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What really happened?
De-bunking the Burlington Bay Sandbar Legend

by Robert Malcomson

Robert Malcomson is a freelance writer who specializes in naval history, particularly during the War of 1812. His most recent book Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814, presents the first full treatment of that aspect of the conflict.  In May 1999 the North American Society for Oceanic History presented Lords of the Lake with the John Lyman Book Award as the best Canadian work on maritime and naval history published in 1998. To purchase this book Click HereIn the following article Mr. Malcomson presents the facts about how the British squadron escaped its American pursuers in September 1813.

They say that legends die hard which is certainly true when it comes to the story of a squadron of British warships riding to safety on a storm surge crashing over the Burlington Bay sandbar during the War of 1812. The legend is still warmly defended as was pointed out this past spring in the Hamilton Spectator ("A tall ship’s tale," by James Elliott, Friday, 26 March 1999).

    As part of his research, Elliott contacted me to find out why I had not described, or at least debunked, the legendary crossing of the bar in my book Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814 (Robin Brass, 1998). John Summers of Heritage Toronto raised a similar question in the OHS Bulletin (fall, 1998) when he reviewed one of my previous books, Sailors of 1812: Memoirs and Letters of Naval Officers on Lake Ontario, (Old Fort Niagara Association, 1997). My reasoning had been that such folderol had no place in a serious, historical study, though experience has now taught me that such omissions might distract attention from the truth. This lesson will bear fruit in the future, but as for now and the Burlington Bay legend, here is my verdict on the matter.

    In case the reader is not familiar with the legend, here’s the gist of the story. Around noon on 28 September 1813 six British warships commanded by Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo made contact with Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s ten American vessels about eighteen kilometres (twelve miles) south of York (Toronto). They exchanged broadsides and Yeo’s flagship, the Wolfe, was badly damaged. As the rest of his squadron covered the Wolfe, Yeo set all possible sail on the ship’s uninjured foremast and headed downwind toward Burlington Bay.

    For three hours, as an easterly gale grew stronger, Yeo raced toward Burlington Bay with Chauncey close behind. At this point in the story legend kicks in. Commodore Yeo is supposed to have ordered his squadron to charge headlong into the surf pounding the sandbar that encloses Hamilton Harbour where the ships landed safe and sound.

    The historical records show that in the early 1800s Hamilton Harbour was referred to as Little Lake or Burlington Lake; on occasion it was called Burlington Bay, a name that more often meant the body of water outside the sandbar as it still does. Little Lake, today’s heavily industrialized Hamilton Harbour, was roughly triangular in shape and nearly ten kilometres (seven miles) long with a elevated shore at its western end known as Burlington Heights where the British army had a fortified post. The sandbar posed a significant barrier between Little Lake and Lake Ontario, though a channel near its northern end connected the two bodies of water.

    As the Spectator article by James Elliott stated, the legend owes its origin, in part, to C. H. J. Snider’s In the Wake of the Eighteen-Twelvers, published in 1913. Snider’s highly romanticized depiction of naval events showed Yeo threatening his pilot with death if he could not get the squadron through "the cut" in the sandbar "on the crest of a comber." In the preface to the book, Snider claimed that his tales came "from the logs and letters" of the officers involved. "The dry bones of record," he admitted, "have been clothed with the flesh and blood of fancy . . . [though] the ancient chronicles have been faithfully followed."

    Snider’s books and numerous articles in The Toronto Telegram helped revive interest in the all-but-forgotten War of 1812 and they have formed the starting point for many a researcher’s subsequent studies. Unfortunately, Snider faithfulness to "the ancient chronicles" was very limited. The material he could have used to tell the stories acccurately sat in archives in Canada, England and the United States where for decades before Snider’s book was published, a less well known, but more influential Canadian historian, Ernest A. Cruikshank, had been researching his many authoritative studies about the war.

    As regards the British crossing the Burlington Bay bar, Cruikshank did not write a word in his paper (Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 1916) on the 1813 Lake Ontario naval contest. Like Roosevelt and Mahan in their classic studies of the conflict, Cruikshank gave no detailed account of how the Yeo’s flight ended that day other than to say that he sought the shelter of the British army guns on Burlington Heights. Though the evidence existed when they wrote, none of the writers named above used it to tell their tales.

    So, what of the evidence? There is plenty to refute the legend, beginning with the fact that no 1813 warship could pass into Little Lake in one piece. In July 1813 Commodore Yeo sent one of his young officers, Master’s Mate David Wingfield, to measure the depth of the channel that cut through the wide sandbar near its northern end. Wingfield’s memoir of his years in Canada is in the National Archives in Ottawa (Manuscript Group 24, File 18) and in it he stated that the channel was "a narrow passage about 50 yards (forty-six metres) wide" over which there was "a wooden bridge which shortens the distance from York to Niagara by fifteen miles (25 km.)."

    Wingfield commanded a small, armed schooner named the Vincent, recently prized from the Americans, and to navigate the shallow outlet into Little Lake "it was necessary to get out the gun [an 18-pdr. cannon], all the stores and provisions, and likewise the masts, to make the schooner as light as possible." He also noted that the channel was "very intricate" and, owing to wind and wave action, prone to "shifting."

