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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter V. The Advent of Dr. Strachan and the Fall of York


DURING the remaining months of the year 1812 nothing very-notable happened to the arms of the two nations. The success won on Queenston Heights, though it had cost the life of the gallant Brock, was a serious blow to the Americans, as nearly a thousand men surrendered to Sheaffe, with Wadsworth, their general. Small as was the Canadian force opposed to the invader, its losses shed a gloom over the capital. With Brock there fell the Provincial Attorney-General, John McDonnell, who was acting as aide-de-camp to the Governor, together with many a gallant militiaman. York gave of its best blood to the war, and few who were able to fight shirked the duty the sword imposed upon them.

To mitigate the horrors and alleviate the sufferings of the conflict, there was now established at the capital an association called the "Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada," the principal objects of which were to make provision, for the widows and orphans of the war, to tend the wounded, and give succour to those whose homes had been made desolate. The founder of this society, and one of the most active citizens of the still young capital, was a reverend divine who had but recently come to take up his residence in York, and whose profession well fitted him to act the part of the Good Samaritan. We refer to the Rev. Dr. John Strachan, a name that was to become a household word throughout the Province, and its owner one of the most notable figures in its history.

Born at Aberdeen, in 1778, this young Scot, who was to become the first Bishop appointed by the Crown m Upper Canada, left the charge of a parish school in the neighbourhood of St. Andrews and came to Canada, in 1799, to devote himself to the work of teaching. It had been wisely proposed by Governor Simcoe that the Province should encourage the establishment of an academy, to grow in nine into a college, and that some capable person should be obtained from Britain to take charge of the institution. The offer of the principalship, tradition has it, was first made to the notable divine, Dr. Chalmers, and being refused by him, young Strachan, the Aberdeen graduate, was induced to accept it. On the last day of the century, the young Master of Arts arrived at Kingston, and presented himself at the house of Mr. Richard Cartwright, a gentleman of much local repute, who was afterwards heartily to befriend him. Here he learned that with the departure of Simcoe, and other intervening events, the project of founding an academy under the auspices of the Government had been abandoned. Undeterred by this mischance, and aided by his good friend Cartwright, Strachan opened a private school at Kingston, and immediately met with success. For the first time was now set in motion that educational machinery which erelong was to overspread the Province, and bear the lamp of learning into every village in the land.

While at Kingston Strachan determined to take orders in the Church of England, and being admitted by Bishop Mountain to the priesthood, he was given a charge at Cornwall. Thither Strachan and his now celebrated school removed, and for a time we find him imparting more than the conventional rudiments of education to a group of young men who from the Grammar School at Cornwall were erelong to go forth to the highest positions in the Province.

In 1811 there died at Kingston an intimate friend and correspondent of Strachan, the Rev. Dr. John Stuart, who for a quarter of a century had ministered to the people of that town. The man looked to as his successor was the schoolmaster at Cornwall ; but just then Governor Gore was inducing the worthy dominie to come to York, and engage in clerical and educational work. For a time Strachan wavered in his choice, but the incumbency of York being pressed upon him by many prominent people of the town, he finally accepted the charge, and removed to the capital. Through the favour of Major-General Brock he was also appointed to the chaplaincy of the troops, and offered some official post in the Provincial Council.

Dr. Strachan's biographer, and his successor m the See of Toronto, gives us a brief but interesting picture of York at the period of Strachan's advent. " York, at this time," writes Bishop Bethune, It was a little town of a few hundred inhabitants ; the houses all of wood, and of very unpretending dimensions. Seven years later, when first seen by the writer of this memoir, its population hardly exceeded 1,000; and there were but three brick houses m the whole place. In 1812 it might be regarded as a quiet little parish, affording sufficient but not severe labour to the incumbent, and quite within the compass of one man's pastoral ministrations. But now it was shaken and disturbed by the din and turmoil of war; it was the residence of the Commander of the Forces, and the centre, consequently, of all military arrangements. No sooner was war proclaimed than there followed the active preparations and energetic movements of Sir Isaac Brock ; and before many months we had the bloodless triumph at Detroit, and the sanguinary, yet not less glorious, contest at Queenston Heights—having, however, one most calamitous result, the death of the gallant Brock himself. After this, as the wintry season drew on, there was comparative quiet; but far and near were the notes of preparation on either side, and thickening anxieties for the coming spring. In such a stirring time it was not in the nature of Dr. Strachan to be idle ; burning with love of his country, and full of indignation at this unrighteous aggression, he was active and judicious in his counsels; and if he could not take the lead in the field, he was foremost in devising means to ameliorate the calamities which the war was inducing."

