Doomed ship played pivotal role in untold history of War of 1812

By Margaret Reidt in Places, Events, & History


Did you know the final battle of the War of 1812 took place at Wasaga Beach in 1814? The outcome was a deciding factor in establishing the border between Canada and the United States, and our proud Canadian identity
This piece of history was not included in school text books, so very few people have heard of the HMS Nancy and her heroic crew.
The following is the legacy of the Nancy.
The Nancy, a two-masted schooner, was built in the British owned port of Detroit in 1789. Construction was supervised by John Richardson and it is believed he named the ship after his wife or daughter.
The schooner was 22 meters in length and six meters in width, made of oak and red cedar. The masthead was a figure of a woman decorated with a hat and a feather.
Built for the fur trade, the Nancy could carry 350 barrels and transported food, tools and weapons north and returned with furs from Grande Portage in Sault Ste. Marie and Fort Mackinac in the Mackinaw Straits.
It was sold to George Leith and Company in 1793, then to the North West Company at the end of the century. In 1805, command of the ship passed to Alexander Mackintosh.
In 1812 the Nancy was stationed out of Amherstburg and renamed HMS Nancy and with her sister ship, the Caledonia, was pressed into military service.
In the spring of 1813 the Nancy was involved in an unsuccessful attack on Fort Meigs. That event was memorialized by the late Stan Rogers in a folk song. She was on a trip to Fort Mackinac when the Americans captured or destroyed most of the British fleet at Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie. One warship, the General Hunter was captured by the Americans and has been recently discovered buried in the sand at Southhampton.
When the Nancy returned to the St. Claire River, Captain Mackintosh discovered both Detroit and Amherstburg were occupied by American forces with two armed schooners and a gunboat laying in ambush to capture the Nancy. Raked by cannonballs the Nancy escaped into Lake Huron and wintered at Sault Ste. Marie, where it was refitted.
Fort Machilimackinac was the British outpost in the west. During 1814 the Nancy made three round trips from the Fort to the mouth of the Nottawasaga River carrying supplies. The British used an Indian Route from York (Toronto) to Holland Landing, to Lake Simcoe, from Kempenfeldt Bay to Willow Creek, then a Nine Mile Portage to Schooners Landing on the Nottawasaga River.
In July, Lieutenant Miller Worseley of the Royal Navy, with a detachment of seamen, made the trek from York loaded with flour, salt pork and munitions, where he took command of the Nancy.

The hull of the Nancy is preserved at the Nancy Island Museum a Wasaga Beach. Photo courtesy Nancy Island Museum

The hull of the Nancy is preserved at the Nancy Island Museum a Wasaga Beach. Photo courtesy Nancy Island Museum

Just as they were about to set sail to Fort Machilimackinac, they were hailed by Robert Livingston, a lieutenant and courier of the Indian department, who had rowed the 360 miles, hailed them and warned them that the American ships were on the Bay searching for them.
The Nancy was dragged two miles up the Nottawasaga River, where it was hidden from the bay. A log blockhouse was built and the guns from the Nancy were mounted on it. With a force of 22 seamen, 23 Ojibway Indians and nine French voyageurs, armed with three naval guns, the Nancy’s only hope was secrecy.
On August 14, 1814, three American warships, the Niagara, the Tigress and the Scorpion arrived at the river’s mouth, waiting for the Nancy that they believed was on its way from the fort. Later some sailors were sent ashore to gather wood and they spotted the Nancy’s masts above the trees along the rivers bank.
The next morning the action began when the American fleet began bombarding the Nancy with cannonballs. The American force consisted of 500 men, 18 32-pounder cannon, three long 12 pounders, two 24 pounders and howitzers, outnumbering the British crew ten times over.
Captain Worseley had previously removed some of the Nancy’s cargo upriver on canoes. Determined not to let the Americans capture his ship, he was preparing to set it on fire, when a direct hit on the blockhouse ignited the explosives, setting it ablaze. She burned to the waterline, sinking to the bottom of the river. The British force retreated up the Nottawasaga without pursuit.
The American ships remained temporarily to guard the river’s mouth, which they blocked with fallen trees.
Captain Worseley was left with a sunken schooner, three bateau and a large canoe. The Captain and his 92 men managed to exit past the blockade through the North Channel. They rowed and paddled the 360 miles to Detour Passage where the St. Marys River empties into Lake Huron, which took two weeks.
On August 31, 1814, Worseley and his men reached Fort Mackinac. Enroute they quietly by passed the American ships Tigress and Scorpion which were in a narrow passage.
On September 3rd, Worseley and his crew, aided by a detachment of Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers, secretly captured the Tigress at midnight. Keeping the American flag flying on the Tigress masthead, they managed to lure the Scorpion along side when it returned three days later, where Worseley overtook it.
The Scorpion was renamed the Confiance and the Tigress renamed the Surprise. These ships were used to re-establish the British Naval strength on Lake Huron. This action allowed the British to regain control of this vital route, hastening the end of the war.
On December 14, 1814, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent. One of the stipulations of the treaty was that all lands captured during the conflict be returned to their country of origin.
The borders of Canada are a direct result of the War of 1812 to 1814. The brave struggles of the Nancy and her crew also changed the final manner of success.
The hull of the Nancy has been excavated and set on the Island that it created for 113 years. A museum has been built over it, plus many other artefacts on display. A lighthouse has been erected on the Island named after the Nancy.
More of this history can be seen in a movie at the theatre built in the shape of a sailboat at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park on Nancy Island.
The Welcome Centre is open daily from mid June to Labour Day, and week-ends from late May to Thanksgiving.
The story of the Nancy was compiled by Minto resident Margaret Reidt, who grew up in the Wasaga Beach area, from interviews and written histories, including “The Nancy’s fiery history ignites thoughts of warfare,” by Andrew Armitage.