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Peace returns to Michigan.

The final act of the War of 1812 in Michigan took place on Mackinac Island, three years and one day after Lieutenant Porter Hanks surrendered his post to Captain Charles Roberts of the British army. On July 18, 1815, Lieutenant Samuel Woodhouse, USN, guided the brig USS Niagara and the schooner USS Porcupine into the quiet waters of the island's Haldimand Bay and dropped anchor beneath the guns of the fort. Both Woodhouse and Niagara had been to Mackinac before, though under more bellicose circumstances, during the failed attempt in 1814 to regain the post for the United States.

The situation in July 1815 had changed dramatically since the previous summer. This time, Woodhouse was on a peaceful though diplomatically charged mission. Crammed aboard his two vessels was a strong force of U.S. troops under Colonel Anthony Butler. Their mission was to accept the peaceful return of Mackinac Island and reoccupy its fort under the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, which had gone into effect during the winter. Michigan's climate and some final local negotiations had delayed the transfer until July. Butler would have the honor of recovering an occupied part of the United States, just as he had withdrawn U.S. forces from the Canadian village of Amherstburg earlier in the month and returned it and Fort Malden to British control.

No one truly anticipated trouble, though Mackinac's British commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall, had, upon learning that his post was to be returned, stormed that the British negotiators had been "egregiously duped" into giving up "a fortress built by Nature for herself." McDouall was too good a soldier, however, not to follow orders to be cooperative. It took only 30 minutes on July 18 for him to accomplish the transfer of Fort Mackinac and evacuate his garrison to Drummond Island. "No difficulty occurred upon the subject," reported Butler, as the Stars and Stripes again snapped in the breeze. The War of 1812 had become a part of Michigan history.

Peace came to the Michigan Territory with the spring of 1815 thanks to the Treaty of Ghent, famously signed in the Belgian city on Christmas Eve 1814 but not in effect until ratified by the United States Congress on February 16, 1815. The treaty had been a long time in coming and was the fruit of the third effort to patch together an agreement since the declaration of war in June 1812.

The first attempt had come within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities after the British government rescinded the Orders in Council that had been so objectionable to Americans because of their effect on seaborne trade. The policy of impressment of American seamen had not been abandoned, however, so the Madison administration saw no benefit to negotiations. An offer by the Russians to broker a settlement in 1813 was rejected by the British, who did hot want third-party involvement. Finally, early in 1814, the belligerents agreed to have their representatives meet in a European city. Ghent was selected, and talks began there in August.

The negotiators had much to discuss, and several major issues would have an impact on Michigan. In addition to the matters of the maritime rights of neutral powers and the continuing irritant of the Royal Navy's practice of impressing American seamen, both of which had been important justifications for the U.S. declaration of war, there was concern in the Old Northwest for the fate of the Indians, the boundary with Canada, and naval activity on the Great Lakes. Ironically, the maritime matters were not even mentioned in the treaty, although the defeat and exile of Napoleon in 1814 effectively ended the need for the British blockade of the European coast and the constant demand for competent sailors that drove impressment.

The Treaty of Ghent was, in fact, based on the principle of status quo ante bellum--the state of affairs before the war. This did not bode well for the Native Americans of the Michigan Territory and the rest of the Old Northwest. Many of these people had fought on the side of the British, and some held the hope of a separate Indian buffer state between the United States and Canada. The British negotiators eventually dropped this demand, thus essentially abandoning their Native allies and relegating them to the same position vis-a-vis the United States that they had occupied before the war.

Though the British would retain considerable influence over the nations of the Old Northwest, regularly providing them with gifts at their posts on Georgian Bay, the days of a strong military alliance were past. In fact, the conclusion of the War of 1812 marked the end of large-scale, organized military resistance by Indian nations east of the Mississippi River. The next three decades would see the increasing marginalization of the Native American peoples of Michigan, further sales of their lands to the United States, and the removal of the southern Lower Peninsula nations to lands west of the Mississippi. The peoples of the north--the Ojibwa and Odawa--would remain in Michigan, eventually selling much of their territory by the Treaty of Washington in 1836.

