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Windmill Point Lighthouse the site of a historic battle on Canadian soil

October 2022

The lighthouse on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Prescott, Ontario, stands a 60-foot-tall stone lighthouse tower, formerly a grist mill windmill, that played a role in the struggle between the “Family Compact” and the “Reformers” for control of the British colony of Upper Canada in the late 1830s.

Known as the Battle of the Windmill, it was the site of a battle in 1838 between a Reformer group called “Hunters” and the British Army. The Hunters launched an invasion Upper Canada at Prescott, with the goal of liberating the Canadian colonies from oppressive British rule. The battle was a continuation of the rebellion in Toronto in December 1837, led by William Lyon Mackenzie, a former Mayor and member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly, who was one of the best known of the Reformers.

On 12 November 1838, 250 men landed at Windmill Point, across the St. Lawrence from their starting point at Ogdensburg, New York. Equipped with rifles and artillery, and enough ammunition for four or five days of fighting, Windmill Point provided a strong defensive position for the invaders, with the windmill giving them a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside and any approaching British troops.

British soldiers from nearby Fort Wellington, a recently re-activated War of 1812 fort, were quickly dispatched to intercept the invaders.

The initial attack went on for five hours, after which the British withdrew their force from the windmill site. A later report stated that 13 British soldiers were killed and 78 wounded, while the Hunters were thought to have lost 18 killed, 20 wounded and 26 taken prisoner.

Despite the initial success for the Hunters, reinforcements that they had anticipated from Ogdensburg failed to arrive. As well, the support that they had expected from discontented Canadians failed to materialize.

The final battle began at 3:30 in the afternoon on 16 November, when the British artillery started the bombardment of the windmill. One thousand British marched forward, quickly overwhelming the Hunters. While some of the Hunters quickly surrendered, many put up a strong resistance. By 6 o’clock, the battle was over. The remaining Hunters either surrendered or had fled the battlefield.

Those who were captured were transported to Kingston for trial. Of the Hunters, 40 were acquitted at trial, 60 were convicted and transported to the British penal colony in Australia, 86 were condemned to death, but later pardoned and released. Eleven were executed, including Nils von Schoultz,  a Swedish military officer, chemist, and adventurer, who was one of the leaders of the Hunters.

At his military court martial, the rules of the court required von Schoultz to conduct his own defence, but he was allowed to hire a legal advisor. He chose a young Kingston lawyer named John A. Macdonald.

The grist windmill was converted into a lighthouse by Canada’s Department of Marine in 1873 and it remained in service for over 100 years, before being de-activated.

In 1996, the Friends of Windmill Point opened the stone lighthouse tower as a tourist attraction. Now known as the Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site, guided tours are conducted by volunteers, complete with a chance to climb to the top just below the lantern room for a view of the St. Lawrence River. Interpretive panels tell the story of the battle, along with a video presentation. The tower is open weekends in June and September, and daily in July and August.

Architectural Significance (from Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations web site)

“The Windmill Point Lighthouse is a rare surviving example of an English-built wind-powered mill in Upper Canada. Its original use as a windmill contributes to its distinctive visual qualities. The lighthouse is an early and excellent example of the adaptive re-use of a building, in this case a structure associated with the Rebellion of 1837-1838 that has been commemorated as the Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site of Canada. Since 1979, the lighthouse has been the centerpiece of a heritage site commemorating the Battle of the Windmill.

As a result of its excellent design and craftsmanship, the Windmill Point Lighthouse has served successfully both as a grist-mill and as a lighthouse for more than 180 years, and exhibits features of both. Good craftsmanship is evidenced in the locally quarried limestone laid in irregular fashion.”

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Windmill_National_Historic_Site, https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/on/windmill/decouvrir-discover, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nils_von_Schoultz, https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_hl_eng.aspx?id=14516.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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