A Brief History of the Norfolk Militia
Gratefully Sourced from the book The Burning of Dover Mills (May 15, 1814) and The Civilian Soldier of The War of 1812 and Beyond by Harry B. Barrett and Bob Blakeley
The first indication of any attempt to organize the settlers of Long Point District, or Norfolk County, came from the first person to hold the office of Justice of the Peace, Thomas Welch. Welch wrote out an Oath of Allegiance to King George the Third that all of the settlers had to sign. It also was a pledge to band together in the defense of their lands should any attempt at invasion be threatened.
The Oath is as follows (dated July 14, 1796)...
I do solemnly and sincerely swear that I will bear faithful and true allegiance to His Majesty King George. So help me God.
This was followed by the following Declaration which was mandatory for the settlers to sign.
I do promise and declare that I will maintain and defend to the utmost of my power, the authority of the King in his Parliament as the Supreme Legislature of this Province.
Thus, the seeds of the early citizen soldier, or militia, were sown in Long Point District.
From the outset, all able bodied men of the settlement of Norfolk were obligated to turn out at an appointed place of muster, on the fourth of June each year, for training with their Militia Company or Regiment. Failure to do so, without just cause, incurred a reprimand from their Commanding Office along with a substantial fine, in the order of ten shillings or more!
Norfolk County of the time was considerably larger than we know it today. It encompassed townships within Elgin, Oxford, Brant and Haldimand counties so members of the early Norfolk Militia were spread thinly over a vast territory and one has to consider, they had to cover this area which was still mainly dense forests on horseback, wagon or foot!
In the early spring of 1812, the Norfolk Militia was organized into two regiments with Lieut.-Col. Joseph Ryerson in command of the 1st and Lieut.-Col. Robert Nichol of the 2nd. Each of these regiments were called upon to form two flank companies to be held in readiness for action anywhere in the province. They were to consist of three officers and thirty-seven other ranks.
Civilian Militias were formed as the administrators of Upper and Lower Canada knew that the Americans would invade sooner or later. Early in 1812, when this seemed inevitable, Lieut.-Col. Nichol was appointed Quartermaster General of Militia and therefore, Major George Salmon assumed command of the 2nd Norfolks. The senior officer in the District of London was Colonel Thomas Talbot who was placed in overall command of the militias within the District's limits. Of a side note, Talbot was also responsible for land claims in the area and had a reputation as being a bit stand-offish and irascible making him not a favourite among the citizen soldiers. This would be evident in time to come.
With the landing of General Hull and the American Invasion Force at Sandwich on July 20th, 1812, General Brock ordered Talbot to take a force of two-hundred men of the London District Militia, under Major Salmon, to Moraviantown to join a force under Major Chambers. Talbot's request for men met with borderline indifference with only about twenty men mustering to join on the march. It was harvest time and the loyalties (at that time) of the aboriginals in the area were not yet secured. Men were not likely to want to stray too far from home with these conditions. Talbot reluctantly disbanded the enterprise. Major Chambers, in a move to strengthen the resolve of the local citizenry, marched to Dover at the head of one-hundred and fifty regulars and volunteers, which brought about the desired affect of changing the feelings of the settlers locally. Talbot is reported to have retired to his Castle Malahide as a result of this.
With Talbot in his Malahide, Brock wasted little time and organized his movements to meet the enemy now on British soil. Having gained the hearty support of the aboriginals and chiefs on the Grand River, and through dint of his popularity and speaking prowess, garnered the support of the local militia and had 173 Norfolks volunteer for his expedition. With a body of local aboriginals and about four-hundred men, Brock moved to bolster the compliment of men at Fort Amherstburg (Malden) and upon hearing of this movement, General Hull and the Americans beat a hasty retreat to Fort Detroit back on their own soil.
After this, Brock marched with three-hundred and sixty-two militia, about six-hundred and fifty native warriors and three-hundred and eighty-two British regulars and forced the surrender of Fort Detroit without the American's firing a shot at Brock's force. This, for the moment, placed all of Michigan under the control of the British.
After this, members of the Norfolk Militia saw action at most of the battles on the Niagara Frontier having been asked to march there after and ill planned armistice allowed the Americans to re-group their forces for another invasion.
Notably, on November 28th, 1812, the 1st Norfolk under Captain John Bostwick and the 2nd Norfolk under Captain A.A. Rapelje who had been moved to Fort Erie to support a battery on Frenchmen's Creek, were attacked by a strong force of U.S. Navy seamen and regular infantry. A bitter fight ensued and the Americans were repulsed leaving several dead and thirty prisoners. The Norfolks suffered two dead (Sergeant Adam Glendennan and Private John Wycoff) and fourteen wounded with six missing. Most of the wounds in this horrendous encounter were inflicted by cutlass, bayonet and pike wounds showing how it had truly been a hand-to-hand battle. Lieutenant Colonel Bishopp, in his official report about the fight, said...
The Norfolk Militia under Captain Bostwick gave a strong proof of the valour which has uniformly distinguished the militia of this country when called into action.
During the war, several resolutions were passed to enable Norfolk residents to protect their property in the absence of the official militia and Lieut.-Col. Bostwick was chosen to command the volunteers.
On November 12th, 1813, a group of these militia went out in search of an American group of brigands ("Canadian Volunteers" working with the Americans) and managed to locate them at the home of John Durnham. The Norfolks surrounded the cabin and Bostwick banged on the door. He entered an demanded the Americans surrender. They were in the process of laying down their arms when it occurred to them that, seeing only the soldier at the door, he must be alone and immediately seized back their muskets and started trying, without success, to kill Bostwick. In the confusion of the moment, one of the traitors shot and killed another by mistake!
Bostwick remained unharmed and tried to make his escape only to be subjected to the next salvos of musketry from the Norfolks who, on hearing the shots, moved in and had now started peppering musket balls through the doors and windows. Again, Bostwick dodged all the fire and was able to make his way safely out of the cabin.
The result was many American dead and eighteen captured (some of whom had attempted to flee into the woods). The eighteen were taken to Burlington Heights and tried for treason and sentenced to hang.
For this almost comical (except the fatal results) action, Col. Nichol stated that some seven-thousand barrels of provisions had been saved thus allowing General Vincent to supply his troops when he re-took the Niagara District from the American Invasion Force.
General DeRottenburg, in a general order, praised the men of the Norfolk that took part in this...
...very gallant and patriotic conduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Bostwick and his band of 45 officers and men of the militia of the County of Norfolk, in capturing and destroying a band of traitors.
The Norfolk Militia earned the battle honours at the engagement of Nanticoke Creek on November 13th, 1813.
I would go further into the history of the Norfolks, but I strongly suggest that you purchase the book The Burning of Dover Mills (May 15, 1814) and The Civilian Soldier of The War of 1812 and Beyond by Harry B. Barrett and Bob Blakeley which can be acquired at any re-enactment that the Norfolk Militia (Heritage Regiment) Re-Enactment Group is present at. See our calendar of events for more information on where we'll be.
The Norfolk Militia was still active after the War of 1812 and were ready to be called on during the Rebellion of 1837 including a group of volunteer Calvary which attacked a camp of near Sodom (Norwich) taking several prisoners. They also were available during the Fenian Raids of 1866 to 1870 and were also utilized to help police situations with 'unruly' crowds during the latter nineteenth century.
Serving through the twentieth century, Norfolkers have served in both World Wars with distinction and continue to be an active militia unit in today's Canadian Armed Forces.
Many thanks for the assistance of his book to Mr. Bob Bakeley and, by proxy, Mr. Harry B. Barrett as well as the discussions with J. Bruce Whitaker at Fort George in July of 2003.