Gearing up for 1812

War of 1812, Part 3

Soon after the first land grants were awarded in Upper Canada, the establishment of a military organization became one of the immediate concerns of the Provincial Legislature. Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe viewed American expansion into the sparsely populated new province of Upper Canada as the major threat to its continued existence and it was the primary reason behind his decision to construct of a road across the province – Dundas St./Governor’s Rd. – to provide easy movement of troops in a time of  war.

The first Militia Act of Upper Canada was passed in 1793 on the principle that all men between the ages of 16 and 50 were to be called for military service if the need should arise. This allowed for the creation of a sedentary militia, not a full-time army. It was also required that each company receive training and be inspected at least twice annually. No pay was provided, but a fine of $8 was imposed on officers and $2 on men failing to attend.

A year later, the age limit was raised to 60 and a distribution of arms was made. The first official militia unit was raised in York in 1798, but it appears that there was an earlier organized force in the Head-of-the-Lake area. Captain George Chisholm of the Lincoln Militia, and one of the earliest settlers in East Flamborough Township, received his commission in the Canadian Militia in December 1798.

Simcoe’s departure from Upper Canada saw a decline in the concerns over possible invasion and no further organization took place until 1808, when a second Military Act consolidated previous regulations and provided for compulsory duty: the annual training and muster parade was on June 4, the anniversary of the birthday of King George III.

The majority of the men were farmers who had more important concerns – clearing land, seeding and harvesting crops. But once a year, they reported, formed a “ragged line and answered to their name at the muster.” They then returned home, no better equipped or trained to fight the looming threat from the Americans. When war was declared on June 18, 1812, it was the busiest time of the year for most settlers, so many did their best to avoid service.

Accounts of the war were written almost entirely by British military authorities for their superiors and largely reflect the concerns of the local commanding officers who were unhappy with the level of support or the number of troops at their disposal. While local militias were a boon to the British military authorities, they were also a disappointment as they wanted men who would accept the discipline they felt necessary for the successful management of the war effort, and “as late as 1812, official thinking was that no more than a third of the men were safe to arm!”

Sylvia Wray is the former archivist with the Flamborough Archives. She can be reached through the Archives at

This article was originally published in the Flamborough Review, 29 March 2012.


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