“The bucolic appearance of these vineyards today belies the real bloodshed that went on here.” Fort George reenactment soldier
Sure, Canada and the United States are BFFs now sharing the longest land border in the world (8,890 km), a Peace Bridge, a Rainbow Bridge, and bragging rights to the current US Vice President, Kamala Harris (yep, she grew up in Montreal).
But just over two centuries ago (210 years to be exact), things between our two countries weren’t so rosy.
At stake was the sovereignty of each nation and specifically, the naval supremacy of the St Lawrence, Lake Ontario, Niagara River and Lake Erie waterway. Control that critical supply route, and colonial expansion into the Great Lakes’ frontier cities of Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Toronto was all but guaranteed.
But Canada’s British overlords kept meddling in US affairs, interrupting that vision. They weren’t, the US claimed, respecting the terms of America’s hard-won, post American Revolution sovereignty. The British kept hijacking US ships and American merchant sailors (over 6,000!), they were supporting – and funding – Native American “uprisings” (a colonial frame for people fighting for their survival) and they thwarted American trade and commerce with Europe at every turn (to foil Napoleon!).
Tired of it all – and harbouring a separate, clandestine agenda of annexation – America declared war on British Canada.
What followed was the War of 1812, a bloody, bitter, 32-month battle between the young United States’ newly independent 13 colonies and ‘the Canadas’ which ended with British (and a few Canadian) soldiers burning down the White House (retribution!) and our North American relationship in tatters.
The Peace Treaty of Ghent (Signed December 24, 1814) put an end to this rancour and America’s ‘insatiable expansion agenda’, and in doing so, forged a proud identity and nation-building era for Canadians.
Canada would remain the true north strong and free – and Upper Canada’s Niagara Peninsula – one of its most prized land holdings.
Vineyards worth fighting for….
So that’s the Canadian David vs Golliath version of the War of 1812. The US account no doubt reads differently. As my American cousin says: one country’s hero is another country’s villain.
What’s not up for debate, however, is that same battle-scarred soil – mineral-rich terroir, if you will – today represents one of the most exciting wine regions in North America.
Once forested swampland, Niagara today is home to over 100 wineries and many hundreds of perfectly-curated vineyards, lands that were once soldiers’ barracks, garrisons, prison camps and battlegrounds during the War of 1812.
In addition to growing deliciously distinct, cool climate grapes, these former battlefront soils are often home to military relics. It’s not unusual to find cannonball fragments, musket balls, soldier’s crests, uniform buttons, crushed beer steins and other tasty bits of history. (see blog 3)
All of this makes visiting wineries in Ontario’s Niagara region a hybrid lesson in military history and wine appreciation.
So, grab a crisp Niagara Chardonnay, an earthy Pinot Noir, a deeply aromatic Cab Franc and/or an intensely fruity Riesling – four examples of what Niagara does best – and start prepping your 1812 war and wine journey.
The History of Niagara Wine in your Glass
Can I say off the top, I’ve never been a history buff. I’ve walked the vineyards of Niagara, tasted and written about the wine, with only vague notions of the history of this region.
But more than vines, I’ve come to appreciate these Niagara soils harbour critically important accounts of the ancestry of the region. I’m coming away from this ‘1812 immersion’ with a huge appreciation for the sacrifice of Canada’s war heroes and our Indigenous allies who fell in service for our emerging nation.
As Fort George interpreter Samuel shared with me when I visited: “the bucolic appearance of these vineyards today belies the real bloodshed that went on here.”
To truly appreciate the sacrifice and deep roots of Ontario’s Niagara wine region, you’ll need a serving of history. My goal in this first post is to broadly outline the causes and events leading up to the War of 1812 in Niagara. In part 2, I’ll provide a historical timeline, and in part 3, we’ll visit the pivotal battles and wineries on the front.
Some of the books, articles and documentaries on the War of 1812 consulted in my research are listed at the end of this post. There’s lots of scholarship and no end of ‘further reading’ on the War of 1812 (note capitalization of the W in War). Of course, you can also join one of Dan Martin’s incredible War of 1812 tours (more in blog 3).
