Longing for peace in Niagara

The War of 1812: Part 3 of 3

July 25, 2012 | Web First
Jonathan Seiling | Special to Canadian Mennonite

The historic District of Niagara included what is roughly the whole of the Niagara Peninsula. It began at Hamilton and stretched along Lake Ontario toward the Niagara River, bordering the United States, and it continued southwest from Fort Erie along Lake Erie past the mouth of the Grand River into Haldimand County, although the Mennonite Rainham settlement was located just outside the border of the district. Those who lived in Niagara along or near water were the most affected by battles and military garrisons. For the duration of the war this was an embattled people longing for peace.

Erie Shores: Boats of 1812 and raiders of 1814
The boats of Mennonites from two of the earliest settlements were taken already at the initial phase of the war, when Isaac Brock commandeered a contingent to sail to Detroit.

The Zavitzes of Port Colborne and the Hoovers of Rainham would lose more than their boats through the course of the war; later, these two settlements along Lake Erie became the scene of the lawless marauders—both “Canadian” and American—who came to pillage and take advantage of the American occupation of Lake Erie, including much of the Niagara District and western Upper Canada.

Mennonites in Niagara faced demands from all sides, including British officers, who sometimes destroyed their property so that supplies didn't fall into the hands of the Americans; American soldiers who pillaged their homes for supplies; first nation warriors who sometimes took horses or food forcibly; and American raiders who came to pillage but had no connection to the military. There were also “Canadian” traitors who sided with the Americans and turned on their neighbours in anticipation of American rule in Upper Canada.

Throughout the war, the Mennonites in these two communities also served the British in noncombatant ways, including hauling whisky to the battlefront, transporting soldiers in the retreat from Fort Erie, fixing the militia's guns, feeding soldiers, allowing their homes to be used as barracks and barns as supply depots, and other sorts of things most Mennonites today would blush to even consider.

Battle of Stoney Creek (June 1813)
Throughout Niagara, the war came repeatedly knocking at their doors, quite literally in some cases.

In Hamilton, Catherine (Hess) Burkholder confronted American soldiers who, during the Battle of Stoney Creek, tried to steal one of their cows. They tried but, according to a family account passed down, the soldiers did not succeed.

These pioneering folk were not pacifist possums, playing dead at the first sign of adversity. In the same battle, the Wismers confronted a different sort of visit from American soldiers. While fleeing a British gunboat, an American supply boat ran ashore at their lakefront farm. As the story goes, the Americans laid their weapons down at the door of these unsuspecting Mennonites, highly motivated by the British who were hot on their trail.

Riverfront destruction
Along the Niagara River between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls, there is a stretch of 14 riverfront proprieties, of which 11 were owned by Mennonites during the war. The Battle of Chippewa was fought just three lots downstream from this group of Mennonites. American, British and first nation troops repeatedly caused hardship and destruction throughout the war.

Further inland, many lots in Willoughby and Bertie townships were owned by Mennonites and Brethren in Christ. Some Mennonites had only been living near the Niagara River for a year prior to the war.

While the losses of all these homes deserve more detailed attention, a few examples stand out:

  • Anna Byer, a widow in her late 80s, was required to billet soldiers through the winter into the spring of 1815, after the war had ended.
  • Nearby, 18-year old Sara Miller initially refused to allow American soldiers to steal their chickens, until her mom convinced her otherwise, and she offered them the skinniest one.
  • The home of Abraham Hershey was damaged and his barn was burned by troops, which was a minor loss compared to his neighbour. Henry Neff, whose two-storey house and carpenter shop were also destroyed.

Many others lost fences, horses, wagons and a host of household goods, hay and produce. 

After the war, leadership and solidarity among Mennonites was lacking. The process of rebuilding and applying for compensation lagged; some never received a dime for the loss of their livelihoods and properties.

Many migrated elsewhere in Upper Canada or returned to the U.S. Many joined other religious groups, especially the Brethren in Christ.

For these pioneers of peace, the war's end did not cease their suffering, only relief from embattlement.

See also:
Part 1: Landscapes of war, a people of peace
Part 2: On the margins

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