Ontario, and probably a good part of the rest of present day Canada, would now be part of the United States were it not for the native warriors who overwhelmingly came to the defence of the British Crown in the first year of the War of 1812-1814. When Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, former president Thomas Jefferson, speaking from his estate at Monticello in Virginia, said “the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.” Henry Clay, speaker of the House of Representatives, claimed the conquest of Canada could be handled by the militia of Kentucky without any other help.
The two leaders had grounds for their optimism. Britain was tied up fighting Napoleon in Europe and had only one regular line regiment of 900 men and officers dispersed in small garrisons around Upper Canada. The majority of the settlers in the province were recent arrivals from the United States and could not be counted on to rally to the British side. The United States had a population of more than 7 million compared with no more than 500,000 for all of the future Canada, with only 77,000 in Upper Canada. The United States had tens of thousands of militia at its disposition, as well as a small complement of regular forces. The British, however, had the support of the native peoples.
On July 17, 1812, a handful of British soldiers from Fort St. Joseph at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River at the northern end of Lake Huron, accompanied by hundreds of Ojibwa and Ottawa warriors, forced the American garrison at Fort Michilimackinac to surrender, securing the northwest frontier of the province. In early August, Shawnee warriors from the Ohio Valley under the great war chief, Tecumseh, fought and won a number of battles with American troops around Fort Detroit.
On Aug. 16, the Shawnee warriors, their numbers swelled by the arrival of warriors who had participated in the seizure of Fort Michilimackinac, joined Major-General Isaac Brock’s British troops in their move against Fort Detroit. But before the assault began, General William Hull, the American commanding officer, afraid of the native warriors, surrendered to Maj.-Gen. Brock, securing Upper Canada’s western approaches. And several months later on Oct. 13, Mohawk warriors under chiefs Joseph Brant and John Norton, intervened in the Battle of Queenston Heights after the death of Maj.-Gen. Brock, playing a central role in driving more than 1,000 American soldiers back across the border and safeguarding the Niagara frontier.
British troop reinforcements then started arriving in Upper Canada when the navigation season opened in the spring of 1813. Eventually, the British regulars would fight the Americans to a draw confirmed in the Treaty of Ghent signed on Dec. 24, 1814. Native warriors, although they would participate in several future battles, would never again play such a prominent role in the defence of Upper Canada.
How did the British government and the people of Upper Canada thank their native saviours? On April 27, 1813, Ojibwa and Mississauga sharpshooters were left to stop the landing of more than a thousand American soldiers at the Battle of York as the British troops conducted a strategic retreat out of the capital of Upper Canada. On Oct. 5, 1813, British troops under Major-General Henry Proctor fled the scene of battle at Moraviantown (the Battle of the Thames), leaving behind Tecumseh to be killed and his men to be mauled and eliminated as a fighting force.
And when the war ended, the Americans drove the native tribes from the Ohio Valley and elsewhere onto the Great Plains. In Canada, the government began herding native people onto small reserves and to sell or give their lands to settlers. Then as the century progressed, the government launched a social engineering program “to kill the Indian in the child” by removing the sons and daughters of native people and sending them to residential schools, where they were often brutalized.
And today, Canadians don’t want to know when told that the government provides less funding for the education of native children on reserve than it does for the children of mainstream society. They avert their eyes when told native youth in despair at their marginalization from society are taking their lives at astounding levels on isolated reserves in Northern Ontario.
Wouldn’t it be a great idea if on this bicentennial we highlighted the role of the native warriors, especially the often overlooked ones from Upper Canada who stepped forward to help the British defend Canada in that critical first year of the conflict?
James Bartleman is a member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation and a sixth generation direct descendant of a native veteran of the War of 1812-1814. A former lieutenant-governor of Ontario, he is the author of As Long as the Rivers Flow , a novel on the intergenerational impact of the residential school experience.