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THE BATTLE OF BEAVERDAMS – June 24, 1813
The lead-up to the Battle of Beaverdams can be placed at late May, 1813. The Americans had captured Fort George and the Village of Niagara on May 27, 1813 and the British had withdrawn to the head of Lake Ontario. A week later, the Americans marched on Stoney Creek but were defeated and retreated to Fort George. By the third week of June, the British re-established themselves in the Niagara Peninsula with forward posts at Twenty Mile Creek, Ten Mile Creek and the DeCew House in Thorold. Lieutenant James FitzGibbon was placed in command at the DeCew House with about 50 men from the 49th Regiment and a band of Mohawk warriors from the Grand River.
The Americans, determined to attack the British again, set out on June 22 with about 600 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Boerstler to take the outpost at the DeCew House. Leaving Fort George in the early evening, they reached Queenston at 11 p.m. and remained there overnight. At dawn, on the 24th, they resumed their march for Thorold. At St. David’s, they were spotted by Native scouts, who conveyed the warning to Major Peter DeHaren (at Ten Mile Creek below the Escarpment) and to FitzGibbon at the DeCew House. FitzGibbon had already been wanred of the American plan by Laura Secord on the 22nd, but the invaders had not appeared and he relaxed his guard.
The Americans ascended the Escarpment beyond St. David’s and continued along Mountain Road, heading for the DeCew House. As they neared a stand of beechwoods in the northeastern corner of Thorold Township, they were ambushed by about 450 Mohawk and Caughnawaga, the Americans were soundly defeated. Virtually all of the fighting on the British side was done by the Native warriors, while FitzGibbon and DeHaren arrived only in time to accept the surrender.
It is difficult to pinpoint precisely where the battle began, how the fighting progressed and where the surrender was taken. However, some reasonable conclusions can be made, based on a close study of various primary and secondary sources. The battle, unlike a relatively static European-style engagement of two armies, initially involved a long column of American soldiers moving along Mountain Road being attacked by Native warriors from the woods. The American line broke as the darting Natives harassed and fired at the invaders from changing directions from the beechwoods and across the fence rows and open fields. The American forces were frightened into disarray, not knowing where and when the next volley would come, and their commander had difficult in re-organizing his men for a counterattack.
It is certain that the Americans advanced along Mountain Road, which entered Thorold Township at Lot 12 and ran diagonally through Lot 13 toward Lot 27, where it crossed the road leading north (Ten Mile Creek Road) to the village of Ten Mile Creek (now Homer). (This stretch of Mountain Road was abandoned well over a century ago, though its line through these lots is visible on air photos taken in the 1930s). The crossroads is the approximate present intersection of Old Thorold Stone Road and Davis Road, and a key site in the Battle story. The consensus is that the Battle played out in and around Lots 13, 14, 15, 26, 27 and 28 – the four or six lots around the intersection – in Thorold Township.
A house may have stood in Lot 26, just southeast of the crossroads. This was later the site of the Bishop Fuller House (or “Beechlands”), which incorporated an earlier building, supposedly dating from 1809. Another house, owned by George Miller, did definitely exist at the time in Lot 27, about a quarter of a mile south of the crossroads. The Miller House was situated between two west-flowing branches of what was later called Shriner’s Creek.
At the time of the Battle, the local terrain would have consisted of shallow valleys tending east-west, with steep slopes marking where meandering streams had undercut the valley sides. The field of battle and the surrounding landscaped has been changed drastically since 1813. The First Welland Canal, though excavated in the 1820s well to the west, flooded Shriner’s Creek as far as the Miller House, and the Third Welland Canal cut through the area in the 1870s, while the Fourth Welland Canal, in the 20th century, further encroached on the battlefield lands with the location of industry and docks alongside, landfilling portions of the fields around and flooding Ten Mile Creek. A railway line to Niagara Falls was laid through the area in the 1880s, while the Thorold Tunnel, constructed in the 1960s, had a major impact on the diminished integrity of the battlefield. As a result, today, much of the battlefield is either under water, deposited with landfill and dumping, leveled, or used for industrial purposes and storage.