Among the means devised by Dr. Strachan for the relief of the victims of the war was the founding, as we have already narrated, of the Upper Canada Loyal and Patriotic Society, which, though established at York, had branches throughout the Province. Of this benevolent institution, to the funds of which large contributions had generously been forwarded from England, the writer we have just quoted remarks that "it contributed more towards the defence of the Province than half-a-dozen regiments, from the confidence and good-will it inspired amongst the population at large, and the encouragement to gave to the young men of the country to leave their homes and take their share in its defence." The events of the following year, unhappily, called ;nto requisition all the aid! the society could offer for the relief of the wounded, and to meet the necessities of the families of those who had fallen. With the spring of 1813 the Americans renewed their military and naval operations against Canada, ami more actively by way of the lakes. Here the enemy was stronger, and the water boundary between the two countries now became, in great measure, the scene of hostilities. Towards the end of February the Legislature of Upper Canada was called together by General Sheaffe, the Provisional Administrator, and m concert with Sir George Prevost and the Parliament of the Lower Province, active measures were adopted and money votes passed for the continued defence of the country. Efforts were also made to strengthen the weak marine on the lakes, for the command of which Sir James Yeo had arrived at Kingston. But the Americans were earlier prepared to renew hostilities, at least on the water. They had also planned demonstrations by land, both in the east and west, with the hope of-recovering their lost military prestige, and of effacing the recollection of the previous year's disasters. A flotilla was even now ready to leave the eastern end of Lake Ontario with designs against York. Unfortunately for the Provincial capital, its slender defences and the handful of troops in the garrison—now commanded by Major General Sheafft—could not avert the fate that menaced it. On the 25-th of April, Commodore Chauncey set out from Sackett's Harbour with a fleet of fourteen armed vessels and some 1,600 troops, with the object of capturing Fort Toronto and raiding the capital. The attacking force was under the command of Brigadier Pike, directed by General Dearborn, who remained on board the flag-ship. On the evening of the 26th the fleet appeared outside the harbour, and on the following day the troops detailed to attack the fort were landed in the neighbourhood of the Humber River, and, under fire from the ships, proceeded to take the outworks, and to scale the inner defences, which interposed but slight obstacles to the enemy. Conscious of the weakness of his position, General Sheaffe had concluded to evacuate the fort, and had already fallen back upon the town. Passing through it with his few "regulars," he proceeded eastward, ignominiously leaving the militia to make what further defence they could, or to treat with the enemy. The latter, finding that the fire from the fort had suddenly ceased, and anticipating a surrender, pushed on in column to take possession. The next moment there was a terrific explosion. General Pike and over two hundred of his command were shot into the air. The powder magazine had been fired by an artillery sergeant of the retreating force, to prevent it falling into the hands of the Americans, and the fuse was lit, from all accounts undesignedly, at a horribly inopportune moment. With the evacuation of the fort came the surrender of the town and its subsequent pillage—a grim pastime which seems to have been carried out in the spirit of the Revolutionary formula: "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"

