Amid intense media interest around the bicentennial of the war that led to Canada's independence and the penning of "The Star-Spangled Banner," 1812 takes readers on a comprehensive tour of the sites in both Canada and the U.S. that figured prominently in this landmark historical event. This is the only guide that contains both Canadian and U.S. sites, taking the reader to war-related landmarks. Readers journey from the Great Lakes, down the Eastern Seaboard, to New Orleans, reliving such famous battles as Tippecanoe, Queenston Heights, Horseshoe Bend, and Chalmette, and visiting such celebrated sites as the USS Constitution, Governors Island, Fort McHenry, and the White House. Organized by geography in six chapters, each focusing on a different theater of war, this lushly illustrated, handy guide includes text that explains how the war played out, as well as how to visit each site, fact-filled sidebars, visitor information, and easy-to-read maps. The compact trim size and succinct presentation of information make the book a must-have souvenir for anyone joining in the bicentennial festivities or interested in the War of 1812.
When the British handed over Fort Mackinac to the Americans in 1796, they decided to create a new military post to protect their interests in the upper Great Lakes and solidify their alliances with the Native Nations in the region. They chose a strategically placed peninsula on nearby St. Joseph Island, Ontario, and garrisoned the fort with a small detachment of troops. During its short existence, Fort St. Joseph was a military post and thriving fur-trade center.
Situated at the meeting point of three of the Great Lakes (Superior, Huron, and Michigan), Fort St. Joseph’s primary purposes were to protect and foster the lucrative fur trade that passed through the region and to anchor British claims to all territory north of St. Marys River. As such, it attracted a small population of Northwest Company employees, who established a community outside the fort. With a British Indian Department agent stationed there, the settlement also saw a steady flow of Anishinaabeg visitors. As the most westerly outpost of British North America, Fort St. Joseph was lonely, remote, and largely cut off from communication with the rest of Canada.
The British Relocate
When war broke out in the summer of 1812, the isolated and weakly fortified post was suddenly thrust to the forefront of international geopolitics. Rather than wait for an assault that his troops might not be able to repel, garrison commander Capt. Charles Roberts, who had received orders from his superior, Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, to take the initiative, devised a plan to hit the Americans first by capturing Fort Mackinac, which he did with a swift and secret attack (see p. 22). His combined force of British regulars, fur-trade employees, and Native allies surprised the American garrison, who had not yet received news of the outbreak of war. Outnumbered and isolated, the American commander surrendered without a shot being fired.
Having thwarted the only American threat in the region, Roberts relocated his command from St. Joseph’s to Mackinac, a much more substantial fort on a piece of land that would be easier to defend if U.S. forces counterattacked. The fur traders went too, moving their operations to Mackinac village. Fort St. Joseph, barely 15 years old, stood empty. Although abandoned, it was not completely forgotten, because in the summer of 1814, an American naval force under Col. George Croghan cruised up St. Marys River with the aim of capturing Fort St. Joseph as the first step in a campaign to retake control of the upper Great Lakes. Much to their surprise, the fort was vacant. But that did not prevent them from torching the buildings before sailing on to defeat at Mackinac.
Although they were forced to return Fort Mackinac to the Americans after the war and move back to their side of the border, the British decided not to rebuild Fort St. Joseph. Instead, they developed a new base on nearby Drummond Island, which at the time was considered to be in British North American territory. A survey after the war determined that it was in the U.S.
The Past Revealed
Weeds soon ruled the ruins of Fort Joseph, which faded into history until the 1920s, when the Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) Historical Society decided to preserve this small chapter of Canadian history. The site had gone virtually untouched for more than a hundred years and had escaped looting by souvenir hunters, making it a prime candidate for preservation. Archaeological digs have uncovered the remains of more than 40 structures on the tiny peninsula.
A small museum in the fort’s visitor center tells the story of Fort St. Joseph and of the commercial and cultural relationship between Europeans and Native Nations in this remote corner of Ontario. Visitors can watch films about the fur trade and the archaeological digs, and see artifacts uncovered at the site. Other exhibits include uniforms and clothing worn by soldiers and the Anishinaabeg and other nations who frequented the fort.
From the visitor center, footpaths spread out across the peninsula to the ruins, most prominent of which is the old blockhouse, a rectangle of stones in the middle of a field not far from the lakeshore. Nearby are the remains of the powder magazine, a guardhouse, and a couple of kitchens, whose chimneys are the most recognizable features today. Those with keen eyesight may be able to identify the outline of the fort walls and the triangular bastions at the four corners.
Visitors can also wander nature trails. People have spotted black bear, moose, beaver, and eagles in and around the historic site. Wildlife also flourishes in the St. Joseph’s Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary around the fort.
Those with an interest in living history should visit Fort St. Joseph in mid-August, when volunteers present the annual Ghost Walk, an after-dark candlelight stroll through the ruins. “Spirits” in period costumes recount tales of what life was like during the early 19th century.
Fort Rd., St. Joseph Island, ON • 705-246-2664 • www.parkscanada.ca • $ • Closed mid-Oct.to June
Nearby & Noteworthy
Fort Drummond: Ruins are all that remain of the base the British built in 1815 to replace Fort Mackinac—without realizing that it was on U.S. territory. The ruins are now on private property and visitors can view them only from the water. A historical marker just east of the Drummond Island ferry dock describes the fort.
Drummond Island, MI, www.drummondislandchamber.com
St. Joseph Island Museum: Located near the island’s north end, the museum’s 6,000-plus collection includes Fort St. Joseph relics and Native Nations artifacts. Historic structures, such as the first schoolhouse, a general store, and the old Zion Church, have been moved to the museum village.
20th Side Rd. and 1 Line, St. Joseph Island, ON, www.stjoemuseum.com
Sault Ste. Marie: A fur-trading center in the war, this Michigan city boasts a number of structures dating from that time. The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Interpretive Center describes the history and customs of the region’s primary Native Nations group.