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The History of Niagara-on-the-Lake

Since the retreat of glaciers over 10,000 years ago many different people called Niagara home. Settlement of refugees after the American Revolution created dramatic changes to the land.  The town started out as the most important community in Ontario, and for decades remained an important legislative and judicial centre.

Bird Stone

Bird Stone

Niagara’s First People

Native People have inhabited Niagara for over 11,000 years, long before European explorers “discovered” the Americas in the 15th century.  These earliest inhabitants were nomadic hunters and gatherers. Over time, Native settlements became more permanent as the cultivation of crops became an increasingly important food source. Around 1300 AD, distinctive nations emerged, including the Neutral Nation, which inhabited Niagara until they were overcome by the Iroquois around 1650.

Following the Neutral demise, Seneca and Mississauga settled briefly in the Niagara Region.

Belt Plate

Butler’s Rangers Belt Plate

Col. John Butler

Col. John Butler

The First Loyalists

The United Empire Loyalists were American colonists who adhered to the unity of the British Empire and joined the Royal Standard in American before the Treaty of Separation (1783). They were multiethnic, multiracial, of various social standing and religiously diverse.

They sacrificed their lives, homes, lands and goods to live apart from republican Americans believing that injustices should be worked out under the British system of government. Nearly 80,000 refugees fled to Québec, the Maritimes, England, the British Caribbean and Africa. Some 5,000 came to Niagara to pioneer again.

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1790s engraving of the lower landing

1790s engraving of the lower landing at Queenston by Strictland

A proclamation by Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe offering

A proclamation by Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe offering
land in an attempt to populate Upper Canada

The Capital Years 1792-1796

The creation of Upper Canada occurred on December 26th 1791.  The British Parliament John Graves Simcoe the first Lieutenant Governor and Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) became the capital.  This laid the foundation for today’s Ontario.

Establishing Order in Upper Canada.

Many of those involved in the Parliament and in early commerce came from the Thirteen Colonies that are now the United States – mainly from New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  When the American Revolution broke out, they chose to remain loyal to the Crown and Great Britain.

Originally, the Loyalists or their families, before crossing the Atlantic had come from Great Britain, the German states, Switzerland, nearly all other European countries and Africa. All shared a British-North American culture and ideals.

Accomplishments of the Parliament in Newark

  1. The Government would be modelled on that of Great Britain
  2. All British statutes and court decisions would become law in Upper Canada in so far as applicable
  3. All rights and liberties enjoyed in Great Britain would also be enjoyed by Upper Canadians
  4. Upper Canadian society would be based on that of Great Britain – structure, ethics and ideals
  5. Slavery would be phased out in Upper Canada before anywhere else in the British Empire or most of the United States
  6. The Law Society of Upper Canada was born in Newark

Escaped Slave ad in Upper Canada Gazette

Escaped Slave ad in Upper Canada Gazette

A Mortal Wound to Slavery

The issue of freedom was high on the agenda of the first sessions of Parliament.  A summary of “an act to prevent the further introduction of slaves and to limit the terms of contracts for servitude with the province (passed 9 July 1793 – Chapter VII 33rd George III A.D. 1793 Second Session).

Slavery and Freedom

  1. No more slaves may be brought into Upper Canada
  2. Slaves already in Upper Canada will remain slaves
  3. The children of slaves will be freed upon reaching 25 years of age – accurate records will be kept regarding the birth date of such children
  4. Children born to the children of slaves are free

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Sir Isaac Brock

General Isaac Brock

Battlefield Niagara: The War of 1812-14

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. For three years, Niagara was a war zone, the scene of American invasions and bloody battles.  The fate of the future country of Canada hung in the balance but in the end Upper Canada was preserved.
On the eve of the War, the Niagara region was the strategic hub of southern Ontario, headquarters of the British Army and British Indian Department under the command of General Isaac Brock.  For three years of War, Niagara would be the front line of battle.

Taking of Fort George

Illustration of the Battle of Fort George, May 26, 1813

Causes of the War of 1812-14

The War of 1812 was part of a global conflict.  Britain and her allies were in a death-struggle with the French under Napoleon Bonaparte, trying to prevent the French from dominating Europe and the far-flung European colonies throughout the world. Britain’s army and navy were fully committed to stopping Napoleon’s ambitions for a worldwide French empire when the United States declared war.  Canada would be the battleground.

To prevent supplies from reaching Napoleon, the Royal Navy maintained a blockade of French ports and patrolled the high seas, stopping merchant   vessels in international waters, including those of the neutral United States.  Before 1812, more than 5000 sailors were seized from American ships and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. This threat to American sovereignty was one of the causes of the War of 1812.
Following the American Revolution, the settlements of the United States were pushed westward.  The rights of Aboriginal peoples were ignored.   Their land was seized by land speculators.  Under leaders like Tecumseh, many of the Aboriginal people resisted.  In the skirmishes and battles that resulted, the Americans suspected the British of aiding the Aboriginal people.  This perceived violation of American sovereignty was another cause of the War of 1812.

