Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Landscape of Upper Canada, Michigan Territory and Michilimakinack (War of 1812)

View of Niagara looking east to Lake Ontario, 1812

While researching and writing about the War of 1812 in Canada and the exploits of Major-General Isaac Brock I wondered what the land would be like to a foreigner to the area at the time. I came across the following excerpt from The Life and Correspondence of Sir Isaac Brock by Ferdinand Tupper Brock (1845) and have provided it for Patti Abbott's and your reading pleasure:

“…a description of the boundaries, military posts, and lakes of Upper Canada--of the Michigan territory, Detroit, and Michilimakinack:

"It will be assisting the reader, ere we proceed to detail the operations at the commencement of hostilities, to give a brief description, not only of the lakes and straits which constitute the water boundaries of Upper Canada, and of the towns and military posts distributed along them, as existing in the year 1812, but also of the territory of Michigan, which was surrendered, with Detroit, to Major-General Brock. The distances are given in British statute miles.

"The most remote piece of water on this frontier worthy of notice is Lake Superior, a body of fresh water unequalled by any upon the face of the globe. Lake Superior is of a triangular form; in length 381, in breadth 161, and in circumference about 1,150 miles. Among its islands is one nearly two-thirds as large as Jamaica. Out of Lake Superior a very rapid current flows, over immense masses of rock, along a channel of 27 miles in length, called St. Mary's River, into Lake Huron, at the head of which is the British island of St. Joseph, containing a small garrison. This isolated post is distant about 350 miles by water from Amherstburg, which contained the nearest British garrison.

"Lake Huron is in length, from west to east, 218 miles; in breadth, 180; and in circumference, through its numerous curvatures, 812 miles. Except the island of St. Joseph, and one or two trading establishments belonging to the north-west company, the shores of this lake were in a state of nature, or inhabited only by Indians. When the Americans were allowed to obtain the dominion of Lake Erie, which they did in 1813, it was determined at the close of the following year to create a naval force on Lake Huron in the ensuing season, (1815) as possessing much greater security for the construction of vessels than Lake Erie, where the enemy could at any time destroy them, in the same manner as their vessels ought to have been previously destroyed by the British. Lake Michigan, which belongs wholly to the United States, is connected with Lake Huron at its western angle by a short and wide strait, in the centre of which is the island of Michilimakinack, belonging to the United States. This island is about 9 miles in circumference, and, like St. Joseph, its neighbour, it possessed a small fort and garrison. Lake Huron flows through the river St. Clair, which is in length about 60 miles, into Lake St. Clair, a small circular lake 30 miles in diameter. The beautiful river Thames, in Upper Canada, opens into Lake St. Clair, and it was along the banks of this river that Major-General Proctor retreated in 1813. From Lake St. Clair, the stream, through the Detroit, navigable for vessels not drawing more than fourteen feet water, pursues a course of nearly 40 miles into Lake Erie.

"Upon the western side of the Detroit is situate the American town of that name. About 5 miles below Detroit, upon the opposite side of the strait, is the British village of Sandwich, then containing scarcely fifty houses; and 18 miles lower, and within four of the termination of the strait, is the British village of Amherstburg, then containing about one hundred houses, and a fort where a small garrison was maintained, and where the principal vessels for the service of Lake Erie were constructed. The American village of Brownstown stands nearly opposite to Amherstburg, which is distant from Quebec by the nearest route by water 815 miles, from Fort Erie about 250 miles, and from York 315 miles.

"Lake Erie, from Miamis Bay to the entrance of the straits of Niagara, is in length 257 miles, in breadth 64 miles, and in circumference 658 miles. The greatest depth of water is between forty and forty-five fathoms, but a very rocky bottom renders the anchorage unsafe in blowing weather. Except Amherstburg, the British have no harbour or naval depth upon Lake Erie, while the Americans have two or three excellent ones. Presqu'ele harbour is situate on the southern side of the lake, not far from the entrance to the Niagara. It is a safe station, but has a seven feet bar at its entrance, as indeed have all the other harbours on this lake. The town, named Erie, is situate on the south side of the harbour, and contains a dock yard, in which the Americans built their Lake Erie fleet. To the eastward of the town stands a strong battery, and on the point of the Peninsula forming the harbour, a block house, for the protection of this naval depth. The rivers Raisin, Sandusky, and Miami, the scenes of important operations during the war, discharge themselves into Lake Erie.

