Fort York's History
Beginning in 1793, a stone gunpowder magazine, wooden barracks buildings, log blockhouses and earthen gun batteries were built to protect the harbour from enemy vessels in time of war.
At the beginning of the WAR OF 1812, the defences at York (TORONTO) were not very formidable and were lightly garrisoned by the British Army even though a strategically important shipbuilding yard had been established in Toronto Harbour. It was felt that York was too isolated and too well protected by the British Lake Ontario fleet to be attacked by the Americans.
However, by the early spring of 1813, the American navy had gained ascendancy on LAKE ONTARIO and were able to sail the lake without fear of being overwhelmed by the British fleet. On 27 April, they launched an amphibious invasion from Sackets Harbor, New York, aimed at capturing British ships and naval stores at York. More than 1700 Americans under the command of Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike overwhelmed the British garrison of 300 British regulars, 500 militia and 50 Aboriginal allies under Major-General Roger Hale SHEAFFE in the Battle of York (see THE SACKING OF YORK).
As the Americans advanced towards the main British battery, Sheaffe ordered his regulars to retreat, exploding the main powder magazine and burning naval stores and a new ship under construction as they departed. The blast killed many Americans, including General Pike. When Sheaffe's army retreated, the town of York surrendered to the Americans. The Americans occupied the town until 8 May when they finally set sail. They burned government buildings, including the Parliament buildings, before leaving. In July, an American squadron returned and burned any government buildings that had been left standing in May.
When the British reoccupied York, they began building a new fortification on the ruins of the earlier installation. The defences and gun batteries were powerful enough by August 1814 to prevent an American flotilla from entering the harbour.
During the Upper Canada rebellion (see REBELLIONS OF 1837), Fort York served as a rallying spot for local militia. While the rebellion did not amount to much, it did spur the British to undertake additional construction in Toronto. In the early 1840s, the New Fort (later called Stanley Barracks) was built one kilometre to the west and a small British garrison was maintained there until 1869 when the new Dominion of Canada took over its own defence. The Canadian militia continued to use both forts into the 20th century.
Historic Fort York
Development threatened the Old Fort at the turn of the 20th century and this prompted a public outcry over the possible loss of a Toronto heritage icon. As a result, the Department of Militia and Defence transferred the property to the city of Toronto in 1909 with the provision that the city would preserve the fort's historic structures. The city undertook restoration work during the Great Depression and opened "Old Fort York" to the public in 1934, in conjunction with the city's centennial. Renamed as Historic Fort York in the 1970s, this national historic site features several original buildings, 4 of which were constructed during the War of 1812. Guides in period costume and a visitor centre along with buildings refurnished to the War of 1812 period help visitors to gain a vivid understanding of the fort and its colourful stories.
Author RONALD J. DALE
Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (1991) and Historic Fort York, 1793-1993 (1993); Ronald J. Dale, The Invasion of Canada: Battles of the War of 1812 (2001); J. Mackay Hitsman and Donald E. Graves, The Incredible War of 1812 (1999); Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (2007); Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War of Lake Ontario, 1812-14 (1998) and Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813 (2008).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Toronto in Time
Peer into Toronto's past through a fascinating collection of "then and now" photographs and stories featured in the "Toronto in Time" app (available on iOS and Android devices). From The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Historica-Dominion Institute.
The official website for the City of Toronto, Ontario.
The Canadian Register of Historic Places
Canada is home to a vast array of fascinating historical sites. Many of them are illustrated and described in this searchable online database of Canadian historic places that are of local, provincial, territorial, and national significance.
Historic Fort York
A visitor's guide to historic Fort York in Toronto. Offers a brief history of the fort and the latest news about programs and special events. Check the online archives of "The Fife & Drum" newsletter for more information about this popular tourist site. From the “Friends of Fort York.”
New Government House
Scroll down the page to view an illustration of New Government House, a residence for lieutenant governors in the historic Town of York. This structure was blown up by American forces during the War of 1812. From the website for the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.
View a map and description of the current Fort York historic site. Includes brief synopses of early Toronto history, the War of 1812, and more. A City of Toronto website.
Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe
A biography of Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, British army officer in the War of 1812 and colonial administrator. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
A biography of John Strachan, teacher, clergyman, officeholder, and bishop. Also provides much detail about the history of Upper Canada. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Merrimack Intelligencer Vol. 5 No. 48
See a page from the 27 April 1813 edition of an American weekly paper featuring political arguments against James Madison's war policies and a brief account of the capture of York by the Americans, 27 April 1813. From 1812History.com.
Unturned Stones in War of 1812 Studies
This article identifies a number of significant, but underreported, events in the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Military History in Built Up Areas: The Battle of York, 1813
An account of the 1813 American amphibious attack on the provincial capital of Upper Canada at York. Includes recent arial photographs that show the location of Fort York in the City of Toronto. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813
A brief review of the book "Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813." From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Onward to Canada! Captain Stephen H. Moore and the First Baltimore Volunteers, 1812-1813
An article about the First Baltimore Volunteers, a company that participated in the 1813 attack on York and other military conflicts in the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Fort York National Historic Site of Canada
This site offers a description of the heritage characteristics of the Fort York National Historic Site of Canada. From the “Canada’s Historic Places” website.
Upper Thames Military Reenactment Society
The website for the Upper Thames Military Reenactment Society, which commemorates the military regiment that fought at Chippawa, Lundy's Lane, Fort Erie, and other battles in the War of 1812.
Military Re-Enactment Society of Canada
The website for the Military Re-Enactment Society of Canada based at Historic Fort York in Toronto. Check out online articles and a brief history of the Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, which played a major role in defending Canadian territory during the War of 1812.
Bicentennial Commemoration of the War of 1812
The City of Toronto website for local attractions and events that are part of the Bicentennial Commemoration of the War of 1812.