During three years of war, the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake saw British, American and Native forces converging at the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Fort George.  During this time, Americans occupied the town of Niagara for 7 months, burning the community upon their retreat. In July, 1814, an American army invaded again, this time attacking at Fort Erie.  Defeating a British army at the Battle of Chippawa, they advanced towards Niagara, occupying the village of Queenston on the way.  On July 18, 1814, an American foraging party came under musket fire near St. Davids.  The village was burned in reprisal.

The Treaty of Ghent

By the end of 1814, the American army that had been occupying Fort Erie since July, withdrew from Canadian soil.  On Christmas Eve in Europe, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War.  Upper Canada had been saved and would remain under the British crown.  The people of the Town of Niagara began to rebuild on the ruins of the town.  Many of those early post-war buildings survive to this day.  
The War left a legacy that grew as the century progressed.  Canadians were proud of their achievements in the war, sometimes forgetting that the British Army and Aboriginal allies were crucial to the defence of the province. The people of Upper Canada felt a kinship with the inhabitants of Lower Canada and the Maritime provinces. A feeling of national pride grew.  Eventually the former colonies confederated into a new nation - the Dominion of Canada.

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Roger's, Blake and Harrison House

The Roger’s, Blake and Harrison House and Warehouse, Queen Street

Rebuilding Niagara

Word spread in early 1815 that the “War of 1812-14” ended.  The men of Niagara returned from military duty and prisoner-of-war camps.  They found their homes and businesses destroyed.  Thus started the years of rebuilding.  The founding of the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company in 1831 further enhanced the town’s prosperity.  However, by 1860, the center of commerce as well as the county seat moved to St. Catharines through which the Welland Canal ran.  Niagara, in a state of depression, turned its farms into fruit orchards.


At the close of the War of 1812-14, the town of Niagara lay in ruins. 

Officials made the decision to move the town further inland, away from the river and American territory on the opposite shore.  The new Court House and Gaol were constructed well away from the pre-existing town centre and Butler’s Barracks and the Indian Council House were built on the commons.  However, for the most part, rebuilding of homes and stores occurred on their former sites.  The two churches remained in their previous locations, St. Mark’s repairing a heavily damaged structure and St. Andrew’s totally rebuilding.  Niagara once again was a stop in the flow of raw materials headed east and goods and immigrants headed west.  By 1830, Niagara was thriving.  Lives and buildings were rebuilt.

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Rye Girls

Girls living at “Our Western Home”

Niagara as Refuge

Niagara served as a place of refuge for various political and social groups in the 19th century.  Joining blacks that had either been born free or freed by their masters were those who escaped from slavery in the United States by following the Underground Railroad.  There were 104 blacks in town in 1861.  Most of them lived in the “coloured village” south of William Street.  At the end of the Civil War, Confederate officials, seeking safety after the conflict, arrived in Niagara.  Prominent among them were Senator James Mason and Generals John Breckenridge and Jubal Early.  Former President Jefferson Davis visited in 1867. 

As a consequence of the social reform movement, Niagara became the first Canadian stop for many poor or orphaned girls from Britain.  In 1869, Miss Maria Rye purchased the second Court House and turned it into “Our Western Home”, where the girls were trained in domestic skills before being placed with families.

Queen's Royal Hotel

The Queen’s Royal Hotel, built in 1869, attracted visitors
from around the world, including the future King George V

Caddies 1902

Caddies at the Niagara Golf Club horsing around in 1902

Coming of Age

By the early 1870s, Niagara-on-the-Lake had experienced a number of economic setbacks, with the removal of the county seat, Dock Company, and military garrison in the 1860s.  However, its residents found other ways of sustaining Niagara.  Tourism and the commemoration of Niagara’s past became important features of the town.

Tourism in Niagara

Tourists in Niagara tended to come from wealthy backgrounds and often were Americans from the Buffalo area, upstate New York or as far as the southern states.  Many came with their families for the entire summer and returned year after year, staying in hotels such as the Queen’s Royal or buying property in Niagara.
Recreation in Niagara

Summer tourists and Niagara residents enjoyed a range of leisure activities, such as boating and swimming, as well as sports such as golfing, tennis, lawn bowling, and cycling.  The summer tourists also made the social scene quite lively, with gatherings in their homes and at the Queen’s Royal Hotel.

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The 83rd Battalion of Canadian Expeditionary Forces training at Camp Niagara during World War I

The 83rd Battalion of Canadian Expeditionary Forces
training at Camp Niagara during World War I

Workers at the St. Davids Canning Factory

Workers at the St. Davids Canning Factory

The 20th Century

Thousands of soldiers trained on the Fort George Military Reserve before going overseas during World War I and World War II.  Camp Niagara was a focal point of the town during this era.  The Camp ceased operations following the Korean War and Niagara needed to find a new direction.  For some time Niagara-on-the-Lake was in steady decline. 

Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake is known for its built heritage, wineries and the Shaw Festival theatre.  The community is thriving, with expansion within its urban boundaries and prosperity in its rural areas.

For a larger summary of Niagara’s history download “Our Story” or check “History of Niagara” by Janet Carnochan.

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® Image: View of Fort George, Oil on canvass, C. Kreighoff 1823