For a few days after the event just narrated, the Americans held possession of York, and received the submission of Colonel Chewett and the handful of militia who had not fallen in defence of the town. The Canadian loss, including that of the troops, was about 130 men; and nearly 300 militia surrendered themselves prisoners. The casualties also included a number of Indians, who had been of much service, under Major Ghins, when the enemy were in the act of landing. The loss to the Americans, in killed and wounded, was not short of 350 men, more than a half of whom had been blown up in the fort. The exploding of the magazine and the calamitous loss to the invaders, as may be expected, put them in no humour to treat with any generosity either the townspeople or the town. The Houses of Parliament, with the library and public records, were burned ; one or two vessels on the stocks, with the dockyard, and a quantity of marine stores, were also given to the flames ; and everything of value that could be removed was put on board the fleet. L fe only was not sacrificed. The Canadian militia were released on parole, and articles of capitulation, after some little friction, were duly drawn out and signed. There is extant some memoranda of Bishop Strachan, written at the time, which give a graphic account of scenes connected with the capitulation, and the difficulties he had to contend with m getting the enemy to restrain their lawlessness and respect private property. Some extracts from this diary may not be without interest to the modern reader, and we here append them. Says the Doctor: "On hearing the tremendous explosion of the magazine, hurried home and found Mrs. Strachan greatly terrified, and off with the children to a neighbour's house; sent her to a friend's a little out of town. Go up towards the garrison, which we had by this time abandoned ; find the General and his troops in a ravine, the militia scattering. The General (Sheaffe)determines to retreat to Kingston with the regulars, and leaves the command with Colonel Chewett and Major Allan, two militia officers ; and desires them to make the best conditions they can with the enemy for the protection of the town. Offer my services to assist them. Go to Mr. Crookshank's house, and meet Major King and Colonel Mitchell, on the part of the enemy. Our Attorney-General, Mr. Robinson,2 also went with us, and assisted us to discuss the points of capitulation. A difficulty arose from a ship and naval store having been set 011 fire during our negotiations; this considered very dishonourable. At length a capitulation is agreed upon, subject to the ratification of the commanding officer. Soon broken through ; Major Allan, though under the protection of a flag of truce, is made prisoner, and deprived of his sword. 1 accompany him to town in the midst of the enemy's column. The militia on our side ground their arms. The enemy return to the gari :son, with the exception of the rifle corps, which is left under pretence of protection to the town.

"Wednesday, April 28, met Major King at the Hon. Mr. Selby's; complain of the indignity offered Major Allan, and that the capitulation had not been ratified, nor a copy so ratified returned in a few minutes, according to promise ; and declared that the whole thing appeared a deception. Major King was sorry, would do everything that lay in his power, and desired us to go to the garrison, and everything would be amicably adjusted. Went to the garrison, but the commanding officer, Colonel Pierce, can do nothing. The militia had been detained in the block-house without victuals, and the wounded without nourishment or medicine. Complain to Colonel Pierce, who ordered rations for the prisoners. Meet a deputation from General Dearborn, to discuss the articles of capitulation; find that they cannot parole the militia officers and men.

"Demand an officer to take me on hoard the principal ship, where Dearborn was. "Meet him coming ashore, and present him with the articles of capitulation. He read them without deigning an answer. Request to know whether he will parole the officers and men, and demand leave to take away our sick and wounded. He treats me with great harshness; tells me that we had given a false return of officers; told me to keep off, and not to follow him, etc., he had business of much more importance to attend to. Complained of this treatment to Commodore Chauncey, the commander of flotilla; declare that ;f the capitulation was not immediately signed we would not receive it; and affirmed that the delay was a deception, calculated to give the riflemen time to plunder, and after the town had been robbed they would then perhaps sign the capitulation, and tell us they respected private property. Put we were determined that this should not be the case, and that they should not have it in their power to say that they respected private property, after it had been robbed. Upon saying this, I broke away. Soon after General Dearborn came to the room where his deputation was sitting, and having been told what I had said, settled the matter amicably. The officers and men were released on parole, and we began to remove the sick and wounded.

"Spent the whole of Thursday, the 29th, m removing the sick and wounded, and getting comforts for them. On the following day the Government building on fire, contrary to the articles of capitulation, and the church robbed. Call a meeting of the judges and magistrates; draw up a short note stating our grievances, and wait upon General Dearborn with it. He is greatly embarrassed, and promises everything.

