Presentation May 12
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

This practice was detested in the young United States, as reflected in an American pro-war motto of the time: "Free trade and sailors' rights". (Full disclosure: As many readers will recall, I am American born and raised. These affronts to personal liberty and national sovereignty have long been taught in the U.S. as justifications for the War of 1812.)

Henderson cautioned the audience that the press tends to add “spin” to covering the war, so I thought I'd prove his point in the paragraph above! He suggests going to historians and historical sources for the real picture. Sound advice!

The U.S. officially declared on June 18th  of 1812. Although some action took place from coast to coast, the watery front lines – the key routes of transportation, commerce and communication – were along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. Those of us accustomed to the modern tranquility of the St. Lawrence Seaway need to bear in mind that in 1812 untamed rapids made portions of the river tricky and arduous. Military control of certain sections was essential for the war's over-all outcome.

The conflict also set the stage for Ottawa's eventual rise to prominence. The Rideau Canal was built to remedy Upper Canada's dependence on the vulnerable boundary waters. Considering there had already been two wars between the neighbours in just 30-odd years, who could tell if hostilities might break out again?

      The trigger mechanism of a period musket

The trigger and firing mechanism of the period musket displayed at the meeting.

By and large, the war wasn't started (or welcomed) by residents of both sides of the river in our region. Settlers shared commonalities of frontier hardship and inter-dependent need. Frustrating trade restrictions hurt this region's economy. Consequently, smuggling was common and widely accepted by the locals – who resented laws and taxes designed to suit the squabbles of Washington London or Paris. In addition, certain areas of Upper Canada were settled by American immigrants, “Late Loyalists” ( a term Henderson dislikes), whose loyalty actually was in some doubt.

The strategic importance of the St. Lawrence brought the war here nevertheless, particularly to the cross-river communities of Prescott and Ogdensburg.

In the body of his talk and the lengthy question period that followed, Henderson detailed many of the notable events and personalities that made the annals of history, including: Ogdensburg's David Parish, U.S. Captain Benjamin Forsyth, British Lt.-Col. 'Red George' MacDonnell, Fort Wellington Commandant Thomas Pearson, U.S. General James Wilkinson (whom Henderson calls “a narcissistic sociopath”), Canadian regiment Major Francis Cockburn, Major General Isaac Brock, Tecumseh, and some names that should be better-known, such as John Norton.

What about the role of Native peoples? Henderson called that a fascinating topic. Of the four groups involved (Americans, Canadians, Native peoples and the British ) Natives divided into three factions: pro-American, pro-British and neutral – with good reasons for taking different sides.

Henderson observed that Britain, Canada and the United States all have their own nationalistic slant on the war and he opined that the U.S. is prone to “cherry picking” what it choses to recollect. Henderson also observed that most of the fighting in that war involved New York State or its troops, but Governor Cuomo largely cancelled state funding for commemorative events due to budgetary troubles. Henderson added that this period has so many myths one could spend all their time whacking them down like carnival moles.

Henderson says there are new War of 1812 exhibits worth seeing at Fort Wellington, Upper Canada Village and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. War Museum volunteer Brian Earl confirmed that the display will include the very tunic Major General Brock wore when he was fatally shot at the Battle of Queenston Heights.

In Henderson's view, Ontario is so large and diverse that in some respects there is no such thing as an Ontarian. In fact, the war was experienced quite differently in various areas. Henderson feels this pronounced regional diversity increases the importance of local historical societies in understanding and sharing the heritage of different communities. We owe him thanks for helping our local group gear up for an anniversary that's about to go into full swing.  

The War of 1812 on the Upper St. Lawrence River   

Presenter:  Robert Henderson

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

This is, of course, an important bicentennial year for an event that shaped Canadian history in general and this region in particular. All sorts of lectures, displays and re-enactments are on tap, on both sides of the border. RTHS pays heed to the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with our May lecture and June's field excursion to Fort Wellington. With all that in mind, thirty-eight members and guests eagerly gathered at Pierce's Corners to hear Manotick resident Robert Henderson speak about how that war played out along “our” stretch of the St. Lawrence River.

     Robert Henderson's display table

The meeting was well attended, the talk interesting and the questions many. Robert Henderson gave a fascinating account of the War of 1812 on the Upper St. Lawrence that covered  the politics, technology, and human aspects of that important conflict.  

Henderson grew up along the river in the Prescott area before majoring in history at Carleton University. He's a former Military Curator of Parks Canada for Ontario, and worked as an archival professional at Library and Archives Canada. He is responsible for the most visited internet site on this subject ( Henderson has authored many articles and has a book coming out in English and French later this year: “Desperate Bravery: The Last Invasion of Quebec, 1814”. His business and consulting venture, The Discriminating General, provides heritage material and equipment for museums, re-enactors and collectors around the world.

Henderson expressed his pleasure in exploring the broad picture of those times along with details of ordinary life that would have been experienced by soldiers and civilians – “the human side of heritage”. His interest extends to championing how participants of that conflict are remembered today. (Learn more about one aspect of that cause at: )

But back to the presentation. Besides lively historical slides, Henderson brought some goodies: a fairly useless straight sword, a more-effective curved sword and a replica of an 1812-era musket. Attendees enjoyed the opportunity to handle all three items at talk's end.

Henderson began by passing around a bag of replica coins (circa 1787, depicting George III). Everyone was invited to keep one as a souvenir. “Taking the King's shilling” was, of course, a ritual associated with military enlistment at that time – a recruitment contract that was sometimes accomplished through trickery, or through force, in the navy's case, with press gangs. (Most of us were gullible enough to take the shiny bait – does it mean we are now enlisted in Henderson's army?)  

     Robert Henderson showing a perio musket

Robert Henderson showing one of the artefacts from his display table.  

Side note/personal spin: Trade blockades and the touchy issue of impressment were irritants that  contributed to the War of 1812. Off-and-on war with Napoleon in Europe left Great Britain in desperate need of sailors. The British held that anyone born a British subject was still British – liable to be “pressed” into service. American ships were forcibly stopped and searched at sea resulting in thousands of U.S. nationals (or actual British deserters) being dragged off to serve under harsh conditions on British warships.