by Oliver Bertin
The bicentenary of the invasion of Toronto comes on April 27, the day we launch our boats. Every NYC member knows that Toronto was invaded in 1813, a fact that is engraved in our collective psyches, but there was far more to the event than most people realize. It was a truly fascinating episode in the history of Toronto and well worth a detailed read.
The invasion is of particular interest to NYC members because we were right there, give or take 81 years. The U.S. task force anchored not far from the NYC outer basin and U.S. troops marched right by the NYC on their way to Fort York. About 300 U.S. soldiers were killed or injured when the retreating British soldiers lit a fuse under the Fort York magazine and its 500 barrels of gunpowder, and the bricks of the magazine rained down on what became the NYC parking lot.
I became interested in the invasion back in high school when our teachers told us that our heroic headmaster saved Toronto from destruction by the pillaging U.S. troops. According to their story − we believed our teachers in those days − the headmaster, John Strachan, stood in front of the U.S. troops and pleaded with them to save our school, the local centre of learning. He was successful, against all odds, and the school was saved to become Jarvis C.I., still considered one of the oldest school in Canada west of Quebec.
As it turned out, the story wasn’t quite true, but it did impress us at the time.
I have checked the story with two keen historians and the Jarvis C.I. website, and their accounts largely agree. Harvey Medland is a retired Jarvis C.I. teacher and the author of a book on the history of the school. Gordon Laco is a NYC member and respected local historian who specializes in marine matters. He is an officer at HMCS York, was a technical consultant to the Master & Commander movie and knows a lot about the war of 1812. Another good source is William R. Wilson, author of Historical Narratives of Early Canada, which can be found on his excellent website, www.uppercanadahistory.ca
To set the scene:
There were about 400 people and a fair number of children in York in 1807. The local clergyman, Rev. George O’Kill Stuart, opened a one-room schoolhouse in a stone root-house that was attached to his house at the south-east corner of King and George Streets. This spot is opposite the current site of George Brown College, just west of the original Parliament Buildings. The military base at Fort York was about four kilometers to the west, near the entrance to Toronto Bay, just north of the current site of the NYC.
Stuart named his schoolhouse the Home District Grammar School. It had between 4 and 11 children in the early days, not bad for a small outpost in the woods. Harvey Medland, Jarvis historian, has drawings of the school here.
Five years after the school was founded, in 1812, Stuart was replaced by John Strachan, a Scotsman from Cornwall, Ont. Strachan was a force to be reckoned with. He went on to become vicar and then bishop of St. James’ Cathedral, General Superintendant of Education for Upper Canada, founder of the University of Toronto and member of the Family Compact, the tight-knit group that ran Upper Canada in the 1830s.
While the name of the school changed many times through the years, there is a direct connection to Jarvis C.I. In fact, Jarvis still has “Founded 1807” on its logo. Jarvis C.I. has a short history of the invasion on its website.
“During the War of 1812, when the American invaders were occupying the city of York on the morning of April 27, 1813, the British troops had withdrawn from Fort York, and none of the town’s civilian leaders seemed ready and able to negotiate with (U.S. Major-General Henry) Dearborn to stop the looting and burning. Strachan was untried, a new arrival from the town of Cornwall, but as rector of the church he stepped into the breach, going out to the American warship to represent the citizens of York. Strachan’s will power and personal presence was so strong that it was later said that it was difficult to tell from the interview which of the two men was the conquered and which the conqueror. Hinting at the possibility of a terrible retaliation by the British Navy, Strachan went a long way toward saving York from destruction.” The Americans did, however, “burn the legislative buildings with all their records and documents, as well as pillage the public library and robbed the church.”
But they spared the schoolhouse, thanks to John Strachan’s efforts!
Gord Laco agrees that Strachan did intercede with the U.S. troops and did save the schoolhouse, but he said the U.S. troops were “relatively well-disciplined” and did little damage to the town.
“During the U.S. occupation very few buildings were damaged, basically only the parliament building. The U.S. forces were relatively well disciplined.
“Strachan did indeed intercede with the invaders, but the main reason for the short stay and fairly controlled behaviour of the U.S. forces was the fact that the British forces had withdrawn in good order and might have returned at any time. Strachan and others criticized the British Army for withdrawing rather than fighting to the death, but the fact is that because the garrison was largely intact and could have returned at any time is what made the U.S. depart after only a short occupation.
“And of course from their point of view, they’d accomplished what they came to do by the destruction of the magazine at Fort York, and the burning of the frigate being built.”
William R. Wilson, author of Historical Narratives of Early Canada, had a longer account in www.uppercanadahistory.ca
“John Strachan was the only person prepared to confront General Henry Dearborn about the burning and looting. After talking with Dearborn, Strachan recorded that: ‘He treats me with great harshness, tells me that we had given a false count of the officers and told me to keep off – not to follow him as he had business of much more importance.’ Strachan, however, did not ‘keep off’ and continued to dog Dearborn. In fact, Strachan’s will power and personal presence were so strong it was said later that at times it was difficult to tell from the interview which of the two men was the conquered and which the conqueror. When he hinted at the possibility of a terrible retaliation by the British Navy, Strachan went a long way toward saving York from complete destruction.”
There is a charming postcript:
When Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president, in 1815, criticized the burning of Washington by British troops, Bishop Strachan wrote a stern letter to the former president, of which the last sentence is by far the most teling!
To: Thomas Jefferson, Esq. of Monticello
From: John Strachan, Bishop of Toronto
“In April, 1813 the public buildings at York, the capital of Upper Canada, were burnt by troops of the United States, contrary to the articles of capitulation. They consisted of two elegant halls with convenient offices for the accommodation of the Legislature and of the Courts of Justice. The library and all the papers and records belonging to these institutions were consumed; at the same time the church was robbed and the town library totally pillaged. Commodore Chauncey, who has generally behaved honourably, was so ashamed of this last transaction that he endeavoured to collect the books belonging to the library and actually sent back two boxes filled with them, but hardly any were complete. Much private property was plundered and several houses left in a state of ruin. Can you tell me why the public buildings and the library at Washington should be held more sacred than those at York?”
Jefferson, suitably admonished, never replied.
There we are, a good little story and a picture of the invasion that few people are aware of.
The above deals with Bishop Strachan’s role in the salvation of my old school and the town of York. But there is far more to the invasion than the one episode. Wilson tells the story of the American fleet, the invasionary force and the less-than-honourable behavior of the defending troops. Then he offers details of the pillaging and the efforts to recover the stolen goods.
York was an important base for the British, the seat of government in Upper Canada with a fine parliament building on, naturally, Parliament St. Despite its importance, the town was almost defenceless. Wilson said there were few cannons, and they were poorly positioned or lying on the ground covered with snow and frozen mud. There were only 600 British soldiers in Fort York, half of them were militia, augmented by about fifty Mississauga and Ojibway natives. They were outnumbered three-to-one by the 1,700 U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines.
York was a key target for the U.S. troops, and the invasion was carefully planned months in advance. The U.S. task force had two reasons to attack York. It wanted to neutralize the military base at Fort York and destroy a brand-new warship that was under construction. The ship, the Sir Isaac Brock, was an important target for the U.S. task force because it would be powerful enough to swing the balance of power on Lake Ontario firmly in favour of the British.
Watch for Part II in the April edition of ‘The National’
Read Part II of this two part series.