February 18, 2015

The close of a hot and unnatural war

News of peace spread quickly to the Niagara, the region most devastated by the War of 1812. The war reshaped the region on both sides of the Niagara River.

After the war, a new patriotism emerged in Upper Canada. John Beverly Robinson noted that the Americans waged the war “for the purpose of subjugating the Canadas,” the war “had the effect of binding them, as well as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, much more strongly to the Crown.” The war helped to reshape Upper Canadians’ sense of themselves. A visitor remarked,

The last American war forms an important era in the history of Upper Canada, and as such, it is continually referred to by the people, who, when alluding to the time at which any circumstance occurred, say that it happened before or after the war.

On the American side of the Niagara, the economy quickly rebounded. The U.S. side was described as dynamic whereas Upper Canada appeared as a sleepy rural backwater. When looking across the Niagara River to the New York side, John Howison noted: “There, bustle, improvement, and animation fill every street; here dullness, decay, and apathy discourage enterprise and repress exertion.”
Signatories to the Treaty of Ghent

To embrace the success experienced on the American side, some residents on the Canadian side of the Niagara began to enter business deals with their American counterparts. The Niagara District magistrate even began to issue the oath of allegiance to newcomers from America in order to allow them to own land in Niagara. The differences that separated the people on the Niagara during the war quickly began to dissolve as economic benefits brought people closer together again. 

For the native population in Niagara, the end of the war meant it was time to repair the bonds between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people on both sides of the Niagara. The Grand River and Buffalo Creek chiefs met at Fort George in August 1815 but they failed to resolve their differences as each side claimed to represent the true Haudenosaunee confederacy. After the war, the Haudenosaunee were pressured by Upper Canada and New York to surrender more land and convert to Christianity. 

In the end, the War of 1812 is estimated to have claimed 35,000 lives as a direct result of the war. Only 15 percent came from battlefield deaths whereas the majority died from disease, and for the natives in particular starvation was the biggest killer. The war devastated the Niagara but the emergence of peace laid the foundation for a lasting friendship between nations. Upon hearing of the peace treaty, John Le Couteur typified many peoples reaction by writing, “I am the bearer of the blessed News of Peace at the close of a hot and unnatural war between kindred people. Thank God!”

February 11, 2015

Acclamations of joy – Ratifying the Treaty of Ghent

When news of the Treaty of Ghent reached Great Britain, the population had mixed feelings. Parliament quickly ratified the treaty, which meant good news for manufactures and merchants who were now able to continue lucrative trade with the U.S. The British public thought that the terms of peace were too soft on the Americans but there was little desire to continue the war since taxes would need to remain high.

News of the treaty slowly made its way across the Atlantic and arrived in New York City on February 11, 1815. Two days later the treaty arrived in Washington where Madison sent it to the Senate with his endorsement. The Senate unanimously approved the treaty and the next day Madison signed the treaty officially ending the War of 1812 on February 17.

Reports of the treaty arrived in Upper Canada and northern New York in late February. In Kingston on February 25, Lieutenant John Le Couteur reported, “Several American officers came over from Sackets Harbour with the news. We received them very well, gave them a dinner, and made our Band play ‘Yankee Doodle’ on drinking the President’s heath, which gave them great pleasure.”
News of the Treaty of Ghent ratification

In Washington, President Madison portrayed the war as a success by praising the treaty as “an event which is highly honorable to the nation, and terminates, with peculiar felicity, a campaign signalized by the most brilliant successes.” Of course, the Federalists were quick to point out that the stated objectives of the war were not met and conveniently forgotten by Madison and the Republicans. News of the victory at New Orleans arrived in the north around the same time as the Treaty of Ghent. The great victory at New Orleans merged with the ratification of the treaty and henceforth shaped America’s memory of the war.

With the war officially over, the process of restoring peaceful relations began. Both sides started organizing prisoner transfers but the process proved difficult. Many British prisoners refused to continue their military service after receiving better treatment in the U.S. The commissary general for prisons, John Mason, instructed federal marshals that several guards would be necessary to ensure that prisoners did not cause an uprising aboard transport ships in order to run away with the vessel.

At Dartmoor, an American prisoner recalled the news of peace,

After a momentary stupor, acclamations of joy burst forth from every mouth. It flew like wild fire through the prison; and “Peace! Peace! Peace!” echoed throughout these dreary regions. … Some screamed. holloed, dances, sung, and capered, like so many Frenchmen.    

The British were faced with a logistical nightmare in having to find 24 ships to transport the nearly 6,000 American prisoners. Many ships were unavailable for charter because of the increased demand for ships to carry goods to the American market. After a riot by American prisoners and a harsh crackdown that left seven prisoners dead, the American consul decided to find vessels to transport the men home with the British agreeing to pay half the cost.

On February 17, join the Friend of Fort George and the Niagara 1812 Legacy Council for the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Ghent Ratification. The event takes place at St. Mark’s Anglican Church at 2 p.m. followed by a procession to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Court House. Click here for more information. 

February 04, 2015

The strongest man in the prison – King Dick

American prisoners of war were incarcerated in various prisons during the War of 1812. The British established prisons in Canada but a number of American prisoners were sent to Great Britain to await the end of the war.

American prisoners started arriving at the overcrowded Dartmoor Prison in April 1813. By many accounts, American prisoners were difficult to control and often taunted their British jailers. Taken from diverse regions in the U.S., the prisoners created a national identity by treating British guards as their common enemy. By defining the British as “a hard-hearted, cruel and barbarous race” of captors, the prisoners united as Americans.

The American prisoners insisted that the ultimate British cruelty was to treat them the same as black prisoners from the U.S. At Dartmoor Prison, British guards patrolled the outside of the prison while inmates were allowed to organize and operated the interior. This meant that the white majority imposed segregation by limiting the black 15 percent to one barrack known as Block Four.
Dartmoor Prison

Blacks were excluded from the committee government elected by whites, but Block Four relied on Richard Crafus, known as King Dick, to provide order. King Dick was born in Maryland and served on a privateer until captured in March 1814. Described as a stout man of 23 years, King Dick was six feet three inches tall and towered over everyone. One prisoner described, “He is by far the largest, and I suspect the strongest man in the prison.”

King Dick earned the allegiance of black prisoners and the respect of the whites. He wore a bearskin cap and wielded a large club patrolling the barracks to suppress disorder. King Dick imposed absolute authority in Block Four by monopolizing illicit beer sales, levied taxes on petty trade, and took a cut from all games of chance. He even sold tickets to plays complete with props and costumes for performances including Romeo and Juliet and Othello. On Sundays, he sponsored the preaching of a black Methodist. By many accounts, King Dick’s despotism ensured that Block Four ran smoothly.

February is Black History Month and there are a number of different events taking place in Niagara. At Old Fort Erie, you can watch the movies 12 Years a Slave (Feb. 20) and Amistad (Feb. 27) during the fort’s Friday Night Flicks event. Movies start at 7 p.m. and are $5 each. For more information, contact Old Fort Erie by clicking here.