Fort St Joseph
See the National Historic Site that was the
launching point of the War of 1812
Fort St Joseph is a Canadian National Historic Site located at the remote southern tip of St. Joseph Island on the St. Mary’s River near Sault Ste. Marie, just outside the small hamlet of Richards Landing. Constructed between 1797 and 1805 it was an important military fortification in its day
as its main purpose was to help protect the busy navigation routes of the fur trade between the upper and lower Great Lakes.
In 1783 the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the American Revolution resulting in the Americans being awarded the nearby Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island, this allowed them to effectively control the important fur trade between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The British continued to occupy the sites until 1796 at which time they finally ceded them to the Americans. It was thus decided to immediately begin construction of a new military strongpoint and the nearby St. Joseph Island was the site chosen. When completed Fort St Joseph was the most westerly outpost in the British Empire.
The fort never was fully completed but it did however help serve one of its main purposes by fostering and building stronger relationships with the natives in the area to help counter the growing American influence. At its height the modest fort was composed of a weak palisade, blockhouse, powder magazine, bakery, blacksmith shop, guardhouse, storehouse and an Indian council house and was garrisoned by a very small detachment of British regulars.
War of 1812
On June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain. Sir Isaac Brock, the military commander of British forces in Upper Canada (Ontario) immediately realized the vulnerability of the fort and the military significance of controlling the area and ordered the commander of Fort St. Joseph to immediately attack Fort Mackinac.
On July 16 a small flotilla consisting of a commandeered schooner carrying the small detachment of British soldiers, French Canadian voyageurs and hundreds of natives in their canoes set off from the fort to attack the Americans.
They disembarked unnoticed on Mackinac Island in the middle of the night and by the early morning of July 17th had moved into position and surrounded the fort. The American commander had no choice but to surrender. Fort St. Joseph thus served as the staging ground for the initial attack of the War of 1812 and was captured without bloodshed.
The British quickly realized that they were in a better position militarily in Fort Mackinac and occupied the American fort, abandoning Fort St. Joseph except for a skeleton garrison.
On July 3, 1814 an American force on its way to recapture Fort Mackinac landed on St. Joseph Island and burned the now abandoned Fort St. Joseph to the ground. This force attempted to recapture Fort Mackinac a few weeks later but the attack was repulsed.
In December of 1814 a peace treaty was signed and all occupied territories were returned to their original owners. Fort Mackinac was restored to the Americans and the British returned to the Site of Fort St. Joseph. Some of the structures were repaired but the British decided not to rebuild the fort and instead began building a new post on nearby Drummond Island in 1815. By 1824 most of the buildings had been moved and Fort St. Joseph was abandoned and largely forgotten.
Fort St Joseph today
In the 1920’s members of the Sault Ste. Marie Historical Society began doing some minor restoration and discovery work and in 1923 it was designated as a National Historic site. After WWII a road was built to the remote site and in 1974 an extensive archaeological program was initiated and many buildings were identified. By the end of the decade a visitor centre was constructed and in 1982 the area was designated as a National Historic Park.
Archaeological digs continue at the site to this day and new discoveries are continually made. The park itself is in a beautiful natural setting but due to its still relative remoteness only attracts limited visitors.
Location of Fort St Joseph
Getting to Fort St Joseph:
Located about 60 kilometres (36 miles) southeast of Sault Ste. Marie Fort St Joseph on St. Joseph Island is very easy to get to.
Whether coming from north or south you take TransCanada highway #17, turn onto route #548, which will lead onto St Joseph Island. Stay on route 548 to 10th side road that leads directly to the fort.
The Fort and park due make for a nice day trip but in reality you will spend very little time at the site itself. Most of the fort has been left in its undeveloped state and has not been reconstructed. There is a nice museum and interpretive visitors centre near the site that focuses mainly on the importance of the fur trade in this frontier outpost, the relationships with the aboriginals, and the military life at the fort during its heyday.
The fort opens in mid-May (Victoria Day weekend) and closes on Thanksgiving (early October). For more information as to opening times etc. visit: www.pc.on.ca/fortstjoseph
All in all a side-trip to Fort St. Joseph will probably not be on most people’s itineraries except for the most ardent of historians as there really isn’t much to see or do and there definitely are more significant historical representations in the Province. If you are however only visiting the Sault Ste. Marie area a trip out to the park will give one a good insight as to the importance of the area in the early days of the country especially when combined with a trip to the nearby Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the United States, and it really is in a beautiful setting and makes for a great place to spend an afternoon picnicking.
Visit on Canada Day, July 1 and enjoy free admission. Please note that as this is Canada's National holiday celebrating its independance and it will thus most likely be somewhat crowded.
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