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Provincial Labour Companies in Upper Canada, 1813 – 1815
By Gareth Newfield

 RSM RE Charles Stadden Parks Canada.jpg
Officer, Royal Engineers in full dress and soldiers of the Royal Sappers and
 Miners, c. 1813, by Charles
StaddenThe uniform of the Royal
 Sappers and Miners was adopted by the provincial
 labour units in 1814. (Parks Canada).



            In the years preceding the War of 1812 the shortage of skilled labour in Upper Canada was a perennial problem for British military authorities.  During the 1790s, amid efforts to secure the border with the United States following the ratification of Jay’s Treaty, requests were made for a company of the newly created Royal Military Artificers to be dispatched from Britain, to no avail.  Instead, regiments such as the Queen’s Rangers were employed as military pioneers, with mixed results; despite initial success, the heavy workload incurred by these troops led to poor morale and frequent desertions, while they were increasingly utilized for garrison duties during periods of border tension.[1]  Skilled artisans drafted from line regiments could be employed upon military works, yet where garrisons were of limited strength, or stricken by illness (as during the construction of Fort George), progress could be slow or halted altogether.[2]  In turn, authorities often utilised local civilian craftsmen, whose services were usually scarce and exorbitantly expensive, resulting in construction estimates being exceeded regularly.  Yet conservative Government officials routinely (and paradoxically) admonished Royal Engineers and officers commanding garrisons to avoid employing civilians whenever possible, as labour was “calculated to be performed by Military Artificers at the rates they are paid.”[3]

             Amid Britain’s continuing struggle against Napoleonic France few ancillary resources were allocated to the Canadian colonies, and thus conditions in Upper Canada had changed little by the outbreak of war with the United States.  In June 1812 only two companies of the Royal Military Artificers were garrisoned in British North America, at Halifax and Newfoundland respectively, neither being immediately available for service inland.[4]  In desperation Royal Engineers employed drafts of skilled militiamen; notwithstanding high wages these duties proved unpopular, and such men – particularly towards the latter stages of the war – “always deserted in such large numbers that they could not supply the ordinary duties” of the Engineer Department.[5]  Furthermore, it was not until June 1813 that the first company of the restyled Royal Sappers and Miners arrived from England; these were soon dispersed in small detachments throughout the province between Prescott and York, greatly limiting their capabilities.[6]  In the interim, authorities sought to overcome the deficiency of skilled military craftsmen in Upper Canada by organizing dedicated provincial labour companies to assist the Engineer Department.

The Provincial Artificers / Provincial Engineers, 1813 – 1815

            During spring of 1813 military officials undertook to raise several ‘support’ units from the provincial militia in order to aid the regular British troops.  Therein, the shortage of skilled and reliable craftsmen capable of assisting the Engineer Department was widely recognized.  Accordingly a corps of ‘Provincial Artificers’ subject to the Articles of War (rather than the Militia Act) was authorised upon the following terms:


District General Order

Fort George, 3 March 1813

His Excellency the Commander of the Forces has been pleased to approve of a company of Provincial Artificers, to be attached to the Engineer Department, being immediately raised, upon the following establishment, viz.:

1 Lieutenant at 10s per diem

2 Sergeants at 4s 6d do.

2 Corporals at 3s 6d do.

50 Artificers at 2s 6d do.

The men raised for this company are clearly to understand that their services are to extend if required to either of the Canadas, and to continue for a period of eighteen months, or during the war with the United States of America.  Each man will receive a bounty of eighteen dollars and the same allowances of clothing as is given to the Provincial [Artillery] Drivers.  Two dollars will be given to the bringer of each recruit.[7]

These wages, reflecting the high cost of skilled civilian labour in Upper Canada, were nearly twice the daily working pay of the Royal Sappers and Miners; a sub-lieutenant of the latter earning 5s per diem, a sergeant 2s 6d, and a private 1s 3d.[8]

