First off, I will admit that I am woefully lacking when it comes to the era covered by Sunday’s latest episode of Canada: The Story of Us: The War of 1812. I grew up in London, Ont., and know that troops marched through that area. And what Canadian has not heard at least something of the history of Laura Secord? Beyond that, I am tabula rasa. My elementary school history teacher found me utterly hopeless.
We begin the episode with the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh at the point when he recovered vital American intelligence. Now he has leverage with the British; support for Indigenous lands in return for the information he holds. Partnering with Major General Isaac Brock, Tecumseh and the men he has following him create a front of fear that works to psychologically defeat their opponent. Hull surrendered.
Next, we turn to a re-enactment of the battle for Fort York and its stockpile of munitions and black powder. We learn of the bravery demonstrated by Captain Tito LeLièvre to ensure the stockpile does not make it to the American military. However, we also learn the Americans retaliated against the civilians of York, destroying the York library and the Parliament buildings of Upper Canada.
We cover the pivotal acts of Laura Secord and her alliance with Cayuga warrior John Tutela in her quest to warn the British encampment on the Niagara peninsula of an impending attack by the Americans. Their actions helped to thwart the advance of the Americans into Upper Canada.
We also learn of the effects of the privateers have on the American war effort by essentially cutting off their purse strings and, finally, we cover the Battle for Montreal. All of these events prove to the American military that Canada will not fall easily despite the lack of support from Britain due to their preoccupation with Napoleon. And once again, the show’s narration is assisted by commentary supplied by several celebrities and notaries including Candy Palmater, Missy Peregrym and Kristen Kreuk.
Overall, I found the episode to be just more of the same (perhaps this is why, for me, history was not a strong point), but I did enjoy learning more about both Tecumseh and Laura Secord.
As I promised last week, I again spoke with Elder David Plain of Aamjiwnaang to get his thoughts about this week’s episode.
Anaii. This week we explore The War of 1812, an era I know you have done a great deal of research on. Can you share with us your initial impressions this week?
David Plain: The turning points they [producers] chose were good ones but their presentation of them did leave me wondering. The Chippewa weren’t mentioned as being at the surrender of Fort Detroit [by Hull to Isaac Brock]. But they were. One hundred from the Thames [Chippewa of the Thames] were there and Aamjiwnaang [formerly, Chippewa of Sarnia] warriors arrived the day after the surrender.
Nor did they [producers] give any credit to the Mohawks with the victory at Beaver Dams [Niagara Peninsula]. They always present Laura Secord as the heroine that rushed over through the bush to get to the British Lieutenant FitzGibbon and warn him so he could meet the Americans and he took all of the credit. Laura Secord did not give her warning to FitzGibbon first but to Dominique Ducharme, an Indian agent from Montreal who was leading 500 Mohawks from Kahnawa:ke. They headed out first and attacked the Americans, neutralizing them, then the British arrived later to help out and Chief John Norton’s Grand River Mohawks [now Six Nations] arrived at the end of the battle just in time to loot the supply wagons. The Kahnawa:ke Mohawks got incensed and withdrew back to Montreal. Norton would later say, ‘The Kahnawa:ke warriors did the fighting, the Grand River warriors got the booty and FitzGibbon got the credit.’ To this day, it is still James FitzGibbon who gets all of the credit.
Perhaps the producers should have devoted two episodes to the war. I know when you have such limited amount of time you can only hit the highlights. Highlights would be turning points of the war. Those times when something extraordinary happens or is done by someone and if it didn’t the whole war would have taken a different direction. It’s those times that present the opportunity to play the ‘what if’ games.
What do you feel were a couple of the significant ‘turning points’ that were critical in the War of 1812?
Two major turning points occurred. One was the Surrender of Fort Detroit. That resulted in what is now the State of Michigan being annexed to Upper Canada for a year. This turned the advantage to the British.
The second turned the advantage back to the Americans and played a significant role on the western front: The Battle for Lake Erie in 1813. Tecumseh wanted to go back to Fort Meigs, located at the mouth of the Maumee River in Ohio. The British, led by Major General Henry Procter and Tecumseh with his warriors had tried to take the fort in April but failed. Tecumseh wanted to go back in July and try and take the fort again. He insisted on it. Procter said that he did not have the right size of guns. They needed heavier artillery to defeat the fort. But they went anyway, and they wasted a lot of time and effort along the way.
Meanwhile, the Americans were busy building a fleet of ships at what is now known as Erie Pennsylvania on Lake Erie. In August of 1813, the ships were ready and they sailed out. The British fleet sailed out of Amherstburg and they met and had a naval battle on Lake Erie. The British lost.
Because of this loss, the Americans now controlled Lake Erie. Lake Erie was how the British supplied the western front of the war; the Detroit theatre. This cut the British supply line off. Without supplies, Tecumseh and Procter decided to retreat. They destroyed Fort Malden at Amherstburg, and then they retreated up the Thames River. The Americans were chasing them and caught up with them just west of what is now London at Moraviantown. This is where they had the Battle of the Thames and where Tecumseh lost his life on October 5, 1813. As a result of this, the Indian Confederacy lost its leader and they disbanded. This loss basically took the natives out of the war, at least on the western front and meant that the independent state as promised to the Indian Confederacy by Isaac Brock never came to pass.
If Tecumseh and Procter decided instead to attack the naval yard in Erie, there never would have been a battle on the Lake and the British supply line would never have been closed off by the Americans.
Once again, chi miigwetch to Elder David Plain for taking the time out his schedule to speak with us.
Canada: The Story of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
David Plain B.R.S., M.T.S., is the author of five books with a sixth, The Exmouth Chronicles: A Memoir due out later this month April 2017 by Trafford Publications. You can reach David on Facebook or Twitter.