I am giving you a top-line review of 1812 and Niagara’s role in it. Hopefully, this whets your appetite to learn more. If you’re like me, once you start reading, it’s hard to stop!
The Story of Upper Canada & the Niagara Peninsula Wine Region Begins in 1783
In the years following the American Revolution (1775-1783), during which 13 American colonies rejected British rule and opted for independence, some 40,000+ British loyalists crossed the “northern frontier” into British Canada to flee the newly elected American government.
It’s fair to say firm land and water ‘borders’, post revolution, were still a work-in-progress. That said, the unequivocal dividing line between Upper Canada’s (Ontario) Niagara region and the United States was the powerful and often perilous, 56km Niagara River. My ‘discussion’ here, and in subsequent posts, is focused on the Niagara battlefront (otherwise it’s a thesis), but thousands of disaffected loyalists also migrated to Eastern Ontario (Kingston), Lower Canada (Quebec) and the Maritime regions of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.)
If you cast your mind back to grade school history, you may remember escaping American colonists loyal to British North America were given the title United Empire Loyalists (UEL).
Those UELs (also called Tories) migrating north were a rebellious, hard-working collection of farmers, blacksmiths, mill-workers, ex-revolutionary militia and soldiers, all of whom maintained an abiding sense of loyalty to the British Crown. While thousands crossed into the Canadas’ provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, others stayed behind to continue the fight for the noble ideals of “the King” and empire.
The most rebellious of these UEL soldiers were Butler’s Rangers of New York State. The unit was ‘raised’ (formed) by Lieutenant Colonel John Butler during the American Revolution and the battle for the Empire was reignited during the War of 1812.
The Butler’s Rangers homesteads were concentrated on the edge of the northern frontier in the Mohawk Valley (upper New York State), on the east side of the Niagara River. These soldiers formed alliances and trading partnerships with American Natives in the United States and First Nations in Upper Canada. As British loyalists, Butler’s brigade supported Native land rights and many spoke multiple Indigenous languages. They fought alongside Indian tribes during (what has been called) the Northwest Indian War and the American Revolution in an attempt to curtail colonial expansion.
On the winning side of the revolution were American Patriots. They’d had enough of British rule and – more specifically – restrictive land expansion policies and British taxation schemes. Inspired by the vision of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, these ‘rebels’ embraced a republican philosophy, rejecting the hubris of the monarchy, British aristocracy and the idea of inherited power.
These patriots were keenly interested in expanding their land holdings into Indian lands, which they saw as a key pillar of the ‘new republic’. As far as the United States was concerned, Indians who sided with the British during the revolution were a conquered people and had lost title to their land. Post revolution support of the Crown made them enemy combatants!
By the time 1812 rolled around, the American government had had enough of these frontier conflicts. Any loyalists/traitors caught supporting the British Crown and Native tribes, were brutally punished for rejecting the results of the Revolution. Soldiers and their families were captured, subjected to torture and mob violence, and their properties burned to the ground.
In the days leading up to the war, some 250 Butler’s Rangers and hundreds of defeated Native warriors relocated to the Niagara Township in Upper Canada. With so much land to defend, the British were only too happy to welcome them.
Also Searching for Freedom
The history of former American slaves fighting for the British during the war of 1812 doesn’t get a lot of mention in the breezy yarns of high school history class.
But at the same time loyalists were fleeing the US, some 30,000 American slaves were travelling north along the Underground Railroad. For many, crossing the Niagara River border was the last leg of their hard-fought journey to freedom in Canada.
Many arrived as free persons and many more as enslaved persons with White Loyalist masters. Another 4,000 entered Canada by jumping on British war ships at American ports along the Atlantic coast. These new Black residents were desperate to preserve their freedom and committed to fighting for British Canada on land and at sea.
The Black Corps was an organized militia company of ex-slaves in Niagara reporting to white, British officers. As redcoats and alongside the formally trained 1,200 British soldiers, First Nations warriors and local militia, their impact in key 1812 battles at Queenston Heights and Fort George was significant. (Ontario Parks features an extensive history of Black slaves crossing the Niagara here.)
