Navy of 1812: Sailors On The Lake [Niagara-On-The-Lake, ON]

I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to see the Navy of 1812 in action – let alone see it in my own backyard. It amazes me how much culture and history is celebrated here in Niagara. Being the bi-centennial celebration of the war of 1812 this past weekend was just the beginning of the festivities to come.

At 2pm, hundreds of people gathered at Queens Royal Park on the Niagara River to a great – Sailors on the Lake – battle reenactment to commemorate the war of 1812.

The event features six Tall Ships — the brigantines Pathfinder, Playfair, Fair Jeanne and St. Lawrence II, and the schooners La Revenante and Caledonian — plus 22 longboats, 300 sailors and 200 naval re-enactors.

To give you a little bit of history, in 1812 the US declared war on Britain and its British North American colonies (in what is now Canada). Coming together for the first time it took the British, English and French speaking militia and First Nations t0 defeat the Americans. The war ended in 1814 and laid the grounds for Confederation and Canada’s independence.  That said, it was great to be part of such a historical reenactment!

By the time I arrived at the park at 2pm there were hundreds (if not thousands) of people there ahead of me. Some had set up chairs behind the yellow tape that sheltered the beach. The hundreds of ground militia re-enactiors were, to my delight, just walking around behind the crowds preparing their props and chatting and allowing pictures before their big Niagara debut.

I had the opportunity to talk to a few young men and women from a group located in the GTA called Drum 1812. They explained that they travel across Canada and the US taking place in 1812 battle re-enactments. Surprised at their young age I asked how it is they became involved in such a group and the 5 or 6 of them agreed that most people are “born into it” as re-enacting is something that their parents do. In just the few moments I spoke with them it was obvious that there is a whole culture around re-enacting that I did not realize existed. Looking around at the hundreds of re-enacters in the park, however, it is not so hard to believe.

Once I found a perch above the crowd (on the hill to the left of the beach) I was in awe of the number and formation of all the tall ships and longboats in the river. The battle had started and the fire of cannons (followed by screaming infants) rang out through the air. I could count 5 tall ships from where I was standing (one down the river was not visible to me) and two handfuls of longboats. All were fully manned with people in full 1812 period costume armed with muskets. I was especially impressed that each person accurately held the appropriate rank and dressed to match.

The battle didn’t last for long, but for the time it did I was thoroughly engaged in the maneuvers of the ships and the number of boats constantly landing and then storming the beach. It re-enactment ended with a number of cannon blasts and an extended round of applause – but the festivities were far from over.

Once the tall ships and longboats set sail back to Fort George there was a dancing demonstration in the shade of a tall oak. The live fiddle was a great addition to the period dancing and was a great added detail.

At the end of the afternoon it was a good show and the Directorate of Navy History, Heritage of the Royal Canadian Navy and Parks Canada did a great job with this event. I did wish, though, that they had kept the public boats further away from the 1812 navy ships. It would have added to the grandeur and believability of the re-enactment if there wasn’t a 2012 powerboat in the background. And, I would have  liked the opportunity to tour the tall ships and longboats (I guess I will have to wait until Canal Days in Port Colborne for that one).

If you’re interested in these tall ships and longboats, they will be in Colchester Harbour on Lake Erie this weekend July 21, 2012. I do believe that they are offering 2 hour cruises for $50 on one of the tallships along with another re-enactment, encampment and other festivities.

This event was a great opportunity to learn more about Niagara’s rich history, enjoy the sunshine on the river and take in the awe of the amazing navy ships. I am on the look-out for another reenactment … I heard the Siege of Fort Erie is coming shortly!

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