The War of 1812 is often forgotten in the string of wars that make up American history. If people think of it at all it’s largely in thinking about the White House being set on fire by the British. But some of the fiercest fighting took place on the shores of Lake Ontario at Fort Niagara. The strategic nature of the fort resulted in battles to control it in the French and Indian War, then the Revolutionary War, and finally the War of 1812. War was officially declared on June 18, 1812. It would reach Fort Niagara soon enough.
A young woman named Betsy Doyle and her four children followed Betsy’s husband Andrew across the Niagara River to Fort Niagara in 1810, where she served as either a nurse or a laundress. Andrew served in the American Army, and for two years they lived in relative peace. But in October 1812 Andrew was captured by the British at the Battle of Queenstown. He would never see Betsy again. As a Canadian, Andrew was considered a traitor and was shipped off to England to spend the next three years in prison. Betsy and her four children remained at Fort Niagara.
On November 21, 1812 Fort Niagara came under fire from the British in a battle that would make Betsy Doyle famous, but not infamous. The American Army would fire hot shot at the British. Hot shot was cannonballs and grape shot that was heated red hot in the coals, loaded quickly into a cannon and shot at ships or the British outpost across the river. The hot shot was devastating to ships in particular. But it was very dangerous for the gun crew that was loading it into the cannon as it could easily trigger an explosion that would kill anyone nearby. One crew was killed just this way on that day. But Betsy Doyle continued to bring hot shot up, help load the gun and run back to the coals for more. The commanding officer called Betsy Doyle’s actions that day brave, and she was certainly a hero.
Thirteen months later the British with Native American allies would turn the tables on the Americans, seizing Fort Niagara in a particularly gruesome fashion. When the Americans refused to surrender, the British commander offered no quarter and gave the order to bayonet them all. Betsy and her children somehow escaped that day, but December in enemy territory in Upstate New York almost guaranteed that they wouldn’t survive long. But somehow they did, walking over 300 miles in the bitter New York winter to Albany.
Betsy was never paid for her heroism a Fort Niagara, and would die six years later. I’ve wondered where her gravestone is, as I’d like to pay her a visit. For all of her courage on November 21, 1812 and the four month walk across New York State to keep her four children alive, there isn’t enough recognition of Betsy Doyle. The tablet that honors her isn’t prominently displayed at Fort Niagara, it’s on the top floor of the French Castle, near where she fought alongside American men on that day in 1812. It might be hidden because they got her name wrong and called her Fanny Doyle instead of Betsy. It’s unfortunate that someone hasn’t given her a proper tribute. You can find her story if you search for it, but she’s largely lost to history. Her husband Andrew came back to the United States but never found her and married someone else the same year that Betsy died. Her story is tragic and heroic all at once.