By the time I arrive at Fort George in the early afternoon, the weather has turned cloudy and is threatening rain. Not knowing how much time I have, I quickly gather my camera equipment and note pad and head for the fort’s Visitor Centre located a short distance from the front gate. Inside I find a notice for the day’s events at Fort George and discover that in less then 15 minutes there is a musket display at the opposite end of the Fort.
Once inside the main gate you start realize just how very different the Fort George and Fort Erie are. Fort George seems incredibly spacious compared to the tight confines of Fort Erie. Near the far end of the fort, I see a small crowd starting to gather no doubt in anticipation of the musket display. I’ve covered about two thirds the distance before I catch sight of the familiar scarlet red coat of a British soldier stepping out of one of Fort George’s massive wooden blockhouses. I’ve seen soldiers wear this uniform in countless paintings, photographs and in movie and television productions, yet there is something about seeing someone in it ‘live and in person’.
It’s a revealing demonstration not only of the skills needed to load and fire an eighteenth century musket, but also a look into the rigorous training and discipline needed to be an infantry soldier in the British Regular Army. Most British soldiers had to make do with what was called a “Brown Bess” musket. The gun was difficult to load and notoriously inaccurate which pretty much dictated the type of tactics used, in this case tightly packed lines of enemy soldiers facing each other. The result was hundreds of musket balls fired off at once (concentrated fire) and a battlefield filled with heavy white smoke that obscured friend and opponent. It must have taken an incredible amount of courage and discipline to stand and face an enemy while a mass of muskets are aimed and fired at you.
After the demonstration I get a chance to speak with our presenter, Dan Laroche, a Heritage Presentation Supervisor here at the Fort. On the weekends, he gets the chance to do this demonstration. Most of the time during the week one of his staff performs this same demonstration. I mention how amazed I was at the depth of knowledge and understanding that Dan and those who work with him display about life in the eighteenth century. We go on to talk about some of the activities still going on at the fort. It’s nearing the end of Fort George’s busy summer season and the activity level around the Fort is gearing down during the fall and winter seasons. Our conversation is cut short, a number of visitors want their picture taken standing beside a British Soldier and he graciously obliges
As he moves away, I start to feel drops of rain again. I realize I’ll have to squeeze as much as I can in before the rain starts coming down. I start in the closest building, Blockhouse 1. It’s the first of the three blockhouses you see as you enter the gates of Fort George. The four walls are crammed full of information that recount the story of the fort, the development of Upper Canada and the War of 1812. I read that the Fort George I’m visiting today is actually a reconstruction built on the site of the original fort. It depicts what life at the original fort was like just prior to the 1812 war. The only original structure inside the fort is the Stone Powder Magazine – the oldest known surviving military structure in Ontario.
In 1796, the Treaty of Paris forced the British to give up control of Fort Niagara which now was located in United States territory. Believing it vital to protect British interests in Upper Canada, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe ordered the construction of a new fort on the west side of the Niagara River to be named after the British Monarch. The new fort’s impressive structure boasted six earthen and log bastions linked by a wooden palisade and surrounded by a dry ditch. The structures inside included three massive log blockhouses (soldier’s barracks), a guardhouse, hospital, kitchens, workshops, officer’s quarters’ and the stone powder magazine. It’s position on the high ground above the rivers edge was ideal to protect Navy Hall which served as a warehouse and wharf facility. Unfortunately it was in a poor position to either protect the town of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake today) or to command the mouth of the Niagara River.
Fort George served as headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army during the War of 1812. Until his death at Queenston Heights, Major General Isaac Brock also made Fort George his headquarters. In May 1813, Fort George was destroyed by the combined bombardment of the guns of the American Navy and Fort Niagara. They were using red-hot cannon balls “hot shot” causing several of Fort George’s buildings to burn down. America forces then used the fort’s ruins as a base in their attempt to invade Upper Canada. They were beaten back to Fort George, losing at the Battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. In December 1813, after a seven month occupation the Americans abandoned Fort George and burned the Town of Niagara. The British took control of the abandoned fort and used it as a base to capture Fort Niagara nine days later. Fort George remained in British hands for the rest of the war and was partially rebuilt. By the 1820’s Fort George was in ruins, finally abandoned in favour of the newer and more strategic installation of Fort Mississauga and Butler’s Barracks which were in a more protected position.
In 1921 Fort George is declared a National Historic Site and sixteen years later reconstruction and restoration officially begin on the fort’s original site. Today, Parks Canada operates Fort George as a place of living history.
Besides Blockhouse 1, I’m able to work my way through a number of the fort’s other buildings including Blockhouse 2, the Guardhouse, Artificers’ Building, Officer’s Quarters and the Powder Magazine. But it’s getting late into the afternoon and my time is running out.
My last stop is Brock’s Bastion at the north east corner of the fort near the front entrance. Here on this raised bastion, cannon can be trained directly at the heart of Fort Niagara or at any enemy ships trying to enter the mouth of the Niagara River from Lake Ontario. On October 16, three days after the Battle of Queenston Heights, Major General Isaac Brock was interned in this spot along with his aid-de-camp. So great was the esteem held for the General that an official truce was declared for the day, military honors rendered on both sides of the Niagara River. Even the American flag was flying at half-mast at Fort Niagara during the procession. Twelve years later the bodies would be moved to a new vault in the newly constructed memorial at Queenston Heights. A stone marker is the only reminder that Brock was buried here.
Before leaving Niagara-on-the-Lake, I spend a few moments walking around the ground of Butler’s Barracks. My day’s journey into the past has to come to an end and yet there is still so much to learn. There is so much yet to discover about Niagara’s Forts and their role in our nation’s past. When next summer comes, I plan to return and continue my journey.
Note to reader:
I’ve only included only a few of the details in the preceding article. It’s important that you the reader experience these historical places in person.
Parks Canada Fort George site
Friends of Fort George