Niagara's Doomsday Book
During the War of 1812 the residents of Niagara Falls bore witness to many atrocities and suffered many hardships. The battles that occurred at Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane are well known and well documented. It is the suffering of the local inhabitants that is lesser known but many stories, much speculation and folklore abound on the subject. Through these documents you can understand the concept of loyalty to the crown, understand the politics of the day and have a glimpse into the lives of the people of Niagara Falls during three years of war.
Underutilized for an understanding of the impact of war are the records of the Board of Claims for Losses. These provide a very real picture of what it was like in Niagara Falls before the destruction and the sufferings of the inhabitants.
Immediately after the war, in 1815, Lieutenant Governor General Gore appointed a commission which submitted a report in 1816, but no claims were paid out. In the great Canadian tradition, a new commission was then appointed in 1823. Therefore, one can see that a great deal of time elapsed before anyone received any funds from the devastation of the war. The documents are a combination of many things including letters, proceedings and lists of losses. In total the board reviewed 2055 claims.
Provided here is a small sampling of some of the claims by residents of Stamford during the war and a sampling of what information they provide. The currency of the day was the British system of pounds, shillings and pence, all prices will be in this format; a claim of £222.4.7 is 222 pounds, 4 shillings and 7 pence. Some claims are in provincial currency, some in Halifax currency, New York currency or some other standard. While the differences in these standards will not be discussed here they should be noted.
Items that stand out in the claims are materials that one may not associate with early life in Upper Canada or we may not identify with being large enough an item to claim. Christopher Buchner (#612) claims for a large looking glass (mirror) at a value of £2.0.0 along with some fowling pieces, some horses and saddles. Looking glasses show up in several claims and provide us with an understanding that these were not common or at least not cheap. Other furnishings in claims include the contents of the possessions of Thomas Clark and Samuel Street (#523) which list tables made of cherry and walnut, several other furnishings made of walnut, a small pine table, feather beds and flaxen bed ticks (the mattresses of the day).
Both residents and businesses discuss fabric and cloth available to them. One claim is for workmen’s bedding and blankets. Joseph Conklin claims for 5 ½ yards of velvet (£1.6.3). Lydia Pier (Peer) also lost 5 blankets and £20.0.0 in clothing (claim was actually for ‘wearing apparel’). A portion of her claim was also for lost horses and a wagon (£40.0.0).
The claim of Matthew Cairns (#628) has a great sampling of the cost of common materials such as a two-year-old steer (£7.5.0), a one-year-old steer (£3.15.0), a great coat (£4.0.0) and 10 gallons of honey (£3.15.0). One of the oddest claims is one that Cairns put in for a handkerchief valued at £0.4.4 ½. John Fralick put in for 4 lbs of Tea at £3.4.0 and 80 lbs of sugar (£16.0.0). Lastly, Shubbal Park (#366) claims for a horse that died of overuse (£125.0.0). Park states the British army took the horse from him to pull a rocket carriage between Fort George, Queenston, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane.
Photo of an Oliver Evans Mill system model at the Hagley Mill Museum similar to that at Bridgewater mills (Dufferin Islands). War Claim #523 of Street and Clark describes the mill as having 3 sets of stones that produced 100 barrels of flour per day, and a saw mill with 20 saws valued at £3000. Photo is courtesy of Robert Miller.
What drinks were on the dining room tables of the day can be seen from the claims of the stores of Messrs. Clark and Street. Their stores and warehouses held such items as Madeira wine, port, strong spirits (12 gallons of this cost £12.0.0) and brandy (which would set one back £3.0.0 per gallon). A great deal of these were lost following the British retreat from Chippawa on July 7, 1814. Also, if you wanted to have a coffee mill to make your morning cup of joe, it would set you back £0.12.6.
Though claims for wine, blankets and other items may seem trivial, they demonstrate the overall devastation and complete loss that civilians sustained. The losses were not just at the hands of the invading Americans. Several claims are also for damage done by British troops, including the large holdings of Thomas Clark which include his houses and businesses up and down the River. His claims state that the damage was done by both armies, as the British occupied one of his houses for some time and destroyed many of his fences. Fences were commonly claimed by residents. Several of the claims state that the boards of fences were burned to cook food for the armies.
We must also keep in mind that not all claims were accepted and that most claimants self-evaluated their losses. Many letters of support ensure that the values of the goods were as reported by the claimant. One such claim that was rejected was that of Daniel Moore. Thomas Clark vouches for Moore’s claim, even though he was not a member of the 2nd Lincoln. Clark states that he did not hear many things against Moore but John Decou (Decew) questions Moore’s loyalty. Decou’s questioning leads Clark to say, “he (Decou) can say nothing in favor of Moore's Loyalty, that altho' he brought no specific charge against Moore, yet his whole conduct in the War was discontented and troublesome and very unlike that of a good Subject”, which was enough for Moore’s claim to be rejected by the commission.
Beyond loyalty, an understanding of the residents is evident in the fact that many residents sign with an ‘x’ marking their illiteracy. Other claims provide professions such as carpenter, innkeeper, clothier and saddler show up on the claims. Several of the claims let us envision the surrounding countryside, we see farmers claiming for the animals referenced here, but also, rye, wheat, corn, peas, potatoes and oats.
