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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

Drummond Islanders: The British Remove from Drummond Island

In 1828, the British base at Drummond Island was relocated to Penetanguishene. The story is familiar to many, two ships set out but only one made the trip while the other wrecked midway. Many times the focus has been on the wreck. But the story is much bigger than that...

Note the similarities of Fort Collyer to Penetang, with the small island protecting the shore

To begin the story, we need to tell a bit about the unusual situation that was Drummond Island. Drummond Island was a makeshift base that was never fully backed by the British government.

Location of MAckinac Island and Drummond island and the route in between

In 1815, the base at Mackinac was no longer in the hands of the British Military. The British had to relinquish the base as the Treaty of Ghent put it back in the hands of the Americans. One of the first actions of the war of 1812 was the capture of Mackinac. It was so quick that the American commanding the base was to utter "War, What war?" when he was presented with a motley crew of British, Metis and native forces at his door.

During the war, the base was held by the British and it's allies, but at the end of the war when borders were restored, the base returned to the Americans. This forced the British to find other accommodations. So Lt Col MacDonall, Captain Payne of the Royal Engineers and Captain Collier of the Royal Navy made the decision to move to Drummond Island a short distance away. This decision was a rather controversial one, as the real possibility of the site being turned over to the Americans was all too real. The question of where the border was drawn, to the west of Drummond island (Detour Straight) as the British thought, or to the east as the Americans thought. If it was west, than Drummond Island was British, if east, United States were the rightful owners. The British were leaving a location that was excellent to control the straights of Mackinac. They would remove to a location that was good to control that part of the Great Lakes.

So for the 13 years, yes only 13, the British occupation of Drummond Island was a precarious one. This also made it a rather odd one. Repeated efforts by those officers to make the base a defensive power were always met with deaf ears from the financially reeling British Government. So precarious was the situation that in the early years they didn't even supply it very well. Eventually cattle would be brought in, but no pasture land existed on the island so they had to be kept on St Joseph's Island.

Mount Tambora as it is today

In the second year of it's existence in 1816 a rather horrible and strangely unrecorded thing happened. There was no summer. Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted and launched the world into a volcanic winter. In the Spring and summer of 1816, a persistent fog enveloped the east coast. It is easy to transpose that information into Drummond Island also seeing odd weather. Cold weather and summer frost ruined crops, on Drummond Island this resulted in an outbreak of scurvy. But they survived, mostly.

Some Chimneys still stand

Despite the lack of interest by the British Government, the engineers didn't lack for projects, as described by Samuel Fletcher Cook in the "Story of Drummond Island", the houses and accouterments of the base were well made. Houses had large chimneys, that stand to this day and roadways were well made and wide.

So the military base at Drummond Island, despite it's officers urging, never became a true military instillation. Fur traders used the base, and a large civilian occupation surrounded the base. But it never lived up to it's potential, and as some had predicted, in 1822 the island did in fact drop into American hands.

So once again the base had to move. But the British once again dragged their feet on finding a new base, finally it was decided to move everything to the Military and Naval establishments at Penetanguishene. (Where never a discovery was made!)

The base had once been home to two companies of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and one of the 81st, but had dwindled to 40 men and seven officers, as well as the indian Department.

Subtle differences in sail make the Duke of Wellington a snow and not a Brig

On November 14 1828, two ships were boarding passengers to make the trip to Penetanguishene. Initially the Brig (or actually the classification was snow) the Duke of Wellington was hired to move the base, but that proved too small for everyone and a schooner was also hired. (The difference between a Brig and a snow is simply in the mast and sails)

The brig (or snow) made the trip successfully. Arriving late in November. The schooner seems to have found shelter from the storm and was lost. A rescue was made, without a loss.

Penetanguishene Bay

The story of the schooner has been told many times, so for now I'm going to put a pin in it. There's still some details that stick out as fishy, so I will revisit that later. The story I will tell here is that of the situation the people faced that set out for Penetanguishene from that day forward. Due to bureaucracy, the date for the removal of the forces was pushed to the brink of disaster.

The officers bungled the operation and instead of preparing for the removal they procrastinated till the last minute, and only due to heroic efforts was crisis averted. Actually, those leaving that day probably would argue that rather than being averted they would tell you it was conquered. The setters, who would also move to Penetanguishene, had been planning on the move for awhile, petitioning and obtaining land grants in the Area of Penetanguishene, years in advance. (My ancestor had received his 4 years earlier.)

