An American Spy's Report on Fort York, 1840

Edited by Carl Benn
This article first appeared in The York Pioneer, 2003 (Vol. 98) and is reproduced on the Fort York website courtesy of the York Pioneer and Historical Society.


The following text on Toronto's defences in 1840 is an excerpt from an American intelligence report about Canadian fortifications during the latter stages of the Rebellion Crisis. There was a worrisome deterioration in Anglo-American relations at the time, and presumably the US army prepared the study as a contingency measure. The document as a whole described topography, defences, and related themes, but also included a small amount of data on other topics, such as British military equipment, some of which the report recommended the Americans adopt as being superior to their own.(1) In addition to the text, the report included some sketch maps but they are not very accurate and do not include any data that does not appear on British army plans of Toronto's military works.(2)

The author was Lieutenant Minor Knowlton of the First United States Artillery Regiment, who worked as the Instructor of Cavalry and Artillery at West Point. He prepared his study for Colonel J.G. Totten, Chief Engineer, on 3 December 1840. It is titled, 'Copy of a Report on the Military Establishments of the British Provinces.' It is located in the Special Collections and Archives of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. (Minor changes have been made to modernize and regularize spelling, punctuation, and numbering, and some paragraph breaks have been adjusted to improve the clarity of the text; otherwise no words have been changed and editorial comments within the text are enclosed in square brackets.)


General Topographical Information From The East And West Of Use To An Attacker

At Toronto, the preparations for defence are of considerable importance, consisting of an old field work, recently repaired, and extensive barracks of stone, now constructing.(3) … Between these two works are the ruins of a redoubt battery intended apparently for one or two guns.(4) A short distance west of the barracks are to be seen the traces of the old French fort Toronto.(5)

The bay or harbour of Toronto is sheltered from the storms of the lake by a low and narrow sandbar extending to the southwest from the mainland east of the city.(6) The entrance to the harbour is by a channel, which lies near the northern shore and under the guns of the fort.(7)

The approach to the city from the east would be difficult. It would be necessary to land beyond the sandbar and pass around the head of the bay, which is itself three miles from the city, and afterwards to cross the Don River, which is bordered by broad marshes almost or quite impassable.(8) The country on this route is broken by creek gullies; and the wooden bridge by which the Don must be passed could be easily destroyed.

The approach to the city, from the west for a distance of at least three or four miles would be very easy (and perhaps even from a much greater distance, but want of time prevented me from ascertaining the fact by examination). The country from the distance mentioned is open and nearly level, but not very favourable for landing from the lake on account of the high steep bank, which extends the whole distance. This bank is of clay, from twelve to fifteen feet high, and nearly perpendicular. The landing upon the narrow beach at its base would be perfectly easy throughout, but scaling ladders would be necessary to ascend it, except in a few places where one or two men might mount abreast.(9) It would be necessary, therefore, especially if opposition were expected, to seek a landing farther west, where from the nature of the country, there is no doubt a good one may be found.

Fort York

About a mile west of the town is Fort Toronto,(10) situated upon the shore, and commanding Fort York in 1842 from a British Army map by Capt. Vincent Biscoe. Note the palisades and stockades around the fort and artillery square.[i] (Library and Archives Canada, C-137340)[/i]the channel at the entrance of the harbour.(11) It is an irregular field work, which has been recently repaired and strengthened by nearly surrounding it with rows of fraises and palisades. The fraises project nearly horizontally from the parapet, just below the exterior crest, and the palisades are planted at the foot of the scarp.(12) … In the interior of the fort are a good many buildings of wood and a few of brick, none of them strong enough to add much to the defence.(13) The palisades around the work are slight, and planted with small intervals between them.(14) The fraises are of the same character.