A Question of Loyalties
Another revelation (for me) was the overwhelming Indigenous support for the British in Upper Canada during the War of 1812. In reality, Canadians would be flying the star-spangled banner and not the maple leaf flag if it wasn’t for Canada’s Indigenous allies.
The Royal Proclamation, (1763) that ceded the transfer of the North American continent from the French to the British, was the first law to define settler land rights. It confirmed the original occupancy of First Nations and Native American communities in British North America, paving the way for land agreements between the British Crown (government) and Indigenous peoples. Specifically, it proclaimed that all settlers on the continent could not live on the land until the Crown had signed treaties with the First Nations and Native Americans who occupied the territories.
Of course, the Royal Proclamation thoroughly enraged expansion-driven colonists in the United States and did little to stop the theft of Native lands.
In 1775, New York State Mohawk and Six Nation’s Chief Joseph Brant (who later crossed the Niagara River to lead First Nation’s forces in Upper Canada), sailed to Great Britain to protest the waves of white settlers who were squeezing First Nations from their land. “The Mohawks have been very badly treated,” he told King George III. “It is very hard when we have let the King’s subjects have so much of our lands for so little value, they should want to cheat us.”
War Declared on Canada
The British continued supporting Native Americans in their fight against American expansion, from the shores of Canada.
Of course, the new American government and President James Madison didn’t like this one little bit.
And so, citing insurmountable grievances and disrespect for the United States’ newly defined sovereignty, on June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on British Canada. Specific grievances, were listed as:
- The British sponsored loyalist insurrection and support of Native Americans in the northern frontier of the country,
- Britain’s forceful removal of British born sailors from US ships for service on British warships (impressment) required to fight in Britain’s other war with Napoleon Bonaparte 1804 – 1814)
- Britain’s restrictions on the United States’ trade with European nations
According to historian and journalist James Elliot, Canada was the unfortunate “meat in the sandwich” in this war between Great Britain and the United States.
But because the United States couldn’t reach the shores of Britain, Canada was the stand-in.
The American Battle Plan?
The US would strike at Britain’s two North American provinces (Upper & Lower Canada) to secure concessions on maritime and trade issues. They would take control of critical water corridors by capturing the three key regions of Detroit (Lake Erie and beyond), Niagara (Lake Ontario and the Niagara River) and Montreal (St Lawrence).
They would uproot the Native Nations and push west, securing new lands and driving Britain from North America, putting an end to the British influence over Indigenous peoples.
And though not official policy, they would annex British North America – aka Canada – adding it to the list of US colonies. Canada, they assumed, would surely ‘welcome the US as the great liberator’.
According to Thomas Jefferson, it would be “a mere matter of marching”. They estimated three months – tops – for the conquest of Canada.
Of course, in 1812 there were no cleared roads or bucolic vineyards in Upper Canada (Ontario). Carolinian forests, mosquito-infested bogs and scrubland covered the landscape. Although the land was fertile, it was still a wild, un-tamed wilderness. Regrettably, for the Americans, Thomas Jefferson – et al – had not considered this.
Meanwhile, fighting for Upper Canada and remaining loyal to the Crown, meant newly-arrived loyalists (now treaty land holders) would receive 200 acres of land. In return, pioneers were expected to clear their land, build roads and plant enough wheat, corn and vegetables to feed their own families and the extended community.
Loyalists willing to fight and join volunteer militia would receive even more land – up to 1000 acres. The British government generously rewarded those willing to put their lives on the line. Unless, of course, you were First Nations….
First Nations Role in the War of 1812
Ever pragmatic, most Indigenous nations in Upper Canada allied themselves with Great Britain during the war, seeing the British as the lesser of two colonial evils and the government most interested in maintaining traditional territories and trade.
In declaring war, American ‘war hawks’ in Congress failed to consider the battle prowess and strategic advantage Indigenous soldiers had on their own lands. Specifically, First Nations knew the lay of the land and how to live off the land, particularly in the cold, damp, harsh climate of Upper Canada.
