The War of 1812: Canada's bridge to nationhood

The story of the first battle of 1812 on the Riviere Canard that stopped the Americans from advancing into Canada, and the vital role that Native warriors played in the war.

A gathering of British soldiers, local French and English farmers, and Native warriors, was Canada's 'first great act of nation-building.'

Nation-building at the River Canard 4:24

This video tells the story of the first battle of 1812, on the bridge over Riviere Aux Canard, which stopped the Americans from advancing into Canada. This is where the first Native warrior died, and where British private James Hancock met his death by musket fire. Private John Dean also stood the bridge and faced 280 Americans soldiers. He was wounded and taken prisoner and was later rescued by General Isaac Brock when the British forced the surrender of Fort Detroit.

Bridge over the River Canard

On the muddy banks of a small river in Essex County, Ont., 200 years ago, an unlikely bunch of people defended the border of a land that would one day become Canada. 

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. The Americans imagined they would march into British North America and claim the land known as Upper Canada, take control of the northwestern fur trade and "liberate the local landowners from the British," says tour guide and amateur historian Ron LaPointe. 

But even though the Americans vastly outnumbered those fighting for Canada, "we stopped them!" says Lapointe."We drew a line in the sand at River Canard."

LaPointe calls the alliance among the British, the local French and English farmers, and the Native warriors our, "first great act of Nation building." 

Marching into Upper Canada wasn't the cake-walk the Americans had hoped it would be. The American officers and soldiers were met by this rag tag alliance of local farmers, both French and English, along with Native warriors and British soldiers — a group that represented those who would later become the founding nations of a sovereign country called Canada.   

The first land battle of the war of 1812 was fought in mid July on the banks of the Riviere Aux Canard between present day Windsor and the town of Amherstburg.

Marching out from their Fort in Detroit, 280 Americans tried to cross into Upper Canada at the small wooden bridge over the River Canard. British soldiers James Hancock and John Dean, along with several Native warriors, stood their ground. 

Lapointe says, "Hancock and Dean were ordered to surrender. They did not. The Americans waited and again asked for their surrender. They did not." 

Hancock was then shot and killed by musket fire on the small wooden bridge. John Dean was wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans.  

They weren't the first casualties of the battle. A native warrior was the first to die at the bridge in what historians now call "the skirmishes on the Canard." LaPointe calls him simply the "unnamed Indian." According to legend, an American soldier scalped the warrior and tied the scalp to his sleeve as a trophy of war before leaving the bridge that day.

The fallen warrior is just one of the Native people who gave their lives to protect what would become Canada. "The British and Canada could not have won the war without the Indians," says Lapointe.

The bridge itself is currently unnamed. Lapointe would like it to be named after the two British privates who stood on it so valiantly 200 years ago. 

"Here in this area, River Canard was the only natural obstacle and the little wooden bridge was the only way across," LaPointe says. "These two guys, Hancock and Dean, got the assignment to hold the bridge, and as 280 American soldiers marched toward them Hancock fired the first shot. These guys are heroes, Hancock and Dean."

The surrender of Detroit

The River Canard is also where British General Isaac Brock first met Chief Tecumseh before they marched into Detroit and demanded that William Hull, the Governor of Michigan Territory, surrender Fort Detroit. 

"General Brock and I, we had an instant liking for one another", says David Morris, who has played the role of Chief Tecumseh in living-history re-enactments for 30 years.  

David Morris plays the role of Chief Tecumseh in historical War of 1812 re-enactments. (CBC )

"We were both not cautious men. We were men who liked to take risks. I could see he was a man of honour." 

Only a few weeks after the skirmishes on the Canard, Tecumseh and Brock and their allied forces traveled by canoe across the Detroit River to capture Fort Detroit.  Some American soldiers started to cross the river to prevent the British forces from reaching the other side, but were stopped by their fear of the Native warriors.

David Morris, speaking as Tecumseh says, "Only one third of the Americans crossed the river and our warriors began to scream their war cries and many more would not cross."

The War of 1812 — Land, Furs and Fear

The War of 1812 was the first time local farmers of Upper Canada, the British military and the Native warriors came together to defend their land and the fur trade against a common enemy — the Americans.

