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Newmarket men stepped up to bravely fight in War of 1812

In this week's Remember This, Newmarket's History Hound, Richard MacLeod, highlights how local figures were involved in the war between Great Britain and the United States

We step back in time to the period around the War of 1812 in this first of a two-part series. I hope to convey a sense of local life, observe how the war affected the fledgling hamlet of Newmarket and examine its lasting impact here. Along the way, we will meet a few individuals who became known for their contributions during the period. 

By 1812, it was clear to everyone that the U.S. was threatening to declare war against Great Britain with the Canadian colonies destined to be the battleground.  Domestic questions were set aside, and local defence was declared the priority.

The government was anxious concerning a potential lack of interest among the diverse local population for a war with the U.S. Many settlers in Oak Ridges and Aurora were French, in Markham, a large German contingent, and a generous collection of other nationalities around Newmarket. 

Many settlers were still Americans, having come north for business reasons, and of course, the Quakers, who had declared their loyalty but were refusing to bear arms. In Newmarket and area, there were many descendants of United Empire Loyalists who still recalled tales of suffering during the time of the American Revolution and still unfulfilled promises of restitution.

The common belief locally was that the perceived causes for this war were not the actual ones. Governor John Graves Simcoe warned the real cause was the lingering bitterness stemming from the Revolution and the American desire to add to the Republic with the acquisition of Canada. 

The Americans believed that the Canadas could be taken without soldiers as Britain at that point was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon.  

Their intentions were well known, and on June 18, 1812, the American government officially declared war on England. Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, still only a young man, was the acting lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. 

Warned that war with the United States was inevitable, he was nevertheless forced to be content with limited resources, and limited support from the authorities. Late in July 1812, he called up the militia and the people rallied to the call, willing to defend their newly made homesteads.  

Men from Newmarket answered the call to resist invasion. All three of the Robinsons, a prominent local family, responded, most notably Peter, who was to command a rifle company of the York Militia, part of an expedition involved in the bloodless capture of Detroit. He became a prisoner of war at the surrender of York (Toronto) in 1813.

When war was declared, John Cawthra attempted to secure a commission in the militia, but owing to his father, Joseph, being in disfavor with the Family Compact, he was refused. He volunteered instead as a private, going with General Brock to Detroit, part of Brock’s intended attack of the enemy on their own ground.  

Seemingly a suicidal endeavor, he asked for volunteers and John Cawthra stepped forward from the ranks immediately, where they got busy ferrying cannons across the Detroit River by scow.

Brock had been joined by Tecumseh, a historic union for sure, the soldier and the Indigenous leader.  History tells us that on the morning of Aug. 15, 1812, Brock sent a messenger bearing a flag of truce to the American General Hull, indicating a large force of warriors was prepared to attack, hoping that for the sake of humanity and to avoid bloodshed, they would surrender. 

Hull refused and so Tecumseh scattered his warriors throughout the woods, leading the enemy to anticipate a much larger number. The allies attacked, warriors’ cries rang from all sides and the guns that had been ferried across the river filled the air with a resounding booms, sending a cannon ball into the room where Hull’s council of war was meeting.  One officer was wounded in the leg and soon after a white flag was hoisted and surrender was achieved on Aug. 16, 1812. 

Brock returned to Queenston Heights, where he died on Oct. 12, 1812. John Cawthra had fought valiantly, having numerous narrow escapes.

In March 1813, at Gibraltar Point, York (Toronto), a young William Cawthra was standing guard and observed the American fleet approaching. He hurried to Old Fort York, where the troops and militia were mustered behind a sandbag and the Fort was signalling to the island. 

William, a boy only 11 years old, ran to the flag staff and began to help to pull the ropes. Colonel de Salaberry, seeing his valour, recorded his effort, branded him an extraordinarily brave boy.

Another Newmarket name connected with the War of 1812 is that of William Roe.  When the war broke, the 17-year-old was in the employ of the Receiver General of Upper Canada.  

With the approach of the Americans, Roe was entrusted with concealing the government’s money. Disguised as a farm boy, with the money hidden in a hay cart, he drove along the Kingston Road east of the Don River to the farm of Chief Justice, John B. Robinson and proceeded to bury three bags of gold and a large sum in army bills.  

