Thursday, August 13, 2015

History of Pelee Island (with update)

Mostly swamp once, and the battlefield was off to the left, somehow
The blogger has been travelling more and posting less lately, and anyway these are the dog days when nobody's history blog seems very active (or generating many hits, either, 'tseems)

But a small gleaning from the travel:

I learned (who knew?) that there was actually a battle on and for Pelee Island in Lake Erie once. It was not in the War of 1812 but during the 1838 skirmishes that followed the rebellions of 1837. Where your sympathies lie may depend on your view of those conflicts, but the British and Canadian forces drove their rivals off the island and back to the US of A.  It was winter. All troops on both sides got to the island on foot across the ice. Most of the battle was fought on the ice rather than on the land.  Casualties included "fell through, drowned."

Also much of Pelee Island was originally marsh and swamp.  Its modern shape and size are the result of extensive diking and draining in the late 19th century, and the pumps are still running to keep (most of) it that way.

Which suggests: there is pretty much nowhere that people won't fight over if they get the chance.  And there has always been remarkable enthusiasm for creating new land, even when there is lots of the old stuff available not far away and seemingly more conveniently situated.

As you may guess, Pelee Island Heritage Centre is a pretty terrific local history museum where we spent quite a while the other day.We were the only people there but it's a quiet island. Crowds were larger at the winery tour, but not by so much.

Update, August 16:  Chris Raible comments:

Chris, you are, alas, not alone in not realizing how many Rebellion battles were fought along the Upper Canada/United States border in 1838, that is after defeats of December 1837. Navy Island set the pattern for several incursions that followed that winter/spring- invade an Upper Canadian island in order to establish a base on British territory that could be fairly easily defended and also fairly easily supplied from the US.
In addition to Navy Island in the Niagara River there were invasions of Bois Blank and Fighting Island in the Detroit River, Hickory Island in the St. Lawrence, and, as you noted, Pelee Island. They were not fighting to create "new land" but to establish launching points for larger battles on the mainland. All failed and the next wave of invasions (summer and fall of 1838) were full land invasions - Short Hill (Niagara Peninsula), the Windmill (near Brockville), and Windsor - all intended to stir up the local population and re-ignite the fires of Rebellion.
All these border incursions - dubbed "Patriot Wars" by their participants and sympathizers - were disastrous, largely because they were not supported, but were firmly discouraged, by the American government that had no interest in another war with Great Britain. They did, however, demonstrate that, in the border states of Michigan, Ohio, New York and Vermont, there was strong American support for the Canadian cause. You undoubtedly know that many rebellion participants were sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen's Land. You may not know that of  those who actually made the full trip - that is, who did not escape or be legally released en route - none were December 1837 rebels but rather men captured in failed 1838 raids - and most of these were not Upper Canadians, but Americans. Thanks, Chris, for reminding us all that there is much more to the whole Rebellion story than the debacle at Montgomery's Tavern.
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