Fort Wellington National Historic Site of Canada

Gunboat

Spanish style gunboat
Spanish style gunboat
© Toronto Public Library

What is a “gunboat”?

  • Early nineteenth century gunboats were modest shallow-draft boats that carried ordnance (cannon) and had a well-armed crew. They could be manoeuvred in shallow or restricted waters where sailing was difficult for larger ships – ideal for the St. Lawrence River!
  • Gunboats were built in a range of dimensions, had one or two masts and were rigged (the configuration of masts and sails) in a variety of ways, for example, with square or trapezoidal sails. There was no set or definitive typology for gunboats during the era of the War of 1812. The term “gunboat” was used loosely in the navy and often referred to any vessel carrying one or more pieces of artillery.
  • Sometimes boats, especially merchant vessels, were retrofitted to be made into gunboats simply by mounting one or more pieces of artillery, which was a common practice during the War of 1812.
  • Naval historian Robert Malcomson writes in Warships of the Great Lakes that a gunboat is: “a small armed vessel, varying considerably in size, rig and strength from a bateau fitted with a carronade or small-calibre long gun, to a purpose-built craft with rowing benches and two or three guns on slides or circles, to converted merchantmen outfitted with one or more pieces of heavy ordnance.”
  • Employed by the British and American Navy, gunboats assumed both offensive and defensive roles during the War of 1812 including supporting amphibious attacks and protecting supply convoys. During the war, gunboats served on all marine fronts including along the Atlantic coast as well as on the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.
  • Throughout the War of 1812, gunboats played several key roles around the St. Lawrence from protecting and escorting convoys of bateaux loaded with precious military equipment and supplies, to aiding in battle and protecting the fluvial border between British North America and the United States.
  • Throughout the War of 1812, many gunboats as well as large warships were constructed at the Kingston Naval Yard, an important British warships building facility on Lake Ontario.

History of the Gunboat

Excavating the gunboat wreckage (1966) 
Excavating the gunboat wreckage (1966)
© Parks Canada

In the shallow waters of Brown’s Bay along the St. Lawrence River just east of Mallorytown Landing, Ontario lay the remains of a nineteenth century hull. Although known to the local community for years, it was not until the mid-1960s that Parks Canada Agency’s Underwater Archaeological Service examined the hull. This initial testing suggested that the vessel was a probable War of 1812 era British gunboat.

In 1966, Parks Canada excavated the gunboat wreckage. Although the upper portion of the vessel had been lost, either to salvaging or seasonal weather conditions such as ice flows, the hull of the gunboat was largely intact. After raising the gunboat remains, Parks Canada staff worked to preserve the wooden hull from further deterioration, and the vessel was put on display at St. Lawrence Islands National Park at Mallorytown Landing.

Identifying the origins of this Brown’s Bay vessel has proved to be a challenge, both from an archaeological and historical point of view. Objects found in association with the wreck do not positively identify the wreckage, nor do registers and newspaper accounts of private vessel shipwrecks from 1800 to 1870. Naval records, however, showed that the dimensions of the Radcliffe, a British gunboat completed at the Kingston Navy Yard on March 31, 1817, were almost identical to those of the Brown’s Bay remains. These similar dimensions as well as the presence of a British broad arrow, a mark of British government property, found on one of the vessel’s components suggest the wreck had a naval origin.

In 1986, Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Chris Amer conducted a study on the gunboat remains. Based on the analysis, it is believed that the vessel underwent significant alterations during its active use, the results of which obliterated much of its original appearance. Judging by the hull’s materials and the techniques used in its construction and retrofit, it is believed that the vessel was converted from military to commercial use sometime after 1820, and this conversion could account for the addition of features not typical for a gunboat.

This craft’s exceptionally long career, first as a naval vessel intended for border defence, then as a commercial craft, attests to the changing nature of life along the frontier. The hostilities it was built to counter gave way to growing industry, trade and commerce. Its conversion from vessel of war to vessel of trade reinforces the growing significance of commerce and development on the St. Lawrence throughout the nineteenth century.

Interesting Facts 

  • The gunboat was found 300 feet (90 metres) from shore in approximately six feet (2 metres) of water.

  • The gunboat is a wooden-hulled boat possessing an overall length of 54 feet, 2 inches.

  • It is believed that this wreck began its career as a vessel of war before being converted to serve a commercial function.

  • The excavation and preservation of the wreck was of international significance in the development of underwater archaeology as a discipline and set the standards for future projects by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service.

  • Historic objects discovered with the wreck include bolts with the British broad arrow, a pewter plate, comb, cast-iron stove door, leather boot, two shovels, forks and clay pipe fragments.

The Gunboat’s Importance to Prescott

Prescott, Ontario (October 1830)
Prescott, Ontario (October 1830)
© Archives of Ontario/Thomas Burrowes

Prescott was a significant naval port for gunboats used in coastal defence. During of the War of 1812, Prescott kept a fleet of gunboats to patrol and guard the river between there and Kingston.

During the War of 1812, protection of the St. Lawrence River was one of the foremost concerns of British naval and army officers. While the section of the St. Lawrence bordering the U.S. was always vulnerable to interception, the stretch of river between Prescott and Kingston was particularly susceptible to attack owing to the numerous inlets of the Thousand Islands which provided the perfect cover for bands of marauders stalking travelling bateaux brigades. Prescott’s Fort Wellington, constructed during the War of 1812, was one aspect of border defence. Another layer of security came from the use of gunboats to defend the river and Prescott became an important naval staging area where these vessels were stationed throughout much of the war.

Moreover, Prescott’s location was an advantage for the safety of boats and crew upon the exposed maritime route. The town was well situated to offer rapid assistance to those in difficulty along the St. Lawrence between the Long Sault Rapids to the east and the Thousand Islands to the west. Additionally, the advantage of promptly responding to enemy incursions on the river meant that the British could be in a better position to protect their essential communication route and therefore their interests in Upper Canada.