Jun 18, 2012
The City of Toronto began commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 more than a month ago with a series of exhibitions, talks and performances.
Attendees can get an up-close look at artifacts from conflict, particularly the Battle of York in what is now Toronto, which took place some 10 months after the U.S. declared war on the British on June 18, 1812.
But there are many items from the period that the public will not get to see that are holed up in the Toronto museum services’ collections and conservations centre, a six-storey building that stores thousands of artifacts that make up the city’s museum collections.
The location of the facility cannot be disclosed for security reasons, but CBC News was given access to some of the rarely-seen artifacts inside.
Richard Gerrard, the historian for the bicentennial for the War of 1812 for the City of Toronto, spoke at length about some of the artifacts stored in the building – medals, a uniform and an original 200-year-old document — some of which rarely get displayed at any of the city’s 10 museums or temporary exhibits. Those items can be viewed in the photo slideshow at the top of the page.
The artifacts that Gerrard showed off were taken almost entirely from the Battle of York on April 27, 1813, when a large American force overpowered the greatly outnumbered British at Fort York, located near what is now the central western lakefront of Toronto.
The Americans incurred some heavy losses in an explosion after the retreating British set fire to their gunpowder magazine, and later burned British government buildings, including the Parliament. After a six-day occupation, the Americans left, only to return in July of the same year to lay waste to military facilities that were still standing after the previous skirmish.
Account book ‘a stunning resource’
One of the artifacts for which there is very limited access to is a British account book for the garrison at York that covers the period between that second American attack of York in July 1813 and the end of 1815.
It’s surprising that a British accounts book chronicling the rebuild of York is still in existence, says historian Richard Gerrard. (Dwight Friesen/CBC)“I know it sounds deathly dull, but what’s contained in this document is all of the detailed records about rebuilding the fort — the fort that you see today,” said Gerrard.
“It’s a stunning resource in terms of what was happening [at York].”
Gerrard said it’s surprising that the book, which is kept in the dark to protect it from being permanently damaged by light exposure, has survived all these years because it would be expected that it would be recycled in a paper drive.
“Most government departments … don’t keep their records forever because of the expense of storing them,” he said.
Through studying the account book, historians were able to learn who supplied food and building materials to the garrison and what they were being paid. One of the builders, a bricklayer, was a member of the Thomson family, one of the wealthiest and most well-known families in Canada.
“And the Thomsons are still around today. Much wealthier, but this is where the money started,” said Gerrard.
The account book also shows that the British paid pensions to the wives and families of First Nations warriors. This detail led to the first indication that a Mississauga and a Chippewa warrior were killed in the Battle of York, said Gerrard.
While the book has been in the City of Toronto’s collections since the 1960s, Gerrard hopes to next year digitize its contents so it can be a resource that everyone can access.
The city’s museum services department has also recently digitized more of its recent research over the past year, a book of rememberance for 181 American, British and First Nations fighters who died in the battle. But researchers still have work to do — just after publishing the record, researchers learned that two more people died in the skirmish, both First Nations warriors.
“So, like every other historian, my work is going to be by definition incomplete. So we’re still finding more material as we go through the primary source records,” said Gerrard.
The book is also on display at a temporary exhibit at the market gallery in St. Lawrence Market called “Finding the Fallen: The Battle of York remembered,” which showcases artifacts excavated from the Fort York battlefield, maps and about 51 eyewitness accounts of what York was like during the war.
“You really get a feel for the humanity of it. It’s not just all of this military hardware,” said Gerrard.
The Finding the Fallen exhibit runs until Sept. 8. The City of Toronto’s commemorations, though, will run up until summer 2013, culminating in the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Battle of York and a Fort York War of 1812 festival.