The Métis & the War of 1812

"These hardy voyageurs or half-breeds...came up with the North-West Company, and...married Indian women, their progeny also becoming British soldiers or attachés of the fur company in various capacities ... Some were proud recipients of medals still treasured by their descendants and gained for bravery at Plattsburgh and other historic battlefields, and some carried wounds received while gallantly upholding British supremacy. They were in the front of battle during the stirring scenes of Mackinaw, St. Joseph Island, Sault Ste. Marie and other sanguinary points during the war of 1812-15. This is a testimony more eloquent than words to the loyalty and worth of the ancestors of the settlers around Penetanguishene.

– William Rawson (son of Sergeant Santlaw Rawson, a British soldier in the War of 1812), quoted in, The Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828 by A. C. Osborne in Ontario Historical Society: Papers and Records. v.3, 1901 p. 123-166.

---------------------------------------------

Historians often portray the War of 1812 as one theatre in the much larger conflict created by the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in the early part of the 1800s led France in a series of wars against several European nations. In an effort to contain Napoleon, Britain blockaded continental Europe, interfering with American commerce and providing the United States with the justification for war. A war with Britain in North America also conveniently supported American ambitions in the Great Lakes region to displace First Nations aligned with the British, and potentially to annex the entirety of British North America into the American union.

While the causes of the war may have been outside of Canada’s borders, this has not prevented Canadians from viewing the repulsion of the American invasions of 1812-14 as the foundation of modern Canada. Due to its conflict with Napoleon, Britain could only provide a small contingent of troops to defend Canada, and these troops by themselves would surely have failed without the support of the Métis, First Nations and local Canadian militias. The spirited defence of Canada by all these groups contributed to a distinctive Canadian identity, but until very recently, Métis contributions during the War of 1812 have not been well known or recognized.

By the early 1800s, the Métis were already a distinct people whose role in the fur trade was crucial to the Canadian economy. Living in large numbers throughout the Great Lakes region, which would be the location of most of the key battles of the war, the Métis could not help but be involved. Due to the potential disruption to their culture and economic well-being by an American takeover, and their close relationship with First Nations, who generally favoured the British, most (although not all) Métis fought on the Canadian side during the war. Métis fought in most battles--sometimes as part of militia units or beside First Nations--and they served in other capacities as well. Some units were mostly composed of Métis, such as the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs; the Mississippi Volunteers, a group of voyageurs recruited on the spot in Prairie du Chien to aid in the attack; and the Michigan Fencibles, raised at Mackinac Island in 1813, initially consisting of 50 voyageurs. The Fencibles and the Volunteers were part of the Canadian Embodied Militia that attacked Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in 1814.

The War of 1812 is central to the development of Canadian nationhood and the Métis involvement in the war is an example of how the Métis, along with First Nations and European newcomers, are among Canada’s founding peoples.