The foundation of urban Toronto was a military lead endeavor that began when John Graves Simcoe gave the order to have a garrison built in what would become known as Fort York in 1793. In the early years of Fort York, it played a major role in the development of the social and economic structure of the community of York. The fort served as a key point of defense for the capital of Upper Canada at the time, the city of York.
In its conception, John Graces Simcoe wanted to establish a naval base in the strategic location of Toronto (York) . As Anglo-American relations began to breakdown in the period just prior to the War of 1812 the British needed a way to deter the American’s from attempting to attack British forces in Canada. A garrison built in York would allow the British to control Lake Ontario and deter the United States from attempting to engage in conflict in Canada. The fort would attempt to control the water way of Lake Ontario. Fort York served not only as a strategic naval base for the British, but the fort also served to house the wives and children of the soldiers who were stationed at the fort . The fort was equipped with sleeping arrangements, mess hall, and green grounds for the residents of the fort to enjoy . However, when news of the inevitable attack by the American forces was heard those who were not soldiers stationed at the fort were forced to evacuate the fort. Those who had to evacuate the fort itself only made it out of the fort a day before the attack from the American forces came .
Fort York’s First Test:
The first major test of Fort York occurred on April 27, 1813, during the War of 1812, when the U.S. Army and Navy staged an attack on York with 2700 men on fourteen ships. At the time the British had only 750 troops, comprised of British, Canadians, Mississaugas, and Ojibways, defending the town of York. The United States attacked the west shore under the cover of naval guns, despite putting up a good fight, the defending British conglomerate force fell back to Fort York. Once they fell back to the fort, American forces began attacking the fort itself. The following excerpt from Ely Playter’s diary recounts the American attack on the fort:
“Their vessels kept a constant fire on our batteries, and about an hour after 6 or 9 of them landed in rear opposite garrison & opened a brisk fire on us tho at some distance. No doubt they perceived our guns were light & kept off where we could not reach them. I came with some other officers to the barracks & we got each of us a musket, as every one expected a severe attack upon the enemy when they advanced from the woods … we were soon after informed that our men were retreating from the batteries west of the garrison. This was a surprise to many as we expected to have been ordered up to attack near those batteries. There was an attempt made from the militia up the harbour and some formed but when the men see the troops of the line pass they refused to stand & we passed up and formed outside of the garrison …” 
Not liking the odds, British commander, Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe, retreaded east leaving the fort behind after blowing up the fort’s gunpowder. The result of blowing the fort’s gunpowder resulted in 250 American casualties including the death of the American field commander Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike . This retreat resulted in the first change of hands in the control of the fort. The American forces occupied the town of York and the fort for six days. However, later that year, August 26, 1813, British Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Bruyres traveled to York to begin rebuilding the town and the Fort. During the American’s hold of the fort Ely Playter wrote the following in his diary:
“The appearance of the Town [York] & garrison were dismal. The latter shattered and rent by the balls & the explosion of the magazine. Not a building but show some marks of it & some all torn to pieces. The Town thronged with the Yankees, many busy getting off the public stores. The Council office with every window broke & pillaged of every thing that it contained. The Government building, the Block House and the building adjacent all burned to ashes.” 
Another perspective of the destruction done to fort by the American forces can be seen in the writing of Patrick Finan in his Recollections of Canada. Pattrick Finan sneaked out of his home after hearing the explosion from the lighting of the gunpowder in fort to get a look at what had happened. Finan was just 12-years-old at the time and 16 years later he would recall the events. Finan wrote the following in his Recollection of Canada:
“Their faces were completely black, resembling those of the blackest Africans, their hair frizzled like theirs, and their clothes scorched and emitting an effluvia so strong as to be perceived long before they reached one.” 
“One man in particular presented an aweful spectacle. He was brought in a wheel-barrow, and from his appearance I should be inclined to suppose that almost every bone in his body was broken; he was lying in a powerless heap, shaking about with every motion of the barrow, from which his legs hung dangling down as if only connected with his body by the skin while his cries and groans were of the most heart-rending description.” 
