferred to the 49th Regiment of Foot as a lieutenant and became a captain in 1786. He was on active service in the West Indies and during the taking of Haiti. On a return trip to England, his ship was captured by a French frigate forcing his detainment in France for a year. Vincent fought at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 before being transferred to Upper Canada in 1802 where he served at a number of garrison posts before the War of 1812.

By 1813, the now Brigadier-General John Vincent was in command of troops in the Niagara Region when American forces crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort George on May 27, forcing Vincent to order a retreat to Burlington Heights. Vincent decided to follow the recommendation of his second in command, Lieutenant-Colonel John Harvey, to launch a night attack on American forces at Stoney Creek. Harvey was relieved that Vincent accepted his recommendation and wrote about Vincent, “His good sense & manly spirit had no difficulty in deciding upon the proper course.”
Engraving, Battle of Stoney Creek

The battle caused the Americans to retreat to Fort George, ending the American advance into the Niagara Peninsula. Unfortunately for Vincent, he was thrown from his horse during the engagement and was later found wandering in a daze miles from the battlefield without his horse, hat and sword. Naturally, this part was not mentioned in his official report.

The British maintained a blockade on Fort George for several months in 1813. Late in 1813, Vincent ordered a retreat from the Niagara due to the British defeat at the Battle of the Thames. Vincent was later transferred to Kingston, then to Montreal, before being transported to England due to illness. He never saw active service again but was promoted to full general in 1843. John Vincent died unmarried in London in 1848. He received no eulogies from his former subordinates and James FitzGibbon wrote, “He was at all times a feeble man, both in mind and body.”

If you want to find out more about John Vincent and the Battle of Stoney Creek, head out to Battlefield House in Stoney Creek for the annual Battle of Stoney Creek Re-enactment on June 7 and 8. Click here for more information.