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Warriors and Warships

Conflict on the Great Lakes and the Legacy of Point Frederick

by (author) Robert D. Banks

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2023
Canada, Pre-Confederation (to 1867), Naval
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    Publish Date
    Jan 2023
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    Jan 2023
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Winner, Keith Matthews Best Book Award presented by Canadian Nautical Research Society

The untold story of Point Frederick, where early nineteenth-century Canadians built warships that stopped invasion and brought peace.

Warriors and Warships brings to life a much neglected part of Canada’s military history, covering the warships and the people who built them at Point Frederick from the late eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Opposite Kingston, Point Frederick was the 1789 dockyard home of the Provincial Marine on Lake Ontario and the headquarters of Britain’s Royal Navy from 1813 to 1853. Today, it is the home of the Royal Military College of Canada.

In this detailed narrative, with over one hundred colour archival maps, aerial views, photographs, and 3D reconstructions, Banks recounts Point Frederick’s building of great sail and steam warships and the roles these vessels played in conflict on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and Niagara. Among the conflicts is the War of 1812, when French Canadian and British shipwrights made warships that forced the U.S. Navy into port and led to the American withdrawal from Canada. Banks also covers the role of the ships in the settlement of Upper Canada, the rebellion of 1837, the early planning of the Rideau Canal, and the beginning of the undefended border.

Along the way, Banks introduces an array of people from Upper Canada, such as Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe and his wife, Elizabeth Posthuma; Governor General Lord Dorchester; General Isaac Brock; Sir James Yeo, and even Charles Dickens. He also describes the day-to-day activities at Point Frederick, beyond shipbuilding and military campaigns, such as skating parties, sleigh rides, theatricals, disease and death, and crime and punishment.

Banks shares the moments of hardship, triumph, and tragedy of both the warriors and the warships in this important contribution to Canadian history.

About the author

Robert Banks graduated from Royal Military College (RMC) in 1974, and went on to become a military pilot, flight surgeon, NASA consultant, and author of scientific papers. His published articles include histories of air force and naval squadrons, WWII, and historic buildings of RMC. He splits his time between Barrie, Ontario, and San Antonio, Texas.


Robert D. Banks' profile page


  • Winner, Keith Matthews Best Book Award (Canadian Nautical Research Society)

Excerpt: Warriors and Warships: Conflict on the Great Lakes and the Legacy of Point Frederick (by (author) Robert D. Banks)