The Battle raged for more than two hours, along both sides of Mountain Road, though mainly to the north of it. The Americans were losing ground and Boerstler gave the order to fall back to an open field south of the crossroads, where he intended to regroup and then charge for and regain Mountain Road and retreat to Fort George. The Natives continued their harassment, but at this point their fire was largely ineffectual because the forest cover which they preferred in their style of fighting was too far from the open field for them to fire volleys at the enemy.
Before Boerstler could withdraw from the field, FitzGibbon suddenly came riding down the road, carrying a white flag. To this time, FitzGibbon and the 49th had remained at the DeCew House prepared to repulse the presumed American attack on his supply depot and outpost. But hearing gunfire to the east, he rode out in that direction to reconnoiter. Seeing the Americans moving along Mountain Road, and probably that the Native ambush was beginning to break the American attack there, he quickly sent an order for his troops to be mustered for battle. By the time his men reached the battlefield, the fighting was basically over and Boerstler was preparing to retreat. But now FitzGibbon faced a serious dilemma. He had barely 50 soldiers and they were so placed as to block Mountain Road to prevent the American retreat. As well, some of the Native warriors were dispersing. Hearing (falsely) that enemy reinforcements were approaching, FitzGibbon concocted a bold ruse to force a surrender.
Midway between the crossroads and the American position in the field, FitzGibbon was met by an American officer, also carrying a white flag. In the ensuing exchanged between the two, FitzGibbon asserted that the Americans were outnumbered and that he might not be able to control the Native warriors still in the woods and the additional Natives that were expected to appear (also a fabrication) at any moment. To avoid a slaughter, the Americans should surrender immediately, was his advice.
Boerstler at first refused, declaring that he would never surrender to an enemy he could not see. FitzGibbon responded by offering the Americans an opportunity to inspect his force, subject to the approval of his superior officer, DeHaren. This was an even riskier ploy, for there were no Natives coming, the Americans were not outnumbered and DeHaren was not even present.
By sheer good fortune, Captain John Hall, with a group of dragoons, suddenly rode onto the scene. FitzGibbon had Hall impersonate DeHaren. Boerstler accepted FitzGibbon’s invitation to inspect his troops, but Hall, playing his part, denied such a request as highly improper. Boerstler was in a desperate situation. His men were exhausted, some had been killed and others wounded, their ammunition was nearly spent, and they feared a renewed attack by fresh Native warriors. Boerstler had no choice but to capitulate. The deception had worked, but it was nearly undone when DeHaren suddenly appeared, and unwittingly began to negotiate a surrender of his own. However, FitzGibbon quickly and quietly apprised DeHaren of the situation, and the day was saved for the British-Canadian victory. The terms of surrender already agreed upon were signed at the Miller House (located in Lot 27). It was a victory won by the Native warriors, who did all the fighting, and FitzGibbon had arrived just in time to take the surrender.
Through an extensive study and review of a wide range of documentary sources, such as original and published statements, correspondence, a diary account with a map, and war loss claims, it can be reasonably stated that the surrender took place at the Miller House, located in Lot 27. (Some published accounts and several historians assert that the surrender took place at the Bishop Fuller House, but this is not correct, through there is certainly no doubt that major fighting did occur on and around the Fuller property). In addition to several other sources, conclusive evidence is found in the diary and accompanying map of Charles Askin, a militiaman who fought with the Natives in the Battle. His map shows the relevant roads and the Miller House, the words “Cannon” and “Surrender,” field boundaries and even beechwoods.
As mentioned earlier, the Battle was fought over Lots 13, 14, 15, 26, 27 and 28 in Thorold Township. The Miller House was located in the lower (or southern) half of Lot 27, on the west side of the line between Lots 26 and 27. It stood beside a road that ran through Lots 25, 26 and 27, roughly parallel to and in the same general direction as Mountain Road. This road no longer exists (nor does Mountain Road through these lots).