Documentation concerning the company of Provincial Artificers is altogether scarce prior to the autumn of 1813.  Recruiting, however, apparently progressed slowly.  In the Niagara Peninsula, where the Centre Division experienced an arduous summer following the loss of Fort George in May, Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Bruyeres (commanding Royal Engineer in the Canadas) complained of “so much being done as can be accomplished with the few Artificers that can be procured.”[9]  On 15 September these amounted to only six rank & file of the Provincial Artificers and assorted militiamen, whom Bruyeres “left … to carry on the Buildings at Burlington Heights” after the arrival of the first detachment of Royal Sappers & Miners from Quebec.[10]  Meanwhile a return for the Left Division in eastern Upper Canada lists a detachment of “Artificers” comprising of one lieutenant, one sergeant and 10 rank & file (accompanied by four wives) employed upon the construction of Fort Wellington in Prescott – this may have been the main body of the provincial company.[11]

NMC-23132.tifPlan of Fort Wellington, c. 1816 (Library and Archives Canada, NMC 23132).

             On 14 October Brigadier-General John Vincent reported he had “sent Colonel Bruyeres with some Artificers to plan some work[s] at York” for the emplacement of artillery.[12]  These formed part of the new fortifications of the capital – the largest to named Fort York – ordered following the capture and sacking of the town by American forces during April and July of 1813.  Still, the shortage of Provincial Artificers on hand continued to frustrate engineer officers; “the total want of Artificers, and Labourers of every description has retarded the progress of all the public works here,” Bruyeres reported from York on 23 January 1814, “and unless some means are taken to procure men nothing can be done towards the defence of the place.”[13]  Thereafter, authorities may have combined the several detachments of Provincial Artificers at York, as returns soon refer to a body of “Provincial Engineers” (distinct from the Royal Sappers & Miners) comprising of one lieutenant, one sergeant and 19 rank & file.[14]  Whether this title indicates an official change in designation is not known, and may simply be a clerical licence.

Plan of Fort York, c. 1816  (Library and Archives Canada,  NMC 23139).

             While the Provincial Artificers / Engineers’ work upon Fort York continued into the spring of 1814, Bruyeres’ reports had since prompted military officials to consider forming a second labour company in Upper Canada.  In response to his enquiries regarding another “Company of Artificers,” Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon Drummond (then civil and military commander in the province) was informed on 8 March “that a Corps on [the] same terms with the [Royal] Sappers and Miners could be raised in a very short time.”[15]  No effort, however, was undertaken to raise this second company, another provincial unit – the Coloured Corps – having since been employed as de facto artificers instead (see below).  Meanwhile the ‘Provincial Engineers’ remained employed upon the works at York into the summer of 1814.[16]  Direct evidence concerning their activities during this period, unfortunately, is lacking; if still serving, this small detachment was presumably disbanded in March 1815 following the end of the war.

The Coloured Corps, 1814 - 1815

             The formation of a segregated militia company of Black Upper Canadians was proposed by Richard Pierpoint, a veteran of the Loyalist corps Butler’s Rangers during the American War of Independence, who offered  “to raise a Corps of Men of Colour on the Niagara Frontier” shortly before the outbreak of war with the United States.[17]  Although the provincial government was slow to accept, by mid-August the nucleus of an all-Black company had formed at Newark (today Niagara-on-the-Lake) under the 1st Lincoln Militia.  However, command was instead granted to Captain Robert Runchey, a white officer generally despised as a “black sheep” and a “worthless, troublesome malcontent” by fellow militiamen.[18]  Not surprisingly, recruiting for ‘Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men’ proceeded slowly in Niagara, only reaching company strength after the voluntary transfer of 14 Black soldiers from the 3rd York Militia in October 1812.  Meanwhile Runchey treated his men as a source of income and menial labour, often hiring them out as domestic servants to other militia officers.[19]

‘The Battle of Queenston, Octr. 13th, 1813 [sic],’ aquatint after James Dennis (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-517, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana).