According to the diaries of several British commanders, the critical battles in Niagara were won in large part because of the leadership, knowledge-sharing and participation of their Indigenous allies, although 1812 battle lore doesn’t always reflect that.
First Nations warriors from the Ojibwa and Dakota fought at the Battle of Michilimackinac helping defeat the American invasion in western Upper Canada. The Ojibwa, Odawa, Pottawatomi, Metis and Shawnee fought under the great chief Tecumseh at the capture of Detroit. Six Nations Grand River warriors fought in the battles of Queenston Heights, Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. And the Algonquin, Mohawk, Huron and Abenaki fought at the Battle of Châteauguay (see post 2 for a full timeline).
Over and over, the Canadian forces pushed back invading Americans. By all accounts, most American invasions into Upper and Lower Canada were an abysmal failure. The US army’s misplaced confidence, poor military leadership (many commanding officers had no previous battle experience or were pulled out of retirement from the Revolutionary War), poor soldier training and reliance on untrained local militia – resulted in blunder after blunder.
The biggest error in judgement? They’d underestimated the high stakes – native territory – at play for Indigenous warriors, plus the extraordinary agility, battle supremacy and strategic strength of the various Indigenous tribes.
At sea, the American navy had surprising success over the British, but most of those battles were on the eastern seaboard and not in Niagara.
By December 1814, the war of 1812 had moved from the northern frontier down the eastern seaboard to the south coast of the United States. The Burning of Washington – the capital buildings and the White House were torched as retribution for Americans burning the parliament buildings in York and the capital of Niagara, Newark – was the last real victory for the British. Battles in Baltimore, Florida and New Orleans resulted in considerable one-sided US wins and loss of life for British soldiers.
By the end of 2014, the battle weary and broke ($) American and British governments agreed to peace. The result was considered a stalemate. All land seized was returned to the country of origin and prisoners of war were allowed to return home.
Presentation from Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs on ‘Treaties and Land Claims in Ontario’ as part of Treaties Recognition Week. Visual iconography in Wampum belt and hand-holding between British and Indigenous peoples signifies symbolic peace and goodwill in 1764. Silver in covenant chain suggests the agreement and relationships will need to be polished on an ongoing basis. (Still a work in progress….)
An Inconvenient Truth
Wine producers and wine lovers in Niagara owe a huge debt to Indigenous communities for ‘sharing’ their traditional territories and for support of British Canada in the War of 1812. Their knowledge of the Niagara landscape, made them indispensable allies.
Today, Niagara wine is produced on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. The territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and the Between the Lakes Purchase of 1792 and is within the land protected by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum agreement. (I encourage everyone to read the specific terms of the Niagara purchase of 1781 which can be found here .)
Although the British promised a large Indian Territory around the south of the Great Lakes to Native Americans for supporting the Crown, the American government rejected this, and the terms of the Royal Proclamation in the final Ghent Peace Treaty.
While partners in 1812, by 1815, colonial expansion in ‘the Canadas’ followed American patterns. For all their promises, in the end, the settlers and governments in British Canada treated Indigenous peoples no better than their American counterparts. A series of land surrender treaties negotiated with Indian Department agents involved questionable one-time payments in goods, money or both. And as we know now from the hundreds of land claims grievances in Ontario – the Royal Proclamation provided scant protection for Indigenous peoples in Canada.
The fairness of these land transfers and Canada’s subsequent treatment of First Nations is part of the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation process in Canada. It requires a recognition of treaty agreements and a commitment to equitably restoring Indigenous Peoples land, language and culture. The legacy of stolen land, erasure and harm is one we and they continue to live with today.
Terroir and the Fruitful Empire
So that’s a very topline history of the region. How did grapes gain a foot-hold?
Wild grapes have always grown in Niagara and were originally harvested by Indigenous Peoples. A wide variety of orchard fruit thrived and thrives in the soils of Niagara, including peaches, apricots, cherries, apples and more. Today, the Niagara fruit belt produces 90% of Ontario’s fruit, making the Niagara region an agricultural treasure.
