Canada | Opinion

Doug George-Kanentiio: Mohawks in War of 1812 save Canada

As the War of 1812 dragged on through the spring of 1813 many Iroquois were uncertain as to which side they should fight. The British forces had suffered defeats when the colonial capital at York (now Toronto) was captured and burned on April 27 followed by the loss of Ft. George to the American forces on May 25.

These victories placed the Iroquois at Ohsweken and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga, Akwesasne and Kahnawake in a delicate, vulnerable position. The American strategy was initially designed to attack the British garrison at Kingston thereby cutting the colony of Upper Canada in half and forcing the Brits to either go further north to supply their troops in western Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula or abandon the west altogether.

The Americans under the command of Major General Henry Dearborn hesitated since any expedition across Lake Ontario subjected the Americans to attack from the British naval forced then patrolling the region. An American victory at Kingston would have also opened the St. Lawrence River to another assault which would place Akwesasne and Kahnawake in jeopardy since the US forces would seek to neutralize the Mohawks and end the war with the occupation of Montreal.

Tyendinaga would also become involved as the Mohawks there were supporting the British and Canadians with their community located along a vital supply route from Kingston to York.

At Akwesasne the internal divisions remained sharp with some in the southern section led by Eleazer Williams and Colonel Louis Cook advocating for the Americans and those north of the international border adhering to the British. Among the strongest opponents to the US were the Oswegatchie Oneida-Onondagas who had been granted refuge at Akwesasne after their community on the northern end of Black Lake was disbanded by New York State in 1806. The State justified its eviction by maintaining the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796 ceded their lands despite the fact that no delegate from Oswegatchie was involved in the treaty negotiations nor did anyone from their sign the document.

The Oswegatchies were naturally bitter towards the Americans and played a key role in the successful attack on Ogdensburg in February of 1813 but the result at Akwesasne was that they were forced to retreat to the islands because of the hostility of the pro-American faction on the territory.

General Dearborn prepared his army for an invasion of Upper Canada but redirected his plans to strike at York, believing the destruction of the capital and its military stored would prevent any attack against his forces on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. He did manage to burn the wharves and two ships docked along the shore but did not succeed in occupying the town.

Dearborn followed the victory at York with the bombardment of Ft. George across the Niagara River from Ft. Niagara. The Iroquois at Ohsweken were alarmed by the American incursion since it made their community highly vulnerable, especially during the critical planting season. The Iroquois were led by Captain John Norton, a highly capable field commander of Cherokee-Scottish heritage who had been naturalized by the Mohawks and given the name Teyoninhokarawen. His efforts to enlist the Mohawks to fight at Ft. George was met with hesitation since it appeared the Americans would have an open road to Ohsweken and then on to York, a venture, which had it succeeded, would have compelled the British to surrender the entire province.

As the Ohsweken Mohawks hesitated their eastern relatives did not. They knew the Americans had to be stopped before they launched an expedition down the St. Lawrence. When the British, under the command of Captain James Yeo, responded to the loss of Ft. George on May 25 by planning a strike at the American naval garrison at Sackets Harbour the Mohawks enlisted.

The Americans sent a number of bateaux with troops to strengthen Sackets Harbour but the Mohawks used their canoe skills to intercept the boats just off the shore northeast of Oswego on May 28. The Mohawks drove the bateaux off the water and as the Americans ran they hunted them down, killing 35 US soldiers. Two days later the Brits attacked Sackets Harbour. Among the defendants of the fort were a group of 120 Oneidas from central New York.

The British ground forces were led by Colonel Edward Baynes and General George Prevost while the Americans were under the command of General Jacob Brown. General Brown managed to hold off the British soldiers while an unfavourable wind kept the invading ships from using their cannon against the Americans. The Brits and Mohawks withdrew with over 150 prisoners and a few cannon but at a cost of 47 dead.

The Americans were not deterred by the Sackets Harbour battle. General Dearborn ordered the army to move west from Ft. George until they encamped near Stoney Creek in present day Hamilton. His force of over 3,400 men were led on the field by generals John Chandler and William Winder, both of whom would be captured by the British during the June 6 battle. Facing the Americans were only 700 British regulars with a few dozen Mohawks from Ohsweken, all that John Norton could persuade to take part. The Mohawks were hedging their support given the enormous advantage the Americans had on the evening of June 5.

