While Canada celebrates War of 1812, residents of U.S. town mark massacre and native heroism

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The Conservative government's commemoration of the War of 1812 bicentennial aims to put some polish on the Napoleonic War sideshow as a building block of Canadian identity.

Re-enactments, TV commercials and other elements of Ottawa's $28-million bicentennial program portray the war as a defining moment — perhaps on the level of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 — where Canadians citizen soldiers joined British redcoats and First Nations warriors to fend off a U.S. invasion.

But Americans, if they are paying attention to the war at all, have a different perspective, especially those living in the former battleground.

Postmedia News's Randy Boswell reports the New York village of Lewiston, across the Niagara River from Ontario, is preparing a unique commemoration of a dark part of Canada's campaign against their American foes a year into the war.

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Lewiston sits opposite Queenston, the scene of the pivotal battle where General Sir Isaac Brock died repulsing an American invasion force launched from the New York town in October 1812.

The following year, in December 1813, a force of British redcoats, Canadian militia and aboriginal warriors crossed the river and attacked Lewiston, burning the community and killing and mutilating at least a dozen civilians.

Now Lewiston is marking the incident with plans to erect a monument honouring warriors of the Tuscarora tribe, who raced to the rescue of their American neighbours and saved many from being killed and scalped, Boswell reports.

"This is the only time we are aware of when Native Americans saved the lives of white settlers from a foreign attack in all of American history," Lee Simonson, a Lewiston businessman and history buff spearheading the $350,000 US memorial project, told Postmedia News.

According to accounts, warriors from the Tuscarora village were outnumbered at least 30 to one by the invading force from Canada. They launched a diversionary attack that bought enough time to help many Lewiston residents to flee.

Plans call for the memorial, a grouping of bronze figures depicting Tuscarora fighters helping a woman fleeing with her baby, to be unveiled Dec. 19, 2013, the 200th anniversary of the torching of Lewiston and the massacre.

"This is kind of a forgotten piece of history," Simonson said. "This was a tremendously heroic action and a tremendously rare circumstance. The Tuscarora didn't have to do this. But they stayed and protected the citizens of Lewiston, and it's something we are forever grateful for."

Simonson acknowledged the attack was in part retaliation for the American army's earlier destruction of the Upper Canada village of Newark — now Niagara-on-the-Lake.

"It was a two-sided war, and there was enough blame to go around," he told Postmedia News. "Our objective is not to disturb anyone. We just have our story to tell."

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Any lingering bitterness between the two nations, however, seems to be long gone.

In fact, Boswell reported, the New York town of Sackets Harbour is erecting a monument commemorating Canadian and British soldiers killed attacking the community in May 1813, when it was the main U.S. shipbuilding base on Lake Ontario.

And Parks Canada, along with the City of Hamilton, have worked to preserve two U.S. warships that sank on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario a a cross-border act of commemoration.

In much of the United States, the war's bicentennial is passing largely unnoticed. The exceptions are places at the centre of the fighting, such as Fort McHenry, overlooking Baltimore, Maryland, whose siege by the British inspired The Star Spangled Banner.

In western New York state, researchers are working to chronicle the war dead on the Niagara Frontier battle zone, the Buffalo News reported.

"No other place in North America saw more action," said Patrick B. Kavanagh, a historian at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, which contains about 300 graves of men and women to the war.