The population of Drummond Island had become quite agricultural. The soldiers, families of the soldiers, civilians and Indian department agents had all been growing enough food to sustain them on the island. apple cherry, plum and pear trees were once (and maybe still) thriving on the island. Even Rosebushes were planted. But that day, due to poor execution, the supplies could not be brought along. Forethought lacking, earlier shipments to Penetanguishene did not occur, and at the late date, only shipments to nearby St Joseph's Island could be made in order to avoid it falling in too enemy hands. So on November 14th, in a snowstorm, the Brig Duke of Wellington and a schooner left Drummond Island for Penetanguishene.

When everyone finally arrived in the late part of November, they arrived without furnishings and other household items. The greater percent of the men were married family men. I doubt that of the 26 women who arrived any of them were not in some way married. So it is doubtful they would have enjoyed the presumably shared accommodations at Penetanguishene.

Those boarding the Wellington would have been familiar with her. She had made Drummond Island her port of call . Angus Mackintosh, of the Northwest Company had advertised her shipping between Amherstberg, Detroit and Drummond Island as early as 1818. This large ship and her consort left and according to records encountered a storm on route. Ships going from Drummond Island to Penetang would have taken a route into Lake Huron. Sailing ships can travel with or against the wind, only they need a fair amount of open water to do it. So likely they would take the outside route. Taking the inside route, like the Bateau and canoes who would come later would mean travelling throught Little Current, safe for small craft but treacherous for sailing craft who can't be paddled. And make no mistake, your not paddling a Brig or even a schooner.

Taking a ship into the wind

The brig continued to sail on arriving in Penetanguishene safely. It escort wrecked. A rescue mission was sent out for the survivors of the wreck, and everyone safely made it to Penetanguishene except for one horse who lived out his life on the island.

A similar Brig or snow

The ships contained 7 officers, 40 men, 15 women, 26 children and 3 servants; a total of 91 people arrived in late November in Penetanguishene. Those on board consisted of those members of the British army and their families, and those who were part of the Indian Department who were assigned to the new post at Penetanguishene. As the officers were ill prepared to leave Drummond Island, in all probability the base was not prepared for their arrival either, and with the supplies of one ship going to the bottom...I would suspect the "Canadians" that George Head encountered in his earlier trip to Penetang would have been leaned on for supplies.

Those "Canadians", the Metis followers of William Cowan that had a trading post nearby, would have probably helped the migrants to weather the winter, as it does not record anyone starving. Some members of the Indian Department stayed at St Joseph Island to stay in contact with their allies there.

The village on Drummond Island was quite a bit larger than 90 people, so what happened to the rest of them. Well winter stores had already been put into cellars and houses were well built. Even if their houses were substandard, the evacuating soldiers would leave well built domiciles to be lived in. The American presence was minimal, as only one man was ordered to look after the buildings. So life went on, on the island for one more winter at least, only without the soldiers and Indian Department.

This also illustrates the situation Post War of 1812. The once large and expensive British Military was in a era of contraction. The Newfoundland Regiment that had once been at Drummond Island were now beyond their service time and had been disbanded. The British people once rabid to defeat Napoleon and the upstart Americans, and maybe even a sultan or two in India, no longer were as willing to pay for a military no longer needed.

For the officers at Drummond Island this meant a very small detachment, no palisades, and even further deteriorating circumstances. Upon moving to Penetang, it not only resulted in a loss of face, but also a loss of the respect once held by their Indian allies.

Similarly, land was promised to those who supported and fought in the war.

Applications were filled out, but land grants were under different rules. Previous grants of 200 acres were reduced. This was done without the knowledge of the British officers on the frontier. They had believed their allies would be taken care of and sadly they were not.

The focus of the story always falls to the Schooner and the ship wreck. Admittedly I began by researching that. Researching that was my focus, but that story falls apart in many different aspects to the point i suddenly realize that wasn't in fact the story that needed to be told. There is more to the story, but it is proving difficult. This story is the one that is not told often enough and is a big part of the history of our area. If I ever get the story of the schooner straight I will make a post about it.

As for those leaving that day, I wonder to their moral. The move had long since been rumored, with land being given out at the new location, it must have caused anxiety to have waited to such a late date. Spending days, some reports 7 days, in a ship on the Great Lakes in not for the faint of heart. Add to that the fact the role of the Indian department would be greatly reduced, with many of the "presents" being reassigned to other places. Many of those who had come to Drummond Island would be told to go to Amherstberg or elsewhere. Add to that the main body of the populace would still be on Drummond Island, and whereas the expectation was for them to soon arrive, they was still a possibility that they would be convince to stay.

Art Duval

Pipesmoke of the Past

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