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Sep. 21, 2021 | Tuesday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: Why the War of 1812 started
Red coat re-enactors. (Sourced)

The War of 1812 had an enormous impact on the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Destroyed in 1813, the town rose up from the ashes and thrived.

Many people, however, are not familiar of why this war was even declared. The War of 1812 was overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and around the world, a conflict that was like a world war, fought between 1793 and 1815. 

To understand the why, one must go back in history to the years after the American Revolution (1765-1783) when the new republic called the United States of America found itself in a desperate financial situation. Economic recovery was necessary or the new republic would soon crumble and possibly fall under control of one of the many crowns of Europe, most likely Britain.

France had played a major role during the American Revolution by aligning itself with the United States. The French supported a non-British republic that would remain friendly to France and make it easier for the French to hold on to their West Indies colonies. To show its strong support, France continued to trade with the United States, suppling Washington’s new government with a much-needed infusion of cash.

Fast-forward to the Napoleonic Wars. The United States was supplying its revolutionary ally France, with cotton, wheat and wood, which caused the British to become quite annoyed.

The British Navy, the masters of the seas, forced all neutral nations to call in at British ports to have their cargoes scrutinized to prevent warlike materials from reaching the French. If an American merchant ship did manage to slip through the blockade, they most often were stopped by the British on their way across the Atlantic Ocean to France. Over 5,000 American sailors were removed from these ships and pressed into the service of the British Navy.

As well, the British knew that the desire by the United States to expand westward had to be stopped. The British decided to align themselves with the many Indigenous nations in the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains.

It was in Britain’s interest to stay friendly with them, so the British regularly met with the Indigenous leaders. Gifts often included muskets and powder for hunting. The British hoped an alliance with the Indigenous nations would help to hinder the advancement of the land-hungry Americans.

These three acts – blockade, boarding raids and supporting Indigenous nations – angered the United States. All of this was seen as a violation of American sovereignty. On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war on Britain and decided to invade the closest British colony, Canada.

There is an unconfirmed story that on the day of the declaration of war, the American commander, Lt.-Col. Philetus Swift, and Maj.-Gen. Isaac Brock (the British commander) were attending a mess dinner at Navy Hall in Niagara. When the communique of war reached Swift during the dinner, Brock who already knew about it, suggested they finish the dinner and the next day they could be at war. 

In 1812, several key battles set the tone of the war. Thomas Jefferson had remarked that the capture of Canada would be a mere matter of marching. However, he did not comprehend the tenacity of the Canadians, the determination of the British Army nor the power of the alliance with the Indigenous nations. 

In the years leading up to a possible war, Brock had developed a strategy to defend Upper Canada even though they would be greatly outnumbered by American forces.

Brock’s first move was to take the U.S. post of Fort Michilimackinac Island in Lake Huron on July 17, 1812. This was a strategic post for the United States as the island was the gateway into the heartland of the continent. By surrounding the fort on the island, British Capt. Charles Roberts, with 600  men, called for its surrender. The American commander, Lt. Porter Hanks, not knowing that war had even been declared between the two countries, was fully aware that he was outnumbered and so he surrendered. There was no loss of life in this battle. 

On Aug. 16, 1812, Brock next captured Fort Detroit. Although the British were outnumbered, Brock, Tecumseh and the Wyandot war chief Stayeghtha worked out a superb plan whereby they had the Indigenous warriors running a loop passing through a gap in the forest visible from Fort Detroit, double back and pass through the gap again.

While this was happening British and Canadian forces, in one concentrated area, shot off continuous rounds of gunfire. Indigenous war cries and the continuous volley of gun shots convinced the American Brig.-Gen. William Hull that he was greatly outnumbered and he flew the white flag of surrender. No loss of life in this battle, either.

Then on Oct. 12, 1812, the American forces invaded Canada, at Queenston Heights. The Americans scaled the escarpment to make a stand.

However, several factors led to the failure of their attack. The American forces had already taken Queenston heights. Brock and the British forces stormed up after them.  Unknown to the American forces, there was a second wave of soldiers coming up behind them. 

While British forces were storming the heights just above the hamlet of Queenston, Canadian troops, Indigenous warriors and British regulars were headed up the escarpment behind the American troops. The American forces were slowly defeated and with no hope of replacements coming to their aid, they surrendered. The only American soldiers in Canada were now prisoners of war.

The American militia was at the ready on the U.S. side of the Niagara River, but they refused to cross and join the regular American soldiers.

Their fear of the Indigenous warriors fighting with the British and the site of the redcoats under Maj.-Gen. Roger Hale Sheaffe marching from Fort George discouraged the militia. They stood their ground with the constitutional guarantee of their right to refuse to enter the battle. The reason: state militias were formed to defend their state, not to invade a foreign country. 

Although Brock was killed in the Battle of Queenston Heights, it was a victory for Britain, Upper Canada and the Indigenous allies.

References: Niagara Historical Society and Museum, Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Biography Dictionary, Rod Dale.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at,, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.