Near Niagara Falls, U.S. and Canadian forts from the War of 1812 still face off
By REBECCA RITZEL | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 23, 2018
Dan Laroche holds a slight grudge against the United States. Every day when he goes to work as site supervisor at Fort George in southern Ontario, he can stare across the Niagara River and into western New York, and think to himself, "Those Americans stole our flag."
"Our flag" would be the British banner that waved above Fort George in May 1813, when the garrison was captured by the Americans after three days of intense fighting about 20 miles upstream from Niagara Falls. Six months later, the Americans burned the town surrounding the fort and retreated back across the river into American territory, taking a tattered Union Jack with them.
Laroche would like it back. It’s only fair. Because after the Americans fled, British forces not only retook Fort George, they easily captured Fort Niagara on the U.S. side of the river. The American garrison’s flag was transported to London and presented before King George III. And then for nearly 200 years, the Scottish descendants of a War of 1812 general proudly held onto that looted Stars and Stripes. In 1994, the family matriarch -- an aristocrat romance novelist named Lady Strange -- sold it back to Fort Niagara to fund a new roof for her castle. Since 2005, the 12-by-27-foot Star-Spangled Banner has been on display in Fort Niagara’s visitors center.
"When I heard they got it back, I thought, ’Hey! That’s our war prize,’ " Laroche said.
He was joking. Mostly. But the Fort George flag was reportedly last spotted at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). If anyone in America sees it, please let Canada know.
Capture-the-flag anecdotes aside, Fort George and Fort Niagara are significant historical sites because they represent one of a few locations where the two countries battled from sovereign shores, and the only spot along the 5,525-mile U.S.-Canadian border where opposing forts still stand. You could say they are monuments to bygone days, an era when the United States and Canada weren’t getting along.
Or you could listen to the news to hear an update on fractious trade negotiations, or to hear Homeland Security officials warn Canadians who work in the cannabis industry not to cross the border, or to hear President Donald Trump proclaim at a news conference, "Canada has treated us very badly."
And then you might wonder: Is the relationship between the United States and Canada the worst it has been since the War of 1812?
"Heaven knows, that’s true; things haven’t been this bad in a very, very long time," says Robert Bothwell, a professor of history at the University of Toronto who specializes in U.S.-Canadian relations.
He noted that a recent nonpartisan Angus Reid poll showed fewer than half of all Canadians have a favorable view of the United States after "two years of volatile trade negotiations and insults." That’s very different from the height of the Iraq War, when Canadians disapproved of President George W. Bush but still thought favorably of the United States as a country.
Bothwell says he despises Trump, but he and his colleagues who study the War of 1812 are enjoying a slight bump in attention thanks to the current war of rhetoric. Last summer, he called a friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, with some exciting news.
"You just got quoted by the Canadian foreign minister in one of her trade speeches!" Bothwell recalled saying to Taylor, who teaches at the University of Virginia.
While it’s unlikely that Fort George and Fort Niagara can attribute increased attendance to throwback political tensions, both sites report that the numbers are up. At Fort Niagara, which is operated by a nonprofit group and surrounded by a gorgeous state park, attendance has more than tripled from 70,419 a year in 2011 to 253,000 in 2017.
"It helps pay the bills," says Robert Emerson, a military historian who serves as executive director of the Old Fort Niagara Association.
Parks Canada, which operates Fort George with help from a nonprofit group called the Friends of Fort George, declined to report specific figures but confirmed that visitors are on the rise. Both forts are open year-round, and both charge a small admissions fee. They are the ideal place to get a crash course on U.S.-Canadian relations that you won’t get from watching the news.
For starters, as soon as an American steps inside Fort George’s stockade, you’ll hear a very different narrative about the War of 1812 than what you heard in school.
"In June of 1812, the United States of America declares war on Great Britain. Canada is still a British colony and a heck of a lot closer, so this becomes the battlefield," explains ghost tour guide Heather Collacott on a blustery and moonlit October night. Collacott stamped her heavy booted foot. Her lantern bobbed, and she swished her black cape with pride. "Over the course of the war, a dozen U.S. armies cross the border in an effort to turn us into another state of the union. As we’re still standing on Canadian soil, you can decide for yourselves how they do."
The concept of the war as an "invasion" of Canada may be foreign to any American who grew up hearing stories of the British burning the White House and the banner yet waving over Fort McHenry.
And yet at Fort George, excellent exhibits inside a reconstructed blockhouse make clear that’s exactly what President James Madison intended. Both Madison and his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson - aptly portrayed in the musical "Hamilton" as a pair of conspiratorial drinking buddies - were convinced that English-speaking residents of what is now Ontario would want to join the union.
