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Fort Wellington National Historic Site of Canada

Natural Wonders & Cultural Treasures

History

Sketch of Fort Wellington's blockhouse

Tensions along the Border

Prescott Waterfront
Prescott Waterfront
©Archives of Ontario / Painting by Thomas Burrowes

One consequence of the American Revolution was the emergence of a hostile country to the south of Great Britain's Canadian colonies. In the event of war the colony of Upper Canada was at particular risk along the St. Lawrence River from Montreal to Kingston. The river route, vital for the transportation of goods and people to and from the Great Lakes area, was easily cut off because much of the southern shore of the river was in American possession.

For the United States, the conquest of the neighbouring British colonies was a piece of business left over from the revolutionary war. But while relations between Britain and the Americans were tense in the years immediately following American independence, the tensions did not lead to war until 1812.

The British military, preoccupied with fighting Napoleon at sea and on the European continent, had given little thought to the defence of the North American colonies. With the American declaration of war, they had to move quickly to prepare the defences of the colonies. One of the locations selected for the construction of a new fort was Prescott.

Prescott was an obvious target for the Americans to attack. Founded in 1784 by United Empire Loyalists who had fled to Canada during the American Revolution, it had become an important port on the St. Lawrence River, an essential link in the water traffic between Montreal and the Great Lakes. A successful American attack on Prescott would have meant the closure of the St. Lawrence River to British shipping, undermining the British military's ability to defend Upper Canada.

Map showing the placement of Fort Wellington along the St. Lawrence at Prescott.
Map showing the placement of Fort Wellington along the St. Lawrence at Prescott.
© Parks Canada

The initial effort to provide defences for Prescott was made by the local militia which occupied two buildings on the eastern edge of the town and erected a simple log stockade around them. Shortly after, they constructed an advance battery along the river front, armed with two 9-pounder cannons. In December 1812, Sir George Prevost, commander of the British forces in North America, ordered the construction of a more permanent fortification. This became the first Fort Wellington, a substantial one-storey blockhouse enclosed by earthen ramparts.

Early plans for the first Fort Wellington. Please click for detail.
Early plans for the first Fort Wellington. Please click for detail.

© Parks Canada

The fort's construction extended over two years, being completed in 1814, just as Britain and the United States negotiated a peace treaty to end the conflict. Prescott was not attacked during the war, but it was an assembly point for regular troops and militia who, early in 1813, crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River to destroy the American military post at Ogdensburg. In the years following the war, Fort Wellington's garrison was gradually reduced and the blockhouse and earthworks allowed to deteriorate. The fort was finally abandoned in 1833.

Wanted Poster - William Lyon MacKenzie
Wanted Poster - William Lyon MacKenzie
© Ontario Archives

Interest in fortifying Prescott was renewed as a result of the outbreak of rebellion in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837. The rebellions were the culmination of years of agitation on the part of reformers in the two colonies to gain a stronger voice in the colonial government. Frustrated by their inability to gain concessions, the more radical elements of the reform movement chose the path of rebellion with the goal of establishing an American-style republic. The rebellion in Upper Canada, under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie, attracted little support among the populace and was quickly put down by the British authorities. But the flight of many of the radicals to the United States was the beginning of a second, more dangerous phase of the unrest and led directly to the construction of the second Fort Wellington.


"Burning of the Sir Robert Peel"
© Parks Canada

Many Americans had the conviction that the Canadian colonists were a downtrodden people anxious to overthrow British rule and create a republic modelled after their own. Consequently, the radicals who had fled Upper Canada found a receptive audience when they crossed the border into New York State. Their presence became the catalyst for the creation of a secret organisation known as the Hunter's Lodges which sprang up along the border from Maine to Ohio. It is estimated that, in New York State alone, 283 lodges were established with over 20,000 members.

The radicals and their new-found American supporters initiated raids across the border early in 1838. In May, one such group led by the self-styled "Admiral of the Patriot Navy," Bill Johnston, captured the British steamer Sir Robert Peel when it had stopped to pick up wood on its journey upriver from Prescott. As a result of this event, Sir John Colborne, Commander-in-Chief for the Canadas, ordered that Fort Wellington be repaired and a new blockhouse built to accommodate 100 men. Work commenced on the blockhouse in late summer of 1838.

The Second Fort Wellington

1830's artist rendition of Fort Wellington.
1830's artist rendition of Fort Wellington.
© Parks Canada

The second Fort Wellington was ready for occupancy by February 1839. In addition to the massive blockhouse, the new fortification contained a guardhouse, cook house, latrine and an officers' quarters, enclosed by the refurbished earthen ramparts of the first fort. Fort Wellington was never attacked but, a few months before its completion, an invading force landed at Windmill Point about 1.5 kilometres down river from Prescott. Fort Wellington became the assembly point for British regulars and a large contingent of militia who confronted and defeated the attackers after five days of heavy fighting.

Plans for the second Fort Wellington. Please click on the picture to see it in detail.
Plans for the second Fort Wellington. Please click on the picture to see it in detail.
© Parks Canada

Tensions along the border eventually eased. In 1854, the last troops were withdrawn and the fort once again left vacant. It was occupied again in 1866, but the last detachment of troops was removed in 1869. This ended Fort Wellington's active military use. Thereafter it was used as a military storehouse and, at intervals, as a training ground for local militia.

Fort Wellington's history as an operational fort was relatively brief. After the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, Fort Wellington became the property of the Department of Militia and Defence. In 1923 at the request of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, management of the property was transferred to the Department of the Interior because the board planned to identify it as a place of national historic importance. In 1925, Fort Wellington became a national historic site, the first in Ontario to be managed by the federal government. It is now administered by Parks Canada.

Soldiers at camp on the grounds of Fort Wellington, 1866.
Soldiers at camp on the grounds of Fort Wellington, 1866.
© Parks Canada
Postcard depiction of Fort Wellington
Postcard depiction of Fort Wellington
© Parks Canada