THUNDER BAY - The battle that unfolded this weekend at Fort William Historical Park may not have actually taken place, but the tactics, significance, and tragedy was very real for those who witnessed it.
For Jenn Johnson, who watched as her daughter Emma, an American soldier, take a musket ball to the body and drop to the field, it was actually a proud moment.
“Today, sadly she perished in battle, so I got to see her do that,” Johnson said. “I’m just really proud of her. I was proud of all the kids.”
This weekend, Fort William Historical Park hosted the Battle of Fort William, a historical reenactment of an engagement that could have taken place had the Americans pushed further into Canada during the War of 1812.
“The Battle of Fort William is a reenactment that brings to life a few battles using historical military techniques,” said Emily Carr, communications officer with the Fort. “We also have a reenactment at the hospital, which is always quite fun, and councils of war where the Anishnawbe are going to be greeted by the North West Company and they are going to ask them to see if they will join in the fight against the Americans.”
Bert Winterburn, who played Johanne Erhler, originally a member of a Swiss Regiment before being recruited by the British following his capture in Spain, has been participating in historical reenactments since 1979.
He said as a reenactor, it is important to give visitors the most authentic and accurate portrayal of the people and tactics of the time.
“It is meant to demonstrate some of the tactics used during the War of 1812,” he said. “It is a fictional event where a party of Americans coming up via the Mississippi River come in to take over the inland headquarters of the North West Company.”
Fortunately, the Americans never reached Fort William, but even if the battle that was on display didn’t actually happen, it opens the door for visitors to learn more about a war that took place in North America more than 200 years ago.
“It’s so that they can gain knowledge of our history,” Winterburn said. “History is important and tells us where we come from and how our various governments were formed and developed throughout our history and our relations with the rest of the world.”
There was no way to tell the battle taking place at the park was fictional though, given the hysterical cries from the inhabitants of the Fort during the American’s arrival by boat on the Kaminisitiqua River and the screams of those wounded in the skirmishes.
“This one is a great one. It allows our interpreters to really shine and bring history to life,” Carr said. “They also love this event. I heard a quote today - it’s like a play you can be a part of. That really speaks to what we aim to do at the fort, is bring people into the history and into the action.”
“I thought it looked like they did a lot of work,” Johnson added. “There was a lot of choreographing with how they came about the front lines and rotated out to reload their muskets. It was very impressive. There was a lot of soldiers on both sides, a lot of interpreters interacting with the crowd, I was very impressed.”
Johnson added that she is really happy Fort William Historical Park offers these kinds of opportunities to youth, like her daughter Emma, who is now 18-years-old and a drama student. But she said it also offers a lot more that sometimes the people of Thunder Bay can sometimes forget.
“The Old Fort is one of those gems that when you live in Thunder Bay sometimes you take it for granted,” she said. “I think activities and events like this, residents should take full advantage and come out and see what it has to offer and remind themselves it’s here.”