As the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812’s first major battle approached, Native peoples on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border were gearing up for some historic commemorations.
The Battle of Queenston Heights, which took place 200 years ago on October 13, is remembered among aboriginals as the epic fight in which a mere 80 First Nations warriors, hiding in the forest, besieged 1,300 American soldiers, scaring off their backup troops. Many historians believe that the battle—a key victory for the British—was a decisive moment in preventing the Americans from establishing a northern foothold and pushing on to conquer what today are Toronto and Montreal. And while some First Nations have expressed disappointment with their level of inclusion in the 1812 anniversary plans by the Canadian government, the pivotal aboriginal role at Queenston Heights is undeniable.
“Queenston Heights was hugely important,” says historian Zig Misiak, who chairs the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration Steering Committee in Brantford, Ontario. “[British] Major General Isaac Brock, the so-called hero of Queenston Heights, knew he had to have both the militia and the warriors. If the warriors were neutral, the Americans would have run them over. If the warriors had decided to align with their cousins across the river, the British would have lost.”
Misiak says there were intensive negotiations between the various indigenous nations in the region, in particular the Six Nations on both sides of the border—some chose to remain neutral, and others vowed loyalty to Britain. In the end the First Nations warriors backed the latter at Queenston Heights, sniping at the Americans’ hilltop position so successfully that the invaders could not set up defenses. And though Brock perished in that battle, his side won partly because the American militia refused to save their kin, terrified of the Native war cries and the sight of bodies being carted off the battlefield.
“About 80 warriors were in the treeline coming at them,” Misiak says. “They did not allow them to put up proper barricades. The warriors just kept buzzing at them.… Our feeling is, if they’d secured that hill and gotten reinforcements, that was the launching pad to sweep up into upper Canada. [But] the Americans thought they were falling into a trap…and pulled back. There were only 80-odd warriors in the bush and 1,300 to 1,400 Americans on the hill. Think of the numbers! Even if you made it 100 or 500 [warriors], they were still outnumbered—but they stood their ground. They had to hold it, and they did. The rest is history.”
The bicentennial of the War of 1812, Misiak says, has offered First Nations an important opportunity not only to honor their war dead but also to educate Canadians and Americans about their historic fidelity to the treaties and alliances they signed. With planned re-enactments of the war’s epic battles drawing more than 800 volunteer actors, he adds, the chance to raise awareness of aboriginal history is also one to right some historical wrongs.
“Right now, because of the huge interest in the War of 1812, all these locations have been elevated in the public eye,” Misiak says. “Once this is over—once all the musket fire is done and the ribbon-cutting is done—are we truly going to understand the First Nations role in 1812? And not just understand 1812, but are we going to understand what happened afterward, and be sympathetic to the land claims outstanding now? The young [aboriginal] people hanging themselves and their drug use are coming from place of low self-esteem and a history that doesn’t say the truth. Are we going to turn that around after this is over? I hope so.”
The battle at Queenston, near what is today Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, saw the British, Canadians and their Mohawk allies, under Brock and Major General Roger Sheaffe, square off against U.S. forces and New York militia commanded by Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer. His forces crossed the Niagara River, hoping to gain a foothold before the harsh winter arrived. And while most people associate the war with military leaders and colonial civilians, there is little written documentation detailing which individuals fought and perished on the Native side.
“The militias kept records, but the Haudenosaunee and other First Nations kept no written records,” Misiak says. “When their warriors were taken down, I don’t think you’d find [them] buried on the battlefield.… The little First Nations communities, no matter how small, are now saying, ‘We had people who were there; we want the chance to express our point of view.’ It has been an amazing renaissance to watch.”
Indigenous historians and artists have been commissioned to create a Queenston Heights memorial acknowledging the key role played by Native warriors. In addition, conferences and events organized by the Woodland Cultural Centre and the Six Nations Legacy Consortium are being held. Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and the Historica-Dominion Institute co-sponsor an extensive website on the War of 1812, including a large section devoted to First Nations’ role in the conflict, and that battle in particular.
Misiak says he hopes more people will become aware of First Nations’ heroism from 200 years ago. For a people who subsequently were assimilated and disenfranchised by both Canada and the U.S., the reasons for joining the war were a combination of negotiation and strategy, but most important, honor. “They had a long-standing, ongoing relationship with the Dutch and then the French through covenant treaties and the Two-Row Wampum,” says Misiak. “When you talk to veterans, they say that the Crown—Canada—was in trouble, so these guys went. It’s enough to make you cry: their commitment to doing the right thing. Nobody can say the Haudenosaunee, or other nations, were not true to their word.”
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