Naval and military establishments on Lake Huron

On Friday, August 8, 2014, a provincial plaque commemorating the Naval and Military Establishments on Lake Huron was unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust and Huronia Historical Parks at Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene.

The plaque reads as follows:


    After visiting the area in 1793, Upper Canada's lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe recommended the establishment of naval facilities on the isolated Penetanguishene peninsula. This proposed base was to help guard the province against threats posed by the United States, although no military action occurred in Upper Canada until the War of 1812. In 1814, this site, with its deep and defensible harbour, began to be developed to secure British communications on the upper Great Lakes. The return of peace in 1815 brought these efforts to a close until 1817 when the Royal Navy decided to concentrate its Georgian Bay resources at this location. The site was ultimately part of a larger transportation and defence network that connected Lake Ontario to the upper Great Lakes and also served as a base for maintaining the Crown's relations with First Nations. The navy maintained a presence here until 1834, while the British army provided a garrison at this location until 1856 when the post was rendered obsolete.

Historical background

The Historic Naval and Military Establishments on Penetanguishene Bay date between 1817 and 1856. The Royal Navy operated a facility from the founding year until 1834, while the British army maintained a presence, directly or indirectly, throughout the history of the base. Opening onto Georgian Bay, the establishments provided strategic access to Lakes Huron, Erie, Michigan and Superior. They formed part of a network of defensive posts and communications lines across colonial British North America, with their main role focusing on protecting Canada against threats that might be posed by the United States to the south of the international border. The site also fulfilled other functions, such as serving as a base for surveying the region’s waterways and for maintaining Crown-Indigenous relations.

After the United States achieved independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution of 1775-83 — which saw the creation of the Canadian-American border — British officials realized that the Penetanguishene Peninsula possessed strategic value should hostilities erupt with the neighbouring republic in the future. In 1793, John Graves Simcoe — then-Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario) — examined the area during a period of deteriorating Anglo-American relations when the United States waged war against the First Nations of the Ohio country to the south and west of Lake Erie. As Britain was allied informally to the region’s tribes, it seemed possible that the confrontation might lead to an American invasion of British territory. In 1794, however, the two Euro-American powers negotiated Jay’s Treaty, relieving the threat of conflict between them for the next decade or so. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal peoples suffered defeat at the hands of the American army in 1794 and found themselves forced to surrender ownership of much of modern Ohio and some other territories to the expanding republic in 1795.1

A critical issue for Simcoe, both during the immediate crisis of the 1790s and in terms of long-term defensive planning, was control of the Great Lakes waterways. In the undeveloped state of his sparsely settled colony, lakes and rivers provided the best means to move men and supplies to threatened points quickly and thereby overcome some of the challenges that would be faced against larger enemy forces. Naturally, maintaining communications with Britain’s Native allies in the United States and in the northern Great Lakes regions would be important should an Anglo-American war break out. As well, the main supply route from the British Isles, across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence River into eastern Upper Canada subsequently ran west across Lakes Ontario and Erie, but Lake Erie in particular was vulnerable to American seizure. Therefore, Simcoe hoped to develop alternative routes west from the St. Lawrence. One used the “Toronto Passage,” an ancient Indigenous water and portage network that connected Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario at Toronto (named York between 1793 and 1834). It would allow the British to supply the upper Great Lakes and American territories connected to them even if Lake Erie fell into enemy hands. It also held out the promise of relieving York should it be threatened because forces could be dispatched south, either from Native lands in the west and northwest or from British posts to the east, in the latter case via the old fur trade route that ran from Montreal up the Ottawa River and west to Georgian Bay via the French River and other waterways. Therefore, Simcoe hoped to establish a naval base on the Penetanguishene Peninsula to anchor the northern terminus of the Toronto Passage.2

During the 1790s, Simcoe built defences at York to guard the southern end of the passage, and he cut much of Yonge Street from York to Holland Landing (south of Lake Simcoe) to increase the passage’s carrying capacity, but he did not establish his naval base at its northern end. Nevertheless, the desirability of doing so remained on the minds of military officials precisely because Simcoe’s reasons for wanting to create such a facility on Georgian Bay retained their currency through the years and then provided justification for building and maintaining the Naval and Military Establishments for several decades.

