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The House on the Hill: The Keefer Family Story during the War of 1812

The following is an essay written by Shannon Gosse, fourth year student at Brock University
The Keefer family tombstone at Lakeview Cemetery. George Keefer inset. Bob Liddycoat / Thorold News

The sound of a distant gunshot, cannons firing one after the other, the screams of soldiers and the crying of children, and the smell of smoke from burning homes. These are only some of the terrifying sounds and experiences members of the Keefer family would have to endure throughout the War of 1812.

The story begins with George Keefer, a United Empire Loyalist living in the area known today as Thorold, Ontario. George travelled to Canada in 1790, in hopes of escaping the violence and chaos in the newly independent America. The life he produces for himself and his family exhibits the common characteristics of Loyalist settlements in the Niagara region during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. His emotional, brave and traumatic story displays the tragedies of war experienced by Upper Canadian families in and around the battlefields of the War of 1812. This paper will explore George Keefer’s life and how this war not only affected those fighting but also the families on the Homefront. Research on the War of 1812 is largely focused on the details of warfare and its significance politically and geographically, ignoring the social aspects and stories of common individuals. This paper will address the significance of war in the way it drastically changes the daily life of families living in Upper Canada through the examination of George Keefer’s family and artifacts of those involved in the War of 1812.  

In the year 1776, the Revolutionary War began in America, dividing the people of the colonies. The war turned neighbour against neighbour and produced violent rivalries between Loyalists and American patriots. George Keefer’s father, living in New Jersey at the start of the war, expressed no sympathy for those who turned against the King. George Sr. joined the Queens Rangers to fight for the British and a unified colony.  Near the end of the American Revolution, George’s father died of army fever in 1783, leaving his family to the winning hands of the Revolutionary war. The American government confiscated the Keefer’s land but allowed George’s mother to live on the property until George and his brother Jacob turned eighteen. Over the next seven years, George spent his childhood deciding whether he should follow in his father’s footsteps and continue to support the King or become an American citizen. Both options risked his future and the life of his family. Siding with the British and becoming a Loyalist would force George and his family to leave America. But remaining in America would force George to pledge allegiance to American ideals, and possibly risking his future under his fathers Loyalist past. After the Revolutionary war, the American government punished those who fought for the British by not allowing them to return to the colony, as well as, allowing Loyalists and their families to face harassment by American patriots. 

In Canada, the first wave of Loyalists have already arrived and settled during the American Revolution and are given land grants and promises of a new prosperous life by the British government. It is often noted that most Late Loyalists who came in the 1780s were not seen as escaping the violence in America but rather motivated to come to Canada for economic interests. These Late Loyalists were viewed with suspicion on their reasoning for coming to Canada, considering free land was being granted even after the end of the Revolution. For George, his eighteenth birthday was approaching, and in the year of 1790, he bravely walked five hundred miles from New Jersey to the Canadian border with his brother Jacob.  He followed in his father’s footsteps, remaining loyal to the King, and risking his life to pursue what he believed was right. The journey to Canada was long and dangerous but for George and his family, it must have seemed safer and offered a more prosperous future for their loyalty to the King. Despite George leaving America during the time of the Late Loyalists, one cannot assume he was motivated by economic reasons. George faced the threat of living under his father’s Loyalist legacy and grew up in the political chaos and violence that he most likely wished to escape. Living in Canada was possibly his best option if he was able to work hard enough to make a life for himself and his family.  

When he reached present-day Thorold in 1790, he purchased a small hut from a squatter and spent the next two years clearing the land to eventually bring back his mother, stepfather and siblings in 1792. The Keefer family came back to a small log cabin and started a new life in the township of Thorold. The family’s long and dangerous journey to Canada reflects the divisions brought on by the American Revolution and the push for Loyalists to start a new life in Upper Canada. George was fortunate enough to be considered a United Empire Loyalist despite arriving late. In 1798, George Keefer at the age of 25 was granted 600 acres, which is noted to be among the earliest grants of this size. In addition to the initial grant, George received another 32 acres in 1809.  Many people managed to have their name considered a United Empire Loyalist, but between May 1802 and November 1804, over nine hundred Loyalists who did not arrive before 1783 were struck off the list. This restricted their land grants and took away many benefits. George Keefer despite arriving after 1790, was still granted large amounts of land. The generous land grant is most likely because of his father’s loyalty to the British during the American Revolution.

George and his family did well for themselves over the next years and became heavily involved in the community. He married at the age of 23 a young 19-year-old Catherine Lampman in 1797. He worked as a cabinet maker to feed his family and later became a land surveyor. They continued to live in the log cabin George and his brother built which resembled the common housing structure of Upper Canadian settlements. The house walls were made of logs put in place by wooden pegs for nails, as well, the cabin featured a large fireplace that offered heat and light and windows with oiled paper as a substitute for glass windows. The property supposedly featured a farm and a few cattle and a horse, which was brought during the family’s journey to Thorold. It is unknown how much money the Keefer family possessed in the early years of the nineteenth century but they seemed to do well for themselves due to George’s hard work and involvement in the community. George and Catherine raised eight children before the year of 1812 and would begin to feel like they were settling down after many years of creating their home.  

