This Week in History


"St. Joseph...the Military Siberia of Upper Canada"

For the week of Monday July 15, 2002

"A mere matter of marching" was what the Americans thought when they declared war in June of 1812 and prepared to invade Canada. But on the morning of July 16, 1812, at a remote frontier settlement on St. Joseph Island at the western end of Lake Huron, it was rowing not marching that launched the opening moves in the bloody three year conflict, and the British struck the first blow.

Fort St. Joseph in 1804 by Lt. Edward Walsh

Fort St. Joseph in 1804 by Lt. Edward Walsh
© William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Captain Charles Roberts, in command at Fort St. Joseph, assembled a force of 40 British soldiers, 300 to 400 Aboriginal warriors, 200 fur traders and two six-pounder guns. In canoes, boats and a North West Company schooner they covered 72 km in 17 hours arriving at Mackinac Island at three in the morning. On July 17, the American commander, Porter Hanks, awoke to find his fort surrounded and a six-pounder gun, which had been hauled up a hill overlooking the fort during the cover of darkness, aimed at him. Hanks did not even know that war had been declared. Ill-prepared and out-numbered, he had little choice but to surrender. The British victory cemented a military alliance with First Nations during the war and secured control of the fur trade and the northwest frontier.

Fort St. Joseph was the most westerly military post in Upper Canada when it was built in 1796 after the British ceded the fort on Mackinac Island under terms of the Treaty of Paris. The fort became the centre of a community of traders and British Indian Department officials. Each summer the community witnessed speeches, feasting and ceremonies during the annual present-giving to First Nations allies and the fur traders' rendezvous. But after the success of July 17, 1812, the community was abandoned and American raiders burned it two years later.

Vue aérienne des ruines du Fort St. Joseph

Aerial view of the Fort St. Joseph ruins today
© Parks Canada

The Fort St. Joseph ruins were 'rediscovered' in the 1920s. In the 1960s and 1970s extensive archaeological excavations revealed most of the remains of the structures within the palisade walls, some of the civilian buildings and thousands of artifacts. Today, the ruins remain visible in a landscape little changed from the early 19th century. Once a remote military post, described by one soldier as the "Military Siberia of Upper Canada," Fort St. Joseph is now a National Historic Site of Canada.

For more information, visit the Fort St. Joseph Web site.

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