It was the War of 1812 that created the incentive to move forward with Simcoe’s plan long after he had left Canada. During the conflict, Lake Erie did fall under American naval control, cutting the main east-west supply line west of the Niagara River, which connected Lakes Ontario and Erie. The British faced the challenge of maintaining their forces on the upper lakes as well as providing help to their Aboriginal allies who opposed the United States in Canada and in the Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri territories, especially those who fought along the upper Mississippi River, such as the Potawatomis, Sauks and Mesquakies. The solution to the problem largely lay in using the old Aboriginal and fur trade routes from Montreal and York to Georgian Bay. Officials improved the latter in 1814-15 when they constructed depots along the way, overhauled existing portages, cut the Penetanguishene Road from Kempenfeldt Bay on Lake Simcoe to Penetanguishene (where they put up a few log huts until the end of the war), created a naval base on the Nottawasaga River at Schooner Town, and built a quantity of small watercraft.3 (Further work in the 1820s connected the Penetanguishene Road and Yonge Street, thus eliminating the need to use waterways and portages between them.) These efforts contributed to the achievement of British and Indigenous supremacy across the vast upper lakes and northerly reaches of the Mississippi River during the war, despite vigorous attempts by the United States Army and Navy to seize control of these regions.4

After the successful defence of Canada during the War of 1812, the Royal Navy decided to concentrate its peacetime assets on the upper lakes within Penetanguishene’s excellent and defensible harbour. Accordingly, the navy moved resources from Schooner Town and elsewhere to the new location in 1817.5 The navy erected buildings and maintained two modest-sized fighting vessels, the schooner HMS Tecumseh and the brigantine HMS Newash, both built in 1815, along with three small transport schooners constructed in 1817 — the Bee, Wasp and Mosquito (as well as a number of smaller craft). The Tecumseh and Newash each carried one long 24-pounder gun and two 24-pounder carronades.6 The navy’s mission was to protect the upper Great Lakes, help maintain communications with other posts, project British power into the region and possibly support Native allies.7 The naval establishment served other needs as well, such as a base for the famous marine surveyor, Henry Wolsey Bayfield, who charted Lake Huron between 1818 and 1822.8 By 1820, about 70 people lived and worked at the site — including women and children — although that number was reduced in 1822 as Anglo-American relations improved.9

Much of the reason for shrinking the facility lay in post-war diplomacy, with the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817 being particularly important. It largely demilitarized the Great Lakes by restricting the number of warships that the United States and Great Britain could maintain across the waterways, including two each on the upper lakes. As a result, most of the vessels at Penetanguishene were laid up in “ordinary,” by having their sails, armaments and other equipment put into storage on land so that the vessels no longer were operational, but could be put back into service during an emergency as long as they were structurally sound.

The British army assigned a small number of soldiers to help guard the naval establishment and other facilities on the Toronto Passage from its earliest days, but increased its presence in 1828 when the 42-man garrison on the upper lakes moved to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island, located west of Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron (accompanied by their dependents and Indian Department officials). The post on Drummond Island had been established in 1815 after the War of 1812, but a boundary commission charged with establishing the international border accurately, in conformity with the original intentions of the Treaty of Paris that had ended the American Revolution in 1783, led to the island being assigned to the United States, and so the soldiers had to move to Canadian territory. The army built facilities at Penetanguishene beside the naval establishment to house its soldiers in the early 1830s (with the officers’ quarters remaining to this day). Strong fortifications planned for the site, however, were never erected. Over the decades of the site’s operations, detachments from various regiments maintained the post, provided labour for public works, asserted British sovereignty through their presence, and stood ready to be deployed if and when necessary as the nucleus of a defensive force and as an aid to the civil authorities. For several years after removing from Drummond Island, the Indian Department used Penetanguishene as a base for preserving Crown-Aboriginal alliances and advancing the government’s (frequently unwelcomed) objectives with the First Nations. In 1832, for instance, over 2,000 Indigenous people visited the site for the annual summer distribution of government gifts. The shift from Drummond Island also had encouraged many French-speaking people there to relocate to the Penetanguishene region in 1828 and 1829, marking an important step in the formation of the area’s distinct Francophone community, while development of the Penetanguishene Road and other roads facilitated settlement by additional individuals on the peninsula as it gradually became better integrated into the life of the larger province of Upper Canada.10

