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Monday, September 26, 2022
History Unveiled: The ruthless burning of Niagara

In November 1813, winter was fast approaching and the commander of Fort Niagara, Gen. George McClure, was very concerned about a series of American defeats and the depletion of his troops who were sent to serve in the Battle of Chrysler Farm.

His militia men would soon be finished their term of service and, upon their leaving, Fort Niagara would be defenceless.

With the American loss at the Battle of Stoney Creek in June 1813, the British and their Indigenous allies carried out a loose siege on Fort George during the summer and into the fall.

With continuous attacks on outlying sentry posts disrupting American scouting parties and supply lines, Fort George was no longer the “springboard” for the American conquest originally planned. McClure recalled all his troops from the town of Niagara (now NOTL).

The American Secretary of War had instructed McClure to burn the town if it would secure the mouth of the Niagara River for the Americans.

It is interesting to note that after the war, McClure was dismissed from service because he gave the orders to burn the town.

On a cold, wintry Dec. 10, 1813, American soldiers pillaged the town, torching every building regardless of who lived there.

Women and children were ordered out into the streets, many with just the clothes they were wearing, and forced to watch their homes burn.

Some of the women, upon hearing what was happening, rushed to remove items from their homes, but many others were not as lucky.

Catharine Heron, who had recently given birth to her daughter, was carried out onto the street in her bed, with her newborn, to watch her house burn to the ground.

Mrs. McKie stood in a snowbank with her three daughters, one of whom didn’t even have time to put on her shoes. They watched in horror as their home was burned.

Charlotte Dickson, who had hosted McClure and some of his officers in her home, was forced out and allowed just a few minutes to retrieve some of her possessions.

With three young children, Mrs. Campbell, a widow, was driven from her home. They spent several nights out in the open before she found shelter for all of them.

The lighthouse, though, was spared from the fires. Maybe it was too far out for the arsonists to be bothered with or maybe the Americans spared it as it was essential to both American and British shipping.

But the lighthouse was where several families went for refuge. They took their meagre possessions with them and lived there for most of the winter.

Another home that was overlooked, spared from the fire was the Clench house, and many took refuge there. (Unfortunately the home burned down in March of 1814; a spark from a fire that was used to heat water was considered the cause.)

Some of those left homeless by the burning of the town found refuge in old root cellars or from debris that they leaned against chimneys for makeshift shelters. Many others walked to outlying farms, some as far as St. Davids or to the Servos farm on Lakeshore Road, past Four Mile Creek.

The next day, Dec. 11, 1813, the British forces arrived in Niagara.

One account was from William Hamilton Merritt, who recorded the devastation he saw: “Nothing but heaps of coal and streets full of furniture.”

This ruthless, unwarranted burning of the town ended the type of warfare that was known at that time. No longer was it a gentleman’s war and the British were out for revenge.

Fort Niagara, near what is now Youngstown, N.Y., was captured by the British on Dec. 19, 1813. The British then headed south, burning villages and towns all along the American side of the Niagara River, including Buffalo.

As for the residents of Niagara (NOTL), in December 1813, the war had left their town. The Americans made another attempt to take the town, landing from Lake Ontario at Four Mile Creek, but were not successful.

It was time to rebuild.

Fort George was considered within cannon range of Fort Niagara, so work was started on Fort Mississauga, where the lighthouse had been. Butler’s Barracks was also constructed, but farther inland, around John and King streets.

By 1816, rebuilding of the town had begun. The second courthouse and jail were built farther out of town, at what is now Cottage and Rye streets. Businesses were encouraged as well to move farther away from Fort Niagara, out of cannon ball range, however, many business owners did not want to be far from the Niagara River and decided to build on Queen Street.

In 1817, the first store was opened – William Duff Miller’s Stationery Shop. It is the home of the Queen Street LCBO now.

Several decades after the burning, residents of the town still feared the Americans would attack again, but warfare never returned to Niagara (NOTL).

I would like to thank Ron Dale and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum for their continued support when researching my articles.

More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: