2014-08-09 / Columnists

A Look at History

After You Leave Mackinac Island, Where Are You Going Next?
BY FRANK STRAUS

A lot of the people who read this column are traveling around the Great Lakes for the summer and will be going somewhere else soon. Most visitors to Mackinac Island have made careful plans and have told their friends at home where they will be.

On the evening of August 4, 1814, almost 1,000 Americans – about 700 land warriors, survivors of the Battle of Mackinac Island earlier that day, and the crews of the USS Niagara and at least four other U.S. naval vessels that had conveyed the expedition – sailed east from Mackinac Island. Although this was to be the largest American task force to fight in Lake Huron during the War of 1812, the illplanned expedition was making what amounted to a series of hitand run raids against outposts of British Canada. U.S. forces had fired guns at, or taken steps to burn or destroy, British-Canadian infrastructure on St. Joseph’s Island, the Canadian Sault, and Fort Mackinac, and now the bedraggled fleet (minus two vessels that were carrying the dead, wounded, and militiamen back to Detroit) was heading for southern Georgian Bay.

It is not clear how intense the desire had been of the two surviving commanders, fleet captain Arthur Sinclair and Lt. Col. George Croghan, to capture Fort Mackinac. After getting soundly beaten by a mixed force of British, militiamen, and Native Americans/First Nations within hours of their unsuccessful amphibious operation at British Landing, the defeated squadron was looking for revenge, and for evidence that they had not been wasting their blood and time. A rumor, of the type sometimes dignified with the title “military intelligence,” had told them that the British were building a strongpoint at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, a sandy stream that flows into the Bay at the point where its rounded edge comes closest to the future city of Toronto.

As at earlier times on this illstarred expedition, the Americans’ tactical sense was sound, but the strategy did not go so well. The British were indeed trying to build a supply base on the southern end of Georgian Bay; but when the Niagara and its escorts reached Nottawa- saga on August 13, all they found constructed so far was a single hostile wooden blockhouse – a fortified redoubtwork like Fort George (Fort Holmes) on the heights of Mackinac Island – and one furtrade schooner, the Nancy. Even after allowing their militiamen and the wounded to withdraw, the American task force still had trained artillerists, fieldpiece cannon, 450 men, and three armed vessels. The Americans could fire 24-pound cannonballs, and the heaviest gun on the Nancy could lob a ball weighing only four pounds; the Americans could throw a weight of metal far greater than anything the 53 British-Canadian defenders of the little strongpoint could slap together. Twenty-four hours later, the blockhouse was a smoking pile of ashes and the Nancy was a sunken hulk in the shallow river’s mouth. Prematurely claiming victory, the senior officers and the Niagara sailed for Detroit, leaving behind two American schooners to patrol the lake.

Three weeks later, the British would have more to say about naval control over Lake Huron, but that is another story. Here on the shore of Georgian Bay, the burned hulk of the Nancy settled into the bed of the Nottawasaga River. After the war, pioneers began to settle in this section of Upper Canada. They tore up the sandy soil with their plows, and silt washed down the river. Soon a sandbar formed just upstream from the sunken hull, its powdery arms hugging both sides of the vessel.

Eventually the sandbar became a small island.

A century later as the sandy island grew, a new war broke out and once again Englishspeaking Canada had to fight. A spike of World War I patriotism was especially strong among Ontarians, who sent thousands of young men to the Western Front who would not return. Canada began to see itself as a new nation, and its history textbooks began to teach schoolchildren that the War of 1812 was a foundational event. The provincial government of Ontario began looking for places to which Canadians could drive in their newly-invented motor cars and pay their respects.

Finding suitable War of 1812 sites in Ontario proved surprisingly challenging, however. The British and Canadians had won a major victory in 1813 at Crysler’s Farm on the far eastern border of the province, but this field of battle was closer to Montreal than Toronto and, in any case, the actual battlefield would soon be swallowed up by one of the reservoirs flooded as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Another conflict at Moraviantown (Battle of the Thames: 1813) had been a devastating defeat not worth celebrating by Canadians; that was the battle where ally Tecumseh had been killed. A third fight at Lundy’s Lane (1814) would have been worth turning into a shrine had it not been for the fact that the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, had already been built directly on top of the battleground. Similarly, the Battle of York (1813) took place on the site where central city Toronto stands today.

Meanwhile, many Ontario families were starting to drive to the beaches surrounding the sandy mouth of the Nottawasaga; it was becoming a key resort community for metro Toronto. Everybody knew where the Nancy had sunk; the disastrous outcome of the battle had been fully reported to headquarters. Eventually aggressive local citizens worked with the provincial government of Ontario. Key timbers of the sunken schooner had been shaped from rot-resistant cedar wood. It was possible to dig up a large fragment of the hulk from the wet sand in which it had lain, and the taxpayers of the province helped build a large museum to house the reborn relic. Other excavations revealed the vessel’s figurehead, buttons, silverware, and cannonballs. A museum was built on the sand island in 1928 to house the collection, and it began to anchor the travelers’ trade.

After you leave Mackinac Island, where are you going next? If you’re from the United States, then unlike Sinclair and Crog- han, you’re not likely to go to Wasaga Beach. Not so many Americans go there today, but it is one of the busiest tourist towns in Canada, with a population greater than Traverse City. In the very center of the town is Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, and at the heart of the park is Nancy Island and its museum, featuring the largest surviving trophy from the ignoble American expedition of 1814 to Mackinac Island.

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