May 29, 2013

We were safe – the Gage family

With the American success at the Battle of Fort George, the British were forced to retreat toward Burlington Heights. The Americans quickly began a pursuit led by General Winder and General Chandler. On June 5, the Americans set up camp at Stoney Creek on the Gage family property with plans to continue their pursuit of the British in the morning.  

Mary Gage acquired the Gage family property in 1790. Her husband fought on the American side during the American Revolution and was killed in battle by British forces. Mary lived on the property with her son, James Gage, along with his wife Mary and their five children ranging in age from three to 15 years. James farmed the property and ran a general store. At the start of the War of 1812, James paid a substitute to take his place in the 5th Lincoln militia.

When the Americans began setting up camp on the Gage property they destroyed fences for firewood and began plundering the Gage homestead. James Gage’s eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth witnessed the plundering and remarked,

“The cellar of my father’s house was full of all sorts of provisions, enough to do the family during the year and the soldiers made free with everything. In the house were a number of bags of flour and there were twenty barrels of whisky in the cellar, all of which they took, the solders killed all the cows and sheep they lay their eyes on.”

Elizabeth further remarks that Chandler and Winder threatened to shoot her father if the family did not comply.

That night the Americans haphazardly setup their camp with little regard for a potential British attack. When the British did launch their surprise attack in the middle of the night the Americans were caught off guard. Elizabeth Gage wrote about the American reaction to the surprise British attack, “The officers rushed out of the house when the noise commenced and soon some of the soldiers came running in. I well remember how scared they were. They thought it was the Indians, from the yelling, and were afraid of being tomahawked.”
Battle of Stoney Creek
As the fighting continued Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Gage, acted quickly and moved all the children into the loft of the house where all the wool that had been sheered that summer was stored. Elizabeth said that she remembered the experience well and that “every little while a bullet would hit the house but they did not go through the logs, and we were safe.”

After the battle, Elizabeth remarked on the horrid scene of bodies littering the farm. The Americans were lying dead on the blankets that they had earlier stolen from the Gage house and the family home soon became a makeshift hospital for at least three wounded officers. 

After the war, the Gage family recovered from the damage done to their property and eventually sold the property in 1835. Today the old Gage property is the site of Battlefield House Museum and Park. This weekend you can visit the site of the Battle of Stoney Creek and celebrate the 200th anniversary of this historic event. Demonstrations and battle re-enactments will be taking place all weekend with the main battle re-enactment taking place on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. followed by fireworks. Click here for more information.

May 22, 2013

The country of my choice

On May 25 and 26, 1813, the Americans bombarded Fort George as a prelude to invasion. On May 27th, about 4,000 American troops landed near Fort George and descended on the British defenders numbering only 1,000 men. The British eventually retreated from the area leaving the Americans in occupation of Fort George and the town of Newark.

One witness to these events was Ned Myers, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. Scourge. Ned Myers was born a British subject in Quebec in 1793. He was abandoned by his father, who was a German officer serving in the British Army. Myers grew up in Halifax before moving to New York at the age of 11 to become a sailor. Myers became an American citizen stating, “America was, and ever has been, the country of my choice, and while yet a child I may say I decided for myself to sail under the American flag.”

Ned Myers fought at many different engagements throughout the war. During the Battle of York Myers volunteered to row troops ashore. He was unimpressed with the soldiers who were sickened by life aboard ship but his opinion soon changed when the British opened fire and he remarked that the infantry “became wide awake, pointed out to each other where to aim, and many of them actually jumped into the water, in order to get the sooner ashore.”

One month later Myers was again in the thick of battle during the American assault on Fort George. He participated in the firing of the artillery aboard the Scourge in support of the American infantry landings. After the battle, Myers went ashore and unlike the aftermath of the Battle of York, there was little tolerance for plundering. Myers helped to defend some civilians who were threatened by marauding American soldiers. Myers eventually re-embarked the Scourge and sailed away, leaving the American Army in control of the Niagara.
U.S.S. Scourge 
In August 1813, Myers was still aboard the Scourge when it was struck by a squall near modern-day Port Dalhousie. The ship sank, along with the U.S.S. Hamilton, killing most of the crew, but Myers managed to jump overboard and was rescued by another ship.

After the war, Myers was released from a British prison, having been taken prisoner in August 1813. Myers served on ships until 1840 when he suffered an injury and ended up in a home for retired seamen. There he encountered James Fenimore Cooper, whom he knew as a midshipmen before 1812, and recounted his life story. After Cooper’s book was published, Myers life became dominated by alcohol and he dropped out of sight. 

Starting this Saturday Fort George will be commemorating the Battle of Fort George with re-enactments and a recreation of the Bombardment of Fort George on Saturday night. Events will take place all weekend ending on Monday with a ceremony to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle. Click here to find out more about this Niagara Signature Event.

May 15, 2013

American soldiers

When war was declared in June 1812 the United States increased recruitment in order to meet the demands of war. Many new recruits came from various vocations and joined for a variety of reasons.