In 1832, the Royal Navy decided to close its facilities at Penetanguishene and issued orders to sell the vessels and stores located there.11 While the stores were sold, the vessels, which had deteriorated over the years, found no takers and gradually rotted away and settled into the bay, while the wooden structures on the site slowly disappeared over the years after the Royal Navy left the Great Lakes region as a whole in 1834 during a time of peaceful relations with the United States and following the reduction of American naval resources on the lakes some years earlier (although the navy returned in 1838 during the Rebellion Crisis and again during the Fenian tensions of the 1860s, but not, on either occasion, to Penetanguishene). The army, however, remained, although in 1851, it withdrew its regular soldiers and turned the care of the post over to enrolled pensioners. These men were retired soldiers who settled in the area and who provided a caretaker role and token military presence, and who could assist the civil authorities in maintaining law and order if required. The 1851 decision was part of a general reduction of military forces in British North America and the concentration of the remaining garrisons in a limited number of posts.12

By the mid-1850s, the world of the upper Great Lakes had changed dramatically from the conditions that had led to the founding of the naval base at Penetanguishene following the War of 1812. Relations with the United States were good (as exemplified by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854), while settlement had increased (greatly shifting the demographic balance between the Native and Euro-American populations), lumbering and farming had become important, steam boats challenged sailing vessels for mastery of the transportation corridors, canals improved the movement of people and goods by water, and railways began to service the area, heralding the advent of even greater change to come as colonial Canada matured. The development of railways, the advent of steamships and the infrastructures associated with a maturing society also suggested that, in a crisis, the military could deploy resources to the upper lakes and elsewhere quickly in a crisis, and therefore did not need to maintain scattered outposts at as many places as it had earlier.

After the military left in 1856, civil authorities took over the site for a reformatory and subsequently a hospital facility. Due to local interest in the site’s heritage, archaeological work occurred for the first time in the 1950s, which saw the creation of a small museum in the extant officers’ quarters and the raising of two hulls of the Royal Navy vessels sunk in the bay.13 Then, in the 1970s, after a period of significant development, the establishments re-opened to the public as a historical site museum called the “Historic Naval and Military Establishments.” Reconceptualized later as “Discovery Harbour,” the site presents a mix of reconstructed and original buildings, exhibits and replicas of early 19th-century sailing vessels. Nearby stands St. James-on-the-Lines, an Anglican church built in 1836-38 to serve the garrison as well as the neighbouring civilian population. Collectively, these features, along with the remnants of the heritage landscape, archaeological resources beneath the soil and related historical sites both on the Penetanguishene Peninsula and along the old routes into the region, speak to a fascinating period in history when comparatively small numbers of people, with limited resources, exerted considerable influence over vast regions across the upper Great Lakes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Carl Benn in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2014

1 For discussions of the military crisis of the period with an Ontario focus, see: Carl Benn, “The Military Context of the Founding of Toronto,” Ontario History 81, no. 4 (1989), 303-22; Carl Benn, Historic Fort York, 1793-1993 (Toronto, 1993), 15-40; and J. Mackay Hitsman, Safeguarding Canada (Toronto, 1968), 46-79.

2 J.G. Simcoe to the Duke of Portland, November 10, 1794, and Simcoe to the Committee of the Privy Council for Trade and Plantations, December 20, 1794, both in E.A. Cruikshank, ed., The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe (Toronto, 1923-30), vol. 3, 176, 227.