This extract introduces us at an early stage to many of the characteristics of a remarkable man, who was to become a notable figure in the history of the Province, and, in time, the first Bishop of Toronto. For over half a century he was to be closely identified with the development of Upper Canada, the affairs of which he thus early look into his own hands to manage. Matters political, as well as educational and ecclesiastical, were, in large measure, to come under his control, and be more or less moulded by his forceful and practical mind. In man}- respects his influence was objectionable, and the dominance of the party with whom he worked pernicious; but, on the whole, he may be said to have served his county faithfully, and from the best of motives. Curt and stubborn, at times even to rudeness, many often found him; and no doubt it was to this trait of his character, with, perhaps, a little officiousness, that Dearborn's impatience with him is to be traced; though his doggedness and incensed manner would, we may be sure, get all the indulgence possible for the militia and citizens of York from the town's rude captors.

After the submission and humiliation of York. Chauncey's fleet set sail for the mouth of the Niagara River, with the intention of attacking Fort George. Though gallantly defended b)' a small force under General Vincent, the fort was at last abandoned by its garrison, which then fell back on a strong position, between Niagara and Burlington Heights. Besides the loss of the fort, over 400 men fell on the sharply-contested field. This loss was, however, more than atoned for, and the account squared, by the heroic engagements at Beaver Dam and Stony Creek, and, later in the year, by the descent upon Black Rock. Eastward, there had been a brilliant exploit at Ogdensburg, and several engagements on Lake Champlain; while, in the Detroit region, Proctor had been successful, with the aid of Tecumseh and his Indians, in harassing the American "Army of the West". On the lakes fortune was capricious, now playing into the hands of Chauncey and Perry; anon into those of Barclay and Yeo.

Taking advantage of aid sent from the capital to General Vincent at Burlington Heights, which depleted the already slender garrison, Chauncey in July—three months after his first visit—made another descent upon York, and gave much of the town to the flames. The war-scarred capital now presented a sorry spectacle, for what of value was not burned was carried away. Among the loot of York, it is worthy of mention, was a fire-engine, which was long treasured at the Navy Yard, Washington, as part of the spoil of the town. The trophy had been presented to the inhabitants of York by Lieutenant-Governor Hunter in 1802. In the reprisals from the seaboard .n the following year, when the British captured Washington and burned the capitol, it is comforting to think that there was occasion given the Americans for its use.

Canadian history has n 1813 to chronicle two other successes, which more than counterbalanced the loss to its arms in a year of untold hardships and much bloodshed. Chrysler's Farm and Chateauguay has to be added to the roll of honour on the war banners of the young colony. The rear closed, however, amid woe and desolation. The American General, McClure, in command of the captured stronghold of Fort George, being hard pressed by Vincent's troops, decided to winter in Fort Niagara, on the other side of the river. Thinking his safety even there endangered by the proximity of Newark, he committed the inhuman act of turning out of their homes, in the depth of winter, about 150 families, including 400 women and children, and tired the town at thirty minutes' notice. For this barbarous act the Americans were held to a terrible account in the reprisals which instantly followed—the surprise and capture of Fort Niagara, and the consigning of all American villages, from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, to the flames.

There is little to record in the events of 1814, save the failure of the British attack on the strong position of the Americans at Chippewa, and the crowning victory of the war, the Battle of Lundy's Lane, with which the War of 1812 may be said to have practically ended. The treaty of Ghent, which was signed on the 14th of December, 1814, terminated the protracted struggle, and left Canada in possession of her own. The country had been devastated, innumerable homes made desolate, and thousands of lives sacrificed, in an inglorious attempt by the American people to subjugate Canada, and supplant the Union Jack by the Stars, and Stripes. The ordeal was a trying one for the country, but her sons were equal to the occasion, and she acquitted herself with honour, and carried to the credit of her national life that which has since strengthened and ennobled it.


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