Fighting sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay : the War of 1812 and its aftermath
- Barry Gough.
- Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, c2002.
Where to find it
The struggle for domination in the Upper Great Lakes and American heartland.
- Preface and Acknowledgments p. ix
- Chronology of the War on Lake Huron and Adjacent Waters p. xix
- Introduction: The Western Frontier p. 1
- I The Rowboat War: Michilimackinac p. 14
- II The Battle of Lake Erie: Naval Superiority on the Lakes in the Balance p. 29
- III The Haney and Her Escape: Season's Close p. 58
- IV The Water Rats: Fort Willow and Nottawasaga, Michilimackinac, Prairie Du Chien p. 67
- V Eagle against the Beaver: Commodore Sinclair's Lake Huron Campaign p. 82
- VI Lieutenant Worsley's Little War: Taking the Scorpion and Tigress p. 103
- VII The Uneasy Peace: British and American Quests for Security p. 121
- VIII Penetanguishene: Sheet-Anchor of the North p. 137
- IX The End of Fighting Sail: Today's History Tracks p. 153
- Appendix A Miller Worsley's Letter Reporting Action Against the U.S. Navy p. 173
- Appendix B Miller Worsley's Appeal to the King p. 175
- Notes p. 177
- Bibliography p. 197
- Index p. 209
The Rowboat War MICHILIMACKINAC Lake Huron, unheralded inland sea of 1812 history, ranks second only to Superior in size. Huron forms the hub of the Great Lakes: through it must transit, or cross, all waterborne commerce of the upper Great Lakes. Today, ships from such "lakeheads" as Green Bay and Chicago on Lake Michigan or Grand Portage, Duluth, and Thunder Bay on Lake Superior must use Lake Huron. In terms of military geography, Lake Huron's two strategic choke points are its interior extremity, where waters from Michigan and Superior flow separately into it, and its outpouring into the St. Clair River. Georgian Bay, Lake Huron's annex, lies northeast of the main body of water and is separated from it by two vast lands-Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island-as well as by various islands and shoals. In length no miles, in width 48 miles at its extremity, Georgian Bay might well be called the sixth Great Lake. Sailors who know its shores notice pronounced differences between its western and eastern extremities, for the former, sheltered by the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island, embrace large, deep bays while the latter, hard against the Canadian shield, house a seemingly unending collection of islets and reefs that are exceedingly hazardous to navigation. This eastern maze of passages is now charted and marked by navigation aids, but in 1812 it was known only to the native and the voyageur. It is an intriguing fact for students of Canadian history, who ponder how the Canadian shield has shaped the character of national northern progress, that this vital waterway for the defense of Canadian and Imperial interests during the War of 1812 should have provided a critical link with the Indian and fur-trading alliance. Champlain, explorer and founder of New France, was much taken with Georgian Bay and called it "the sweetwater sea." On its shores lived native peoples crucial to the French future in North America, and of these none was as important in the early seventeenth century as the Huron, who lived in the heartland that was to become during the War of 1812 the means of naval defense and amphibious attack against American forces. In the intervening years, from the days of the Huron mission to the War of 1812, the Huron had been dispersed, cut down by the Iroquois or wasted by various lethal diseases, and had been replaced by various Anishnabe, or Algonquian-speaking persons. Iroquois used the route from Lake Simcoe, north of York, to the mouth of the Nottawasaga River (at the south end of Lake Huron) and to the great fur-bearing forests of the North and West. Georgian Bay still remained a native homeland in 1812 and had not one settler cabin or lighthouse on it. It was the domain of various Indian peoples-and of those agents of government, the church, or the fur trade based in Montreal that entered the realm of the continental interior of which Lake Huron was the hub. North-northwest of Detroit 255 miles, at the northwest extremity or corner of Lake Huron, stands a famous island. The French referred to it as Michilimackinac. Its shortened name, Mackinaw, now in universal use, is a truncated form of Michilimackinac, meaning "place of big lamed person" or "place of big wounded person," and this owes its origin from the now-extinct native place name Mishinimaki or Mishinimakinagog. Many contend that the name signifies "place of the Great Turtle." The island, measuring some three miles long and two wide, lies in the Straits of Mackinac between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan. Here the gray waters of Lake Michigan enveloped by silver mist rush through the passage to join blue Lake Huron with its clear air. Not far northward from the Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior's waters join Lake Huron through straits and passages of St. Marys River, or Sault Ste. Marie. At Michilimackinac the grand waters of the continent seem to intermingle. From the remarkably clear waters of Lake Huron, Mackinac Island rises in the most part in prominent limestone cliffs. Well wooded, the island also has glens and ravines as well as some caverns rich in native associations. Michilimackinac seems first to have been occupied by Ojibwa. It was later, though only for a short time, settled by some Huron, who arrived there after