In the summer of 1812, America declared war against England and the Canadian frontier, threatening the new life George had worked so hard to establish for his family. The sheer panic that ran over many families living so close to the American border; especially families who escaped the violence in America and now must face war again. George not only risked the loss of his land, property and his family’s safety but also risked the same fate of his father met. Many Upper Canadian Loyalists did not want to be involved in the war and some even ran away from their Canadian settlement to return to America. The average farmer or tradesmen did not find interest in the war but refusal to attend their militia summons lead to arrest and imprisonment. For some individuals, this war risked the loss of property, their family and the threat of returning to American property, which encouraged their involvement. George had already ensigned into the 2nd Regiment of the Lincoln Militia in 1799, most likely to honour his late father’s involvement in the Queens Rangers and Loyalist legacy. With the outbreak of war, George was obligated to fight against his previous colony he called home.  

Upper Canada in the early nineteenth century was not yet well-ordered, self-sufficient  and very well settled. Those involved in the Lincoln Militia were mainly common folk who had settled in the Niagara district, representing a large Loyalist population. These men lived similar lives to the Keefer family before 1812; working hard for their money and their property. Alan Holden’s collection on the Lincoln Militia features a document from April 23, 1808, listing the men enrolled in the 2nd Regiment Lincoln Militia and their avocation. The captains and lieutenants include farmers, engineers, merchants and hatters; with farmers making up more than half of the men rallied. This document, despite enlisting men before the beginning of the war, still reflects the kind of soldiers that would have been fighting in 1812. Farmers had to leave behind their property, with the risk of losing their crops and burdened the homefront by taking on more work.  

Although the Lincoln Militia featured common working men of the time, they were also seen with honour for their Loyalty to the King and had to uphold certain standards. In a letter from Ralfe Clench in 1808, Clench describes the men that he has organized for the 2nd Riding Lincoln Militia. The letter reads: “I have selected Gentlemen of Loyalty information and ability and such as I trust will do Credit to the Regiment and honour to themselves.” Clench also warns of men who are seen as a “disgrace” to the Lincoln militia because they are either a drunk, a weak creature or of mean spirit. At the beginning of the war, Sir Isaac Brock mentions his concern for the soldiers Clench describes; such that these men do not take their presence seriously and do not want to be present in the war. These soldiers were held to certain standards, but these men were common, hardworking individuals, who had already faced the hardship of settling in Canada. Their mean spirit and drunkenness could be due to the anger and frustration of fighting in the war and facing the emotional hardship of leaving their families behind in the area of the battlefields. For George, he was leaving behind his wife Catherine and beloved children. He has already experienced the destruction and violence brought on by the American Revolution at the homefront but now must face war head on.  

Catherine Keefer at the beginning of the War of 1812 was 34 years old with a child on the way. Alone, pregnant and in charge of taking care of eight children, she risked the threat of enemy attack living so close to the battlefields of war and the American border. Many women were left behind to take on all the duties of the house while taking on the emotional burden of her children’s fears, along with her own. Unfortunately, there is a lack of records regarding Upper Canadian women’s thoughts and feelings during the War of 1812; but it is easy to assume that Catherine would have been dealing with a lot of conflicting emotions at the outbreak of war. She would be proud of her husband for doing his duty to the King but also terrified to be left alone to take on the responsibilities of the house and the children. Catherine, similar to George, lived during the American Revolution and travelled to Canada with her father who was a United Empire Loyalist from Long Island, New York. Again, Catherine must live in fear and chaos with the threat of losing her husband. Her children experience the same feelings she had to battle while her father left to fight for the British government. Her traumatic upbringing and overwhelming responsibilities reflect the life many American and Canadian women dealt with during the War of 1812.  

Harriet Larned, on April 3, 1813, writes to her brother fighting in the American army about the difficulties she faces back at home.  Harriet reflects the same stress and fear Catherine would have been dealing with due to her increasing responsibilities. She writes: “the truth is my Dear Charles I am secretary for the Family—Mama you know never writes & James but seldom & they are all dispersed in different directions, consequently I have many calls upon my time.” Harriet seems to have taken on many duties after her father and brother left for war. She discusses how she has “many calls upon my time” and fears the health of their mother and younger brother.  Not only would it have been difficult to manage other family members but also the emotional toll the war brought on. Women had to ignore their fears and stress and continue to support everyone else and survive during this hard time. Catherine faced these troubles and worse the constant threat of plundering or occupation by Americans. 

