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Many visitors to the Niagara region simply take the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW Highway) all the way to Niagara Falls. It’s really a shame if the Falls is all you get to see in this beautiful and one of the most historic regions of Canada.
Whenever I’m in this area, I love visiting charming Niagara-on-the-Lake, the first capital of Upper Canada, named by the international “Communities in Bloom” committee as “Canada’s prettiest town”. After a traditional afternoon tea or lunch at a local vineyard, I would then take the Niagara Parkway, one of the oldest roads in Ontario, into Niagara Falls. It is a much more scenic drive than the QEW, Sir Winston Churchill described it as “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world”.
As you drive on the Niagara Parkway, there are many interesting historic sites nestled along the Niagara River, one of which is Brock’s Monument at Queenston, just 5 km north of Niagara Falls.
Major General Sir Isaac Brock
Born in 1769, Isaac Brock was a British Army officer assigned to Canada. After gaining battle experience in Europe, Brock came to Canada to command the 49th Regiment in 1802. He had a successful military career and quickly rose through the ranks, appointed Brigadier General in 1807 and officially took command of all Canadian forces in Upper Canada by 1810. Brock was promoted to Major General in June of 1811, and was put fully in charge of both military and civil authority of Upper Canada by October of 1811. Seeing it as his duty to defend Canada in the war brewing with the United States, Brock declined the offer to return to Europe in early 1812.
War of 1812
In the years leading up to this conflict, the United States was not happy with the trade restrictions imposed by the British in their war against Napoleon in Europe. Ironically, those restrictions were lifted before President James Madison declared war on June 18, 1812. Thomas Jefferson predicted that acquiring Upper and Lower Canada “will be a mere matter of marching”, the result would be “the final expulsion of England from the American continent.”
At the time, Britain was heavily engaged in the war with Napoleon, most of its army were deployed in Portugal and Spain, while the Royal Navy was engaged in combat throughout the coasts of Europe. The British and Canadians were greatly outnumbered by the Americans. General Brock was fully aware of the challenges and established defensive measures in every possible way many months prior to the war. He did not want to wait passively until the Americans act first. Once war was declared, Brock’s ingenuity and preparedness led to a quick capture of a key US post at Michilimackinac Island in Lake Huron and Detroit giving the British control of the Michigan territory and the Upper Mississippi. More importantly, his bold actions inspired confidence for the First Nations to come to his side and gave heart to the despairing Canadians, giving Canada a fighting chance.
The Battle of Queenston Heights
In the early morning of Oct 13, 1812, American troops crossed the Niagara River in an attempt to capture Queenston, the northern portage point around Niagara Falls, the goal was to establish a strong foothold on the Canadian side of the Niagara River and cut the British supply line to the west. General Brock awakened by the sound of artillery, galloped 7 miles from Fort George to Queenston. Fearing that the Americans would move the rest of their troops across the river, Brock ordered an immediate attack on their position. Brock got off his gray horse “Alfred” in order to personally lead the charge on foot to repel the invading enemy, sadly he was killed leading the attack.
Following the death of Brock, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell took over command until Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe could arrive with reinforcements. Macdonell rode “Alfred” to lead another charge, both were also killed as part of the price of defending Canada on that day.
Despite their numerical advantage the Americans were unable to get the bulk of their invasion forces across the Niagara River. Once further British reinforcements arrived the remaining unsupported American forces were defeated and captured resulting in a decisive British victory.
Brock’s death became a unifying factor for many Canadians. The victories at Detroit and Queenston early in the war strengthened the belief that Canada can remain independent of the United States. For his accomplishment in the capture of Detroit, Brock was appointed a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath on October 10, 1812. Regrettably, he died at the Battle of Queenston Heights on Oct 13, 1812 before news of his knighthood reached him.
Brock’s death at Queenston made him one of the most memorialized figures in Canadian history. In 1824, Brock’s and Macdonell’s remains were moved from Fort George into Brock’s Monument overlooking Queenston Heights. After the original monument was heavily damaged by explosives in 1840, it was replaced by a larger structure that we see today. Both Brock and Macdonell were interred inside the new Monument on October 13, 1853.
Significance of Isaac Brock and the War of 1812
When we drive along the serene and peaceful Niagara Parkway today, it’s difficult to imagine that control of the Niagara River section of this US-Canada border was in constant dispute 200 years ago. Many decisive battles of the War of 1812 happened along both sides of the river.
Even though the United States did not gain any Canadian territory, they emerged from the War of 1812 with new confidence in their revolution. Having gone to war against Great Britain for a second time and endured.
As for Canada, the War of 1812 brought about a deep psychological change that cannot be underestimated. Before 1812, many settlers in what is now Ontario did not have strong connections to the Crown. Collectively fighting to defend their land, forged them into a unified whole – becoming Canadians. Few could imagine what they were defending one day would flourish into a diverse and prosperous Canada, the second largest country in the world.
Without Isaac Brock and the brave generation that fought for Canada two centuries ago, it’s unlikely that the country would exist today. The next time when you’re in the Niagara region, take the time to visit General Brock’s final resting place and walk the battleground that played a significant role in the destiny of Canada.