Much of the devastation by the armies came down to the need to feed the troops. Claim #391, of Paul Cripps, claims that the following were plundered from his farm between July 8 and July 24, 1814. The items include: 50 Bushels of Wheat, 3 Milch Cows, 2 Young Horses, 25 Head of Sheep, a two-year-old Heifer, a spring Calf, 9 hives of bees, 26 ½ yards of Cambic Muslin, 25 yards of Flannel, 12 additional yards of homemade flannel, 5 yards of gown muslin, 20 yards of Calico, 23 Blankets and numerous articles of household furniture and wearing apparel with the total amounting to £363.8.0. As mentioned before, many fences were claimed, Clark and Street claim for 18,800 rails used by the British to feed the ovens that were located in Chippawa. They also claimed for 25 acres of timber in Chippawa and Bridgewater that were cut down for fuel, charcoal and the barracks at Chippawa.
In times of war, the suffering of women is evident. The War Claims provide some insight into the lives of those not fighting. Martha Rorback was the wife of Stamford Saddler, Andrew Rorback. Her claim states that her house was plundered by the Americans while her husband was with the militia. During that time she was forced to move to the house of Mrs. Hugh Alexander, whose husband was a prisoner. While there the Rorback house was plundered several times with merchandise, wearing apparel, bedding and household furniture all taken.
There are several other incidences of the losses at the hands of the British. Edward Durham (#716) of Stamford claims that His Majesty’s Troops took 4 sheep, a heifer, 2 axes, tea, cheese and butter, 1 ½ acres of corn, boards and potatoes (40 bushels). The claim of William Forsythe (#755) states that the 97th Regiment burned and destroyed his fences between October and November 1813 and then the 82nd Regt. burned his fences between November 1814 and March 1815 (no mention if it was the same fence, different fences or new fences) – in total £47.4.0 in fences were damaged. Amos Stafford valued his loss on the night of the battle of Lundy’s Lane at £41.5.0 and Calvin Cook claims that his house was occupied by British troops continuously for three months. James Pews supports the Cook claim by stating “much and great damage was done to the House by cutting up the floors, tearing off the ceiling - demolishing the windows - taking away and burning the fencing round the House – that the deponent, is owed to a quantity of charcoal he thinks two hundred Bushels, the property of Calvin Cook, being used by the Blacksmiths of His Majesty's Troops and the men - that the coals in question he believes were all used by His Majesty's Troops”.
One of the more interesting and detailed claims is that of Phillip Bender (#599) who owned property both near the Falls and on the Portage Road. John Bender, son of Phillip Bender stated that “on the 14th July, 1814, the Indians attached to the American Army came to the house of this deponent and amongst a great variety of Bedding, clothes and other articles of wheat, they plundered his [Deponent's] House at the same time taking deponent off a Prisoner. They took two feather beds belonging to his Father and took away two good Horses of which one was very valuable, the other of ordinary value, one of which horses, Deponent saw in the American Artillery while a Prisoner.”
One of the Bender properties that was burned was a house, 26 feet by 28 feet, two stories, each being 9 feet high with a hall at one end, one large room on the main floor and three rooms on the second floor. It had a chimney, a stone walled cellar and was newly painted. There was a log house attached that consisted of a kitchen and one other room. He went on to consider the log house to be old and considerably decayed. In addition to that, a 30-foot by 30-foot barn made of cedar logs was also lost.
The last claim to draw my attention was that of Samuel Glasgow (#765). He was requesting compensation in the amount of £86.0.0. He provides details that the 100th Regiment of Foot (British) and more specifically Lt. Williams of the Regiment, took horses, sheep, fat hogs, potatoes, corn and a pair of boots. The claim of Mr. Glasgow was rejected by the commission; most likely due to the statement of Thomas Clark. In the supporting documentation for these claims he states, “I am a neighbour of Glasgow’s and I do not believe one word of his above.”
There is little doubt that there remained questions of loyalty decades after the war with the United States. Even with the rejection of some claims, we learn about the politics, the sympathies and the lives of those who lived in a war zone for three years in Niagara. The claimants lived through these times, and it is through these claims that we begin to stitch together life in Niagara Falls. We need to sympathize with their plight as the difficulties experienced are evident in their writings and many of the residents did not receive any compensation until well over a decade following the war.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that much of the material that this information is gleaned from is the work done by two volunteers. Peter Babcock has spent countless hours staring at microfilm (he has provided us with a sample of his work and he plans to complete what he believes is the 120 claims from Stamford in the near future), and Maggie Parnell transcribed Peter’s notes and passed this on to us and other institutions in the Region. The records are available on microfilm in some local libraries, as well, Library and Archives Canada has them online – although I will warn you that the material is extensive and not easy to navigate.
Though this photo dates ca. 1880, it gives an idea of the scope and location of Bridgewater, or Street’s, Mills, burned by the Americans on July 26, 1814. The large mill building in centre left is at the present-day location of the Toronto Power Generating Station on the Niagara Parkway. The large mansion on the hill was known as Clark Hill, owned by descendants of Messrs. Clark and Street, subjects of the War Losses Claim outlined on the next page.
Photo: Source Niagara Falls (Ont.) Public Library Record ID 89590 Digital image, Kiwanis Collection