Our neighbourhood in Niagara-on-the-Lake is surrounded by history. Every street bears a reminder of Canada’s roots.

USA on the far bank of the Niagara River

When the sun touches our new house in The Village, it first tiptoes through the mist rising from the great Niagara River and creeps softly along Two Mile Creek, which also drains into Lake Ontario. Two hawks hover in the warm morning air, lazily twisting and turning in search of breakfast. Then the sun sneaks its first rays across Cooley Lane before peeking through our bedroom windows on Brock Street and awaking us.

Not far from our house one of the key battles of the War of 1812 was fought, when the Americans tried to invade and annex what was then Upper Canada. The town was called Newark, the capital of the nascent country. Our street quickly turns in Colonel Butler Crescent. To get to our community mailbox we traverse MacDonnell Road. When the sun sets the last rays fall on Blackbird, Norton and Colonel Cohoe Streets. All around us these street names remind us of the town’s storied past.

Cooley Lane is named for Chloe Cooley. She was an enslaved young black woman with a tragic story that had far reaching consequences. When slave owning Americans came to Upper Canada, having sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, they were allowed to bring their slaves with them. Between 500 and 700 enslaved people arrived in the locality, as the Loyalists were given land grants and encouraged to settle here. They joined a small population of Black Loyalists, African-Americans who had been freed for fighting on the British side. When rumours began swirling around that the government was going to free all slaves, owners panicked and started trying to sell off what they considered their “chattels.”

Commemorative stamp issued in 2023

Chloe had been bought by Adam Vrooman, a white farmer and former sergeant with Butler’s Rangers who fled to Canada from New York. He decided to sell her back into New York, beat her, tied her up and forced her into a small boat on March 14, 1793. Her anguished cries were heard by many witnesses, but Chloe disappeared and was never heard about again. Vrooman was charged with “disturbing the peace,” but the charges were eventually dropped. However, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe was outraged by this and decided to create legislation to prohibit slavery. The incident was considered a catalyst in the passage of Canada’s first and only anti-slavery legislation, which became law on July 9, 1793, 40 years before slavery was abolished in the rest of the British Empire.

Chloey Cooley is commemorated by a marker on the river side of the Niagara Parkway, about three kilometres north of York Road in Queenston, the presumed site of her abduction.

Col Butler’s bust on Balmoral Street

Colonel Butler Crescent is named for Lieutenant Colonel John Butler, an American-born official in the British Indian Department, who spoke several Iroquoian languages. During the Revolutionary War he was a Loyalist, who led his Butler’s Rangers in a number of attacks. In return for his services, he was given a land grant in Niagara-on-the-Lake and became a prominent landowner and official, helping to establish the Anglican Church in the area.

Colonel Butler is remembered in the restored Butler’s Barracks, and is buried in Butler’s Burial Ground, a delightful spot for a stroll at the end of Butler Street across the footbridge over Two Mile Creek. A bust and cairn on the site of his former homestead are located nearby on Balmoral Drive, where the Butler’s Farm battle was fought. The homestead was burned to the ground by retreating American troops and only recently rediscovered.

Brock Street is named for Major General Sir Isaac Brock, who coincidentally is an ancestor of my own children, through his younger brother. About 4 am on October 13, 1812, the commander of the British Forces was awakened by the distant sound of cannon fire. He arose at once from his bunk in Fort George and rode quickly through drizzling rain to Queenston, where a force of American soldiers had managed to sneak across the Niagara River and take command of the heights. Rather than wait for reinforcements, he rallied what men he had. “Follow me boys,” he cried, and headed up the escarpment. A sniper fired a musket and Brock was killed instantly. He had been perhaps the most skilled soldier on the British side with many victories behind him. Later, the American force was routed and Brock’s bravery ensured him a lasting place in our fledgling nation’s history.