The matter of the precision of the U.S.-Canada boundary was addressed with more satisfactory results. The line, as understood in 1814, was that drawn in Paris for the 1783 treaty that ended the American War for Independence. The cartographic reference for this boundary was John Mitchell's large-scale map of eastern North America, first published in the 1750s and only slightly updated in the editions produced in the 1770s. It lacked the detail necessary to identify the exact position of the boundary on a local level. The provision that the line should follow the center of the navigable channel of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence water system was also subject to conflicting interpretations, notably in the lower Detroit River, where it tan between Bois Blanc (Boblo) Island and the Canadian mainland. Boblo had been unofficially considered part of Upper Canada before the War of 1812, but, when the time came for U.S. forces to evacuate Amherstburg in the summer of 1815, American officers insisted on holding the island as rightly part of the United States; this delayed the process of returning British-held Mackinac. Cooler heads soon prevailed, and the island was temporarily considered neutral ground with the understanding that the boundary commission would permanently resolve the dispute.

The boundary commissioners did indeed sort out such details by a careful survey conducted in Michigan from 1820 through 1823. Beginning in the lower Detroit River (where they determined Boblo to be part of Canada), the surveyors and mapmakers moved up to Lake St. Clair and the river of that name to Lake Huron. The open waters were not areas of dispute. Rather, it was the narrows such as DeTour Passage and the St. Marys River that required careful surveying.

Ironically, the men found Drummond Island--named for a British general of the War of 1812 and post-war governor-general of Canada--to be a part of the United States. This was the cause of some embarrassment, because the former British garrison of Mackinac had established their new post and barracks there. The king's troops remained until 1828, when they retired to Penetanguishene at the southern end of Georgian Bay.

This newly defined border would not be as porous as it had been before the war--at least not economically speaking. Prior to 1812, Canadian fur traders had been permitted to operate freely within the northern United States. They and the voyageurs who propelled their canoes had been a useful source of auxiliary manpower for the British during the war on the northern lakes. They also wielded considerable influence with the Indians through kinship and commercial ties. In 1816, Congress passed legislation prohibiting Canadian-owned fur-trading concerns from operating within the United States. Into this vacuum stepped John Jacob Astor and his relatively new (1808) American Fur Company.

Most of the practical knowledge about the operations of the trade was still in Canadian heads, however, and few Americans possessed the necessary experience to be successful in the quest for furs. Astor sidestepped the ban and solved the problem by hiring seasoned Canadians and putting them under the command of young American managers, who thus also learned the nuances of the business.

One point of discussion that was not fully addressed by the treaty was naval armaments on the Great Lakes. The war had set off a shipbuilding race in which the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy vied for supremacy in the size and number of their warships on fresh waters. Shipbuilding activity was so intense on Lake Ontario that the British completed one 102-gun ship of the line (the battleship of the time) with more under construction, while their American opponents had nearly completed two even larger 120-gun leviathans by war's end with no hope of any of them ever leaving the lake to sail in salt water. Michiganians had seen many smaller though still powerful versions of these vessels on lakes Erie and Huron.

The matter of Great Lakes navies was given some local urgency soon after the end of the war. In 1816, in what must have seemed like a throwback to the years leading up to the War of 1812, British gunboats began to stop, board, and search United States merchant vessels near the mouth of the Detroit River before they were allowed to proceed up the channel between Boblo Island and Amherstburg. Protests over such incidents eventually reached Sir Charles Bagot, British minister to the United States.

Bagot in turn forwarded the matter to Secretary of State Viscount Castlereagh, his superior in London, illustrated with a map showing the relationship of the channel to the still-contested island. Succeeding correspondence between Bagot and Richard Rush, acting U.S. secretary of state, resulted in the drafting of an agreement--signed in April 1817 and ratified by the British and U.S. governments the following year--that strictly limited the number and size of warships on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Two vessels of no more than 100 tons and armed with a single 18-pounder gun were allowed for each power on the upper lakes (above Niagara Falls), while the warships constructed during the war at such cost and labor were sold, dismantled, or intentionally sunk in the cold, fresh water to preserve them for reactivation in the event of a future conflict.

