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The Defence of York

For the week of Monday April 22, 2013

On April 27, 1813, British troops were unable to defend York (now called Toronto, Ontario) during the War of 1812. On that day, an American force numbering about 1,700 soldiers, supported by U.S. navy ships, landed on the shore of Lake Ontario, near present-day Sunnyside Beach. They defeated the British defenders and captured the fort, town and dockyard.

The arrival of the American fleet prior to the capture of York
© Owen Staples/1914
A small group of First Nations warriors, led by British Major James Givins encountered the first wave of Americans that landed near Sunnyside Beach. Commodore Isaac Chauncey, the commander of the American squadron, intended to land the troops at the site of the old French Fort Rouille (now on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition), but adverse winds blew the fleet further west. When the Americans landed, Givens' warriors put up a staunch defence, supported by the soldiers of the 8th Regiment, until they were overwhelmed by the more numerous U.S. enemy.

The British rallied at the fort's western battery, where they suffered a terrible misfortune. The battery's travelling magazine exploded accidentally, and a portion of the 8th Regiment was killed. When the American fleet drew closer inshore and bombarded the fort, British Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe decided that his outnumbered Regulars were unable to defend the town. They retreated to Kingston, with final orders to blow up the fort's magazine. 

Engraving depicting the the Death of General Pike
Author Unknown

Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, leader of the American landing force, suspected that the British were still inside the fort, and deployed his troops in the vicinity. Suddenly, the magazine exploded and tons of earth, stone, timber, and debris rained down on them. The explosion mortally wounded Pike, killed 38, and wounded 222 American soldiers. After the explosion, American Major General Henry Dearborn rowed ashore to negotiate the surrender of York. The Americans stayed in York for six days, freeing prisoners from the jail, looting, and setting fire to the Provincial Parliament and other public buildings.

The Battle of York was a crippling failure for the British. In addition to the destruction of Fort York and a new ship burned in the dockyard, the British lost valuable naval stores destined for the Lake Erie squadron. As a result, when British Captain Robert Barclay fought the Battle of Lake Erie that September, it was at a great disadvantage to the American fleet. The Defence of York was designated a national historic event in 1924.

This year is the second of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. For more stories about the war, read The Life of a Soldier and Peacemaker: Sir John Harvey, Fort Erie: Rebuilt Three Times!, and Battle of Frenchman's Creek in the This Week in History archives. Commemorative events are taking place all over Canada. For more information about the war, visit Commemorating the War of 1812 on the Parks Canada website.  

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