"On the north-western side of the entrance to the Niagara river stands, at a distance of 565 miles from Quebec, the British fort Erie, at best a very inconsiderable work. Near to the same outlet from Lake Erie is Buffalo Creek, on the border of which is built the American village of Buffalo; and about 2 miles beyond it, Black Rock, where there is a battery, and a ferry, about 800 yards across, to Bertie, in Upper Canada. The Niagara proceeds at a quick rate past several small and one large island, called Grande Isle, 10 miles long; about 2 miles below which, on the American side, and distant 2 miles from the Falls, is the site of Fort Schlosser. At about the same distance from the Falls, on the opposite side, standing on the northern bank of the river Chippewa, is the British village of the same name, distant from Fort Erie 17 miles. Chippewa consisted chiefly of store houses; and near it was a small stockaded work, called Fort Chippewa. At the distance of 23 miles from the entrance to the Niagara, is Goat Island, about half a mile long, and which extends to the precipice that gives rise to the celebrated Falls. The larger body of water flows between Upper Canada and Goat Island, at the upper end of which island the broken water, or rapids, commence. Here the stream passes on both sides of the island, over a bed of rocks and precipices, with astonishing rapidity; till, having descended more than fifty feet in the distance of half a mile, it falls, on the British side 157, and on the New York side 162, feet perpendicularly.

"From the cataract, the river is a continued rapid, half a mile in width, for about 7 miles. At this point stand, opposite to each other, the villages of Queenstown and Lewistown. The latter, situate upon the American side, contained, till destroyed as a retaliatory measure, between forty and fifty houses. At about six miles and a half from Queenstown, near to the river side, stands Fort George, then constructed of earthen ramparts and palisades of cedar, and mounting no heavier metal than 9-pounders. About half a mile below Fort George, and close to the borders of Lake Ontario, stood the beautiful and flourishing village of Newark, which was burnt by the Americans.

"Directly opposite to Newark, upon a neck of land projecting partly across the mouth of the river, which is here 875 yards in width, stands the American fort of Niagara, the scene of so many conflicts. It was built by the French in 1751; taken by us in 1759; and, along with several other frontier posts, ceded to the United States in 1794; and, though since taken, has again been ceded to the same power. Fort Niagara, unlike any of the Canadian forts along that frontier, is a regular fortification, built of stone, on the land side, with breast works, and every necessary appendage. It mounts between twenty and thirty heavy pieces of ordnance, and contains a furnace for heating shot.

"The strait of Niagara is about 36 miles in length; and its shores, on both sides, were, more or less, the scenes of active warfare during the whole period of hostilities. Lake Ontario, to which the strait leads, is in length, from west to east, 171, in breadth 50, and in circumference 467 miles. The depth of water varies much, it being in some places three or four, in others fifty fathoms: towards the centre three hundred fathoms of line have, it is said, not found the bottom. York harbour lies on the north side of Lake Ontario; is nearly circular, of about a mile and a half in diameter, and formed by a narrow peninsula extending to Gibraltar Point, upon which a blockhouse has been erected. The town of York, (now called Toronto,) the infant capital of Upper Canada, is in lat. 43� 35' north, and long. 78� 30' west, and is distant from Fort George by water about 30 miles. The public buildings consisted of a government house, the house of assembly, a church, court-house, and a gaol, with numerous stores belonging to government. Kingston harbour is situate at the eastern extremity of Lake Ontario. It contains good anchorage in three fathoms water, and was defended by a small battery of 9-pounders on Mississaga Point, and another, of the same metal chiefly, on Point Frederick. The town, which was the largest and most populous in the Upper Province, contained about 370 houses; including several buildings and stores belonging to government. Its distance from York is 145, from Montreal, in an opposite direction, 198, and from Quebec 378 miles. Opposite to, and distant about half a mile from, the town, is a long low peninsula, forming the west side of Navy Bay, the principal naval depot of the British on this lake, and where the ships of war were constructed.

"Of the American military posts on Lake Ontario, the principal one is Sackett's harbour, distant from Kingston, by the ship channel, 35 miles. The harbour is small but well sheltered. From the north-west runs out a low point of land, upon which was the dock yard with large store houses, and all the buildings requisite for such an establishment. Upon this point there was a strong work called Fort Tompkins, having within it a blockhouse two stories high: on the land side it was covered by a strong picketing, in which there were embrasures; at the bottom of the harbour was the village, containing about seventy houses; and, to the southward of it, a large barrack, capable of containing 2,000 men, and generally occupied by the marines belonging to the fleet. Towards the middle of 1814, there were three additional works, Fort Virginia, Fort Chauncey, and Fort Kentucky, as well as several new blockhouses; and the guns then mounted upon the different forts exceeded sixty.