             Runchey’s Company formed part of the garrison of Fort George on the morning of 13 October 1812, when an American army under Major-General Stephen Van Rensselaer crossed the Niagara River at Queenston.  Commanded by Lieutenant James Cooper of the 2nd Lincoln Militia (Runchey having absented himself, and subsequently resigned), the company marched with Major-General Roger Sheaffe’s reinforcements for Queenston, and joined Captain John Norton’s Amerindian warriors in harassing American troops atop Queenston Heights.  During the afternoon it formed part of Sheaffe’s line of battle for the final attack on the heights; alongside the British 41st Foot Runchey’s Company “fired a single volley with considerable execution, and then charged with a tremendous tumult,” bringing about the Americans’ surrender.[20]  Lt. Cooper’s mention among those officers who “led their men into action with great spirit” further testifies to the small company’s creditable role in the battle.[21]

            Now rid of Runchey’s influence, the company was reorganized as an embodied militia unit.  Attached to the British Quartermaster-General’s Department and designated the “Coloured Corps,” it spent the winter of 1812-1813 in quarters at Fort George.  A widespread misapprehension – originating from a pension list compiled in the 1820s identifying it as the “Corps of Artificers (Alias Coloured)” – concerns the Coloured Corps’ alleged conversion into the company of Provincial Artificers raised in March 1813.[22]  This, however, was not the case, the two being entirely separate units, the Provincial Artificers comprising of white militiamen.  The Coloured Corps, meanwhile, served at the Battle of Fort George on 29 May 1813, where they exchanged a heavy fire with American forces landing ashore before retreating with Brigadier-General John Vincent’s outnumbered troops to Burlington Heights (Hamilton, ON), losing one sergeant wounded, and one lieutenant and four privates captured or missing.[23]  Although commonly believed to have participated in several major actions during the summer and autumn of 1813, it was not  heavily engaged, instead performing outpost duties (under command of Lt. James Robertson - a distinguished militia staff officer - from July onwards) during the blockade of the American forces at Fort George.[24]  In December the Coloured Corps reoccupied Newark and Fort George alongside British troops following the Americans’ withdrawal across the Niagara River.

            British engineers soon found both Fort George and Fort Niagara (captured on 18 December) to be indefensible and in need of repair.  Yet at the same time, British forces in Upper Canada still faced a chronic shortage of skilled labourers.  Unwilling to wait for reinforcements of the Royal Sappers and Miners, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruyeres immediately proceeded to Niagara determined to “make every arrangement in [his] power on arrival there for the security of that Frontier.”[25]  His solution was to conscript the Coloured Corps (whose strength had fallen to only 20 men) as a labour corps.  Whether race was a factor in this decision is unknown, as his successor, Lieutenant-Colonel Gustavus Nicolls, Royal Engineers noted his motives were forgotten following Bruyeres’ premature death in May 1814:

When I visited the Niagara Frontier … I found that a corps of Free Men of Colour had, during the war, been raised for the Quarter Mr. General’s Department, but had been turned over to that of the Engineers, any necessity for this I never could learn, but it seems to have been the fashion in Canada to heap all kinds of duties upon the latter.[26]

Regardless, by March 1814 the Coloured Corps was employed in repairing the fortifications at the mouth of the Niagara River, one private being discharged after injuring himself upon the works at Fort Niagara.[27] 


Plan of Fort Mississauga, dated July 1814, while under construction by the Coloured Corps  (Library and Archives Canada,  NMC 23031).

