St. John’s and the War of 1812

This year, a number of events will mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and historians will debate the importance of that conflict to Canada and to its relationship with the United States. Most of us have only foggy notions of General Sir Isaac Brock and his death at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812, and of the story of Laura Secord, who in 1813, made the long trek to warn Lt. James Fitzgibbon of an American plan to surprise our army at Beaver Dams.

The outbreak of war brought changes to the little settlement in York Mills. Thomas Humberstone, who ran a pottery, and William Harrison, farmer, both served under Brock, at the Battle of Queenston Heights, and Humberstone was said to have helped carry the General’s lifeless body off the battlefield.

Following the battle at Beaver Dams the following June, Humberstone was overcome as he was attempting to take captured Americans to Kingston by bateau and was jailed on the American side until the end of the war. He had married Ann Harrison in 1800, and at the time he was taken prisoner, they had five children.

Cornelius van Nostrand’s grandson, Cornelius, was taken prisoner during the Battle of York, on April 27, 1813. He was later paroled, and for the duration of the war pursued commissariat work on the Upper Lakes.

Joseph Shepard, a former fur trader, a farmer and later the donor of 2¾ acres of land for the church, volunteered in the 3rd York Militia, suffering broken ribs and a badly-crushed thigh at the Siege of York, when the powder magazine at Fort York was blown up. He later received a life pension for his injuries.

In 1903, eighty-five years after the end of the war, a sculpture by the young Walter Allward, “The Old Soldier”, was unveiled in Victoria Square, the old garrison burying ground, as a memorial to those who had served in order to protect the little town of York and the fledgling province. Mr. Allward later came to live in York Mills, and is buried at St. John’s, along with those old soldiers from York Mills.

Military supplies being shipped north to the Upper Lakes in wagons and sleighs had to struggle up and down the steep hills and curves of the valley, following the old Yonge Street route. Prices for goods increased as food supplies were needed for the army, yet yields suffered as small family farms only produced limited crops. Volunteers were often released from military duty to help bring in the harvest at home. Distilleries were closed as the grain was needed for food.

Throughout the war, new settlers to York Mills added to the little Sunday gatherings at Seneca Ketchum’s home until they outgrew his parlour and had to be moved into the little schoolhouse that had been built on the hill east of the Miller Tavern, on land Ketcham purchased from Thomas Mercer for a school. The exact site of the school has been lost, but it was in that schoolhouse that the dream of a church for Sunday services took root. It was not to grow and flourish however until after peace was declared on March 1, 1815.

Penny Potter

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