by Fred Blair
What did your ancestors do during the War of 1812? Whether or not men served in the militia or British forces, there may be surviving documents that recorded their name. There are also documents that record the names of women and children. This blog is about records related to Major General Isaac Brock’s capture of Fort Detroit on August 16, 1812 and the role of the 3rd York Militia in that engagement.
The image here is of Colonel Edward William Thomson (1794–1865) who served as a private in the 3rd York Militia at Detroit that August. How did he come to be that far west of the Town of York?
On July 12, 1812, American forces crossed over the river from Fort Detroit and captured the Town of Sandwich. Brock began to plan an expedition to travel west and confront the Americans. He began to gather support from the Indigenous warriors on the Grand River and militia men from the flank companies were asked to volunteer. His plan to sail across Lake Erie required militia help impressing and preparing boats on the Niagara Frontier. The 3rd York Militia Rolls for the expedition have not survived but other records reveal who took part and some of their roles in the battle.
William McCay’s journal, “Quick March to Glory,” recorded his impressions of the journey, the attack, and sailing back to Fort Erie. As he was travelling with members of the 3rd York Militia, their experiences would have been similar.
On August 1, 1812, Private William McCay of the 2nd York Militia and 59 other militia men stationed at Queenston volunteered for the journey west. William kept a journal of the day-to-day experiences of the veterans. Brock wanted the Americans to believe that he had a larger force of British soldiers. William and his comrades were issued red regimental uniforms to disguise them as British regulars. On August 4th, he recorded that the wagon ride to Fort Erie was “pleasant.” The rest of their travels would not be. The 3rd York Militia volunteers and other men on the Niagara Frontier were on route to Fort Erie.
On August 6th, William wrote, “We set off very early. The first place we landed was at a small island a little below the mouth of the Grand River where we found a great plenty of sand cherries. We did not stop long, but put into the mouth of the Grand River 40 miles from Fort Erie.” Local fruit and produce would supplement their daily rations of bread and pork.
On August 7th, “We slept under the trees on the bank of the river. Arose early and set off and did not land until we came to Patterson’s Creek, 10 miles from the Grand River. We were informed that the Volunteers from York, some of the 41st, and some militia… were to go with us.” These reinforcements were on the way from the Grand River area with General Brock.
On August 8th, “Slept on shore in the best manner we could. Two of our company deserted this morning. We did not leave this place till 12 o’clock when we set off and came to Long Point in the evening, drew our boats across and put up for the night.”
On August 9th, “Arose early this morning and about sunrise was joined by General Brock and 6 boats loaded with the troops from Patterson’s Creek.” They set off with a fair wind that later ceased. “I then rowed til night when we landed at Kettle Creek.”
On August 10th, “Wet and cold last night. Some of us lay in the boats and some on the sand.” They set off early but the rain and high wind forced them to put in at Port Talbot.
On August 11th, after an early start the wind turned hard and they were forced ashore again after sailing about 12 miles. “Some of us built camps and covered them with bark to shelter us from the rain which poured down incessantly, but I was obliged to go on guard—as I was.”
On August 12th, “We set off before daylight … We continued on voyage all night which was a very fatiguing being so crowded in the boats we could not lie down.”
On August 13th, “We made no stop, only to boil our pork but kept on til about 2 o’clock, then lay on the beach until morning.” Brock with a few boats carried on without them.
On August 14th, “We landed at Fort Malden about 2 o’clock, very tired rowing, and our faces burnt with the sun til the skin came off… Our company was marched to a stone house where we took out our baggage and dryed it and cleaned our guns. Were paraded at 11 o’clock.”
On August 15th, “Arose early and set off with our boats for Sandwich.” They stopped at some orchards for pears and apples and then marched into the town. The British and Americans exchanged cannon fire that night.
On August 16th, Brock and the British regulars and guns crossed the river before daylight. “By daylight we were all under arms and soon began to cross the river, while the cannons began to roar again.” They were about three miles below Fort Detroit. The Americans did not oppose the crossing. “Soon as most of us was over we marched up through the town expecting to be fired upon every moment.” The town was deserted. “We halted in a little Vale about half a mile below the fort. The firing ceased which had been kept up very briskly upwards of 2 hours, and our officers saw the flag of truce go from the fort over to our batteries.” The Americans had surrendered the fort.
William continued his journal and wrote about his journey back to Fort Erie as a guard on one of the ships bringing back American prisoners. He and others were ill upon their return and were hospitalized. He only named a few of his comrades.
We have a few other ways of identifying the veterans of Detroit. The British were quick to strip the American soldiers of arms and ammunition. Cannons and other supplies were transported back to Upper Canada. Beginning in 1818, the veterans began receiving prize money. There were 87 members of the 1st and 3rd York Militias entitled to money, but their names were not listed in the Detroit Prize List. Who were they?
In 1847, the British issued a silver medal for surviving veterans of the Napoleonic War and the War of 1812, the Military General Service Medal. The list of entitled men exceeded the funds granted for the project and only veterans of two battles in Upper Canada received the medals for Detroit in 1812 or Crysler’s Farm in 1813. Forty-six 3rd York Veterans were recorded in the medal list for Detroit.
Each medal had the veteran’s name engraved around the rim. More men received the medal than received the prize money. Some of these men must have died before 1847 and others may not have applied for it. Why was there a large discrepancy in numbers?
Note that Private Edward William Thomson did not apply for the 1847 medal. How do we know that he was at Detroit? In 1899, the Ontario Historical Society published some transcripts for Captain Duncan Cameron’s 1812 rolls from documents in the private collection of Mr. H. King. One of the rolls was a list of 32 volunteers from his company who “volunteered on service to Amherstburg.” In that list, I found Private “Edward Thomson”. This transcript can be found online at http://my.tbaytel.net/bmartin/militia.htm
Captain Stephen Heward commanded the second flank company of the 3rd York Militia, but no individual record of his volunteers has been found.
You can read more about these and other War of 1812 sources on the Sources page. If you have answers to the questions posed above, or an enquiry about the 3rd York Militia, please use the Comments section on this blog post.