"The greatest length of the Michigan territory, from south-east to north-west, is 500 miles, and the number of square miles both of land and water is estimated at 150,000. The country was then chiefly in the possession of the Indians, and the white population amounted by the previous census to about 5,000. It includes two peninsulas of unequal size, in addition to which are numerous islands, constituent parts of the territory. The most important of these is Michilimakinack, already described. This island, while in the former possession of the British, was the general rendezvous of the North-West traders and the Indians they supplied. Here the outfits were furnished for the countries of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, Lake Superior and the North-West; and here the returns of furs were collected and embarked for Montreal. Detroit, the chief town of the territory, is situated on the right bank of the strait, 10 miles below Lake St. Clair and 28 miles above Lake Erie. It then contained above two hundred houses, many of brick, and upwards of 1,200 inhabitants. In the rear of the fort was an extensive common, skirted by boundless and almost impenetrable forests. We learn from Morse's American Geography, on the acknowledged authority of Governor Hull, that Fort Detroit, in 1810, was a regular work of an oblong figure, "covering about an acre of ground. The parapets were about twenty feet in height, built of earth and sods, with four bastions, the whole surrounded with pallisadoes, a deep ditch, and glacis. It stood immediately back of the town, and had strength to withstand a regular siege, but did not command the river." And as the American government had been for some time secretly preparing for war, it may be safely inferred, that in the meanwhile this fort had been rather strengthened than permitted to fall to decay; and that it was at least as tenable in 1812 as when Governor Hull, two years before, gave the preceding description of its defences. The town of Detroit is in lat. 42 15' north, and long. 82 33' west.

"About the year 1763, Detroit, then indeed the far west, and containing a garrison of 300 men, was nearly captured by stratagem by Pontiac, the celebrated Indian chief of that day, who waged war against the British, and whose alliance, before the capture of Quebec by Wolfe, in 1759, was anxiously courted by both the French and English.”

Source: The Life and Correspondence of Sir Isaac Brock by Ferdinand Tupper Brock (1845)


Anonymous said...

Hi Barbara. I like the historic view of Niagra that you've posted. Thank you for your kind comments recently.As I have a lot of catching up to do with your posts, I'll settle in tomorrow with a big mug of home-made soup and crusty roll, and read up on your history that I enjoy so much.Wishing you a speedy recovery from your flu. You did well with such a detailed post!

laughingwolf said...

stuff there not in the books i had to read... thx barbara

Charles Gramlich said...

It's great to get things in a historical context like this. Great post.

BernardL said...

We have been allies so long, it is hard to imagine a vast wilderness border which required vigilance on both sides in an uneasy era.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny to see which town names survived and which didn't. Probably in Canada, there was never a reason to change the name of a British settlement whereas here, it reminded us of a brutal war.

gary rith said...

Incredible. Wonderfully detailed descriptions. Now, of course, millions of people live in these areas!

Barbara Martin said...

Pam, rather than summarize this chapter from "The Life and Correspondence of Sir Isaac Brock, K.B." it was easier to put it in whole. Summarizing a piece like this tends to erase the flow of the language and its style. Isaac Brock's nephew, Ferdinand Tupper Brock, and his brother, Savery Brock, wrote this book from letters received from Isaac, as well as from observatins by Savery from his visits to Upper Canada.

Tony, very correct...this is a rare find of history published only 33 years after some of the incidents regarding Isaac Brock and the landscape of the time.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, thanks. I discovered some old books of the period were still available which hopefully I will be able to read before posting more history.

Bernard, both sides congregated in areas where it was likely possible enemies might cross easily.

Patti, even here names of places have changed over the years.

Barbara Martin said...

Gary, what I found to be very interesting was that the depth of the middle of Lake Ontario had never been measured beyond 300 fathoms of line. I haven't done research to see if it has been measured further or not.

Steve Malley said...

If I wasn't so very entertained, I could almost swear I'm learning stuff. Thanks!

Barbara Martin said...

Steve, as a writer it is our job to entertain while providing a new look at an obscure part of life. It's nice to know I am providing the proper effect with my posts.