Before the war, the minimum standards for recruitment were that men had to be 5 feet, 6 inches tall and less then 35 years old. Men had to be tall enough in order to load a musket properly. As recruitment started to wane, regulations started to relax and by 1814 the regulations stipulated that no man would be enlisted that had “ulcerated legs, scalded head, rupture, or scurvy, or who is an habitual drunkard, or known to have epileptic fits.” This meant that the army started to recruit almost anyone willing to join by 1814.
American soldier, 1814
Most soldiers tended to enlist for no more than five years service, but most choose to serve for only the duration of the war. About 86% of recruits were born in the U.S., and just over half of the foreign-born men were from Ireland. About 39% of recruits listed their occupations as farmers and 14.2% were listed as labourers. Many of the ‘farmers’ were actually agricultural labourers who owned no land. The Embargo Acts (which restricted trade with Europe), pressures of population growth on the Eastern seaboard, and the restructuring of traditional artisan crafts into early industrial manufacturing caused many young men to be out of work, thus forcing them into the army.

One young man, Jarvis Hanks, recounts his decision to join the U.S. Army. He mentions how a sergeant entered his town looking for recruits, offering a $20 bounty and 160 acres of land to anyone willing to serve for five years or the duration of the war. Hanks recounts his decision:

“My youthful mind was fired with ardour in anticipation of a soldier’s career; the pomp and splendour of a military life were vividly portrayed in my foolish imagination, and produced a desire to engage in the service, which was not to be relinquished.”

Many men joined the U.S. Army out of economic necessity whereas others joined in a desire to serve their country. 

This Saturday, May 18 you can visit the Genesee Country Village and Museum for their Military Heritage Day. This event will focus on the military lives of Western New Yorkers and it will highlight changes to military technology since the American Revolution. Click here to learn more.

May 08, 2013

Tea time

The McFarland House was the home of John McFarland and his descendants for about 140 years. The house played an important role during the War of 1812, serving as a hospital, military headquarters, and a staging ground for the British attack on the American side of the Niagara in late 1813. Today this historic site highlights its involvement in the war but also highlights, as well as serves, tea.

Tea was very important during the early 1800s and it was very expensive. Many houses, including the McFarland House, had a tea caddy for storing tea. These boxes were kept under lock by the lady of the house in order to protect the tea from sneaky servants or dishonest children. Inside the caddy there were two sides, one side for fresh tea and the other for used tea. Since tea was expensive, it was not uncommon to use tea leaves up to three times.
McFarland House Parlour
Having tea allowed people to highlight their social standing. When family members or guests came over tea was often served. A family member or guest could know how important they were by the tea they were served. If you were served fresh tea then you were held in high regard, but if you were served used tea then you were not as important.  

One problem with tea in the 1800s was that many counterfeit tea leaves appeared. It was not uncommon for people to take used tea leaves and dye them with gunpowder, lead or coal in order to make them appear fresh. The black market was rife with counterfeit tea, which meant people had to be vigilant about where their tea leaves came from.

If you want to see how important tea was during the 1800s, you can visit McFarland House this Sunday for Mother’s Day. The McFarland House only serves good fresh tea; you won’t have to worry about used tea leaves. Click here for more information about this event.

May 01, 2013

A heroine not to be frightened

Many are well aware of the heroic acts of Laura Secord but she was not the only heroic women during the War of 1812. Mary Henry braved a fierce battlefield during the Battle of Fort George in order to help wounded soldiers.

Mary Madden was born in Ireland and married Dominic Henry, a Royal Artillery gunner, in 1790. The couple was sent to Niagara and by 1803 the now retired Henry was placed in charge of the lighthouse in Newark (modern-day Niagara-on-the-Lake). On May 27, 1813, the Americans launched a huge assault on Fort George and the surrounding area. American guns pummelled Fort George, reducing the fort’s defences considerably. British, Canadian and Native forces met the American amphibious landing but were quickly forced to retreat toward Burlington Heights.
Fort George

During the fierce fighting, Mary Henry risked her life as she scoured the battlefield bringing coffee and food to the troops, as well as treating the wounded. One contemporary remarked: “walking calmly through the shower of iron hail came Mary Madden Henry with hot coffee and food, seemingly as unconcerned as if she were in her own small garden.”

Mary’s heroism did not end with the Battle of Fort George. On December 10, 1813, the Americans abandoned Fort George, but not before burning homes in Newark. The lighthouse and keepers house were spared because the lighthouse was an aid to both British and American shipping. Mary provided the new refugees with warm drinks, food and she even opened up her home to those who were now homeless.

After the war, Mary Henry was recognized by the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada as “a heroine not to be frightened” for her actions and was rewarded with 25 pounds.

Starting Saturday, May 25, Fort George will be commemorating the Battle of Fort George with battle re-enactments and a “Bombardment of Fort George” on Saturday night featuring artillery, pyrotechnics and fireworks. Don’t miss the 200th anniversary of this historic event. Click here for more information.