 Soon afterwards the Coloured Corps was tasked with building Fort Mississauga, a new fortification situated on the Canadian shore closer to the mouth of the Niagara River.  With the American navy in control of Lake Ontario until September 1814, its construction was vital to the security of British forces in the region.  Indeed, Lieutenant John Le Couteur later noted in his diary that Fort Mississauga was “a pretty little Fort and would prevent vessels coming up the [Niagara] river.”[28]  Consequently this work occupied the Coloured Corps for the remainder of the summer of 1814.  Notwithstanding the invasion of Major-General Jacob Brown’s American army on 3 June, the company was not called into the field, the 30 “Coloured Corps Military Artificers” and their families being left in garrison following the British defeat at Chippawa on 5 June, nor was the corps engaged at the climactic Battle of Lundy’s Lane on 25 July, as some authors have asserted.[29]  Even during the subsequent siege of Fort Erie, where the British Right Division experienced a desperate shortage of trained engineer troops, the Coloured Corps remained at Fort Mississauga – a testament to the importance of their efforts there.[30]

 The Royal Engineers retained the services of the Coloured Corps on the Niagara Frontier for the remainder of the war.  Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls inspected the company in February 1815, noting that “no people could be better calculated to build temporary barracks than these Free Men of Colour, as they are in general expert axemen.”[31]  Yet upon receipt of the news of peace in Upper Canada, it was disbanded on 24 March 1815.  Despite its honourable service, soldiers of the Coloured Corps experienced years of hardship due to bureaucratic and racial discrimination.  One sergeant was rebuffed and told he must “go and look for his pay himself” when seeking to obtain his discharge gratuity, while Black militiamen were given half the acreage of land allotted to each of their white counterparts for their services.[32]  Richard Pierpoint, who although over sixty years old served throughout the war as a private, sought unsuccessfully to exchange his grant for passage home to his native Senegal, living in relative poverty until he died in 1837.[33]  Still, despite these inequalities, Coloured Corps set the precedent for the broader acceptance of the military service of African-Canadians, leading to the formation of other segregated units throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.



UC Prov Artificers [CC] 1813 Manders Parks Canada.JPG

Private, Provincial Artificers in the uniform authorised c. 1813, by Eric Manders.  Note this unit’s personnel were not, in fact, African-Canadians  (Parks Canada, photo courtesy of René Chartrand).

As the Provincial Artificers were intended to be attached to the Engineer Department for the duration of the war with the United States, authorities conceived their dress should be similar to that worn at the time by their regular British counterparts, then the Royal Military Artificers.  Therefore on 8 April 1813 the Commissary-General at Quebec was ordered to furnish sufficient clothing for 50 men; the short, tailless jackets were to be “of blue Cloth with black Collar & Cuff,” worn with “Trowsers [sic] Grey or Blue,” and round hats.[34]  This simple, utilitarian uniform was virtually identical to the working dress utilised by the Royal Military Artificers since the 1790s, and was presumably worn by the detachments of Provincial Artificers throughout 1813.  No uniform was prescribed for the company’s officer.


UC Artificers 1814 D FitzJames ASK Brown.JPG

Private, Royal Sappers and Miners in the new service dress authorised  in March 1813, by Derek FitzJames (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library).

             Soon afterwards, the reorganization and re-titling of the regular British artificers as the ‘Royal Sappers and Miners’ led to a corresponding change in dress ordered on 6 March 1813.  To render them “less conspicuous to the enemy and less subject to danger” when constructing field works, the uniform was altered to a red coat with blue facings, although “no material alteration was made in the cut and frogging of the coatee,” which continued to bear bastion-shaped loops of yellow worsted lace as before.[35]  White breeches and tall black gaiters remained in use for full dress, although grey trousers and short gaiters were now worn routinely.  At the same time, the ‘Belgic’ shako with yellow cords and a “white feather” (or worsted plume) was adopted – an aquatint by Charles Hamilton Smith suggests a generic brass plate bearing a crown and the monarch’s cipher was utilized, rather than a pattern specific to the Board of Ordnance.[36]  Working dress consisted of “a plain red jacket with short skirts, grey trousers with red stripes, short spats [gaiters] … and a leather cap, worn lengthways” bearing either the initials of the corps, or “a crown and garter” in brass.[37]


Royal Sappers & Miners Working Dress 1813 

Sergeant and Private, Royal Sappers and Miners in working dress, c. 1813-15 (T. Connolly’s History of the Royal Sappers and Miners, Canadian War Museum).

