The War Of 1812 & The Nancy
This is the story of the Nancy, a schooner which sailed the Upper Great Lakes as a private cargo vessel in the fur trade. During the War of 1812, the HMS Nancy was pressed into service as a British supply ship. While in this service, the schooner was destroyed in the Nottawasaga River by American Forces.
The sunken hull of the Nancy formed an obstruction in the river and an island was established by the resultant deposition of silt and sand. The remains of the hull now rest in a museum on the island to mark the site of the Nancy’s demise and to commemorate her gallant defense.
The Nancy was built in 1789 at the British port of Detroit. The construction of the Schooner was under the supervision of John Richardson of Montreal’s Richardson, Forsyth and Company. There was likely no set plans for the construction; however, it has been determined that the schooner’s length was approximately 80 feet, width (or beam) 22 feet, and depth of hold, eight feet. John Richardson wrote to his partner from Detroit in 1789:
“The schooner will be a perfect masterpiece of workmanship and beauty. The expense to us will be great, but there will be the satisfaction of her being strong and very durable. Her floor-timbers, keel, keel-son, stem, and lower futtocks are oak. The transom, stern-post, upper futtocks, top-timbers, beams, and knees are all red cedar. She will carry 350 barrels.”
The figurehead on the vessel was a carving “of a lady dressed in the present fashion, and with a hat and feather” done by Skelling of New York. The Nancy was likely named for either the wife or daughter of John Richardson.
The schooner was built for the fur trade which she served by carrying goods including food, clothing, rum, meat, powder, blankets, tools, trinkets, weapons, and ammunition up the lakes and then returning with furs. At this time, there were two main ports in the West. Sault Ste. Marie governed access to Lake Superior and the North. Further west, in the Straits of Mackinaw, Fort Mackinac was a trading post, which commanded Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and the West. This was the center of activity for the northern Great Lakes and the Northwest and was maintained by the French as early as 1687. In 1761, the British were the first to build proper fortifications around the Fort.
The launching of the Nancy took place at Detroit on November 24, 1789. In the following spring, under the command of Captain William Mills, her maiden voyage took her to Fort Erie. After the launching, John Richardson wrote:
“She is spoken of here in such high strain of encomium as to beauty, stowage and sailing that she almost exceeds my expectations.”
In June 1790, the Nancy took a full cargo load to Grand Portage at Sault Ste. Marie. In 1793, the schooner was sold to George Leith and Company who were merchants and fur traders. The vessel was then sold to the North West Fur Company toward the end of the century. Captain Mills continued as commander until 1805 when he was succeeded by Captain Alexander Mackintosh. In the service of the North West Fur Company, the Nancy’s function remained as a transportation vessel for fur and merchandise on Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan.
When the United States declared war in 1812 against Britain, the Nancy was lying at Macintosh’s wharf at Moy (Windsor) across from Detroit. For protection, the Nancy was immediately moved to Amherstburg and was requisitioned as a British transport by Lieutenant-Colonel St. George, commander of the garrison.
In Colonel Matthews Wlliot’s inventory to General Isaac Brock, the Nancy was described as capable of mounting six, four- pound carriage guns and six swivel guns.
At this time there were three main routes from Montreal to the Northwest. One route was via the Ottawa and French Rivers and Georgian Bay; another was by way of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and Lake Huron. A third route was overland from Lake Ontario at York (Toronto) north on Yonge Street to Holland Landing and the Holland River. From here, the route entered Lake Simcoe and led to the head of Kempenfeldt Bay (Barrie) where Nine Mile Portage led to Willow Creek, the Nottawasaga River, and Lake Huron. The latter route became the main supply line during the last year of the war.
The Nancy’s first war service took her, on July 30, 1812, to Fort Erie in convoy with the Provincial Schooner, Lady Prevost. The purpose was to collect military stores and 60 men of the 41st Regiment who participated in Brock’s capture of Detroit from General Hull. During the summer and early autumn, the Nancy was employed constantly on Lake Erie between Detroit and Fort Erie in the transportation of stores and provisions.
On April 23, 1813, the Nancy was included in a small squadron to transport General Proctor’s division from Amherstburg to Miami Bay for the unsuccessful attack on Fort Meigs. In the autumn, while the Nancy was away at Fort Mackinac, the British Fleet was decisively defeated in the Battle of Lake Erie, leaving the Nancy as the sole surviving British ship on the Upper Lakes.