When the battle was over, the army bills were handed to the enemy. However, the gold remained hidden and was later returned to the authorities. The Receiver General’s iron chest had also been removed by William Roe to the premises of Donald McClean, clerk of the House of Assembly.

The war had prompted difficult questions of conscience for the Quakers on Yonge Street. In his journal, Timothy Rogers writes: “And now there was much talk of war between England and the States and this made me deeply sorry and I cried to the Lord. Great troubles arose between both the government and the Society, for the States some time in 6th month declared war.” 

The Society of Friends refused to recognize the war, as it was incompatible with their historic Peace Testimony dating back to their declaration presented to King Charles the Second of England on the 21st day of the 11th month, 1660.

From that date, not one Quaker deviated from that position to this very day. Simcoe and his government had promised them exemption from military service, but Canadian Friends were to be subject to special disabilities and levies in lieu of military service.  

Their teams were commandeered by the authorities, and they chose to pay large fines in lieu of military service.  It is recorded that from February 1808 to January 1810, property taken from these local Friends had amounted to 243 pounds, 11 shillings and six-and-a-half pence. 

In addition, eight Friends had suffered one month’s imprisonment. In 1833, Warrants of Distress were issued against 62 Quakers in the Home District for not having served in the militia in 1812. Twenty dollars was exacted from each, as well as heavy costs. This would haunt the government in 1837.

Actual combat did not extend to the Newmarket area, although much of the material for war did pass this way and, in late November 1812, two boats were taken up Yonge Street for the purpose of conveying large quantities of flour and clothing to the troops at Sault Ste. Marie. 

These were to be the first boats to cross Lake Simcoe. Regular winter traffic in war supplies was teamed through Newmarket by sleigh to Roche’s Point, then transported across the ice of Lake Simcoe.

Benjamin Cody of Newmarket recalled in his memoir that local farmers who possessed teams were willing to make a few dollars in the winter by conveying naval stores from York to Penetang. They travelled across the ice of Lake Simcoe, encountering cracks six-feet wide, compelling the teamsters to unload their sleighs, take the boxes and make a bridge, then load them up again on the other side. 

A local relic of the War of 1812 is the famous anchor at Holland Landing. There are several stories related to this anchor but this one seems a plausible one. The district of Penetanguishene was considered a strategic point on the Upper Lakes and was chosen as the site of a naval yard. Iron ships were constructed there, and an anchor was a necessity.  

Anchors at that time could not be made in Canada and the military authorities sent one that had been forged in the dockyards at Chatham in England. It arrived in Quebec late in 1814 and was shipped by bateau along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec to Montreal, by oxen over the road to Kingston and then again by bateau to York (Toronto).  

Captain Samuel Brock, grandfather of Mrs. Benjamin Cody of Newmarket and a  distant relative of General Brock, was dispatched to convey the anchor as far as the Holland River, from there it would again be transported by bateau to Penetang, destined for a large gunboat needed to maintain British supremacy on the Upper Lakes. 

The account relates how this monstrous anchor was lashed upon a sled, whith 16 yokes of oxen employed to haul it. When the numerous hills were encountered, the anchor was then lowered gradually by block and tackle.  

After traversing the rough road for four days, the edge of the Holland Marsh was reached and by that time the war was over. The transportation team is said to have cheered and then hoisted the anchor from the sled and left it where it rested from 1815 to 1870. 

It now rests in the well-known Anchor Park in Holland Landing. The abandonment of the anchor was considered temporary at first.  It was thought it could be used for a ship in the future, but the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1818 was to limit the size of vessels on the Great Lakes to a few small boats.

Next week, I will pick up the story with the serious economic depression that followed the War of 1812. The scarcity of food and the rapid decline in prices from war levels constituted a major setback to the progress of the area from which it did not recover for many years

Sources: The Past and Present by Henry Cawthra.  Prov. Archives; The Journal of Timothy Rogers; Friends’ Records of Yonge Street; Manuscript by Titus Willson, Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket By Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town By Robert Terence Carter. 

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NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at thehistoryhound@rogers.com.