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War of 1812 collection reflects development of Canadian icons

When it comes to the making of a hero, timing is everything, and it’s all about location, location, location, says Brian Owens, UWindsor archivist and librarian responsible for rare books and special collections.

Dr. Owens has spent the past five years studying and amassing a large collection of materials in anticipation of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and he has a surprising take on the big three legends of the conflict – General Isaac Brock, Chief Tecumseh, and Laura Secord.

“The War of 1812 certainly cemented the Canadian identity and that is what is important to us as Canadians,” Owens says. “And out of that are some characters that have become the archetypes for that conflict.”

He says a whole mythology developed around the War of 1812 and the stories that surround Brock, Tecumseh and Secord have created uniquely Canadian heroes who reflect specific Canadian values.

Owens says nothing was published in Canada during the War of 1812 because Upper Canada’s single printing press, located at York in Upper Canada (present-day Toronto), was destroyed by American forces following the defeat of the British at the Battle of York.

“The only public library was also burned down,” Owens says. “So essentially, the main centre of broadcasting for the time was destroyed and all writings about the War of 1812 wouldn’t come about until the next generation.”

What this meant to the historical record, Owens says, is that memories became foggy and heroes were born.

Isaac Brock didn’t particularly like or identify with Canada, Owens says, and though he was an extremely successful military officer with victories at Fort Mackinac and Detroit, it was his death at the Battle of Queenston Heights that made him a legend.

“He was sent here on assignment but he would rather have been in Europe where the action was and where he would be recognized,” Owens says.

“He is important because he died in battle and that’s why he is immortalized. Queenston Heights was a British victory and at the same time, Brock was killed there, so he is strongly associated with that victory. His recognition in the UK was part of the weaving of the fabric to embellish and recognize him as a hero. It’s a story that has been repeated so often that it has become a truth and is strongly associated with our national identity.”

Laura Secord is legendary for warning British forces of an impending American attack that led to the British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams, but the historical facts of the incident are unclear, Owens says.

The story of the brave military wife walking 20 miles and getting behind enemy lines to warn her husband’s compatriots of impending doom was too good not to become part of Canada’s historical narrative, he says. The story was so delicious in fact, that the Laura Secord Chocolate Company was established in 1913 shortly after the 100th anniversary of the War of 1812.

“Every generation she is revisited by a number of authors, and these iconic stories have taken on a life of their own.”

Owens says that over time, the matronly Secord was often depicted as a fresh-faced young woman, including in her stint as a chocolate shop icon.

Chief Tecumseh is another historical figure woven tightly into the fabric of the Canadian narrative, and the myths surrounding his life and death are often unsupported by fact, Owens says.

“He is probably one of the best-known First-Nations people in the history of Canada but we only know his story from a British point of view,” he says.

Owens says that Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames was romanticized by writers and in such paintings as William Emmons’s Battle of the Thames. The painting has the look of a bucolic English countryside scene, rather than present day Chatham, Ontario, where the battle took place.

Battle of the Thames was done at a later date but depicts British ideas of what the battle may have looked like, much like how these iconic characters have been interpreted through history,  says Owens.

He says that these idealized depictions of brave and selfless heroes have helped with nation building and the development of a Canadian identity.

“I think it really says something about us as Canadians that three of our best-known national heroes include a woman and First-Nations person. It’s nice to think that we may have the roots of Canadian multiculturalism reflected there.”

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