It is clear that the from the diary entry and Finan’s recollections that the American’s decimated not only the Fort York, but the town of York itself. The fort was left in ruins, mostly due to the effects of the exploding of the gunpowder within the fort and constant barrage that the fort received from the American naval forces. The British were faced with insurmountable odds and were defeated by the American forces. The defeat resulted in the retreat of British forces from the area. After retreating the fort and leaving the town in ruins, when the British forces returned they had but one option left; rebuild Fort York.
Post April 27, 1813:
Rebuilding of the fort was essential as the harbor defenses were necessary for the four-vessel British squadron that operated out of Toronto Bay that acted in support of the British forces on the Niagara Peninsula in 1814 . The second test of Fort York began in August of 1814 when a U.S. squadron attempted to enter Toronto Bay. The American force that attempted to enter Toronto Bay was one vessel, Lady of the Lake, which was sent out to spy on York after the larger force of Americans had seen a British ship heading toward the Niagara Peninsula . The American ship attempt to enter Toronto Bay with truce flag flying, however the British force at Fort York could not stand for this and opened fire on the Americans. The preemptive actions of the defending forces at Fort York successfully repelled the Americans and forced them to retreat.
After the several battles at Fort York during the War of 1812 the fort spent time functioning as a hospital center for the Niagara Peninsula forces starting in June of 1813. Fort York served to treat those transported to it who had received wounds beyond what could be treated in the field . It wouldn’t be until February of 1815 that York would receive news that the War of 1812 had come to an end and that the American attempt to invade Canada had been squashed. Despite having lost the fort at one time or another Fort York successfully served as the strategic naval defense that John Graces Simcoe had originally intended the fort to be. To the Upper Canadian forces the fact that they had repelled the Americans and that the Americans had been forced out of Canada meant to them that they had won the War of 1812.
Fort York was a major strategic point of defense for British forces in the Upper Canada region. The fort served to defend Lake Ontario and repel American forces. Despite having lost the fort at one point in the War of 1812 and having it destroyed by American forces, the British eventually reclaimed control of the area and rebuilt Fort York, as they knew what benefits a naval base would have in defending the capital of Upper Canada at the time. From then on the fort was able to keep the American forces at bay and ensure that the Lake on Ontario water way was secure from American forces. On May 25, 1923 the fort was converted into the Fort York National Historic Site and sits in middle of Toronto. It sits surrounded by the modern city as a site that teaches what Toronto was like when it was known as York. Every April the Site commemorates the US invasion that occurred on April 27, 1813.
1.) 1813 Niagara Frontier and York. Diary of Ely Playter – Diary Entry Date: April 27, 1813. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/1812/niagara-1813.aspx
2.) 1813 Niagara Frontier and York. Diary of Ely Playter – Diary Entry Date: April 30, 1813. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/1812/niagara-1813.aspx
3.) Recollections of Canada. Patrick Finan. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2013/04/20/war_of_1812_the_story_of_joseph_shepard_who_risked_his_life_in_battle_of_york.html
4.) Recollections of Canada. Patrick Finan. Retrieved from John Goddard’s Inside the Museum – Fort York National Historic Site
5.) Benn, Carl. “A Brief History of Fort York.” History of Fort York, The Friends of Fort York and Garrison Common, www.fortyork.ca/history-of-fort-york.html.
6.) Benn, Carl. Historic Fort York, 1793-1993. Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1993.
7.) Thackorie, Indira (2013). “The Battle of York“. National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
8.) Wencer, David. “Historicist: Defending Fort York… From Ourselves.” Torontoist, 27 Apr. 2013, torontoist.com/2013/04/historicist-defending-fort-york-from-ourselves/.
9.) KJ Mullins. “Stories of The War of 1812 Come Alive at Fort York Special.” Stories of The War of 1812 Come Alive at Fort York (Includes First-Hand Account), Digital Journal, 28 Apr. 2012, www.digitaljournal.com/article/323858.
- Modern day Fort York
- Painting of Fort York Barracks
- Painting of result of blowing up the gunpowder at the fort