"The acquisition of Canada, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a matter of mere marching," Jefferson boasted in August 1812.
He was wrong.
On Oct. 13, 1812, Americans crossed the Niagara River and encountered British, Canadian and First Nations forces at the Battle of Queenston Heights, just south of Fort Niagara and Fort George. It was the first significant engagement, and it was an American defeat.
More than 500 American men were killed or wounded and nearly 1,000 were taken prisoner, according to historian Carl Benn, who has written several books on the War of 1812. On the opposing side, however, 104 troops were killed or wounded, and among the men fighting for the British were about 250 First Nations people and a 50-man brigade of freed slaves and black servants.
But British priorities eventually shifted south. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy had built a fleet on the American side of Lake Ontario.
In May 1813, American forces heavily bombarded Fort George from Fort Niagara and held Fort George for an uneasy six months. Then one December day, they went around knocking on doors and suggested that the Canadians should leave, because they were about to burn the place down.
"It’s likely no one believed them," Bothwell said. "That just wasn’t done back then."
The next day the American occupiers were back, torches in hand. And when the British forces followed them across the river a few weeks later, on Dec. 19, they returned the favor by burning Lewiston, NewYork, to the ground. Some historians say the torching of homes surrounding Fort George led to the eventual burning of Washington. In 1813, Lewistown was much bigger than Buffalo and considered a gateway to the West. Now, it’s a small hamlet full of touristy shops and microbreweries; each December, some residents re-enact the midnight torching by running down the street in pajamas.
Bothwell describes such War of 1812 commemorations as "rather quaint."
Serious military exercises continued at the mouth of the Niagara River long after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent. On the Canadian side, Fort George was allowed to deteriorate because the garrison was so close to other active military instillations, including Butler’s Barracks, Fort Erie and Fort Mississauga. Only the gunpowder magazine dates to 1796. Replicas of other buildings were built mostly on original foundations as part of an economic stimulus during the Great Depression.
Fort Niagara has been well preserved, however, and was even expanded during the Civil War when the Union feared that Canadians might align with the Confederacy. (They did not.) During World War I, both countries trained soldiers in models of European trenches, which visitors can still crawl through. During World War II, Fort Niagara served as a POW internment camp and dispatched German soldiers to work at western New York farms.
"For years, some of them still called me each Christmas," said Emerson, who has led the historical site since 1997.
The fort was busy even on a chilly fall Saturday. In addition to lowering and folding the American, French and British flags that fly over the fort, a troop of Boy Scouts was tasked with chopping onions and preparing stew in the bakehouse, which began feeding soldiers in 1745. The medieval-looking main building, known as the French Castle, was built in 1729, and the land has served as some sort of military installation since the French claimed it in 1679. (The English took over after the French and Indian War, and the fort officially became American property once John Jay’s Treaty took effect in 1796.)
"We were built by King Louis XVI and decommissioned by JFK," Emerson says. "That is a very, very long run."
German tourists stopped Emerson to ask questions as we looked out at the Toronto skyline from the North Rideout tower, which surely has one of the most stunning views on all Lake Ontario. From the South Rideout, Emerson can just make out the Union Jack flying on the east side of Fort George.
"We used to be able to see more of the fort, but about 10 years ago they built that yellow condo building," he says, pointing to the largest of many buildings on the Canadian side of the river. The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is busier than Youngstown, and home to luxury hotels, quaint shopping and a renowned theater festival named for George Bernard Shaw.
Before the United States adopted stricter border guidelines after 9/11, Emerson and his counterparts at Fort George had held a "Tour de Forts" and rowed visitors across the river in a touch of emulation. As in one report an American newspaper, officers from Fort Niagara were dining at Fort George in 1812 when they heard that the United States had declared war. They finished dinner, shook hands and rowed back across the river.
These days, landing on the U.S. bank is forbidden, and waits are much longer when crossing into the United States via the bridges, but the staffs still stay in touch. This fall the two forts launched a social media war to see who could garner the most Facebook "likes."
"We won the Facebook War, but I feel kind of bad about it; it was their idea," Emerson said. "There are good guys over there."
He misses looking directly out at Fort George. He and his staff sometimes joke about firing cannons at the yellow condo building.
Laroche was amused by that prospect. He shows up for work most days wearing his formal captain’s uniform, complete with woolen red coat and ostrich feather hat.
"We could help with that," he said of the condo bombardment. "I’ve got some artillery."
He was dressed and ready for battle, but no shots were fired. He was smiling.