What began as a conflict between rival countries, allowed a new nation to forge an identity.
The 1000 Islands and St. Lawrence River aren’t just for weekend or day trips in Ontario. The region is rich in national significance and intricately tied to Canada’s history. At the Aquatarium, we encourage exploration of the fascinating history of the 1000 Islands, from the very first inhabitants and early settlers to swashbuckling pirates, shipwrecks and castles. But between these two eras was a very important moment in Canadian history that explains the national significance of the St. Lawrence River: The War of 1812.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a two-year conflict between the United States and Great Britain. While the United States was determined to push westward from the original colonies, Great Britain was attempting to halt its expansion. As colonies of Great Britain, as well as the United States’ neighbour to the north, the Canadian territories quickly became swept into the war.
The stakes were high. Much of the war was fought in the Upper Canada and Lower Canada colonies around the Great Lakes, and the United States saw the war as an opportunity to annex the northern colonies through military force. But because the British were busy fighting Napoleon in Europe and didn’t have the extra resources to defend British Canada, the colonies were left to fend for themselves against the Americans. This struggle largely took place here in the 1000 Islands.
The 1000 Islands and St. Lawrence River
By the early 1800s, the St. Lawrence River had already become an important waterway of the 1000 Islands. Not only was the St. Lawrence River vital for transportation into and out of the territories, as well as for shipping goods and supplies, but it was also caught between Canada and the United States. Once the United States decided to push north, they could easily cut off supplies transported up the river.
It was time for the Canadian territories to defend themselves, and Prescott in the 1000 Islands region was the site of an important defensive position. Close enough to the Aquatarium for a day trip, this city sits right along the St. Lawrence River and was an important port between Montreal and the Great Lakes. Determined to bolster the military defence of the territories, in December of 1812, Sir George Prevost, the commander of the British forces in North America, ordered the construction of Fort Wellington.
Fort Wellington: Symbol of Pride, Rich in History
Fort Wellington served as a staunch symbol of Canadian defence and was a meeting point for troops and militia who crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River in the winter of 1813 to destroy the American military post at Ogdensburg. This was an important Canadian victory in fending off the United States during the War of 1812.
Fort Wellington today is a perfect location for day trips in Ontario. At the Fort Wellington National Historic Site in Prescott, a soldier’s wife can take you on a tour of this historic fort, and if you’re lucky, you may even be able to fire a 19th century cannon! As you walk through Fort Wellington, keep in mind this monument was an important symbol for Canada’s military defence during the War of 1812 and helped to rally Canadian civilians together.
The Growth of a Nation
Because Canada was left to fend for itself under the threat of American invasion, Canadian civilians came together for the first time under a common cause. Many settlers right here in the 1000 Islands region didn’t feel particularly “Canadian” at the time. Due to the importance of the waterway, settling along the St. Lawrence River was often a matter of survival, and settlers came from across the border for their own reasons. Some of them were United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States after the American Revolution. Others were lured north by the prospect of striking gold. The various people living along the St. Lawrence River didn’t have a strong sense of unification or a common identity.
The War of 1812 changed that. As civilians united for a common cause, the defence of their land, the national identity of Canada began to take root. Centuries later, Canada is now the second largest nation in the world. Its diverse citizens enjoy freedom and prosperity, something that we have those early settlers to thank for.
Ideal for week-long, weekend or day trips in Ontario, the Aquatarium is the place to visit to experience all sorts of fascinating and unique aspects of the 1000 Islands history. Come explore the St. Lawrence River and its role in forming Canada’s national identity!