By: Megan Pasche
December 10, 1813: as American soldiers retreated, they left behind them the burning, smoldering remains of what was then known as the town of Niagara, but what we now know as Niagara-on-the-Lake, the loveliest town in Canada.
June of 1812 saw the beginning of a war that would stretch on for years. The United States had declared war on Great Britain, and Canada, which at the time was under British possession, was the closest target and thus bore the brunt of the War. Many of the battles that followed, happened right here in the Niagara Region.
Following the battle of Fort George, which took place in May of 2013, the Americans had much of the Niagara peninsula under their possession, including the Town of Niagara. They had occupied the town for seven months and on December 10, 1813, they retreated.
It was a freezing, cold night and the soldiers went door-to-door warning people of the impending burning. The pretext for this burning was to make sure that when the advancing British troops arrived from Burlington, they would have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, nowhere to protect them from the elements. The residents, who were made up mostly of women and children, as practically all the men were either fighting with the British army or in local militias, were forced to abandon their homes and were allowed to take whatever they could quickly carry. At dusk, the first flames were lit. The fire spread quickly, and by the time the British arrived, all that was left of the town was glowing embers and piles of furniture in the streets. Only two buildings were left standing, and people were left desperately looking for shelter from the cold.
People found refuge in makeshift shelters in cellars, under leftover debris, some people went to the Mississauga Point Lighthouse; some even walked as far as towns like St. David’s in the search for warmth and shelter.
When the British arrived and saw the destruction, they immediately began plotting revenge, and the repercussions for the burning of Niagara were swift: on December 19, 1813, British troops marched on Lewiston, New York, and burned it to the ground, leaving only one building standing. Any pretense of politeness in the war was over. Not only did the British burn Lewiston, but all the towns along the Niagara River, including Buffalo. The Americans burned the village of St. David’s in July of 1814, and in August of the same year, the British torched Washington.
By the early years of 1815, the War of 1812 was coming to an end. The men from Niagara returned from the battlefields, and were released from the prisoner of war camps. Upon their return, they came across a whole mass of destruction. When the time came to rebuild, the town officials decided to rebuild further inland in order to reduce the risk of the towns core being so close not only to the river, but to American territory. A lot of the homes and stores were built on their original sites, but buildings such as the new Court House, Butlers Barracks and the Indian Council House were moved closer inland. By the time 1830 came around, all the buildings were completed and the town of Niagara was thriving once again.