The incredible, green waters of the Niagara River provide a clue to the geologic history of the region and Niagara’s grape growing success. Calcium and magnesium particles from crushed prehistoric shells found in limestone colour the water and feed the regional soils.
The Niagara River was once the bottom of ancient Lake Iroquois – a much larger version of the already expansive Lake Ontario. At the end of the last Ice Age, the vast body of water retreated leaving behind the mineral-rich soils of Niagara’s farms, vineyards and orchards.
The dolomitic limestone soil of the Escarpment and the gravel silts closer to the river and lakeshore, are perfect for growing quality, European (Vitis vinifera) grapes and a wide variety of fruit.
Two other bits of terroir perfection influence the quality of winegrowing in the Niagara Peninsula. The Niagara Escarpment and the moderate climate influence of three of five of the Great Lakes combine to provide a unique microclimate.
Lake Ontario is often described as a hot water bottle in winter, and air conditioner in summer. It provides a valuable moderating influence keeping frost at bay in spring and fall shoulder months which is perfect for long, slow fruit ripening. That lake effect is more pronounced in regions bordering Lake Ontario and proximity to the lake has an enormous influence on grape growing and varietal selection.
The other significant influence is the limestone/shale/sandstone/dolostone Niagara Escarpment – a beautiful stretch of east-west cliffs overlooking Lake Ontario. The 510-meter (1675 ft.) elevation of the escarpment adds temperature variation, water considerations and soil and sub-soil impact to grape growing and varietal selection.
Perhaps the greatest attribute and most impressive feature in Niagara – and an original draw for First Nations in the region – is the Niagara Escarpment.
The same cliffs that form the spine of Niagara Falls and underpin the Niagara River contribute to this celebrated ecosystem with a wide diversity of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and a number of rare or endangered species. It was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on April 4, 1990.
So you see why Upper Canada’s Niagara Peninsula was worth fighting for?
In my next post, I’ve provided a timeline, and in blog 3, we’ll visit five wineries in the Niagara Peninsula where you can taste this fascinating history.
Feature Image: Cave Spring Vineyards
https://gem.cbc.ca/media/canada-a-peoples-history/s01 Canada – A People’s History – a 32-hour series divided into historical themes
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTOB5Jmi0A4 – War of Independence Canada – 45 minute documentary highlighting stories of 1812
https://www.pbs.org/show/war-1812/ full line-up of PBS shorts and docs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4LeeuIJrbI TVO – Tripping the Niagara 2:14
Tourism, History and Wine
https://bit.ly/3o5u4vg – War of 1812 Tour of Niagara Region with Dan Martin
https://www.visitniagaracanada.com/region/niagara-falls/ The stunning, natural wonder of Niagara Falls
https://www.niagaraparks.com/visit-niagara-parks/culinary/ Niagara Parks Culinary supports Ontario’s growers, producers and craftspeople. All NPC restaurants are Feast On certified, showcasing the local history, heritage and culture behind the food and drink that makes our destination unique.
St David’s walking tour created for anniversary of burning/rebuilding of community Link to pdf
https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1338906261900/1607905474266 Indigenous Allies and Battle contributions
Books: JR Miller’s, Compact, Contract Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (UTP, 2009) | A summary of this work is online: “Compact, Contract, Covenant Canada’s Treaty-Making Tradition”
https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/voices-from-here-richard-hill Transcript with Rick Hill Sr, a citizen of the Beaver Clan of the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee at Grand River on his work to repatriate material culture to his community.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_Wars US Indian Wars
Ontario First Nations and treaties map (PDF) Shows treaty locations in Ontario.
https://www.niagaraparks.com/things-to-do/landscape-of-nations-virtual-visit The Landscape of Nations is a living memorial dedicated to the contributions and sacrifices made by Six Nations and Native Allies on Queenston Heights and equally important, throughout the War of 1812.
https://www.ontario.ca/page/treaties#section-3 Treaties Recognition Week – November 1-7, 2021 Important site explaining the importance of treaties, treaty rights, relationships and their importance today.