3 For a discussion of Schooner Town and other sites related to Penetanguishene that may be visited today, and which often are marked by Ontario Heritage Trust plaques, see the Southern Georgian Bay War of 1812 website, For the log huts at Penetanguishene pre-dating 1817, see Elsie Jury, “The Establishments at Penetanguishene,” Museum of Indian Archaeology Bulletin 12 (1959), 9-11.

4 For a discussion of Native resistance in the upper Mississippi River region, see Carl Benn, Native Memoirs from the War of 1812 (Baltimore, 2014). For the upper Great Lakes, see Barry Gough, Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay (St. Catharines, 2002); and for a concise overview of the war, see Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (Oxford, 2002).

5 Key studies of the history of the Naval and Military Establishments are: Jury, “Establishments”; Gough, Fighting Sail, 137-52, 159-67; and John R. Triggs, “Social Flux at the Naval Establishment at Penetanguishene, Lake Huron, 1817 1834.” Historical Archaeology 39, no. 2 (2005): 105-35. An interesting early history of Penetanguishene, in which the establishments figure prominently, may be read in Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Simcoe, Ont. (Toronto, 1881).

6 Robert Malcomson, Warships of the Great Lakes (Annapolis, 2001), 138-39; Jury, “Establishments,” 16. The Tecumseh and Newash were built on Street’s Creek on the Niagara Peninsula. Jury quotes a period source saying the three transports were constructed at Nottawasaga while Malcomson (and other sources) has them built at Penetanguishene.

7 Gough, Fighting Sail, 145-47.

8 Ruth McKenzie, Admiral Bayfield (Ottawa, 1976), 1-2.

9 Jury, “Establishments,” 13-15. For a list of the establishment’s buildings see Triggs, “Social Flux,” 122-28.

10 John Abbot et al., The History of Fort St. Joseph (Toronto, 2000), 111-26; Jury, “Establishments,” 13-15, 30-36, 38-43; and Triggs, “Social Flux,” 111.

11 For a list of the things offered for sale, see Jury, “Establishments,” 16-17.

12 Ibid., 34-36. For a discussion of Canadian defence on a larger scale, see Hitsman, Safeguarding Canada; and Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America (Berkeley, 1967).

13 Jury, “Establishments,” 4, 20-21.


Abbott, John, Graeme S. Mount, and Michael J. Mulloy. The History of Fort St. Joseph. Toronto: Dundurn, 2000.

Benn, Carl. “The Military Context of the Founding of Toronto.” Ontario History 81, no. 4 (1989): 303-22.

------. Historic Fort York, 1793-1993. Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1993.

------. The War of 1812. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.

------. Native Memoirs from the War of 1812. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Bourne, Kenneth. Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Carstens, Patrick Richard, and Timothy L. Sandford. Searching for the Forgotten War 1812 Canada. N.p. Xlibris, 2011.

Cruikshank, E.A., ed. The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe. 5 vols. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1923-30.

Discovery Harbour Historical Information website, various pages, accessed over several dates in June 2013.

Gough, Barry. Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay: The War of 1812 and its Aftermath. St. Catharines: Vanwell, 2002.

Hitsman, J. Mackay. Safeguarding Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Simcoe, Ont. Toronto: H. Belden, 1881.

Jury, Elsie McLeod. “The Establishments at Penetanguishene: Bastion of the North 1814-1856.” Museum of Indian Archaeology Bulletin 12 (1959), with an Archaeological Report by Wilfred Jury.

Malcomson, Robert. Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754-1834. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

McKenzie, Ruth. Admiral Bayfield: Pioneer Nautical Surveyor. Ottawa: Environment Canada, 1976.

Southern Georgian Bay War of 1812 website, various pages, accessed over several dates in June 2013. Triggs, John R. “Social Flux at the Naval Establishment at Penetanguishene, Lake Huron, 1817-1834.” Historical Archaeology 39, no. 2 (2005): 105-35.