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Speer: Niagara a reminder of role in War of 1812

July 6, 2012
Bill Speer - Editor/Publisher , The Alpena News

Northeast Michigan residents will have a chance to experience the bicentennial of the War of 1812 in "real-time" fashion this month when the Flagship Niagara sails into Alpena.

Sunday and Monday, students will be using the ship for maritime training lessons while it is in port. Then, July 20 and 21, the ship returns - this time for public viewing.

The Niagara holds incredible prominence in history and folklore, as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry took over its command in the Battle of Lake Erie and ultimately abandoned his own ship, whose cannons had become inoperable, and rowed to the Niagara. Immediately he ordered the ship to execute a daring naval maneuver that caught two British warships unaware and before they could react, both sustained crippling blows from the Niagara's guns.

While the Niagara's visit to Alpena in July is part of an interesting bicentennial connection that links Michigan to the War of 1812, it is but one of the many links our state has to that war.

In fact, Northeast Michigan in particular has very close links to the War of 1812 as that was the only time in our state's history that a war was actually fought on state soil.

Phil Porter, executive director of Mackinac State Historic Parks and chair of the Michigan Commission on the Commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, said that at the beginning of the war Michigan was essentially "captured" by the British - beginning with the victory at Fort Mackinac on July 17, 1812, and concluding with the capture of Fort Detroit on Aug. 16 that same year.

"The attack at Mackinac was the first military encounter on U.S. soil," Porter said, in a recent news release. "While Detroit was later retaken by American troops, Mackinac remained in British hands throughout the war. Had the Treaty of Ghent (Dec. 24, 1814) not returned Mackinac to the United States, the border between Michigan and Canada might well begin at the Straits of Mackinac rather than Sault Ste. Marie."

According to Porter, when the British captured Mackinac Island on July 17, 1812, they required civilians living on the island to sign an oath of allegiance to King George III. Three civilians, including Ambrose Davenport, boldly refused and were sent to Detroit on parole with the American soldiers.

"In rejecting the offer to sign and stay on Mackinac Island, Davenport, a former U.S. soldier who was stationed at Fort Mackinac from 1796-1802, stated, 'I was born an American and am determined, at all costs, to live and die an American,'" Porter said.

Davenport left behind a wife and six children. After the war, he returned to his family and lived the rest of his life on Mackinac Island.

One small story out of countless others, but it accurately reflects the fierce determination of many of Michigan's early residents as well as the age-old belief that freedom isn't free.

"Freedom is bought and paid for by the sacrifice of those who are willing to defend the freedoms that we all enjoy," Porter said.

"The Michigan Territory played a role as a key battleground in the War of 1812," Porter said. "The U.S. was fighting to protect the right of American citizens to settle in the territory and pursue their livelihoods, most especially farming and the fur trade."

The Niagara's visit during this bicentennial celebration serves as an interesting reminder as to the role our region played in that war, and how different our state might have looked had things turned out differently.



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