Family memories of War of 1812's Charles-Michel de Salaberry

Most Canadians learn about the War of 1812 in school and from books, but for Toronto's Nicolas de Salaberry, the history of the war also has a much more personal connection.
Toronto's Nicolas de Salaberry stands with an image of his ancestor, Charles-Michel de Salaberry, a lieutenant-colonel who led a militia force in the War of 1812.

Most Canadians learn about the War of 1812 in school and from books, but for Toronto's Nicolas de Salaberry, the history of the war also has a much more personal connection.

One of his ancestors is Charles-Michel de Salaberry, a lieutenant-colonel who led a militia force that consisted mostly of French-speaking wood-cutters, assisted by native warriors.

"When I was a kid, I imagined him leading a force of 400 soldiers who were outnumbered but well-positioned," de Salaberry says. "While certainly a capable military strategist, what he is remembered for in the War of 1812 could only have been possible with brave people — the voltigeurs — who were willing to face dangers that they were little prepared-for."

Nicolas de Salaberry spoke with CBC's Diane Campbell about his family and their stories about the War of 1812. Here are excerpts from the interview.  

Nicolas de Salaberry.

CBC: How did you first find out that you were a direct descendant of Lt.-Col. de Salaberry?  

I've been aware of him being an ancestor mine since I was very young, and part of that's just because we had people like historians coming to the house at a young age and asking questions. So it became something that we were aware of in the household.  

CBC: How were stories passed down to you?  

Well, partly just through my parents telling me a little bit about things that had happened in the family, and, you know, on family vacations.

If you drive to Montreal, for example, there's Salaberry de Valleyfield, and so you wonder, 'Oh, there's my name, why is it there?' So there were those sorts of opportunities.

And then people sometimes ask. They say, you know, 'I recognize your name. Are you related to so-and-so?' So there were opportunities to be aware.  

CBC: And what do you know about Lt.-Col. de Salaberry?  

From a pretty young age, I knew that he led a small number of militia, of volunteers, and that they had repelled a large number of American invaders just south of Montreal, in an area called Chateauguay.  

CBC: While you were growing up, did you learn about the War of 1812 in school?  

When I was growing up, I didn't actually learn a lot about the War of 1812. I learned a little bit about him, because there were stories in the family, but it was pretty scant. I knew that he had led a small number of militia against a large number of invaders, but it was pretty much contained to that.

We'd also taken a few family trips through Quebec and stopped also at the site of the battlefield, so that obviously raised some level of interest in what had happened.

Then in Grade 10 history in the Ontario curriculum, there's about half a page that talks about the eastern side of the War of 1812 conflict, and he's actually mentioned there. That was the first time I can remember being in a classroom surrounded by people, and seeing the family name in a textbook.

CBC: What were your impressions of what he did?  

I was imagining him as a ... British officer in front of a bunch of soldiers. I hadn't really appreciated — as I do now — that, in fact, he was leading a bunch of  woodcutters and just regular civilians who had put on uniforms about a year before the battle, and started training and, more or less, a motley crew of people who were not professional soldiers.

So I'd imagined that he was certainly a skilled soldier, but I'd never grasped until my adult life that he was leading a bunch of volunteers.  

CBC: As you got older, did you learn anything that surprised you or challenged your impressions?  

A thing that surprises me was how much of a strategist he was, and a tactician. He did all sorts of things that threw off his American invaders, and it's kind of entertaining to read, actually, to learn about this battle. I mean, even if I wasn't related to him, it's an interesting chapter in Canadian history.  

CBC: Is there anything that has struck a chord with you about your ancestor, or the circumstances he or his fellow soldiers faced in battle?  

I think the thing that really struck me is that they were resident to the area, they knew the Canadian woods. And that gave them a tremendous advantage over the invaders that had to march for hundreds of kilometres, so that they were tired out and they were unfamiliar.

I think the other thing that's really struck me was the close relationship between the Mohawk First Nations warriors, who were part of his contingent of fighting corps, and the mostly French-Canadian volunteers that formed that militia. Together, they collaborated in a way that really threw off the American invaders. I think that's a very interesting story as well.  

CBC: Why do you think it's important for Canadians to remember this war?  

I think Canadians need to remember this war, just as it is important for them to remember any war, and that there were sacrifices made. There was strong courage and bravery. And there was also, as I say, a lot of losses.

I think every war has that kind of drama, but it also has moments where people are tested, so to speak. I think — for me — because I had an ancestor who involved with (the War of) 1812, I became interested in Canadian history probably a little younger than many of my friends. But I think all Canadians benefit by being more aware of their own history — even if they have no ancestor that dates back to 1812, it makes no difference.  

CBC: It's the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. How are you commemorating the memory of this war, and of your ancestor?  

I've got to emphasize, in our family it's not like we have big festivals to celebrate the war or anything like that. It's an interesting story, but for me, probably the most significant commemoration is going to Fort York. There's a number of events happening across the city of Toronto … and there's an actual commemoration of the battle that my ancestor led, in the site where the battle happened — that's happening next year.

I'm reading about it in the paper. I'm hearing about events across the city, there are things on TV.  So I'm observing this bicentenary probably much the same as any other Canadian.