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The Burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake

For the week of Monday December 9, 2013

On December 10, 1813, the inhabitants of Niagara-on-the-Lake stood in the bitter cold and watched as American soldiers burned their houses to the ground. Previously called Newark, Niagara was a former capital of Upper Canada and was a prosperous small town. It was located on the Niagara River, a much fought over frontier during the War of 1812.

American soldiers lighting torches at "Niagara on Fire," a historical re-enactment of the event
© Niagara-on-the-Lake Bicentennial Committee / Tony Chisholm / 2013
The Americans captured many of the forts in the Niagara region in 1813, but late in the year British and Canadian forces began to regain ground. Led by Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, they were on their way towards American-held Fort George. The fort was under the command of U.S. Brigadier General George McClure, who lacked the men to defend it and chose to retreat. However, he decided to burn Niagara before his departure, supposedly to deprive the British and Canadians of winter quarters.

On a freezing and snowy day, Niagara’s residents evacuated their homes as the Americans set them on fire. Joining the effort were a group of men composed mainly of recent American immigrants to Canada who fought for their former homeland during the war – this pro-U.S. unit was known as the Canadian Volunteers. When the Americans and the Volunteers had finished setting the fires, one witness wrote that he could see “nothing but heaps of coals and the streets full of furniture.”

Illustration of a burning Niagara house from Benson J. Lossing's The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812
© Harper & Brothers
This senseless destruction outraged the Canadian population and sparked a desire for revenge. Drummond and his troops quickly took Forts George and Niagara, immediately across the river in New York State, captured the towns of Lewiston and Black Rock, and burned down Buffalo, also in the United States. Although the Americans had targeted Niagara to lower Canadian morale and hinder British soldiers, the attack instead motivated them to retaliate!

The military used brick from the remains of Niagara’s buildings as construction material for the nearby Fort Mississauga, now a National Historic Site and the only star-shaped fort in Canada. Meanwhile, the town’s citizens rebuilt their homes and, in 2003, Niagara-on-the-Lake was designated a National Historic Site as an example of early 19th-century architecture, recognizing the heritage value of buildings like the Niagara District Court House. Nearby Fort George is also commemorated as a National Historic Site.

It is the bicentennial of the War of 1812! For information on this, visit Commemorating the War of 1812 on the Parks Canada website. For further reading on the Niagara region during the War of 1812, please see Midnight Assault at Fort Niagara, Shot Through the Heart, Battle of Frenchman's Creek, and Americans Take Fort George.

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