The stockade, which encloses the stables, etc. in the [Garrison Creek] ravine [just north of the fort], is strong. It is composed of one row of pickets, closely set, and furnished with loopholes.(15) The stables, storehouses, etc. in the ravine are of wood. The officers quarters at the angles of the stockade are of brick.(16)

The fort has no embrasure batteries except upon the front [south side], which commands the entrance of the harbour.(17) In the half-moon at the centre of this front is an embrasure battery of three eighteen or twenty-four pounder guns and two small howitzers. The guns command the channel and the howitzers flank the faces of the right and left.(18) The entrance to the fort from the west, which is through a gate in the centre of the curtain, is covered by a stockade redan. The ditch is crossed by a bridge.(19) The [Garrison Creek] ravine, which serves as a ditch for a large part of the work [on the north and east sides], is neither very deep nor difficult to pass. It furnishes but a partial shelter for the buildings it contains. The small stream running through it is fed merely by the surplus waters of the rainy season, and is of no importance as an obstacle.

New Fort

About half [a] mile west of Fort Toronto are extensive barracks of stone, not yet entirely completed. They will be large enough for one regiment; and from their position and arrangement they will be capable of considerable defence. …

The officers quarters are three stories in height, and the other buildings two.(20) The walls of all are of excellent masonry, three feet in thickness. The outside fronts of all the buildings have windows grated with strong iron bars to overlook the country. The enclosure of the barrack yard on all sides (except that of the lake) is a strong stockade composed of a double row of pickets, closely set and breaking joints. The pickets are each nine inches or a foot in diameter; and they are secured by iron bolts to a square timber let in between the rows near the top. The stockade has loopholes throughout, but no ditch. Its gates are of oak, about six inches thick, with loopholes.(21)

[Northerly approaches to Toronto]

The entrance to the city of Toronto from the rear appears to be entirely open. It seems never to have been obstructed either by nature or art.(22)

Dr Carl Benn is the Chief Curator of the City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services. His many publications include Historic Fort York, 1793–1993 (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1993), The Iroquois in the War of 1812 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), and The War of 1812 (Oxford: Osprey, 2002). Currently he is editing a collection of First Nations memoirs from 1812 for publication.