The Rush-Bagot Agreement remains in effect today, and even influences visits to the lakes by modern warships.

Despite these naval limitations, the U.S. Canadian border remained a heavily armed place, a far cry from the "undefended border" we so proudly proclaim today, and which developed in the early years of the 20th century, q-he forts at Detroit and Mackinac remained strongly garrisoned, and new barracks and fortifications were planned or constructed at both posts. Detroit served as a place where troops and supplies could be distributed across the upper lakes and into the northern Mississippi Valley. Large military expeditions left Mackinac in 1816 to establish Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin and reestablish Fort Dearborn at the Chicago River. Such accelerated military activity would continue for several years after the war.

The official end of hostilities found the population of the Michigan Territory and Upper Canada rebuilding their pre-war lives and livelihoods. Detroit, River Raisin (Monroe), and adjoining farmlands had been much damaged during the war by combat, general neglect, marauding Indians, and even the soldiers who were there to protect the civilians. Mackinac was less damaged physically, but its fur trade had been disrupted by three years of conflict. Numbers of citizens had left the territory to escape the British occupation. Those from River Raisin and Detroit had begun to return following re-establishment of United States authority in the fall of 1813. Mackinac's exiles returned during 1815, and the fur trade was soon in full swing once more as the American Fur Company began to make its presence felt on the island and across the north.

Michiganians were ready to resume their normal lives and activities and inclined to celebrate the end of a time during which, as Benjamin E Witherell--a Detroit attorney and son of Michigan territorial judge James Witherell---remembered, "there were many sufferings endured." Detroiters celebrated the peace not long after receiving the news of the end of the war. On March 29, 1815, in a building at the corner of Woodbridge and Randolph Streets that would come to be called the Steamboat Hotel (a few years later, when steamboats reached Detroit), the citizens held a "Grand Pacification Ball." Sadly, few details are known about the event, but for many it must have signaled the beginning of a return to normalcy and reconciliation with neighbors on the Canadian shore.

The War of 1812 had deeply affected the populations of the Michigan Territory and Upper Canada as well as those of the borderlands farther to the east at Niagara and along the St. Lawrence River and northern Lake Champlain. The fighting had grown increasingly bitter during the course of three campaigning seasons. Historian Alan Taylor has recently drawn attention to the elements of civil war that marked the conduct of the conflict along the border, where some combatants--especially in Upper Canada--found themselves fighting against former neighbors. By the end of hostilities, this experience and the damage done on both sides had virtually ensured that the United States and Canada would go their separate ways and not see an accommodation that might make the two countries one.

The War of 1812 was a pivotal event in the history of the Old Northwest and of Michigan. The only conventional war to be fought within the bounds of the modern state resulted in enemy occupation of Detroit and River Raisin for part of the conflict and of Mackinac for the duration. The treaty ending the war nonetheless reconfirmed the Michigan Territory as part of the United States and resulted in more accurate boundaries with Canada. The exclusion of Canadian traders after 1816 opened the way for American control of the region--both commercially and militarily. The military threat presented by Native Americans was also largely extinguished.

The coming of peace permitted the beginning of surveying and, within a decade, an increasing flow of new settlers who would give the state much of its character as we know it today.

Brian Leigh Dunnigan, associate director and curator of maps at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library, is a member of the state's War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.

Facing page: The U.S. government allowed Waa-Bin-De-Ba's tribe, the Ojibwa, and the Odawa to remain in Michigan. Other tribes, especially those sympathetic to the British, were removed from their lands. Original painting by James Otto Lewis. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library. Above: The Friends Good Will, a reproduction of a sloop that saw action on both sides of the War of 1812, reminds passengers and passersby of the important role Michigan played in the conflict. The sloop is a floating classroom of the Michigan Maritime Museum. Courtesy of jimflix! on Flickr.
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Title Annotation:the Treaty of Ghent and the Rush-Bagot Agreement
Author:Dunnigan, Brian Leigh
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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