The Nancy Escapes
Returning in the Nancy to the mouth of the St. Clair River on October 5, Captain Mackintosh found Detroit and Amherstburg in American hands, and two armed schooners and a gunboat lying in wait for him. At noon on the following day, the Nancy was under attack. Despite some damage from the battering, she survived to escape into Lake Huron. By October 7, Mackintosh had her under sail to Sault Ste. Marie, where she wintered and was refitted.
After the Battle of Lake Erie, the Americans planned to recapture Fort Mackinac, which they had lost on July 17, 1812. The Fort, with no naval defenses, required reinforcements and in February 1814, McDougall’s relief party of 10 officers, 220 infantry and artillerymen, and 20 seamen left Kingston for the Fort. They arrived via the Lake Simcoe and Nottawasaga River route on May 18, 1814. To aid in the defense of Fort Mackinac, there were plans for the Nancy to be designed as a gunboat; however, this idea was discarded and the British schooner continued as a transport vessel. During that spring, the Nancy made three round trips from the Fort to the mouth of the Nottawasaga River for supplies. While the Nancy was away on the fourth trip to the Nottawasaga supply base, the American Fleet left Detroit on July 3, 1814 for the attack on Fort Mackinac. At the Nottawasaga base, the Nancy was moved two miles up the river under the command of Lieutenant Miller Worsley, Royal Navy. Here, quietly hidden and protected by a blockhouse, the Nancy waited.
On August 14, three American ships, Niagara, Tigress and Scorpion, under the command of Captain Sinclair, arrived at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River to wait for the British schooner which was thought to be on route from Fort Mackinac. It was only when wood gathering parties from the American ships happened upon the Nancy in her hiding spot that the secret was revealed.
The engagement was brief and decisive. Lieutenant Worsley’s force consisted of 22 seamen and 23 Ojibway under the command of Lieutenant Ramsay Livingston and nine French Canadian Voyageurs. Their armament was composed of two 24-pounder charades and one six-pounded. The American force of three ships, and 500 men armed with 18 32-pounder carronades, three long 12-pounders, two 24-pounders and one 5.5 inch howitzer provided formidable odds. Captain Sinclair anchored his ships in the Bay and proceeded to pound the Nancy and the blockhouse across the narrow neck of land, which separated the river from the bay.
The situation was hopeless. Lieutenant Worsley decided to destroy the Nancy rather than allow her to fall into enemy hands. However, during the preparations for blowing up the schooner, a direct hit on the blockhouse set the Nancy afire. She burned to the waterline and sank. The British force escaped into the forest where they were not pursued.
After the action, the Scorpion and Tigress were left to guard the river to prevent canoes and bateaux from getting supplies to Fort Mackinac. Eventually the river mouth was blocked with felled trees and the ships proceeded along the north shore in the hope of intercepting fur-laden canoes on the lake.
The Nancy Avenged
On August 31, Worsley and his men, after paddling and rowing for 360 miles, reached Mackinac. En route, they had quietly bypassed the Tigress and Scorpion. On September 3, Worsley and 92 men in four rowboats returned to surprise and capture the Tigress at midnight in Detour Passage. On the following day, the Scorpion was lured into position and also captured. Both vessels were then taken to Fort Mackinac. The Scorpion was renamed Confiance in honour of the ship which was captured from the French by Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo. The Tigress was renamed Surprise for the manner in which she was captured.
After the war the Admiral awarded the North West Fur Company 2,200 pounds in compensation for the Nancy. In addition to this, 500 pounds was awarded for the two round trips between Detroit and Fort Erie in 1812, and for service in 1813 and 1814, 1,243 pounds, 5 shillings.
Gradually, the river currents deposited silt and sand about the sunken hull and an island was formed. On July 1, 1911, Mr. C.J.H. Snider found the location of the hull which was just visible beneath the water. It was not until August 1924, when an American 24-pounder round shot was found in the riverbank by Dr. F.J. Conboy that interest was renewed. During the summer of 1925, the long-covered hull was found by Dr. Conboy whose interest in the Nancy had been aroused by Mr. Snider.
The Dominion and Provincial Governments as well as many individuals became interested in the historic site, and in 1928 the hull was raised and placed on the island. On August 14, 1928, 114 years after the gallant defense of the Nancy, the Nancy Museum was officially opened to commemorate this episode in the War of 1812.