By Elton Hobson
The War of 1812 took place 200 years ago, but a special presentation at St. Lawrence Hall Monday night bridged the gap between past and present in a unique way.
Pain and Suffering in the War of 1812: The Evidence from the Snake Hill Site offered a unique look at how history is “invented,” by tracing the discovery, excavation, and investigation into the remains of 28 American soldiers found near what was once Fort Erie, near St. Catherine’s.
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The event was sponsored by Heritage Toronto, a historical advocacy group looking to broaden awareness of Canadian history among Toronto residents.
“For the bicentennial of the War of 1812 we’re putting on a series of lectures, walking tours, and special events that run throughout the year,” Gary Miedema, chief historian at Heritage Toronto, told Humber News. “Our goal is to foster a greater awareness of this important chapter of Canadian history.”
Generations have passed since the war ended in 1815, lessening the importance of the conflict for many Canadians.
“The War of 1812 was in a time and place that is very different from ours,” Miedema said. “If no organizations had done the work that we and other organizations are doing, I believe there would be far less interest in the war overall.”
The featured speaker was Canadian archeologist Dr. Ron Williamson, who took history buffs on an exciting journey stretching over two centuries of Canadian history.
As Dr. Williamson tells it, the story begins in 1814, when American brigadier general Winfield Scott launched an invasion of Upper Canada along the Niagara River. His men captured Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo, however the British and First Nations forces halted their progress further northward.
Thus began the months-long Siege of Fort Erie by British and First Nations forces.
“It’s tough to imagine the conditions these guys lived in day after day,” Williamson said. “The bombardment would have been constant, night and day, along the entire line. There wouldn’t have been time for proper burials, or even to dig proper graves.”
Some 174 years later, one of those hastily dug graves was discovered near a home by the Lake Erie waterfront. It is here that Williamson enters the story, as he and his team worked to uncover who these men were and how they died.
Once it was determined that the men were fallen American soldiers, Williamson’s world expanded dramatically.
“The official position of the United States army was that any American soldier who falls on foreign soil must be brought home, simple as that,” Williamson said. “I remember coming into the mayor’s (of St. Catherine’s) office, and seeing an American colonel in full dress uniform with his feet up on the mayor’s desk. That’s when I knew things had gotten serious.”
Eventually, the bodies were returned to the United States and given full military burial with honors.
“It’s important when you recount history like this that you’re sensitive to context, and you don’t sensationalize,” Miedema said. “Looking at the conflict we once waged only serves to highlight the decades and centuries of friendship we’ve had since then.”