Fort St Joseph National Historic Site of Canada

Fort St Joseph National Historic Site, near Sault Ste Marie, Ont, was designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1923 to recognize Fort St Joseph’s significance as the most westerly British post and for its importance to the fur trade and to the alliances with First Nations. The fort served as a rallying point when the United States declared war on Great Britain, setting off the War of 1812.

The land the site occupies was transferred to the National Parks Branch in 1926. Today, Parks Canada welcomes visitors to tour the exposed and stabilized ruins uncovered through an extensive archaeological investigation. A visitor centre and staff help to make the story of the site come alive.

Fort St Joseph’s History

Fort St Joseph was built by the British between 1797 and 1805 on the southern tip of St Joseph Island on the St Mary’s River. It comprised a modest fort with a blockhouse, powder magazine, bakery, Indian council house and storehouse. The fort’s defences consisted of a weak palisade mounting 4 six-pounder cannons and 6 small swivel guns, and it was normally garrisoned by a very small detachment of soldiers.

The Southwest Company established a fur-trading depot at Fort St Joseph in 1798, and many of their employees built houses and huts nearby. Many First Nations people came to the island to meet agents of the British Indian Department and to do business with the fur traders.

News of the American declaration of war on Britain on 18 June 1812 arrived in Montréal on 24 June. A message was quickly sent to Fort St Joseph to warn Captain Charles Roberts, who was in command of 45 men of the 10th Royal Veterans Battalion and a few artillerymen. The courier arrived at St Joseph on 11 July. Roberts received confusing orders from Major-General Isaac Brock to take defensive measures or to launch an attack on American Fort Michilimackinac according to circumstances.

He took the aggressive approach because Fort St Joseph was too weak to defend. He assembled a force of his own garrison, 200 fur-trade employees and a few hundred First Nations allies and set off for Michilimackinac in the North West Company schooner Caledonia, fur traders’ bateaux and First Nations canoes.

Arriving at Mackinac Island in the pre-dawn of 17 July, his men hauled 2 small artillery pieces up a hill overlooking the American fort. Roberts sent a flag of truce to the fort where American commander Lieutenant Jarvis Hanks was informed that war had been declared and that the British and their Aboriginal allies were about to overwhelm the fort. Hanks surrendered.

Following the British victory, most of the garrison of Fort St Joseph and the fur traders moved to the stronger Fort Michilimackinac, although a skeleton garrison was left at the post until they were finally vacated by the summer of 1814. On 3 July 1814, a passing American flotilla of 5 naval vessels with several hundred soldiers aboard landed at St Joseph Island and burned the fort. This army attempted to recapture Fort Michilimackinac a few weeks later but was defeated in the attempt.

After the War of 1812 ended, the British repaired some of the surviving structures at Fort St Joseph and reoccupied the site with a small garrison. However, they established a new post at Drummond Island in 1815 and finally abandoned St Joseph by 1824.

Author: Ronald J. Dale

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