The War of 1812

Leading up to the War of 1812

After the Americans declared their independence, there was open conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain. The British withheld the West Indian trade from the Americans, and often subjected American vessels to searches for sailors who were ex-British subjects.

Napoleon BonaparteIn 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France and succeeded in establishing his own dictatorship. As conflict developed between England and France, the United States adopted a neutral stance, and traded with both nations. In an attempt to disrupt each others’ trade, both England and France issued orders and decrees that ended up hampering the American trade.

In retaliation, the American Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807, which kept American ships at home, depriving both France and Britain of the American trade of which they had both grown dependent. The Act plunged the country into a depression, and many traders turned to smuggling: goods were illegally traded to Canadians, who, being British, were capable of international trade. These further frustrations and the continued restraints imposed by the British on the Americans contributed to a declaration of War by the United States on June 18, 1812. The Americans sought reprieve from the British restraints by ousting the English from North America altogether.

History of War – Canada before the War of 1812

By the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French colonies in North America were passed to the British Crown. It was not until the American Revolution of 1776 that Britain’s Dominion in the Americas was restricted to the Canadas and other Northern colonies.

From the time of the American Revolution until the War of 1812, the main trading centres in Lower Canada were Quebec and Montreal; in Upper Canada, Kingston and Niagara (and later York) were the main ports. For the most part, Upper Canada was administered by British army officers who were based at Fort Niagara, Fort York, Fort George, Fort Erie, and Kingston. The lands were largely wilderness, and the condition of the few roads made land travel difficult. Mrs. Simcoe (wife of Colonel John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada) described them as "that terrible kind of road where the Horses’ feet are entangled among the logs amid water and swamps". As a result, most travel took place along the waterways of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence.

In the years between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, many Loyalists (colonists who were loyal to the King) made their way north from the United States to settle in the Canadas and other colonies, in part responding to the Crown’s policy of land grants for Loyalists who swore allegiance to the King. This immigration caused the population of Upper Canada to grow rapidly from 14,000 in 1791 to 90,000 by 1812. The first task for these settlers was to clear the land for settlement. Mrs. Simcoe describes it well: "The way of clearing the land in this Country is cutting down all the small wood, pile it & set it on fire … The settler first builds a log hut covered with bark & after two or three years raises a neat House by the side of it."

In 1796, the terms of Jay’s Treaty transferred control of Fort Oswego, on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, and Fort Niagara, on the eastern shores of the Niagara river, to the Americans. On the opposite western shore, the settlement at Niagara (also called Newark or Niagara-on-the-Lake), built up around Fort George, became the first seat of Upper Canada’s government.

Therefore, on the eve of the War of 1812, the main American ports around Lake Ontario included Forts Oswego and Niagara, while the British were based in Kingston, York, and Niagara.

The Burlington Races

After rescuing the remaining survivors from the Hamilton and Scourge, Chauncey returned to manoeuvering with Yeo once again. This back and forth pursuit continued around the lakes for weeks, there was an exchange of fire near the Genesee River on September 11, and on September 28, after an hour-long engagement west of York, Yeo withdrew towards Burlington Heights with Chauncey in pursuit. These "Burlington Races" were named such because Yeo had to beat Chauncey to the shelter under the British guns at Burlington Heights, while Chauncey hoped to catch Yeo before he could reach that protection. With the help of local James Richardson, the son of a lake Captain serving on board Yeo's Wolfe, the British fleet managed to negotiate the sand bars in the channel and lead the squadron to safety.


Back on the Niagara Peninsula, the Americans eventually returned across the Niagara River on December 10, 1813, burning the town of Newark as they left. The British were infuriated, triggering a vengeful burning of Buffalo and Washington.

Once Napoleon was exiled in 1814, the British launched a renewed attack on the United States on Lake Champlain, on the Chesapeake, and at New Orleans, but all failed. In August of 1814, peace talks began and the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium on December 24th, 1814, returning the territories of both parties to virtually what they had been before the War began.

Evidence of renewed respect for peace was indicated by the Rush-Bagot agreement singed in 1817, which led to the disarmament on the United States-Canadian frontier. The Naval Base in Penetanguishene, established after the Treaty of Ghent, was one of many harbors where ships were dry-docked or laid up in ordinary (stripped of their armaments), after the Rush-Bagot agreement.


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