American town marks a dark episode from War of 1812
By Randy Boswell September 10, 2012
Artist Susan Geissler, right, and Tuscarora heritage consultant Belinda Patterson, work on a mockup of a planned 1812 monument in New York.

Artist Susan Geissler, right, and Tuscarora heritage consultant Belinda Patterson, work on a mockup of a planned 1812 monument in New York.

In the Conservative government’s $28-million, bicentennial retelling of the War of 1812, the borderland conflict represents the heroic defence of colonial Canada in the face of expansionist American aggression — a noble alliance of British soldiers, English- and French-Canadian citizens and First Nations fighters that laid the foundations of an independent, modern Canada.

But a New York town’s centrepiece commemoration project to mark the war’s 200th anniversary offers a sharply contrasting perspective on the 19th-century struggle for North America, one that casts the British-Canadian forces and their aboriginal allies — at least in one horrific instance — as vengeful perpetrators of a terrible atrocity that still resonates in Americans’ collective memory.

The December 1813 burning of Lewiston, a U.S. village located directly across the Niagara River from Upper Canada’s Queenston, left not only a torched pioneer settlement but also at least a dozen American civilians dead and mutilated — an attack described by the leading chronicler of the incident as a “massacre” by “unrestrained British-Canadian troops” and the aboriginal warriors under their command.

Just a cannonball’s shot from the famous Queenston Heights battlefield north of Niagara Falls, where Upper Canada’s ultimate hero — Sir Isaac Brock — met his fate resisting a failed U.S. invasion attempt launched from Lewiston in October 1812, the same New York town plans to erect a monument honouring Tuscarora warriors credited with helping many American villagers escape the 1813 slaughter.

Before the Tuscarora rescue mission, even innocent women and children fleeing the flaming village were being gunned down and sometimes scalped.

“This is the only time we are aware of when Native Americans saved the lives of white settlers from a foreign attack in all of American history,” said Lee Simonson, a Lewiston businessman and history buff spearheading the “Tuscarora Heroes” memorial project.

Warriors from the Tuscarora village outside of Lewiston — outnumbered at least 30 to one by rapidly advancing enemy forces — are credited with mounting a diversionary counterattack and creating such a noise that the Crown allies, convinced a major defence action was under way, momentarily halted their bloody offensive and allowed many besieged townsfolk to escape unhurt.

The proposed $350,000 installation, given final approval last week by Lewiston’s municipal council and backed by various U.S. agencies involved in marking the bicentennial of the war, features two Tuscarora men reaching out to assist a white woman and the small child in her arms as she runs to escape the enemy advance.

The monument, with each of the bronze figures to be sculpted slightly larger than life, is to be unveiled at a downtown Lewiston intersection on Dec. 19, 2013, exactly 200 years after the destruction of the village by Crown forces and the gruesome killing of civilians, generally attributed to rampaging Mohawk fighters allied with British soldiers and Canadian militiamen.

“This is kind of a forgotten piece of history,” Simonson, who authored a 2010 book about the episode, told Postmedia News. “This was a tremendously heroic action and a tremendously rare circumstance. The Tuscarora didn’t have to do this. But they stayed and protected the citizens of Lewiston, and it’s something we are forever grateful for.”

Simonson said the monument will convey a “positive message” about intercultural “brotherhood and friendship,” and isn’t intended to showcase British-Canadian brutality: “That’s not what we’re going to talk about …. We’re not making an editorial comment.”

Acknowledging that the attack on Lewiston was, in part, retaliation for the American army’s earlier destruction of Newark — present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. — he added: “It was a two-sided war, and there was enough blame to go around … Our objective is not to disturb anyone. We just have our story to tell.”

Although the story of the courageous intervention by Tuscarora warriors is not widely known, historians have long been aware that the British-Canadian attack on Lewiston crossed an ethical line — even for an era when battlefield communication was difficult and the use of rag-tag militia units and First Nations fighters often made it hard to uphold professional army standards governing military engagements and the humane treatment of civilians.

In Canadian popular historian Pierre Berton’s bestselling War of 1812 chronicle, Flames Across the Border, the late author made no referenceto the Tuscarora heroes but vividly described the massacre, blaming Lt.-Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond — the Quebec-born commander of all British-Canadian forces at the time — and other military leaders for their reckless disregard in risking atrocities at Lewiston.

“Drummond has agreed to use the natives only if they can be kept under control — a specious argument, surely,” Berton wrote in his 1981 volume on the war. “Does Drummond, of all people — the first Canadian-born general officer — actually believe the Indians can be controlled?”

While the Lewiston monument will commemorate one of the darkest episodes for Canada and the U.S. from the War of 1812, another New York town — Sackets Harbor, at the east end of Lake Ontario – is magnanimously erecting a bicentennial monument to Canadian and British soldiers killed while attacking the main U.S. shipbuilding base in May 1813.

The Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance and the state government of New York broke ground last month for a memorial meant to pay tribute to the enemy soldiers felled by U.S. troops and hastily buried at unknown sites along the lakeshore.

Meanwhile, Parks Canada and the City of Hamilton have taken great care in recent years to preserve two U.S. warships that sank in 1813 on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario — the Hamilton and the Scourge — in another example of cross-border commemoration of fallen enemies.

The horror that befell Lewiston in December 1813, Simonson said, was just one of many “excesses” carried out during the War of 1812 that should be remembered alongside the many great acts of courage, such as the one carried out by the Tuscarora tribe.

“There were dark days on both sides,” he said. “You can’t really pin the blame on either side for this kind of stuff. War is war and anything can happen. It was chaos.”

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