Accordingly, the new uniform was “issued complete” by the Board of Ordnance from its stores in England in mid-August 1813, and packed for transport to the major garrisons in British North America.[38]  Included in these shipments were “coats, breeches, waistcoats, black gaiters, grey kersey great coats waterproof’d [sic], felt caps and plume, working jackets, grey trousers, half gaiters, working caps, pouches, do. [pouch] belts buff, bayonet belts” and “gun slings.”[39]  However, a shortage of transport during the autumn of 1813 prevented “the Conveyance of the clothing for the Royal Sappers and Miners” to Canada until the new year; thus the new uniform would not have been taken into use until the spring or early summer of 1814.[40]  The largest single portion of this clothing was allocated for the Sapper and Miner companies stationed in Upper and Lower Canada, and presumably intended for issue to affiliated provincial corps in addition.  It is therefore likely this latter uniform was worn by the Provincial Artificers and Coloured Corps until their disbandment upon the conclusion of hostilities against the United States in March 1815.


Royal Engineers Wymer.jpg

Field Officer, Royal Engineers in service dress, c. 1815 by Reginald Wymer, after Charles Hamilton Smith (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

      As in 1813, no specific uniform was authorised for the officers of the Upper Canadian labour companies.  However, Militia General Orders published on 1 June 1814 do state that “the uniform of General Staff Officers and of Departments is to be similar to that of the General Staff and Departments of H.M.’s Regular Forces.”[41]  This may be interpreted as indicating that Canadian officers attached to the Engineer Department were henceforth to adopt the current uniform of the Royal Engineers.  The new uniform, implemented in late 1812 due to confusion between British and French engineer officers in the Iberian Peninsula, was described by one officer as “scarlet with a gold-laced dress coat;” this bore long tails, ‘Garter-blue’ facings (a shade somewhat lighter than ‘royal’ blue), gold lace and “large bullion epaulettes” according to rank.  Headdress consisted of a bicorne hat with the Ordnance’s white feather plume, while white pantaloons and Hessian boots were worn for full dress, and grey trousers with red stripes on service.[42]


[1] G. Steppler, ‘British Military Artificers in Canada, 1760-1815,’ Journal for the Society of Army Historical Research 60, No. 243 (Autumn 1982), 150-163, p.156.

[2] Y. Desloges, ‘Structural History of Fort George,’ Parks Canada Manuscript Report No. 189 (Ottawa, 1977), p. 28.

[3] D. Carter-Edwards, ‘Fort Malden: A Structural Narrative History 1796-1976,’ Parks Canada Manuscript Report No. 401 (Ottawa, 1980), p. 80, citing Green to Vincent, Quebec, 5 October 1803, Record Group (RG) 8 I, Vol. 1211, p. 207, Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

[4] Steppler, ‘British Military Artificers,’ p. 158.

[5] Bruyeres to Prevost, Burlington, 11 October 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 387, p. 139, LAC.

[6] T.W.J. Connolly, The History of the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners, Vol. 2 (London, 1855), p. 192.

[7] District General Order, Fort George, 3 March 1813, Record Group 9 IB3, Vol. 2, p. 67, LAC.

[8] L.H. Irving, Officers of the British Forces in Canada during the War of 1812-15 (Welland, 1908), p. 244, citing General Order issued in August 1813.

[9] Bruyeres to Prevost, 4 Mile Creek, 4 September 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 387, p. 103, LAC.

[10] General Weekly Return of the Centre Division, 4 Mile Creek, 15 September 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 1708, p. 38; Bruyeres to Prevost, 4 Mile Creek, 4 September 1813, ibid, p. 105.

[11] General Weekly Return of the Left Division, Kingston, 15 September 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 1708, p. 40, LAC.

[12] Vincent to Prevost, Burlington, 14 October 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 680, p. 236, LAC.