The British forces elected to adopt an Iroquois tactic of attacking just before dawn since they had no other recourse. Using a password obtained from a teenager named Billy Green (the password was "wil-hen-har" after General William Henry Harrison) the combined British-Mohawk force overwhelmed the Americans and drove them into confusion. Dozens of Americans were killed or wounded before they managed to regroup but not before two of their generals were captured. The Americans withdrew to Ft. George but were not driven from the peninsula.

The British victory at Stoney Creek convinced the Mohawks that there was a good chance the Americans could be defeated and beaten back across the Niagara River. John Norton had also proven a few Mohawks were highly effective in provoking great fear in the US troops, causing them to hesitate during battle and then run.

After Stoney Creek the American withdrawal was marked by small raids of Iroquois, primarily Onondagas and Senecas from Ohsweken. The raids proved to be highly effective causing the Americans to retreat even further east and opening them to canon fire from the British navy. The Americans left considerable arms and supplies as they abandoned their posts with the rumours of hundreds of Native fighters coming to Niagara provoking considerable apprehension.

The small group of Mohawks were joined by a few hundred Akwesasne--Kanehsatake-Kahnawake Mohawks after Stoney Creek. The Mohawks harassed the Americans holed up at Ft. George, picking off stragglers and firing at the garrison. The list includes 160 fighters from Kahnawake, 120 from Kanehsatake and 60 from Akwesasne. Joining them was Captain Isaac Leclaire and 380 Anishnabe men.

The Americans decided to put an end to these irritants be sending a force of 600 troops under the command of Colonel Charles Boestler accompanied by 40 cavalry. His movements were watched by Laura Secord, a local resident who overheard US soldiers talking about the impending raid. She made her way across several miles of rough ground to warn the Iroquois.

At Beaver Dams the Iroquois were able to plan their defenses against the Americans. There were 465 men composed of 180 Mohawks from the St. Lawrence, 203 Iroquois from Ohsweken, 70 Anishnabe and a few Canadians. Captain Dominque Ducharme led the few non-Natives while John Norton oversaw the Natives.

At 9 AM on June 24 the Americans approached the Native line. As the US cavalry began their attack the Mohawks stepped forward and fired followed by a flanking move by the other Natives. The American artillery opened a salvo which drove the Mohawks back but as the Americans advanced the Natives countered with increased firing from the sides. An initial American assault into the flanks hesitated and then retreated before a Native counter-attack with waves of aboriginal fighters striking from all sides. The Americans could not force the Natives into abandoning the field despite repeated charges, some with bayonets.

Using their advantage in firing from wooded areas and the selective employment of war cries to instill fear and inflate their numbers the Natives compelled the Americans to retreat. When Col. Boerstler was wounded and the cavalry began to leave the field the American soldiers no longer had the will to fight. Two hours of carnage had sapped their energy forcing them to find the quickest way back to Fort George. When he realized this was closed off to him Boerstler met Captain Ducharme and agreed to surrender. After three hours the battle was over, a decisive victory for the Natives and one which brought an end to any American attempt to invade the Niagara Peninsula, thereby saving Upper Canada.

The Natives suffered seven dead with 30 wounded while the Americans counted 30 killed, 70 wounded and 500 captured in addition to considerable munitions and supplies given to the victors.

Of all the battles of the War of 1812 Beaver Dams is without question a Native victory one in which the aboriginal fighters used their superior marksmanship and guerrilla skills under effective combat leadership to engage in a prolonged fight against superior numbers. After the Native win the Iroquois north of the Great Lakes would be wedded to the British defense of Canada and would play key roles in later engagements at Crysler's Farm, Chateauguay and the capture of Ft. Niagara.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio resides on Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.

More from Doug George-Kanentiio:
Doug George-Kanentiio: St. Regis Mohawk Tribe can't sell land (06/07)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Oneida Nation violates Iroquois laws (05/20)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Students show courage on mascot (03/25)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Freeing Aboriginal people in Canada (03/15)
Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mohawk's perspective on 'Redskins' (02/15)

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