Current land claims | ontario.ca Land claims in Ontario that are currently being assessed, negotiated, and implemented
https://www.notlmuseum.ca/research/war-of-1812 An absolute treasure trove of scholarly work and archival records of military personnel, militia, regiments who fought in the war, land grants, battle collection information, battle honours, book excerpts, and SO much more
http://discover1812.com/ The Legacy Council is a cross-border nonprofit organization, established to commemorate the War of 1812 and celebrate the 200 years of peace between nations that has followed.
http://discover1812.com/resources/ An archive of the War of 1812 Bicentennial (200th anniversary) events that took place in Canada’s Niagara region and in Western New York.
https://www.warof1812.ca/summary.html great article summarizing War of 1812
https://strangefatality.com/ – Brilliant read from Hamilton Spectator journalist James E. Elliott chronicling the oft over-looked Battle at Stoney Creek
Friends of Laura Secord – A totally kickass community group with the primary goal of preserving, strengthening and perpetuating the Secord legacy so it can continue to inspire and educate future generations about the many heroes, both famous and unsung, who helped to define this country.
The Invasion of Canada – Pierre Berton – (1980) An account of the war’s first year and the events that led up to it. An engrossing narrative that reads like a fast-paced novel. Drawing on personal memoirs and diaries as well as official dispatches, the author is able to get inside the characters of the men who fought the war – the common soldiers as well as the generals, the bureaucrats, the profiteers, the traitors and the loyalists.
Flames Across the Border – 1813 – 1814 – Pierre Berton (First edition 1981 – Second Edition 2011) The Canada–U.S. border was in flames as the War of 1812 continued. York’s parliament buildings were on fire, Niagara-on-the-Lake burned to the ground and Buffalo lay in ashes. Even the American capital of Washington, far to the south, was put to the torch. The War of 1812 had become one of the nineteenth century’s bloodiest struggles.
https://www.warof1812.ca/index.html – Fabulous collection of articles, history, heritage, facts on the War of 1812. Website creator is Robert Henderson, who worked at the National Archives and as Military Curator for Parks Canada. Founder of Access Heritage Inc, historian for the 1812 National War Monument on Parliament Hill, co-recipient of the Royal Heritage Award in 2012, recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013.
https://www.warof1812.ca/drinkup.htm Drink Up! Alcohol and the British Soldier in the Canadas during the War of 1812 – Gareth Newfield
https://www.warof1812.ca/queenstn.htm – Soldier’s account of the Queenston Heights Battle
https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/local-history-genealogy/2018/04/remembering-the-battle-of-york-april-27-snapshots-in-history.html Battle of York retrospective
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-canada-celebrates-the-war-of-1812-123828437/ Canadian take on the War of 1812
Thesis (above): Inventing a Foundation Myth: Upper Canada in the War of 1812 – an analysis of the historical accuracy of the Conservative Government’s $28 million bicentennial campaign message to Canadians. The author claims the “aim is neither to “counter nor countenance” the findings of the bicentennial, but rather only to analyze them and in effect create a reference point for Canadians.”
https://www.jstor.org/stable/24474882?refreqid=excelsior%3A46b158306cbc1732ba398c379a124e47 Reflections on a Bicentennial: The War of 1812 in American Public Memory – MATTHEW DENNIS – free with registration
https://www.niagarafallsinfo.com/niagara-falls-history/niagara-falls-municipal-history/the-chronicles-of-settlement-in-niagara/western-new-york-1788-1935/ Prior to 1788, with few exceptions the Western New York area was owned and occupied by Native Americans of the Neutral Nation. Those exceptions included the military outposts of the French and British at Fort Niagara and Fort Schlosser.
https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/war-of-1812-explodes-on-tv The documentary Explosion 1812, broadcast on History Television in June 2012, examined the Fort York explosion of the “grand magazine” from an archaeological and historical perspective
http://www.uppercanadahistory.ca/1812/18124.html The Capture of York and successes and failures of 1812
https://niagarafallsmuseums.ca/discover-our-history/history-notes/butlersrangers.aspx Butlers Rangers influence in US and Canada
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Madison James Madison’s presidency during War of 1812
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Washington Burning of Washington