Fort Saint Joseph’s construction began in 1796 and was completed in 1799 on St. Joseph island in Ontario Canada. (1) The land was bought from the natives in 1797 although work to build a military post was well under way. The fort was initially built in efforts to protect their fur trade interests and establish presence in the area as it was a strategically placed on Lake Huron, but it was never deemed as a military stronghold. Those who visited the fort did not find it too appealing and as described by John Johnston of the Sult it was, “One of the bleakest spots in His Majesty’s domains though at present the seat of justice, honor, politeness and the most liberal hospitality.” (2). Prior to the forts completion, the Upper great lakes area was established only by Indian tribes and select British military. When the first garrison of troops arrived, the area was described as: “entirely uninhabited and uncleared” (3). The Treaty of Paris’ endowment of the nearby fort Michilimackinac changed the ideal that Fort Joseph could be anything put a trading post. Not wanting to disturb Native American relations, the British formed an alliance against the Americans. The threat of expansion to the north and east created a relationship that went farther than just trade as the Native Americans and the British band together to thwart the Americanization of the North. In their attempt to keep their most westward base, the British overextended their ability to properly supply, reinforce, and maintain troop loyalty. Those obstacles would ultimately be the demise of the British occupation at Fort St. Joseph.
Prior to the War of 1812, Fort St. Joseph and Fort Michilimackinac were the closest settled areas in the upper great lakes. The two forts shared similar obstacles when it came to deserters and receiving supplies. When it came to the deserters, the captains of each fort would communicate and lend whatever aid needed to return the men to their posts. There was a general agreement that the British would not send retrieval troops onto American soil without permission and the American captain would have returned the deserted men if able. In return, any men were to be given back that had deserted to St. Joseph. Although no formal arrangements with either country was made, the appeal to desert was decreased and tensions were low (4). Receiving any kind of provisions in the north was a difficult task, especially in the winter months. Being the only points of contact within a reasonable distance, the two forts would sometimes provide aid to one another. Whether it was forwarding supplies via American vessel or loaning barrels of British provisions, the forts provided relief when in need. Similar methods were used by the civilian inhabitants of each fort. Many merchants and government officials had ties in both forts. It was not uncommon for them to have establishments in both areas, or even split family between the two. Many American supplies could be sent through these ties to St. Joseph or to fort Michilimackinac. Although the unofficial ties between forts were friendly, the official relations were not always so. The treatment of any military passing through fort Michilimackinac was unpleasant and often they were taken as prisoner. It was not that there was ill will between the forts themselves but more so ill will between countries and therefore, certain actions were mandated. As 1808 approached, American hostility towards Britain grew as did the efforts to decrease the British relationship and influence over the Native Americans.
The First Nation tribes had established friendly trade with the British years prior to the disputes with America. British Native American relations in the northern region was manned by two highly influential men, John Askins Jr. and Robert Dickson. The trade of fur pelts was a booming business that yielded immense profit for the British, and they had monopolized the market (5). The Native Americans were keen to trade with the white men because they had access to goods they could not make themselves. As the Americans began to take interest in the fur trade industry the British recognized the importance of Native American relations and the reinforcement of Fort St. Joseph. The Native people began to see a pattern of expansion in the American foreigners. They recognized their lands were diminishing and began searching for solutions. Askins, being a second-generation fur trader, had ideal relations with the First Nation people (6). He was able to negotiate loyalty to the British, and provide Native American aid to the fort. Dickinson supplied provisions to some western tribes in the winter when their crops were failing, the British were seen as friends that would help the tribes, not take their land. Meanwhile, the American government had extended invitations to the chiefs of each tribe in a plea to remain neutral during the war. After receiving aid from the British, all American attempts to keep the western tribe’s neutral were in vain. The defeat at Tippecanoe and the influence of the western chiefs persuaded many Natives to side with the British and to fight with them. The tribes believed their land interests were to be protected, while the British wanted to maintain their trade, prevent American expansion into Canada, and continue to profit. In efforts to solidify the tribe’s loyalty, the British government promised to establish an Indian state in the great lakes region between the United States and Canada. This promised to stop expansion and create a buffer between the Canadian border and the Americans.
Fort St. Josephs primary function was to protect the border from Native American attacks and be a trading post for furs. It was often debated that it would be unfit for a military specific strong hold.
“Although the position of St. Joseph’s is far from being the most judicious that might have been chosen for a permanent post yet as a great deal of money has been already laid out upon it all that is now left to the wisdom of government is to improve to the best advantage what can be no longer conveniently changed…. A road should be opened the length of the island which would terminate at the northeast channel and which would enable the garrison to obstruct the invasion of St. Mary’s from that quarter; a second should be cut nearly across its southwestern extremity so as to fall upon the entrance of the ship channel where it is little more than a gunshot over which would rectify in some degree the blunder of having placed the fort where it cannot check the progress of either vessels or bateaux. Industrious persons [settling there] … would add to the strength and respectability of the post and enable it to become what no doubt government intended it should be an asylum in case of a rupture with America or contention among the Indian tribes, to the British subjects dispersed through the country and where the faithful Indians would receive the reward of their attachment and the insolent and ungrateful be put in mind that they had lost a father and found a master.” (7).
It was not an ideal location being so westwards and difficult to fortify. As tension rose between countries it became clear an imminent to the military forces that war was looming. The merchants however claimed, “this is an event that we have ever considered impossible, and can be accounted for upon no principle short of French bribery or actual insanity.” (8). Contrary to their belief, General Brock would advise Captain Charles Roberts of Ft. St. Joseph, readied to make an offensive measure against the Americans at Fort Michilimackinac.
