July 16, 2021, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
The experiences of women living in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 have long been visible only at the edges of traditional battle narratives and military biographies. In pre-professional histories of Upper Canada and modern military histories, women are commonly portrayed as victims who merely illustrate the brutal nature of war. This study of women’s experiences during the War of 1812 challenges existing limited portrayals of women as passive objects of “untold suffering” by expanding the historical lens to include a broader range of women’s activities made visible in official records compiled because of the war, particularly war loss claims. Focusing on the Niagara District as a case study, evidence found through this expanded view demonstrates that women’s lives were much more dynamic and complex than a single moment of trauma can represent.
Before the outbreak of war, women were involved in the settlement and growth of the Niagara District through their acquisition of capital by land petitions and through their integral role in frontier life. Throughout the conflict, women supported the war effort by providing information, resources, and aid to the army. They ensured the safety and survival of their families by merging households, providing mutual support, applying for aid from private organizations, and even cooperating with the enemy to procure food. Women participated in local and provincial economies by taking on additional work in farms and business when male kin were absent or deceased, applying for compensation for their wartime losses, and then using their awards to rebuild homes and purchase land. In all these activities, women were aware of and acted in accordance with their positions within the patriarchal social structures of frontier provincial life but also worked to shape those positions according to their needs and circumstances. Through an examination of the lives of women in the Niagara District, this dissertation argues that women’s unique situation in Upper Canada positioned and empowered them to shape the settlement of the province, the survival of families and communities during the war, and the reconstruction of the province in the postwar years.