Niagara-on-the-Lake is a beautiful tourist town on the Niagara River. Hiding just around the corner from the popular tourist area is the historic Fort George, a reconstruction of a fort that was built in this location between 1796 and 1802. It looks out over the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, with a great view of Fort Niagara on the American side. It offers a look at how Canadian soldiers and their families lived at that time, well before Canada became a dominion.
The war, which took place between June of 1812 and February of 1815, was a conflict between Great Britain & her colonies including Upper Canada, and the United States. The fort was the headquarters of the British Army’s Centre Division during the war.
When I approached the fort on foot, the sound of gunfire rang out. The gate guard, playing his fife, informed us that a group of scouts were inside, practicing their shooting with cap guns shaped just like the weapons used during the war. The group was on site, staying in the soldiers’ barracks, as a practice for full reenactment that will take place later in the summer with over 3,000 scouts, dressed as soldiers, marching on the fort. The children ran around in their red coats and jeans, playing soldier and learning about the war.
The gate guard accepted our shilling, the cost to enter the fort and a days wage for a soldier in 1812, and told us a little bit about the fort. We were given a map and sent on our way for a self-guided tour which took about an hour.
The reconstructed buildings at the fort are decked out in historical plaques, describing the war itself, the living situation at the fort, and providing visitors with as much information as they could want concerning the history of the local area.
Though very few of the structures at Fort George or the surrounding town are original, the entire town was razed to the ground during the war of 1812, the fort is considered a faithful reconstruction including soldier barracks, officers’ quarters, and a guard tower looking out over the river.
The Friends of Fort George are the group that organizes many of the events that take place at the fort. They are a non-profit organization and formed in 1987 for the purpose of “becoming actively involved in the activities at Fort George National Historic Site,” and now raise money to support those events. The site itself was reconstructed in the 1930 by the Royal Engineers and was then designated a National Historic Site.
The powder magazine, say the Friends of Fort George, is “the only building to have survived the Battle of Fort George and is the oldest military building in Ontario today.” It is also the oldest building in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The structure is low and constructed of stone and wooden beams. The door is so low that warnings are posted so no one hits their head. Inside are racks of powder kegs for the many guns displayed around the fort.
In addition to the big guns, their is a musket demonstration every hour. A soldier in his red coat fires his musket at the sky and then takes everyone inside for a lesson on 19th century weapons.
Despite their resounding victory in the Battle of Fort George, American soldiers held on to Fort George itself for only seven months, when they retreated back across the Niagara River, burning the town down as they left, leaving about 400 women and children with nowhere to live as winter approached.
Around the fort, archaeologists have displayed a number of items from that time, including broken glassware and weapons, that were found around the fort when it was excavated.
Plaques in the fort buildings question who actually won the war, pointing out that it really depends on who you ask.
“Many died in the conflict or were caught in the crossfire: Soldiers, warriors from various First Nations, volunteer militia, and local townspeople,” states one display. “All fought for different reasons.”
Further along the tour route in a small cottage with information on how the wives and children of soldiers lived, and a display of the Widow Campbell, the wife of a British Soldier who was forced to remain behind American lines with her children.
“If there is an individual who can claim more commiseration that another,” reads the display, “surely it would be Mrs. Campbell.
Plaques also acknowledge the contributions and experiences of First Nations peoples in the war and the reconstruction of the fort. Parks Canada says that individual people from various nations were consulted “regarding their understanding of the War of 1812,” and emphasized their attempts to present the First Nations perspective in their own words.
What’s Happening at Fort George
Jane Austen Lecture
May 18, 2017
Fort George Murder Mystery
May 27, 2017
World War One Re-enactment
June 17 – 18, 2017
Celebrate Canada Day
July 1, 2017
Battle of Fort George Re-enactment
July 8 & 9, 2017
Persuasion Tea Party
August 3, 2017
Fife and Drum Muster
& Soldiers’ Field Day
August 19 – 20, 2017
Echoes of Niagara’s Past:
A Military Timeline Event
August 26 – 27, 2017
Battle of Queenston Heights
October 7 – 8, 2017
Displays at the fort are presented in both English and French. For the month of April, the fort is open only on weekends, from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Beginning in May, the fort will be open daily.