Point Frederick is located near Kingston, Ontario. It can be seen from Fort Henry, an old fort and popular tourist attraction known for its history and views of Kingston and Lake Ontario. Point Frederick is the home of the Royal Military College (RMC), where officers are trained to serve in Canada’s army, navy, and air force. The view from Fort Henry has changed over the years as Navy Bay, which separates Point Frederick and Fort Henry, has been filled in to create sports fields for the cadets. The calm campus atmosphere and mix of classroom, dormitory, and sports buildings belie evidence in the ground and along the shores of past events that profoundly influenced the course of Canadian history.
During the War of 1812, Point Frederick was the site of a Royal Navy dockyard where warships were built. The location was strategically placed on Lake Ontario at the outlet where its waters flow into the St. Lawrence River. More of a peninsula than a point, the name first applied to a ragged hook of forested land of about 100 acres. Today, it is separated from the City of Kingston by the Cataraqui River, so named by Indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans.
Although Point Frederick is generally associated with the War of 1812, a conflict lasting only 30 months, the principal activity of shipbuilding spanned 50 years. Its association with Canadian history both precedes and follows the war. The choice of Point Frederick as a dockyard location was not easily made but was fortunate. When first considered during the Revolutionary War, Kingston and Point Frederick were rejected, because the harbour was considered too shallow and the ground undefendable. When examined again, Point Frederick was thought acceptable, but another site was preferred. When a dockyard was finally ordered to be established at Point Frederick, controversy developed and vigorous arguments against Point Frederick were presented regularly for 20 years. Toronto, or York, was considered the best choice, because it was thought that Kingston could not be defended.
Soon before the onset of the War of 1812, a decision was made by Governor-in-Chief of British North America George Prevost to transfer the Kingston royal dockyard to York. The move would be gradual, but shipwrights were soon transferred to York. The plan was ruined by the American attack on York on April 28, 1813. The York defences were weak. The town was pillaged, government buildings burned, a vessel on the stocks destroyed, and some of the shipwrights killed or captured. York’s weak defences may have invited the second assault that occurred later in the year. Although targeted constantly by the Americans during the war, Kingston was not attacked.
From its earliest days, the Point Frederick dockyard built vessels that provided transport services on Lake Ontario for military troops, settlers, and commerce. With poor roads and few merchant vessels on the lake, the service was essential to the early development of Ontario and Canada. Some of the sailors and officers had served in the French navy before the conquest and contributed a rich legacy of sailing skill specific to Lake Ontario.
The Royal Navy came to Lake Ontario in 1813 and assumed control from the Provincial Marine, a small lake fleet under the command of the army. It was evident that the Americans planned to invade Canada. To succeed, they needed naval control of Lake Ontario. Denying the Americans control of the lake was a crucial mission of the Royal Navy. It was understood that control of the lake would go to the side that had the greatest firepower.
Both sides began a vigorous shipbuilding program. The Americans had the advantage, since they could find skilled manpower relatively close on the East Coast. The British had more difficulty, since their shipwrights were thousands of miles away. As the ships increased in size and number, more highly skilled shipwrights were required. Critically short at Point Frederick, the building program was saved by the arrival of shipwrights from Lower Canada who had been trained in the Quebec shipyards.
Launching the new, more powerful ships required deep water. This was not a problem at Point Frederick, although other harbours on the north shore were too shallow. The cove at Sackets Harbor, the site of the U.S. Navy dockyard, was also too shallow. Delayed by this problem and lacking authority to build, the U.S. Navy lost ground in the shipbuilding race. Meanwhile, Royal Navy shipwrights, working side by side with Quebec shipwrights in all weather and without shelter, pulled ahead. After a year of building, on October 16, 1814, the British took control of Lake Ontario with HMS St. Lawrence, 112 guns; HMS Prince Regent, 56 guns; and HMS Princess Charlotte, 42 guns. This ended any chance of an invasion of Upper Canada by the two large U.S. armies near Niagara, and no shots were fired.
After the peace, but anticipating a return to war, the British preserved and kept the Point Frederick warships ready for combat. They also continued building. While naval vessels sailed peacefully on Lake Ontario, the American government suggested a plan to remove all warships on both sides from the Great Lakes, which Britain agreed to. Still concerned about a future conflict, however, the British maintained the naval fleet at Point Frederick. During this interval, construction was underway on the Rideau Canal, a feature that would allow the Royal Navy quick access to Lake Ontario in the event of another war.
The strategic success of the canal led to the sharp decline of the Point Frederick dockyard. A standing navy on Lake Ontario was no longer needed, although fears of rebellion led to the return of the Royal Navy in 1838. Royal Marines were called into action soon after, taking casualties. This prompted a Royal Navy gunboat presence on Lakes Ontario and Erie for a few more years. But the promise of demilitarization with the United States was kept, and there was no need for a standing naval force. Warships disappeared from the Great Lakes. The Rideau Canal was utilized for commerce and pleasure boating. The demilitarized border, a direct result of the bloodless Royal Navy victory on Lake Ontario in 1814, led to peace. This remains perpetuated along the world’s longest undefended border.
The dockyard was closed for many years until the British Admiralty ceded the Point Frederick naval property to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Since 1876, Point Frederick has been the home of the RMC. In anticipation of the college’s opening, most of the old Royal Navy buildings were pulled down, the grounds were beautified, and trees were eventually planted. Several of the old stone buildings were preserved, most built after the War of 1812.
One of the buildings that has survived is the Stone Frigate, a limestone storehouse erected following the War of 1812 to hold naval stores. During the interior renovation done prior to the opening of the RMC, it was gutted again and a new interior built. At first the Stone Frigate housed the entire college, until an education building was constructed. The old blacksmith structure, built in stone in 1815, became the gymnasium.
From this modest beginning, the RMC has grown into a world-class institution respected around the globe. The success of the college is often told through the accomplishments of its graduates. Aside from military achievements, graduates populate the professions, excelling in most fields, including business, politics, science, academia, engineering, law, medicine, and sports.
The history of the RMC has been told in two books by historian Richard A. Preston. The first is Canada’s RMC: A History of the Royal Military College. The second extends the history to 1991 and is titled To Serve Canada: A History of the Royal Military College Since the Second World War.
Preston’s first history begins with Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie’s visit to Fort Henry in June 1874. The prime minister and another officer presented themselves to the sentry, who did not recognize him and would not allow him inside. Word was sent for Major D.T. Irwin, the commanding officer in Kingston. As Irwin rode up Fort Henry hill to meet his guests, he consoled “himself that any unfortunate delay could be attributed to the lack of forewarning.”
According to Preston’s account, Irwin rode up to Fort Henry where he found that his unexpected guest was indeed the Prime Minister, the Honourable Alexander Mackenzie.
Mackenzie proved to be “most agreeable” despite the inconvenience caused by the delay. He proceeded to look over the fort and also inspect the buildings on Point Frederick, the next peninsula to the west between Point Henry and Kingston, which had at one time been the site of a royal dockyard. Mackenzie already knew something about the buildings on Point Frederick because he had worked as a stone mason on the construction of the Kingston martello towers soon after he had arrived from Scotland as an immigrant.
In his book, Preston remarks that the visit of the prime minister “was in fact the first constructive step and a significant development for Canada, the establishment of a military college to educate and train officers.”
While writers and historians have written short accounts of historical events of early Point Frederick before the RMC, the complete story has not been told. This book aims to put the pieces together and complete the narrative of Point Frederick. Preston’s account of its history begins where this one ends.
This story starts more than two centuries before the beginning of the RMC in a Wendat canoe returning from battle with the Haudenosaunee and carrying the first European casualty of war on Lake Ontario.

Editorial Reviews

Warriors and Warships is deeply researched and scholarly, but accessible to both general readers and specialists. It brings the history of Kingston’s Point Frederick out of the shadows of more familiar narratives of the early history of Ontario and the War of 1812 and sheds greater light on an important period in our Nation’s history.

Major-General (ret) Paul Hussey, OMM, CD, MSM, BA (Hist) Former Commander, Canadian Defence Academy

Author Robert Banks takes a site central to Canadian history – Point Frederick, on the peninsula across the harbour from historic Kingston, at the confluence of the St. Lawrence, Cataraqui-Rideau Canal system and Lake Ontario — and brings it to life with telling detail set well in the context of its environment. Superbly illustrated with archival images and present-day photographs, this volume is a must for anyone wishing to understand the pre-Confederation quest for mastery of Lake Ontario.

Keith Matthews Best Book Award jury citation