Life

Navy hero remembered locally

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

The battle of Fort Oswego in upper New York state, was a success for the Royal Navy, thanks in part to the actions of Miller Worsley.

The battle of Fort Oswego in upper New York state, was a success for the Royal Navy, thanks in part to the actions of Miller Worsley.

Miller Worsley was not some cast-off from the Royal Navy, sent off to Canada to fulfill some half-hearted commitment to the defence of British North America when the United States declared war in 1812.

No, he was part of a core of highly regarded, mostly younger, officers meant to be the backbone of the naval force on the Great Lakes.

His backstory with the Royal Navy made for impressive reading considering he was only 22 years old and first lieutenant when he joined Robert Heriot Barclay, Daniel Pring, and others in a Royal Navy deployment on Lake Ontario in 1813. By 1814 he was first lieutenant in the crew of the Princess Charlotte, a 42-gun frigate.

The Princess Charlotte was a new ship, built in Kingston. She was under the command of William Mulcaster. Barrie residents may recognize both Worsley and Mulcaster - the city's streets of the same names are in honour of the pair of naval officers from this ship.

On May 5, 1814, this new vessel accompanied a squadron sailing for Fort Oswego on the southwest shore of Lake Ontario in northern New York State. Mulcaster's mission was to lead a 200-man force to attack the fort from its western flank while the ship carried reserve troops and shelled the fort with her 24-pounder long guns. At 1 p.m. local time, the ship began bombarding the fort while Mulcaster landed his men, with Worsley among them, attacking the main shore battery. Mulcaster was wounded in the thigh but Worsley helped continue the attack, which successfully captured the battery, putting it out of action. The reserve troops from the Princess Charlotte were put on shore and the supplies and goods captured from the fort were loaded onto the squadron ships which then returned to Kingston.

The same squadron was detailed with blockading the American main base on Lake Ontario at Sackets Harbour - at the far east edge of the lake. By now the Princess Charlotte was under command of Captain Edward Collier. (Barrie's Collier Street is named after him.) This action was not successful and the Princess Charlotte was returned to Kingston for the rest of the summer.

But Worsley's ability to lead men in action on both land and on ship led to his new posting to commanding the naval reinforcement for Fort Michilimackinac. He replaced Lieutenant Newdigate Poyntz (Barrie's Poyntz Street is named after him) who had annoyed the base commander at Fort Michilimackinac to the point where Poyntz had to go. The base commander's name at the time was Lt. Col. Robert McDouall. (McDonald Street in Barrie was originally named after McDouall.)

Worsley made his way to his new command with 20 seamen, marching north from Toronto along Yonge Street to Lake Simcoe, taking a schooner from near Bradford to Barrie and then taking the Nine Mile Portage to Willow Creek Depot in Vespra and from there travelling down Willow Creek to the Nottawasaga River to Wasaga Beach, where he arrived in July 1814. There he took command of the former North West Company's schooner, Nancy.

The Nancy was a wanted ship. The Americans wanted her sunk. The ship was the Royal Navy's main source of supply and communication for outposts on the Upper Great Lakes - most importantly, supplying and providing troop transport and communication with Fort Michilimackinac.

In fact, while Worsley was toiling over the water and forests of central Ontario to report to his new command, the Americans had assembled a force of five ships and more than 1,000 troops with the sole mission of capturing Fort Michilimackinac or, failing that, capturing or sinking the Nancy.

The first week of August saw the failure of the large American force to capture Michilimackinac. So the United States naval captain, Arthur Sinclair, went for the second option -- capturing or sinking the Nancy.

Worsley was already sailing to Michilimackinac when he was warned the fort was under siege, so he returned to Wasaga Beach, made his way up the Nottawasaga River to where the Schoonertown Bridge is today and weighed anchor. He ordered a blockhouse be constructed and armed with guns from the Nancy. Sinclair split his force, sending three ships, the Niagara, Scorpion and Tigress, with 300 troops, to find and attack the Nancy. Worsley had the job of defending the last British ship on Lake Huron, with only 50 seamen and some First Nation warriors.

On Aug. 14 the Americans found the Nancy, despite Worsley ordering her masts be cut lower and the ship camouflaged with tree limbs to blend in with the surrounding forest.

Worsley and his small force defended the ship as long as possible but finally he ordered the guns be spiked and the ship scuttled with a charge of gunpowder. An American shell struck the blockhouse, setting fire to the Nancy before the order to scuttle her could be given. So she set adrift, on fire, and slowly was drawn by the current downstream to where Nancy Island is today, where she sank. Worsley and his men withdrew up the Nottawasaga, felling a few trees to hinder any Americans trying to follow them.

The American force remained at the mouth of the Nottawasaga but was forced to leave when a fierce late-summer storm swept in.

Worsley, who'd fallen back to the depot where Willow Creek and the Nottawasaga meet, loaded two bateaux and a canoe with men and supplies and on Aug. 18, made his way the 360 miles over one of the largest freshwater bodies of water in the world in open craft, "exposed to great hardships and privations of every description having only what we could shoot or catch by fishing to subsist on."

He arrived less than a week later at St. Joseph Island. On Aug. 29, he spotted the American ships, Tigress and Scorpion, and managed to hide his bateaux and sneak by in the canoe. The next day, he reached Michilimackinac and talked McDouall into combining forces to attack the two American ships and capture them.

On Sept. 3, Worsley - with four boats and 90 men, including members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment - captured the American warship Tigress. It was stationed alone, not far from the British-held fort. (The British had captured Fort Michilimackinac from the Americans early in the war.)

Using the Tigress and flying the American flag, Worsley captured the Scorpion by pretending to be Americans as they coasted up to the side of the sister ship then suddenly changing flags and declaring they would attack the off-guard Americans if they didn't surrender. The Americans quickly surrendered.

This gave the British control of Lakes Huron and Michigan as well as Superior for the rest of the war.

Worsley was praised by his superiors for his actions on the Nancy, the Nottawasaga River and Lake Huron and the capture of the American ships. He was promoted the following summer. He returned to his hometown on the Isle of Wight where he died in 1833, aged 42, after being made inspector commander of the coast guard.

He didn't get the public recognition or career rewards other officers did for such daring actions. Wasaga Beach's Nancy museum is one of the few places to recognize Worsley's contributions, as is the Barrie street named after him.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.



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