    On 30 July 1813, few days after Wingfield sounded the outlet, Commodore Chauncey’s squadron anchored off the sandbar with the idea of attacking the British post on Burlington Heights at the end of Little Lake; Colonel Winfield Scott was to have commanded the army detachment during the attack. "The landing was made on the neck of sand which nearly cuts off Little Lake from Lake Ontario," reported Scott (see volume 6, page 305 of Cruikshank’s Documentary History of the war). The strength of the British force made Chauncey and Scott change their minds, and so did the fact that they could not support their armed troops with a covering barrage from their heavily armed schooners. "The channel connecting the two lakes did not afford water for the passage of either of our schooners," Scott wrote. Scott also mentioned seeing Wingfield’s Vincent near Burlington Heights.

    More evidence exists to show that the channel could not be navigated by a vessel as large as Commodore Yeo’s Wolfe, which measured 32.6 metres (107 feet long) and drew about three metres (nine feet, ten inches) of water.

    A chart (LAC, MG 11, CO 42, vol.172) drawn by Royal Navy officers in 1815 shows detail of the outlet through the sandbar. A bridge crosses the channel which veers to the northeast and is nowhere deeper than 2.1 metres (seven feet). Furthermore, in October 1819 Commodore Robert Barrie remarked in a letter (LAC, MG12, Admiralty 106, vol. 1998)to the Admiralty in England: "The passage leading from it [Burlington Bay] to the Little Lake of Burlington is now nearly dry having in many places not more than six inches water. In no part of the passage will it now float a man-of-war’s cutter loaded."

    Of the six vessels in Yeo’s squadron on 28 September 1813, none drew less than 2.3 metres (seven feet, six inches) of water. The 20-gun corvette Royal George drew more than three metres (10 feet, 10 inches). The idea that these vessels rode a storm surge through the outlet defies belief, even without considering the fact that there was a wooden bridge that had to be taken down before they could pass through.

    Snider made no reference to the depth of water in the channel, the draught of the vessels or the fact that a wooden bridge barred access to Little Lake. Instead, he created a most incredible situation in which Yeo sent his squadron headway onto a lee shore during a full gale. (And he failed to explain how the British fleet returned to Lake Ontario after the weather had modified.)

    Such a manoeuvre would surely have prompted some effusive comments by witnesses to the event. Reports by Yeo and Chauncey contain no such comments. Neither does Wingfield’s memoir nor the correspondence of Chauncey’s flag captain, Arthur Sinclair, nor the vivid accounts of the many individuals who observed the naval action from lofty points around the lake.

    So, if the British squadron did not "shoot the curl" into Little Lake, what did it do?

    Simply put, Yeo anchored his squadron outside the bar in Burlington Bay. The precise location of the anchorage is uncertain, but the 1815 chart shows an area about six miles (ten km) northeast of the sandbar where numerous soundings were taken, most of them showing five or more fathoms (six feet) of water. This appears to be in the vicinity of Bronte Creek at Oakville.

    The logbook of HMS Wolfe, which fell into American hands and is held by the U.S. National Archives in Washington (RG 45), provides the basic facts of the running fight on 28 September and how it ended. It states: "At 4:30, arrived with the squadron and came to an anchor off Burlington Bay." This last phrase will raise an eyebrow or two because it sounds like Yeo left Burlington Bay for the safer waters of Little Lake, although it might be that he was referring to Little Lake as Burlington Bay (which was done occasionally, as stated above) or that he meant that the squadron had not entered Burlington Bay (outside the bar) but had anchored on its northern lip. This last explanation is the most likely correct.

    The British remained at anchor for almost four days repairing the damage they had suffered and then continued their patrol. The logbook entry regarding their departure made no mention of sailing out of Little Lake: "2 Oct., . . . at 8 [AM] weighed anchor and made sail toward the 4 Mile Creek [near Niagara-on-the-Lake], squadron in company."

    During the intervening time repairs were made in the Wolfe and the Royal George which lost part of a mast as it anchored while two of the smaller vessels kept patrol. Yeo also had his vessels prepared to fend off an attack by Chauncey, and the army appears to have sent artillery to cover the squadron.

    Such defensive preparations were not necessary. Chauncey broke off the chase before the British anchored and as the storm grew stronger during the night of 28 September his vessels barely managed to gain any seaway to the east. Lake conditions kept them from reaching their anchorage near Fort Niagara until 1 October.

    By that time Yeo’s men had nearly finished their repairs so that they could continue challenging the Americans for control of Lake Ontario. In the days that followed Commodore Yeo lost contact with Chauncey who succeeded in capturing five transport vessels as they raced for Kingston on 6 October. David Wingfield commanded one of the transports and his story of how the Americans bore down upon him makes for much better reading that any part of Snider’s Eighteen-Twelvers. And to top it off, Wingfield’s escapade really happened.

    It is time to lay the sandbar legend to rest. Though some would-be authorities may slam such a burial as narrow "revisionism" or wait for some long-lost letters from the Snider collection to reveal all, they should not ignore the facts recorded by the men who were there.

    Lastly, a historical marker supporting the legend stands at Burlington Heights. Though it might sound like heresy to suggest this, historical markers can be faulty. Take for example the marker at Queenston that claims to show where Brock was killed. It is very wrong, but that is another story to be debunked.

Copyright Robert Malcomson 1999


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