Iroquois expelled them from the southern shore of Lake Huron in 1649. Iroquois and European traders based on Albany visited there in 1670. Subsequently, the Ottawa had a village there. Gradually the island became a gathering place for various tribes who revered the island risen from the straits. "It is the key and the door for the people of the South," observed the Jesuit Claude Dablon in 1670, who chose the island for a mission, "as the South is the key for the people of the north." The celebrated Jesuit Jacques Marquette, there the next year, brought refugee Huron and Ottawa to the straits and then moved the mission to the north side, establishing St. Ignace. French commercial and missionary expansion had gone boldly hand in hand until 1705, when Governor Cadillac forced the zealous Black Robes out of the mission field. Cadillac thought Mackinac Island to be the watchtower of the straits. As early as 1712 the French had put up a trading post on the south side of the straits, near where Mackinaw City stands today. In 1761 the French surrendered this post to the British, who in turn kept a small guard to regulate trade and keep order. Sooner or later all the great trading tribes of present-day Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Ontario would frequent the place. "Michilimackinac was a crossroads," observed the historians of the place in the age of the American Revolution. "This fortified trading village of only a few hundred winter residents was the center of a complex fur trading industry which reached far north of Lake Superior, west across the Mississippi River, south into the Illinois Country and along the wooded shores of Lake Michigan." In 1783, by a new boundary between British dominions in America and the United States, sovereignty of Michilimackinac passed to the hands of the young Republic. The boundary cut through Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Superior. This boundary also cut through the heart of Ojibwa country. The Ojibwa, or Chippewa, controlled the northern shores of Huron and Superior from Georgian Bay to Manitoba. Four groups are apparent in the historical record: the Ojibwa of Lake Superior, the Mississauga of Manitoulin Island, the Ottawa of Georgian Bay, and the Potawatomi of the west shore of Lake Huron, who moved in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to its east shore. After the demise of Iroquois power the Ojibwa entered an era of remarkable ascendancy. In the west they made gains at the expense of Sioux and Fox. In the southeast they overran the peninsula between Lakes Huron and Erie. Trade in guns and ammunition enriched them. British determination to make the Ojibwa keen allies in the Old Northwest, south and west of the newly established 1783 boundary, meant that they were subject to special diplomacy, care, and consideration. If the colonial wars of North American history had given the Ojibwa only marginal notice because of northern remoteness, the War of 1812 gave them a prominence hitherto unknown. For two decades the British garrison kept the lonely watch at Michilimackinac. The lieutenant governor and superintendent of Michilimackinac, Patrick Sinclair, a soldier as well as ship captain of great ability, held strong views that the fort was so exposed to assault as to be virtually defenseless. Accordingly, and not waiting for London's approval, in 1779 he ordered the garrison removed from the mainland to Mackinac Island. There he chose the site for the fort, drew working drawings for a blockhouse, and surveyed the island. Fortunes of this island fortress rested on steady importation of rum, food, and supplies. The "milk" of British friendship flowed even more freely now. Regularly the king's vessels Wyandot and Welcome brought precious gifts from Detroit and Fort Erie for the Indians. Sinclair boldly, if a little unwisely for his career prospects, ran up the Indian Department's bills. Auditors scratched their heads and then found themselves appalled by the size of the Indian Department's payroll. However, the fact of the matter remained that the alliance gave the garrison its much-needed mercenary arm. Sinclair left in 1782 to face questions about rising costs. Not much changed, however. The next commandant continued the necessary work of nurturing native fidelity to the imperial cause and of encouraging the trade of the inland seas. After 1783, with a guarded eye to the future, the British Indian Department sought to counter any feelings of abandonment on the part of Indians. From Quebec, Governor Frederick Haldimand sent a message to the western Indians that the king, George III, still considered them his children and that he would continue to protect them. His message explained why His Majesty had permitted the Americans to establish a new nation. The flow of Indian presents to Michilimackinac was not stopped. British traders continued to maintain posts on United States territory, much to the annoyance of American rivals and politicians. Jay's Treaty, signed in 1794, required that the British evacuate the interior posts by 1 June 1796. That October, in conformity with this arrangement, American troops arrived at Mackinac Island and ran up the Stars and Stripes on U.S. soil. "Our fort at Michilimackinac," wrote a visiting inspector in his report to the U.S. secretary of war, from every consideration is one of the most important posts we hold on our western frontier. It ... is an irregular work partly built with a strong wall and partly with pickets; and the parade ground within it is from 100 to 125 