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Jun. 4, 2020 | Thursday
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Niagara's History Unveiled: Niagara-on-the-Lake before the War of 1812
Image courtesy of the Niagara Historical Society & Museum. (Supplied)

Most of the Niagara Peninsula was a battleground during the War of 1812 in particular Newark, now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake. In fact from May of 1813 to December 1813, the town was occupied by American forces.

Then on December 10, 1813, under the order of General McClure, commander of Fort Niagara, the American troops retreated from the town. Upon their retreat, Newark (NOTL) was burned to the ground with only two buildings in the entire town surviving. 

The town we see today shows the strength of the founding residents in how quickly they recovered from the destruction of the war. It does not resemble what the first town looked like.

Initially the town was situated at the foot of King Street where it meets the Niagara River. There were private homes, inns, warehouses, and commercial enterprises along the river. Further away from the town, around present day Mary Street, farms were located. The huge forested area at 407 King Street was actually referred to as the “wilderness” at one time. The golf course that we now know was all farm land with the lighthouse standing on Point Mississauga.

The town of Newark (NOTL) that was destroyed was not a primitive outpost but a bustling community thriving on the trade of goods being transported from the Great Lakes region to Kingston, Montreal and even New York City. There was a thriving middle class in this town from the businesses set up, who, like the upper class enjoyed a civil life with genteel social occasions of teas and card games. Crops grown in the region were plentiful and harvest time was a great celebration. Even the farming community enjoyed a good living.

In 1811, John Mellish a traveller gave a colourful description of the community he came upon when he was in Newark (NOTL). He wrote that the town “contains about 500 inhabitants, many handsome buildings of brick and stone, two churches, a jail, an academy, six taverns, and about twenty dry goods stores where every article may be procured on as good terms as any store in Montreal.” 

Michael Smith (an American visitor) wrote in 1812, just prior to the declaration of war between Britain and the United States, a glowing report on what he saw and experienced while in the Village of Niagara, now NOTL. 

“Niagara is a beautiful and (prosperous) place of much trade inhabited by a civil and industrious people…there is a Council House, Court House, jail, and two houses for public worship. There are several squares in the village adorned with almost every kind of precious fruit; the village on the East looks towards the fort over a beautiful plain of nearly one mile wide.”

The two houses of worship that Smith is speaking of are St. Mark’s Anglican Church built in 1792 and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church built in 1794. The fruit trees were probably planted long before even Lt. Gov. John Simcoe and family arrived as Mrs. Simcoe noted in her diary the wonderful abundance of fruit from the trees. The court house and jail were located at Prideaux and King Streets.

Many other visitors to the town were impressed with the spacious streets, the lighthouse, the profusion of fruits and the abundance of fresh fish (white fish and black bass) from Lake Ontario.

Although records and stories varied over the years with just how many buildings might have been here prior to the war of 1812, a map from 1810 shows about 100 structures. They varied in size with 60 per cent found in the Front, King, Mary and Simcoe streets square. The others could be found in the blocks between Queen and Front Street.

A year after the original town plot was finalized Augusta Jones built the first structure in the early part of 1792. By the fall of 1792 amongst all the buildings, three significant structures had been added to the community. These were the homes of Dr. Kerr (on Prideaux Street), Rev. Addison (corner of Front and King) and Mr. Dickson whose home is said to have either been built illegally on military land or in the swamp area that was at the foot of King Street. Other structures built in the earliest days of the town were considered hovels not worth being noted.

During the visit of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld in 1796, there were at least 70 homes, with many of them being considered “very excellent dwellings”. In fact de La Rochefoucauld claimed that many were superior to those he found in Kingston!

One mansion noted was G.W. Smith’s grand Georgian style home located on a four acre lot bounded by King, Regent, Queen and Johnson streets. It was 80’ x 40’ boasting 4 fireplaces, landscaped gardens and fruit orchards. 

Another notable home was that of Peter Russel who built a “Springfield design” home, which was a 70’, two story structure, with outbuildings, orchards and a formal garden.

By the turn of the 19th century the town of Newark (NOTL) boasted 6 hotels; Hinds, Wilson’s, Thompson’s, the Ferry House, Yellow House and Weir’s Sign of the Lion. The first newspaper of Upper Canada, the Upper Canada Gazette (1793-98) was located at King and Front Streets. The first circulating library was built beside the newspaper. 

By 1799 there was a race track on the Fort George Commons, an agricultural society, apothecary, two doctors (Kerr and Muirhead), blacksmith shops, silver and gold smiths, leather shops, the Ancient Free and Accepted Mason had their own lodge (on King) as well as several wine, beer and liquor outlets. 

Newark was a thriving metropolis at the turn of the 19th century. New settlers arrived finding they could purchase all matter of goods to help them settle in Upper Canada. Pounds sterling, Halifax dollars and New York dollars were all accepted currency of payments.

Credit though was an accepted part of life. “Hard cash” was not always available, even within the British forces, so the barter system was widely used. Merchants would extend credit waiting for a farmer’s crop to be harvested or people would get credit in exchange for labour provided. 

Something we do not even think about today was the prevalence of malaria in Upper Canada. Often thought of as a tropical disease, the fact is that the building of settlements near marshlands often saw people being plagued with malaria. Malaria was most rampant in the Rideau Canal region but was also found in Newark. Today we have good medicines to thwart the ravages of this disease but at the turn of the 19th century the best cures were gin-laced tonics. 

From 1792 when the first homes were built until the War of 1812 was declared, Newark (NOTL) was the commercial hub of the Great Lakes. Anything a resident wanted was available from shoes to chocolates, fine dinner wear to good riding saddles. Ladies could buy fine cloth from around the world; gentlemen could complete their tailored suits with a good top hat.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declare war on England. Their target was Upper and Lower Canada and Newark (NOTL) was a prize goal to capture. The town’s people suddenly saw their world totally changed. The able-bodied men were enlisted in the Canadian Militia while the women, children, elderly and infirmed were left behind to keep their homes and farms safe.

In December of 1813 all of this changed forever. Newark was totally destroyed; gone were the lovely homes, the businesses, the schools and even the churches. Just smoldering ruins and devastated people remained when the British Army and Militia returned to the town.

The town’s people though did rally; they rebuilt their homes, businesses, churches and schools. Today we can enjoy the fruits of their labour and the love they had for their community in our beautiful town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.


Niagara Historical Society and Museum

On Common Ground – Merritt

Canadian Encyclopedia


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at,, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Ascenzo is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.