Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Elizabeth Selby & The Battle of York

Death of American General Zebulon Pike at York.
This mid-19th century vision of the town depicts
it as much more substantial than 1813's reality.
The Battle of York in the spring of 1813 was one of the first land victories by U.S. troops. The capture and sacking of a small provincial settlement had consequences beyond the town's actual military importance.

The terms Upper and Lower referred to
location on the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
York is the red star.

Canada was divided into two governmental regions above the Great Lakes---Lower Canada encompassed Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland. Upper Canada, the western province, was a frontier, small outposts in Indian country. York was the provincial capital, a village of a few wooden buildings along a harbor on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The area had once and would again be called Toronto (Tkaronto) but in 1813 it was York.  The British military and civilians of the outpost were rather poorly prepared for a naval attack from their Southern neighbors.

New York is on the eastern shore with
Sackets Harbor the red star on the right.
York in the west is the other star.

Major General Henry Dearborn and his fleet of 14 ships left Sackets Harbor, New York in April, sailed west across Lake Ontario and landed in the capital where outnumbered British, Canadian and Native soldiers abandoned the town after a week of battle.

On the retreat a gunpowder store was exploded killing Brigadier General Zebulon Pike and almost forty other Americans.

The Block House was the capital's largest building.

General Zebulon Pike

During a six-day occupation the town was looted and ransacked. Upper Canada's Parliament Building was set afire and trophies stolen, including a carved British Lion from the speaker's chair and the Parliamentary Mace carried by the assembly's sergeant-at-arms. These gilded wooden symbols of government found their way to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis. The nearly 5-foot-long mace returned to Canada in 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt repatriated it as a good will gesture during Toronto's Centennial anniversary. The lion statue remains in Annapolis.

U.S. heroes included Generals Dearborn and Pike.

Eye witness Eli Playter wrote in his diary during the occupation:

"Not a building but show some marks of [the explosion] & some all torn to pieces. The Town thronged with the Yankees, many busy getting off the public stores. The Council office with every window broke & pillaged of every thing that it contained. The Government building, the Block House and the building adjacent all burned to ashes.”

While civilians abandoned the town their homes were robbed and vandalized. Elizabeth Powell returned to find her utensils, clothing and linen stolen and a New Yorker in her pantry eating the sugar. Elizabeth Selby Deranzy could not flee as her father Prideaux Selby was mortally ill in their cabin. Prideaux was in charge of the Provincial treasury of £3,000, which Elizabeth hid from the the invaders. Americans demanded the money; the financial officer was unconscious and couldn't resist and the Provincial government told Elizabeth to hand it over. Prideaux died shortly after the Americans left, unaware that the treasury was gone.

A Soldier's Wife at Fort Niagara

The Selbys were English. Elizabeth may have been born in London as her brother was, but her father had been stationed in Canada for over twenty years and in York for about five. In February, 1813 Elizabeth married soldier William Derenzy (Derency).

At the War's beginning Elizabeth had suggested Provincial leaders organize a relief society, The Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada initially spent its donations on clothing for local militia. After the invasion funds went to soldiers' medical care and relief for needy families. The Loyal and Patriotic Society's purposes sound similar to those of America's Civil War Sanitary Commission fifty years later, but the earlier group's activities are not so well recorded. One can imagine that like the Sanitary Commission the Loyal and Patriotic Society also provided bedding for militiamen, the wounded and the destitute.
Quilted and patchwork bedcoverings in Canada looked much like those made in the U.S. and Great Britain, but few early examples survive. We can find whole-cloth quilts, patchwork medallions and embroidered pieces.

They look like soldiers but it's a hunting party

The Mary Morris quilt, attributed to an Ontario girl, is one of Canada's quilt treasures. It was discovered by Canadian quilt historian Ruth McKendry whose collection of 315 quilts was purchased by the Museum.

Embroidered medallion by Mary Morris,
Elgin, Leeds County, Ontario
Collection of Canadian Museum of Civilization

The central embroidered panel is signed in cross stitch Mary Morris Aged 14 1825 .
See more about this quilt by clicking here:

Ruth and Blake McKendry with the Morris quilt in the 1970s.

This month we will look at pictorial designs found in early quilts in America and Britain.

For more about the Battle of York:
Eli Playter's diary is from the Archives of Ontario

The city of Toronto has a Bicentennial website:
Toronto's anniversary events include an exhibit: Finding The Fallen: Battle of York Remembered at the Market Gallery until September 8, 2012.
Read about the show here:

To read a book about the Battle of York see Robert Malcomson's book Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813

1 comment:

WoolenSails said...

Love that quilt and the fabrics she used, nice to reproduce.