July 31, 2013

The Louis Roy printing press

The use of newspapers in Upper Canada before and during the War of 1812 was essential for keeping the population informed. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe hired Louis Roy from Quebec to be the first King’s printer in Upper Canada.

The Roy Press
In 1792, the new lieutenant-governor arrived in Upper Canada and began to organize the government. He brought Louis Roy and his printing press with him and on April 18, 1793 Roy issued the first number of the Upper Canada Gazette in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), the provincial capital. Roy used the new printing press to distribute pamphlets, speeches, posters, regulations, and general local and international news to the people of the province.  

By 1798, the printing press was moved to the new provincial capital at York (Toronto). During the War of 1812, the press was in York during the American sack of the city in 1813. The press survived and continued to be used until it was replaced by new technology. Over the years, the press changed hands until it was sent to the Mackenzie Printery where it is currently on display.

On this long weekend, you can head to the Mackenzie Printery for their Simcoe Days event. You can learn more about the Louis Roy printing press that helped Simcoe shape the province of Upper Canada. Click here for more details.

July 24, 2013

A most severe conflict – The Battle of Lundy’s Lane

The Battle of Lundy’s Lane proved to be the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812. The British and Americans were unable to see each other in the thick smoke and the darkness, causing many to be shot at close range.

On July 25, 1814, the American army approached Lundy’s Lane at 7 p.m. They found the British commanding the heights and proceeded to advance upon the British position. As the darkness set in reinforcement arrived for both armies and the battle lines began to close. At about 9 p.m. the Americans captured the heights and the British guns. The British commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, wrote about the capture of the guns, “Of so determined a character were their attacks directed against our Guns, that our Artillery Men were bayoneted by the Enemy in the Act of loading, and the muzzles of the Enemy’s Guns were advanced within a few Yards of ours.”
Battle of Lundy's Lane

Between 10 to 11:30 p.m., Drummond attempted to retake the heights and the captured guns by launching at least three counterattacks. On the third attempt, Drummond was shot and was forced to pull his men back but the British forces remained in the area. General Ripley, who took command of the American forces from the wounded Major-General Jacob Brown, eventually withdrew to the Chippawa River. The next morning Ripley’s force moved back to Lundy’s Lane and found the British in command of the hill and in possession of their lost artillery. Ripley believed that his force was greatly outnumbered and proceeded to withdraw toward Fort Erie.

Both sides claimed victory after the battle as the official reports of Drummond and Brown attest:

“The Enemy’s efforts to carry the hill were continued until about midnight, when he had suffered so severely from the superior steadiness and discipline of His Majesty’s troops that he gave up the contest and retreated with great precipitation to his camp beyond the Chippawa.” – Drummond’s Official Report, July 27, 1814

“They were met by us near the Falls of Niagara, where a most severe conflict ensued; the enemy disputed the ground with resolution, yet were driven from every position they attempted to hold.” – Brown’s Official Report, July 29, 1814

On Thursday, July 25, you can head to Battlefield Park on Barker Street in Niagara Falls for a commemoration ceremony for the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. The first 500 people will receive a commemorative medallion and four lucky people will be able to fire a cannon. In addition, you can head to the Drummond Hill Cemetery on July 28 for the Lundy’s Lane Historical Society’s commemoration of the battle. Click here for more information on these free events.

July 17, 2013

The canal builder – William Hamilton Merritt

William Hamilton Merritt was born in Bedford, N.Y. in 1793. Merritt’s father fought for the Loyalists during the American Revolution. After the war, the Merritt family moved to New Brunswick and by 1795 the family moved to the Niagara Peninsula. Merritt studied mathematics and surveying, and was involved in different businesses before the War of 1812.

William Hamilton Merritt
Shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812, Merritt was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Lincoln militia. Merritt served with the Niagara Light Dragoons and fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812. By 1813, the 20-year-old Merritt was promoted to captain and continued to serve with the dragoons by patrolling the border and relaying messages along the Niagara. By 1814, Merritt fought at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane where he was captured and remained a prisoner in Cheshire, Mass. until early 1815. On his return trip home to Niagara, Merritt stopped in Mayville, N.Y. where he married Catharine Prendergast.