But according to indigenous educator Rick Hill, coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic in Ohsweken, Ont., the Americans in 1812 had an extraordinary fear of the "savage warrior." The British generals used this fear as a form of what he describes as psychological warfare. 

Rick Hill from Six Nations Polytechnic says the British used psychological warfare to help defeat the Americans, playing on U.S. soldiers' fears of Native warriors. (CBC)

"It's not enough that a war be fought over furs and land", says Hill. "No, they had to throw in a little racism too." 

Hill says the British used this fear to their advantage in the war of 1812, and many historians today believe the war would have been lost without the alliance with the native warriors. 

"The natives served in a couple of ways," he says. "First, they were a very powerful fighting force, but also there was this fear of Natives, especially in the minds of the Americans. They had such stereotypes." 

It was also "expert leadership and military maneuvers that won the day," Hill says.

But Hill adds that if it wasn't for the way the British incited fear in the Americans by threatening to unleash their "savage allies," Canada might never have been born.

This is the kind of psychological warfare that Rick Hill says the British made use of against the Americans. It turned out to be an ultimate weapon in the War of 1812, particularly in the attack on Fort Detroit.

Weapon of emotional terror

"General Brock had heard about the legendary fear that American General William Hull had of being captured and tortured by natives," Hills sayd, "so Brock and Tecumseh crafted a plan."

Brock reportedly demanded the surrender of Fort Detroit by telling the Americans that it was the only way he could guarantee General Hull’s survival against the savagery of the native allies. 

"It was a weapon of emotional terror," says Hill. 

And it worked.

David Morris, in the voice of Chief Tecumseh, picks up the story. "The Stars and Stripes came down and was replaced by a white table-cloth [a sign of surrender] and all of Michigan was ours."

Ron LaPointe says losing Southeast Michigan was a humiliating defeat for the Americans. General Hull would later be court-martialed for surrendering the fort.

The British held Detroit for 14 months before the Americans rallied and took it back. 

There were other battles lost and won, including the British attack on Washington and the burning of the Whitehouse in 1814, and the battle of Baltimore for which the lyrics of the American National Anthem were written. But when the war ended in 1815, no land was ultimately lost or gained by either side. 

Morris takes on the role of Chief Tecumseh so completely that he speaks as if it is Tecumseh from the grave. "The promise was made to my people that, if we help the British win back Michigan, Indiana and Ohio the land south of the Great Lakes will be given to my people. General Brock called it a buffer zone.  We put a lot of hope in that promise."

But he adds sadly, "My good friend General Brock was killed in battle in October 1812 and the promise was never kept."  Tecumseh himself was killed a year later.

Winners and losers in the War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a war with several agendas.

The Americans had hoped to move the border north and "liberate" the more northern settlers claiming the land as they went. 

The British wanted to defend the border of British North America and keep control of the northern fur trade.

Tecumseh and his Native Confederacy wanted to establish a large tract of land between the U.S. and British North America. 

So who really won the War of 1812, and who came out on the losing side? It depends who you ask.

Morris, speaking as Chief Tecumseh, says there is a general consensus that the Natives were the biggest losers of the war. "You know, many of my people died in the War of 1812 — more than the British and the Americans combined. I don’t know who won the war, but I do know who lost — there is no doubt about that in my people."

Michael Bliss, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, calls the war a draw.

"The War of 1812 was fought between Great Britain and the United States," he says. "The outcome was an effective stalemate — therefore neither side won. However, it's also well understood that because the U.S. did not succeed in conquering British North America, therefore its provinces survived as separate from the U.S."

And from this victory, Canada was born 52 years later. 

Bliss adds that it was a draw for the Natives as well. "The war was the last in which they [First Nations] played a significant role, and did nothing to resolve their long-term problems."

Rob Tymec, who runs the Essex County local theatre company Monkeys with Typewriters which is doing a play about the war, agrees with Bliss and Tecumseh. "There was no clear winner or loser, although if we had not won the war we would be Americans right now. But if anyone lost the war, it was the First Nations."

Hill, coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic, suggests another interpretation. "Because the Native people are still waiting for their treaties to be honoured by the British, the War of 1812 never ended."