During the War of 1812, the potential American invasion in British North America posed a direct threat to both the British Government and to the North West Company (NWC).
For fur trade operations such as the NWC, armed conflict meant disruption of trade and potential ruin. Each July, the NWC used the locks at Sault Ste. Marie to tranship an entire year's supply of furs and trade goods. Situated nearby at St. Josephs Island were large warehouses containing stores of firearms, gunpowder and liquor. If the Americans secured either of these establishments, they would control access to Lake Superior and threaten British holdings in North America as well as the very existence of the NWC.
As it was less than one day's travel to Sault Ste. Marie from Fort Mackinac, it was advantageous to the British and the North West Company to secure the American establishment. In July 1812, a force consisting of 180 voyageurs, 300 Indians, and 45 regulars of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion stationed at St. Josephs Island departed for Fort Mackinac. On July 18th, the force managed to take the American fort by surprise, partly due to the fact that the men stationed there were unaware war had been declared.
In October 1812, North West Company Chief Director William McGillivray was given the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and instructed to form a company of voyageurs made up of North West Company engagés. Officers of this newly formed corps came from the Scottish gentlemen partners and clerks of the Company.
The carefree demeanour and lack of discipline of the voyageurs often drove their officers to distraction but they did manage to see some action during their brief six-month tenure as militia.
The Corps disbanded March 1813 in Lachine, Quebec after serving in engagements at St. Regis, 23rd October and LaColle, 20th November 1812.
Count DeMeuron's Swiss Regiment
Originally raised by the Swiss Count DeMeuron for the Dutch East India Company (1781), the regiment subsequently transferred its service to the British and fought in the second Mysore campaign under Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington). It was in this campaign that the regiment's first battle honour was won during the siege of Serengapatam.
In 1813, the regiment was transferred to North America where it distinguished itself in covering the retreat from the Battle for Plattsburg. In 1816, the unit was disbanded.
Lord Selkirk of the Hudson's Bay Company then employed 90 discharged soldiers of the former DeMeuron and DeWattville regiments (these included 80 DeMeurons) to serve as soldier/settlers and help protect his Red River settlement, the presence of which had incurred the wrath of the North West Company. Selkirk had been en route from Sault Ste. Marie with his newly acquired force when he learned of the "massacre" at Seven Oaks, whereby twenty-two of his settlers were killed in conflict with Métis buffalo hunters employed by the NWC. In retaliation for the killings at Seven Oaks, Lord Selkirk would seize Fort William on August 13th 1816, accusing the Nor'Westers of murder.
A Brief History of the Modern Re-enactment Unit
The Canadian Corps of Voyageurs was formed in 1976 to interpret the voyageurs as a soldier and his use of firearms and artillery as a North West Company engagé. In this role, Corps members participate in special events at Fort William Historic Park as well as demonstrate historic interpretation.
In 1981, Fort William supplied Corps members with reproduction DeMeuron uniforms to enhance the re-enactment of Lord Selkirk's occupation of Fort William. This encouraged several members to take the King's shilling and acquire their own uniforms and interpret the regular soldier of the War of 1812 in addition to their voyageur militia interpretation. Since then, Corps members have attended battle re-enactments at several historic sites in southern Ontario and the United States.