feet above the surface of the water. It contains a well of never failing water, a bomb proof used as a magazine, one stone barracks for the use of the officers, equal if not superior to any building of the kind in the United States; a good guard house and barracks for the soldiers and convenient storehouse for provisions, with three strong and convenient blockhouses. This post is strong both by nature and art, and the possession of it has great influence with the Indians in favor of the United States. British official policy after Jay's Treaty gave every encouragement to the Indians so that they would not feel abandoned by the British withdrawal from Detroit, Michilimackinac, and elsewhere. The governor of Canada, Lord Dorchester, had instructions to build posts on the Canadian side of the line to facilitate commercial intercourse with the natives and make the evacuation of the old posts as little felt as possible. One of these key new posts was Fort St. Joseph, not far from Michilimackinac and on a lonely island to where the British had been forced, grudgingly, to relocate after Jay's Treaty. To this post went a British Army officer, Capt. Charles Roberts, who might have wished for more peaceful employment in the wilds of northwestern Canada. Fate had dealt him a nasty hand in the long and dutiful service of King George. Ten years soldiering in the Caribbean tropical heat, mainly in Trinidad, had sapped his health. Fever-ridden, he had escaped the lot of so many military personnel who had become a fatality to "yellow jack." By age thirty-four he was obliged, as were many of his kind, to "seek for ease in a Veteran Battalion" an innovation of the British War Department designed to make units of a nonregimental sort out of meritorious soldiers who on account of wounds, infirmity, and age had become unequal to more active duties of regular infantry. Promise of two hundred acres of Canadian bush (said suitable for agriculture) offered additional inducement to Captain Roberts. He shipped for Quebec in 1807 as a captain in the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion. Perhaps in these northern climes a long stint of slumbering garrison duty could be expected for Roberts. Such was not to be, for saber-rattling on the southern frontier led his superiors to send him first to Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River and then, all the more urgently, to Fort St. Joseph, at St. Joseph Island, in the northwesterly wilds of Lake Huron. Roberts, age thirty-nine at the outbreak of the conflict, had been well trained in the arts of war. Years of campaigning in the West Indies among garrison troops accustomed to amphibious operations had given him a sure military knowledge about how to mount an expedition to take Michilimackinac, that thorn in the side of the British. Small-boat expeditions were second nature to him. In his hands, such wide discretionary powers as Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, president and administrator of Upper Canada, gave him would not be wasted. Perhaps Roberts thought the moment for which he had waited so long had arrived at last. In any event, once Brock's orders reached him, on 15 July, confirming that a state of war existed, he took steps to grab the American prize. The news was brought to him by Capt. William McKay in a canoe. McKay had rushed three thousand miles from Montreal to deliver advance word that the United States had declared war on Great Britain, and that Roberts ought to take whatever actions or precautions he thought necessary to this new state of affairs. As commandant at Fort St. Joseph, Roberts pondered this intelligence. He knew that the Americans intended to reinforce Michilimackinac as soon as possible-and to do so in heavy numbers. Any day now, he imagined, U.S. men-of-war, or supply schooners such as the Erie and Freegoodwill , would arrive to land reinforcements of men and supplies. Those natives who had been collected at Fort St. Joseph were not only ready for action, but had become impatient-indeed, dangerously so. Roberts feared that he would be abandoned by his native allies if he did not strike quickly. In other words, all requirements of his situation led him to the conclusion that he must take the American post before it could be reinforced. Mustering his native support, he determined to act prudently, as indeed Brock had instructed, and without loss of time attack Michilimackinac. Roberts had what so many good commanders possess: a sense of timing. It is instructive to read in his report of proceedings that he realized that taking the initiative could be his only option. Indeed, he noted, his existing situation at Fort St. Joseph was "totally indefensible." He went to Michilimackinac because he could not remain at Fort St. Joseph. As an early historian of this campaign expressed it with undeniable military logic, "The best defence always is attack, whenever the attackers can destroy the enemy's means of destroying them." To this point in time, Fort St. Joseph had served the interests of crown and company with equal measure. Geographical position gave it unique authority. Continue... Excerpted from Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay by Barry Gough Copyright © 2002 by Barry Gough Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This item is about
- Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, c2002.
- Includes bibliographical references (p. -207) and index.
- xxi, 215 p.,  p. of plates : ill., maps ; 24 cm.
- OCLC Number
- Other Identifiers
- LCCN: 2001059630