After the war, Merritt ran different businesses in Niagara, but he is best known for his involvement in the building of the Welland Canal. In 1818, Merritt, along with others, petitioned the Upper Canada Legislature to provide for the construction of the canal. In 1824 the legislature formed the Welland Canal Company and selected Merritt as its financial agent. Merritt traveled extensively through Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain to help raise funds for the project. From 1832 to 1860 Merritt served in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada and later the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada

Merritt often worked long days, as he was involved in many projects. Merritt had four sons and two daughters, one of his sons became a member of the Canadian House of Commons. In 1862 Merritt died on a ship near Cornwall and his body was returned to Niagara where he rests in Victoria Lawn cemetery in St. Catharines.

July 10, 2013

A ghostly bed

The Niagara Region is fully of haunted locations and Old Fort Erie and Fort George have their share of ghost stories.

Captain Kingsley's bed at Old Fort Erie
One ghost story from Old Fort Erie involves Captain Kingsley’s bed located in the fort’s officers’ quarters. The bed served as Kingsley’s campaign bed as he was part of the King’s 8th Regiment of Foot while serving in the Niagara during the war. Kingsley suffered from a lung disease that forced him to sleep in an upright position in order to allow his lungs to drain fluids during the night. The captain attempted various treatments such as bleeding and taking mercury pills. These ‘cures’ caused Kingsley to have terrible nightmares, fevers and mood swings. The mercury slowly broke down his body until he finally died in his campaign bed in 1813.

Many believe that Kingsley has not left his bed due to his horrible death. Staff and visitors to Old Fort Erie have reported hearing voices and footsteps near the bed. Some visitors have even reported feeling the presence of someone or strange feelings when near the captain’s bed.

If you want to find out more about this haunted bed, make sure you head to Old Fort Erie on July 12 or August 23rd for their ghost tour. You can also head to Fort George for their ghost tours happening every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday night in July and August. What will you see?

July 03, 2013

A brave and rash commander – Phineas Riall

Phineas Riall was the younger son of an Anglo-Irish banking family. He entered the army at the age of 18 where he quickly rose to the rank of major through the purchasing system. He served in the 128th Regiment of Foot but went on half pay in 1798 when the regiment was disbanded. Riall served during the Irish ‘troubles’ but gained most of his experience as a major of the 15th Regiment of Foot in the West Indies in 1803. He was promoted to colonel in 1810 and made a major-general two years later.

By 1813, Riall was sent to Upper Canada to serve under Lieutenant-General Drummond. Riall proved to be an aggressive commander and he won a number of small engagements against the Americans in 1813. William Hamilton Merritt described Riall as “very brave, near sighted, short but stout. Is thought by some rather rash, which by the by, is a good fault in a General officer.” Riall was well known for his brash style of command, which won him many victories in the past. However, at the Battle of Chippawa his brash style was not successful.
Phineas Riall
On July 5, 1814 at the Battle of Chippawa Riall was in command of all British forces. Two days prior an American army of about 4,000 strong crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. Riall opted to come out from the defences behind the Chippawa River in order to engage the Americans. Riall decided on this course of action since he was unaware that Major Buck had surrendered Fort Erie. Riall did not wait for reinforcements since he believed his force was more than capable of defeating the American army. During the battle both the British and the Americans had roughly equal numbers but the Americans were able to outflank the British forces and push them back across the Chippawa River.

The aftermath of the battle showed that the British suffered around 500 casualties to roughly 300 American casualties. British regulars had for the first time in years been clearly beaten in a stand-up fight of roughly matching strength. Merritt wrote about the aftermath of the battle, “It certainly is a very delicate thing to censure a Commanding Officer, particularly so popular and brave a Man as General Riall, still in this case, he acted hastily, neither did he employ all the Means he had in his power.”  

After the defeat at Chippawa, Drummond assumed direct command of the forces in the Niagara. Riall participated in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane where he was hit by a musket ball in the right arm. As he rode to the rear, he was caught by American forces and was eventually sent to the U.S. as a prisoner of war.

After the war, Riall never held an important military command again, but he was promoted to lieutenant-general through seniority in 1835 and full general in 1841. From 1816-1823 he was Governor of Grenada. Riall was married in 1819, knighted in 1831, and died in 1850 at the age of 75.

This Friday you can join the Niagara Parks Commission and the Chippawa Branch 396 of the Royal Canadian Legion as they honour those who served at the Battle of Chippawa. A ceremony will be held on the battlefield at 7 p.m. and all are welcome to attend. Click here for more information.