[13] Bruyeres to Prevost, York, 23 January 1814, RG 8 I, Vol. 732, p. 11, LAC.

[14] General Weekly Return of the Right Division, Queenston, 1 February 1814, RG 8 I, Vol. 1709, p. 43, LAC.

[15] Le Breton to Foster, Delaware, 8 March 1814, RG 8 I, Vol. 682, p. 234, LAC.

[16] General Weekly Return of the Right Division, Fort George, 22 June 1814, RG 8 I, Vol. 1709, p. 54, LAC.

[17] R.L. Fraser, ‘Richard Pierpoint,’ Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto, 1988), Vol. 7, p. 697.

[18] M. Power & N. Butler, Slavery and Freedom in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1993), p. 44.

[19] G. Newfield, ‘Upper Canada’s Black Defenders?: Reexamining the War of 1812 Coloured Corps,’ Canadian Military History 18, No. 3 (Summer 2009), 31-40, p. 32, citing Lafferty to MacDonald, Chippawa, 15 September 1812, RG 8 I, Vol. 688B, p. 72, LAC.

[20]  B. J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 (New York, 1868), p. 403.

[21] General Order, Montreal, 21 October 1812, RG 8 I, Vol. 1168, p. 325, LAC.

[22]  Nominal roll of the ‘Corps of Artificers (Alias Coloured,’ no loc., c. 1820, RG 9 1B1, Vol. 7, pp. 179-80, LAC.

[23] ‘Coloured Corps Muster Roll and Pay List from the 25th of April to 24 July 1813,’ Fort George, 27 December 1813, RG 8 I, Vol. 688E, pp. 112-14, LAC.

[24] See Newfield, ‘Upper Canada’s Black Defenders?,’ pp. 34-5.

[25] Bruyeres to Prevost, York, 23 January 1814, ibid, pp. 11-12.

[26] Nicolls to Mann, Quebec, 24 April 1815, Manuscript Group (MG) 13, War Office (WO) 55/860, p. 120, LAC.

[27] W. Gray, Soldiers of the King: The Upper Canada Militia 1812-1815 (Erin, 1995), p. 247.

[28] D. Graves (ed.), Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Diary of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot (Ottawa, 1993), p. 207.

[29] Newfield, ‘Upper Canada’s Black Defenders?,’ pp. 37-38. 

[30] The lack of trained engineers and artificers was a frequent subject of complaint by Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon Drummond throughout the siege.  For example, see Drummond to Prevost, Fort Erie, 21 August 1814, RG 8 I, vol. 685, p. 126.

[31] Nicolls to Mann, Quebec, 24 April 1815, ibid.

[32] Newfield, ‘Upper Canada’s Black Defenders,’ p. 39.

[33] P. & D. Meyler, A Stolen Life: Searching for Richard Pierpoint (Toronto, 1999), p. 104.

[34]  Military Secretary to Robinson, Montreal, 8 April 1813, Record Group (RG) 8 I, Vol. 1220, pp. 294-5, LAC.

[35]  Connolly, History of the Royal Sappers & Miners, 190.

[36]  Ibid, p. 191; C.H. Smith, Costumes of the Army of the British Empire, according to the last regulations 1812 (London, 1815).

[37] Connolly, ibid.

[38] Slatter to Jones, Office of Ordnance (London), 23 August 1813, Manuscript Group 13, War Office 55 / 860, p. 207, LAC.

[39] Clothing Shipment Receipt, London, August 1813, Colonial Office 42 / 155, National Archives of the United Kingdom.  I am indebted to Rene Chartrand for this reference.

[40] Andrews to Mann, London, 18 October 1813, MG 13, WO 55/860, p. 209, LAC.

[41] Irving, Officers of the British Forces, p.250, citing Militia General Order, Kingston, 1 June 1814. 

[42] P. Haythornthwaite, Wellington’s Army: The Uniforms of the British Soldier, 1812-1815 (London, 2002), plate 48; Smith, Costumes of the Army of the British Empire, ibid.


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