They Said Canada Would Be Easy Pickings

A Merchant Ship, watercolor by Wendy Harty April 2021

Egbert was the first King of Britain. Then a Frenchman of questionable lineage called William the Conqueror or William the Bastard, lead the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. He gave them law at the point of a sword. Hated for his cruelty, arrogance and overbearing manners he died in 1087, King of England or William I.

The King or Queen became a hereditary position handed down, mostly from son to son. The Monarch had absolute power and courts became full of bribery, corruption and favoritism. The King could take your son and impress him into the army; your daughter chosen to cook and clean and wait on his lady. In a world ruled by Kings, when your home was no longer a place of safety, people fled. To where? Mine came to the shores of North America.

Over in England, there had been 30 Kings, 8 Civil Wars and 19 rebellions. With hereditary rights forever, some foolish, some wicked or oppressive Kings ruled by a monarch of succession and finally the House of York and Lancaster united in marriage. Peace at last? What could go wrong?

The people of the thirteen colonies came seeking asylum, wanting religious and civil liberty. By 1776, they felt oppressed by the King of England. Wisdom needs a plan and they tried three of them. Negotiations, 600 miles apart across an ocean went back and forth, the Americans pleas and petitions could go unanswered for months, only to find another tax upon the rebellious subjects. That’s how the printers of New York labelled them, the Press being owned by the Loyalists. Plan B: mob rule, tar and feather, loot and destroy. Finally the Colonies declared war and used Plan C, military power. The bloody American Revolution lasted seven years. The English taken in battle were prisoners, their fellow Americans, the Loyalists were labelled traitors.

Americans gained their independence and had lofty ideals of the rights of mankind. What could go wrong? Before the war had started they put it into print, “We are deprived of lands by the unjust extension of the limits of Canada.” After the battles were over, government needed to expand their settlers into the northwest. The War of 1812 can be written with four different versions: The American, The Canadian, The British and the Native American.

The Americans, assembled under a President and sent delegates to vote and represent the people, in the Continental Congress. They voted to secure freedom of property and religion ensuring each individual happiness. Yes, what could go wrong with all men created equal?

The Americans were pushing into the wilderness. My relatives like the Penrod’s were depleting the beaver for pelts, the Stumps building mills, the Buchanan’s clearing forests and the Saxe’s surveying the land for new settlements. Forty years after the Revolutionary War, some delegates were called War Hawks and demanding war. A native leader by the name of Tecumseh tried to get the six tribes to join a Confederacy of Native American Tribes to gain strength for the treaties. An American who would become President, William Harrison, had intelligence Tecumseh was away and attacked his village, killing all men, women and children, burning lodging and food supplies. Tecumseh went to the Canadians looking for help and found an ally in Sir Isaac Brock. The American said outloud, “Canada would be easy pickings.” What could go wrong?

The British had been preparing. Under the Major-General of the British military, administrator of Upper Canada, Sir Isaac Brock had been reinforcing forts, training militia’s, and developing alliances with the First Nations. On June 12, 1812, President Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain. Britain was fighting the Napoleonic War with France, could they fight the Americans at the same time? The British were stopping American ships trading with France and started impressing the men for their war ships. No one was happy. The Canadians stopped the American invasion three times, on land. Then it became a sea fight. There is so much history from the two years and eight months of this war. Fresh supplies were smuggled in to the Siege of Fort Mackenac in camouflaged boats; a slave who gained his freedom during the Revolutionary War organized “The Colored Corps” of other escaped slaves in Canada; Laura Secord, mother of five, made a dangerous journey on foot to warn of a planned American attack; I grew up singing the Battle of New Orleans, we took a little bacon and we took a little beans; and it was the Canadians that led an expeditionary force that burned Washington D.C. and the White House in retaliation. Great grandfather Wendell Miller was with Commodore Perry when he said, Don’t give up the ship” on the Siege of Lake Erie.

What I didn’t know about was the pirate in the family. Garrett Miller, my 6th great grandfather’s brother, Uncle Jacob Miller and his son Garrett, were licensed to use their private ships to wage war. As a sea merchant they invested risk capital and converted their ships. Among 40 of those commissioned they sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia and had ample opportunity during the Napoleonic War as well as the War of 1812. They played a role in closing the American ports and were a source of valuable intelligence for the British Royal Navy. Jacob was issued a letter of marque or privateering license from the Governor of Canada. It was all legitimate. He armed his merchant vessel appropriately. His sailors signed aboard with hopes of sharing the prize money. After a seizure, the Court would decide if another countries boat had been taken legally and then sold at public auction and the profits from the goods, shared. Loads of salt, tea, ammunition and trade goods were sold and the profits split between government, merchant and crew. Uncle Jacob became a very rich privateer. Britain issued 4000 commissions. The most successful were the Sir John Sherbrooke, The Retaliation and the Liverpool Packet. The last with 50 prizes took a value at close to a million dollars. Halifax teemed with these armed ships either preparing to cruise or guarding their prizes. Uncle Jacob also owned Miller’s Wharf, where they would unload. I can only imagine him hurrying from his home on Water and Morris Street when a messenger boy would come racing, shouting, “Ship Ahoy”. Privateering from Canadian ports ceased in 1815 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghant, ending the War of 1812. Neither side won, neither side gained more land. Britain tried to bargain for the creation of a Native Territory but the American delegates refused. Their British support evaporated after this war and quickened the loss of their lands as expansionism took over. The Americans had unfettered access to the sea and entered a commercial boom and settlers poured across the mountains and streams.

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