Charles Roberts, who prior to his command of the fort, gained captaincy in the West Indies until bouts of fever called for a more leisurely assignment. He was later assigned to Ft. St. Joseph in 1811(9). The fur industry was booming at this time and when high quality pelts were sold, they yielded a high profit. The captain’s primary goal was to maintain a good relationship with the Indians and capitalize on the open fur trade since the abandonment of Fort Michilimackinac. As the US reestablished their footing in the previously abandoned fort, it put strain on the Native American British relations and created competition in fur trading. After receiving news of the United States declaring war in 1812, Roberts -under the command of general Brock- assembled a garrison of Native Americans, military veterans, Canadian voyageurs, and fur traders to march on the Americans. In the spring of 1812 Dickson was able to gather a large number of Native Americans who were prepared to fight the Americans should war break out. Askins also persuaded Native Americans to join the British cause. Fortunately for Roberts, Askins and Dickinson arrived on June 10th with natives to fight alongside the merchants and forts men. Due to the weakened state of the British fort and the Detroit river, Brock decided to wait until more reinforcements had arrived. In fear of the Americans receiving their reinforcements, Roberts dispatched a garrison of 46 regular troops, 260 Canadian militia, and 715 Native Americans including 572 Ottawa’s and Chippewas to Fort Michilimackinac on July 16, 1812. The fort was manned by 36 privates, four corporals, two sergeants, and four officers of the 10th Royal Veterans and a sergeant and two gunners of the Royal Artillery. On the following morning, Roberts had placed his iron six pounder gun on the hill above the American Fort. Roberts demanded the surrender of the fort under Captain hanks and negotiated terms, and eventually the American color were taken down. The British assumed control over the fort as the Americans surrendered without bloodshed. The goods in the government trading house were turned over the British Indian Department to be distributed as presents to the Indians who had been present at the capture of the fort or who had arrived shortly afterwards. The British and many of the Native Americans went to the Detroit River to assist the British forces. Brock’s capture of Detroit lessened the danger of an attack on Michilimackinac by the Americans or by Indians but it did not solve all Roberts’ problems. By 1814 orders were given to abandon Fort St. Joseph completely, but Roberts was still in need of provisions and reinforcements.
For the next year, both forts were held under British Control. Although not manned, Ft. St. Joseph remained as a British fort. The fur trade interests were up-kept and some trading was increased without the Americans interfering or banning British trade. The reinforcement and supplying of newly acquired fort proved to be difficult and Roberts inevitable retired from his command. Under Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall, the fort was resupplied, armed, and rebuilt. Tensions with the western tribes and Americans remained, as did favoritism with the British. The victories at Detroit and Michilimackinac allowed for the British Military to focus their efforts on American pushes such as the Niagara River. Eventually, Detroit was abandoned, but the fort was prospering with only one drawback, finding water. Later in the war, the British would continue to fight to maintain their control over the fort. The Americans wanted to regain control of the fort and take back the furs that were housed there. In July of 1814, they sailed up the river to find Matchedash Bay to cut off the supply to the fort. Without much luck and four days searching in fog, they instead went to Ft. St. Joseph and destroyed the fort and its storehouses (10). It was only in May of 1815 after losing Ft. Michilimackinac and returning to the remnants of Ft. St. Joseph that David Wingfield, a naval officer described it as “The Americans had entirely destroyed the fort, if it was ever worthy of such a name, the barracks and several of the houses, and but two or three of those which were left were tenantable, as the Lake had risen three feet above its usual height, and the lower part was covered with water; at this time there were no inhabitants” (11). It was decided that if a new military fort was built again, it would be immediately handed over to the Americans. A new site was chosen, the island near the Detour, named Drummond Island. After a long, difficult battle, Fort St. Joseph’s military days were at an end.
2. Masson Collection: MG 19, C. Vol. 50, Public Archives of Canada, Manuscript Division,
1972. p. 55
3. Ibid., Vol. 323, pp. 138-139, Board of Accounts, 29 July 1804.
7. Masson Collection: MG 19, C. Vol. 50, Public Archives of Canada, Manuscript Division,
1972. p. 55-57.
8. Williams, Ephraim S. Personal Reminiscences. Vol. 8, Michigan Pioneer and Historical
Society Collections, 1907. p. 233-234.
11.Wingfield, David. Four Years on the Lakes of Canada. p. 57
5.Abbott, John, et al. The History of Fort St. Joseph. Dundurn Group, 2000.
1. “Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site of Canada.” Parcs
9. “Biography – ROBERTS, CHARLES – Volume V (1801-1820) – Dictionary of Canadian
Biography.” Home – Dictionary of Canadian
6.“A Native Nations Perspective.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wned/warof-
10. “St. Joseph Island Museum – An Island Full of History.” St. Joseph Island Museum – An
Island Full of History, www.stjoemuseum.com/.
4. Vincent, Elizabeth. Fort St. Joseph: A History. 1978, parkscanadahistory.com.
12. Image caption -Modern day site of Fort St. Joseph
“Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site – Parks Canada.” Algoma Country,
Berton, Pierre. The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813. Little, Brown, 1980.
Mount, Graeme S., et al. History of Fort St. Joseph. Dundurn Group, 2000.
Vincent, Elizabeth. Fort St. Joseph: A History. 1978, parkscanadahistory.com.
“Great Lakes History: A General View.” Indian Country Wisconsin – Great Lakes History: A
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