Brock’s Monument on Queenston Heights

MacDonnell Road is named for Lieutenant-Colonel John MacDonnell. We are assured by a neighbour who is a descendant, that this is the correct spelling of his name. MacDonnell was a Scot, brought to Upper Canada at the age of seven. Here, he studied law, was elected to the legislature and appointed Attorney-General at the time the War of 1812 broke out. Given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he became Secretary and Aide-de-Camp to General Brock. Shortly after Brock was killed at Queenston Heights, he led another attempt to roust the invaders, but was struck by an America musket ball and died the following day. His body was eventually interred, along with Brock’s, in Brock’s Monument. Although there is no mention of him on the outside, there is a plaque on his tomb inside as well as on a cairn where the battle was fought. He is truly one of Canada’s forgotten heroes.

Chief John Norton

Norton Street is named for Mohawk Chief John Norton, who was actually born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and a Cherokee father, taken from North America by British soldiers. Norton enlisted with the army and was posted to Upper Canada in 1785, where he learned the Mohawk language and was adopted by Six Nations Chief Joseph Brant, giving him the status of a chief himself. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Norton was made a Captain with the aim of recruiting indigenous troops. At the Battle of Queenston Heights, after General Brock and his aide Colonel MacDonnell were killed, and outnumbered 10 to one, Norton and about 80 Mohawk and Delaware warriors held the heights until reinforcements arrived. Promoted to the brevet rank of Major, Norton continued to support the British with further acts of bravery. His and his fellow warriors’ actions were finally recognized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2012, with the creation of a special medal. “Canada’s Aboriginal People were, in every sense, key to the victory that firmly established Canada as a distinct country in North America,” the PM said.

Blackbird Street is named for Ottawa Chief Blackbird, whose Algonquian-speaking people were also known as the Odawa. They had suffered grievously in late 1812 at the hands of American troops, who in a long-forgotten atrocity, having killed a number of Odawa, then proceeded to cut the bodies up into little pieces. To add insult to injury, they also dug up graves and scattered the bones of the dead. As Blackbird later told an enquiry: “We thought white people were Christians. They ought to show us a better example.”

In July 1813, Chief Blackbird, with 150 warriors, joined the British army at Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. They ambushed an American patrol and endured heavy fighting near Butler’s Farm. During the skirmish, 22 US Infantry soldiers were killed and 12 taken prisoner by a force of Six Nations and Western warriors, led by Chiefs Norton and Blackbird. Lieutenant Joseph Eldridge was one of those killed and American witnesses claimed that he was murdered after being made prisoner. At the enquiry, the Chief Blackbird continued: “The officer that we killed … fired and wounded one of our colour; another fired at him and killed him. We wished to take him prisoner, but the officer said: ‘God damn,’ and fired, when he was shot. This is all I have to say.”

IF YOU GO: Niagara-on-the-Lake and its popular Old Town is an easy 90-minute drive from Toronto, on the multi-lane Queen Elizabeth Highway for all but the last 15 kilometres of the journey, which wends between hundreds of acres of vineyards and fruit orchards. It’s a 20-minute drive north from Niagara Falls along the scenic Niagara Parkway. The area has 35 wineries and a couple of distilleries which are well worth visiting. Most are open for tasting sessions where bottles can be bought at the winery or distillery shop. There are historic sights galore, including the reconstructed Fort George, the amazing Shaw Festival Theatre, great pubs and restaurants and the only Cows Ice Cream shop in Ontario. There are a number of excellent hotels and B&Bs, of which the best, in my opinion, is Butler Creek House.

Featured image: Niagara-on-the-Lake’s main street

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for an enjoyable and interesting article, Nigel. Pierre Berton’s fine book, ‘War of 1812’ provides more fascinating information on this subject.


    • I was privileged to direct Pierre Berton’s drama series “Heritage Theatre” in which we illustrated several stories from his 50 books. His 25th and 26th books were “The Invasion of Canada: 1812–1813,” published in 1980 and “Flames Across the Border: 1813–1814,” published in 1981, with “Pierre Berton’s War of 1812 – a compendium of The Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border” coming in 2011. Great history brought to life by a great author.


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