Notes to Text

  1. The text on equipment is printed in James S. Hutchins, ed., ‘British cavalry, artillery, and infantry observed in Canada by Lt Minor Kowlton, 1st US Artillery, 1840,’ Military Collector and Historian 51/3 (1999), 122-25.
  2. For maps, illustrations, and information on Toronto’s defences at this period, see Carl Benn, Historic Fort York, 1793-1993 (Toronto 1993), 93-115.
  3. Fort York often is referred to as a field work, presumably in reference to the characteristics of its earthen ramparts. The New Fort of 1840-41, located towards the east end of Exhibition Place, became ‘Stanley Barracks’ in 1893.
  4. The redoubt was the Western Battery located near today’s Princes’ Gates at the CNE, built before the War of 1812, destroyed in the battle of York in 1813, rebuilt shortly afterwards as a substantial work, then left to deteriorate, but re-constructed on a smaller scale during the Trent Affair of the 1860s. A plan of it can be seen in Benn, Historic Fort York, 72. That plan, from 1816, shows three guns in place.
  5. The ruins of Fort Rouillé (1750-59) were visible until the site was graded in 1878. The main monument that commemorates the site today dates to the 1880s. The site is located roughly between today’s CNE Bandshell and Scadding Cabin.
  6. Now the Toronto Islands, then the ‘Peninsula,’ which was attached to the mainland in the days before the Eastern Gap was cut and dredged.
  7. Although the mouth of Toronto Bay was large, a great sandbar on the south side forced ships to enter within point blank range of Fort York’s guns. Fears that the growing sandbar would plug up the harbour completely contributed to the decision to build the Queen’s Wharf just southeast of Fort York in 1833 which, aside from its wharf functions, was designed to increase the strength of the current to prevent the sandbar from spreading. British defence planners assumed that the wharf would be armed during a war with the United States to supplement Fort York’s capabilities.
  8. As well, an attacker coming from the east would have to operate without naval support. The comparative security of the eastern approach to Toronto allowed the British to maintain only modest defences at the Don and concentrated their efforts in and around Fort York in the west where an attacker would have the benefit of naval support.
  9. American forces found this bank to be a problem when they attacked York in April 1813, although they did not need ladders to reach the plain above the beach in what today is Parkdale.
  10. The original document contains a footnote that reads: ‘I am not very certain that this is the true name.’ The author’s confusion was not unreasonable. The name ‘Fort York’ rarely was used before the beginning of the fort’s museum era. In its military period, it normally was called ‘the garrison,’ ‘the old fort’, ‘the fort at York,’ and other imprecise names.
  11. The hundreds of metres of land between the fort and channel today is fill, dating between the 1850s and the 1920s.
  12. The palisades and fraises (horizontal palisades) were designed to slow or stop an attacker during an assault. They were integrated into the permanent earthworks of the fort, with the fraising installed near the top of the earthworks and the palisades on the outside walls near their base.
  13. One wonders why he did not value the defensive capabilities of the blockhouses, which had been strengthened as a result of the Rebellion Crisis. Perhaps he did not get inside the fort to look around.
  14. The small intervals between the logs were about the width of someone’s hand, and were intended to prevent an attacker from using the palisades for cover because the defenders could fire through the gaps. The local militia installed the palisades and fraises during the winter of 1837-38. Afterwards, regular army officers criticized the new defences for not being as strong as they should have been.
  15. The ravine area or ‘Artillery Square’ housed stables and other service buildings in the Garrison Creek valley. A stockade differed from a palisade in that the logs did not have spaces between them, and defenders stood immediately on the inside of them to fire at an enemy through loopholes cut into the logs. In contrast, palisades usually were located at a bit of a distance in front of the defenders’ line, such as around the main part of Fort York, where defenders would have stood behind the artillery-proof earthworks a few metres away from the palisades, with the palisades being intended to prevent attackers from storming the earthworks. The net effect of stockading the Artillery Square was to make it defensible in its own right. For the location of the palisades and stockade, see an 1842 map of the fort in Benn, Historic Fort York, 106. The ravine stockade was largely destroyed during a spring flood in 1852 (memorandum, 1852, National Archives of Canada, RG8, C Series, vol. 1417, pp. 229-30).
  16. There were two brick buildings located on high ground north of the ravine used for officers’ quarters that could have served as bastions for the stockaded work. See the 1842 map mentioned above. They probably had bulletproof screens that could have been used to block up their windows during an attack, as did some buildings within the fort during the Rebellion Crisis.
  17. Today’s restored north bastion with its two embrasures represents the 1815 state of the wall. However, these embrasures were filled in later, probably early in the Rebellion Crisis, and do not appear on the 1842 map noted above. (Embrasures were holes in the wall through which cannon could be fired at an enemy. As well, artillery could be mounted on traversing carriages to fire over the top of walls, such as exists on Fort York’s west face today.)
  18. This bastion was pierced for two guns originally, but as enlarged to hold five guns during the Rebellion Crisis. Today it is restored to its smaller 1815 configuration.
  19. The gate was in the same location as Fort York’s current west gate, in a curtain wall that connected the two bastions on the west side of the fort. The redan was a small wooden defence on the west side of the moat that protected the gate from direct fire. Further research is needed to determine if the author meant a real bridge or used that term for a causeway such as exists at present at the site.
  20. The only building of the New Fort that still stands is the officers’ quarters.
  21. The information on the stockade demonstrates that the New Fort’s defences were much stronger than previously thought because the stockade was made of such thick logs and, unusually, was two logs thick. (The term ‘breaking joints’ likely meant that the second row of logs was offset from the first row so that the thickest part of the second row covered the thinnest part of the first.) Not only would this impressive stockade have been bullet proof, but it probably could have stood up to a fair amount of canister and exploding shot, and even held up for some time against smaller calibre round shot of the type that a field force likely would have used. From British documents we know the stockade was 2.4 metres high. (The army had intended to build more impressive landward defence for the New Fort as well as a large shore battery to guard the harbour, but a combination of the passing of the Rebellion Crisis and budget over-runs on the construction of the Rideau Canal and other projects led the army to abandon the heavier works, thus leaving Fort York as the main harbour defence for Toronto.
  22. The author seems to have missed the Bathurst Street Barracks (at Queen and Bathurst) as well as the Spadina, Yonge, and Sherbourne blockhouses and the fortification of the Don River bridge. As with the east, an attacker coming from the north would have had to have operated without naval support, but would have been additionally vulnerable because the defenders could have cut off the attacking army’s retreat back to its naval force.