For Catherine, her stress and responsibilities grew as the war went on. Americans in 1813 continued to capture land throughout the Niagara peninsula, reaching closer to the district of Thorold.  John Keefer was born on January 13th, 1813 while his father was at the front with the Lincoln Militia.  Catherine now has to take care of her newborn son without the presence of her husband, along with the other eight children and responsibilities of the house. As well, around this time, American soldiers reached Thorold, seizing the Keefer house to use as a hospital.  They enlisted the services of Catherine as a nurse, who must compromise her duties as a mother to adhere to American demands. It is unknown where the children stayed under the control of the American Army. The newborn most likely stayed with Catherine while she cared for the soldiers, but the other children could have stayed with a neighbour or friend. The log cabin and their food supply would have not been enough for her other children while the soldiers were there. The war turned ugly by 1813; both American and British armies plundered and destroyed Niagara homes and farms to get supplies for their soldiers.   In 1815, all districts in the province had made 2,884 war loss claims, suggesting that almost all families had experienced a loss of property due to the plundering during the war. The Keefer family were completely taken over by Americans, who were most likely taking their food supply and other valuable items. Catherine’s stress and responsibilities became too much for her. The anxiety about her husband, caring for her family, nursing sick and wounded American Soldiers left her vulnerable.  Catherine Keefer died on July 14, 1813, from army fever at the age of thirty-five.   

On the front, George Keefer is unaware of the horrors back home. One American soldier, Chase Clough, writes to his wife in December of 1814, “I want you should write to me as soon as you receive this and and how Much Stock you wintor I Received your Letter with Great pleasure I feel uneasy a bout you I am a frade that you are sick or dead this is from your husband.”  Chase expresses his fear for his wife back home due to the lack of communication. This emotional letter shows the kind of things soldiers were worried about whether American or Canadian. Rather than an object of war, they are humans on either side of the war and fear not only their safety but the well-being of their wives, children and family. Chase reflects the deep and tragic emotional hardship common men faced, bringing a different viewpoint on the life of a soldier. This letter shows the element of loneliness, desperation and fear the soldiers felt. Everyday George was gone, was another day he thought about his family, missing them, worrying for them and worst fearing their lives. It is unknown when George would receive the information about his wife’s death, or his property being seized by American soldiers. Being a part of the Lincoln militia, he would have been unable to go back home with Americans occupying the space. George Keefer continued to fight on the front, possibly unknown to the circumstances back home, while his daughter now takes the place of her mother.  

Elizabeth Keefer, the eldest child of Catherine and George, is only fifteen when her mother died. Elizabeth must now take on the responsibilities of her mother, while mourning her death. Taking full charge of the home, the hospital, her five small brothers, one being six months old, and two sisters, she is highly respected for her strong and brave actions. It is unimaginable the pain and fear Elizabeth had to bear losing her mother and fearing her father’s safety, along with caring for her siblings. The poor young girl is all alone, living in a space that is not even hers to claim and under enemy control. Her brave and responsible attitude attracted the young American Surgeon working in her home.  His full name and age is unclear but is referred to as a young army surgeon named Coltrin, Their love and attraction for each other blurred the ugly and violent hatred between Upper Canadians and Americans. Dr. Coltrin returned after the war to marry Elizabeth under a flag of truce at Queenston in 1815. Elizabeth and Coltrin’s love ignored the political, geographical and military aspects of the war of 1812 and reflect the true emotion and human-like aspects occurring during the war. This couple defies the hate and divisions during the war and finds love and comfort in one another. Both scared, lonely and stressed come together.  

On the front, soldiers were facing extreme Canadian weather, lack of food and terrifying scenes of warfare. George Keefer managed to survive the entire war, seeing action at the battles of Lundy’s Lane and Chippewa.  It would have been interesting to know how George felt fighting in such a personal battle. Being involved in a local war also intensifies his experience in the war, such as seeing friends or neighbours injured or worse lose their life. It is unknown what kind of fighting George participated in, but he would have still lived in camps and suffered a shortage of food and difficult weather conditions. John Michael O’Connor, an American soldier, writes to his sister on November 15, 1813, describing the difficult living conditions. “The Army here is about hutting for the winter, as the severity of the season preculdes operations. The cold is intense…  I dread to return (?) home amid such disheartening scenes.” O’Connor expresses in his letter the hierarchy of receiving proper care, such that the generals receive winter quarters to stay warm while common soldiers face the intense cold weather. As well, the scenes of battles and most likely the sick and dying seem to frighten O’Connor, he describes these scenes as “disheartening.” Looking at another American solider, Chase Clough who fought in the same battles as George Keefer gives an idea of the amount of injury and death seen at these battles. His letter recalls some of the action close to Chippewa, stating the battles lasted three hours and forty minutes, with around four hundred Americans killed or injured and fourteen hundred British killed or injured. The numbers Clough describes seem very high for the three- hour battle he describes to be Chippewa. This high death and injury account from Clough could reflect his exaggeration due to such violent and horrific scenes. The number could be what he thought he saw or what others were saying. Witnessing this many bodies being torn apart by canons and bullets; losing soldiers or friends in such violent ways would have been an extremely traumatic experience. 

George Keefer would have faced many disheartening scenes and extreme hardship on and off the battlefields. As well, fighting an enemy that used to be called home could have also been challenging for George, but did he hate American Patriots as much as his father did? Back home his eldest child was falling in love with the enemy he was fighting.  

It is unknown whether George Keefer approved of his daughter’s marriage or if he agreed with her actions. The young couple moved to Erie Pennsylvania where Coltrin practised medicine but died leaving her childless in 1825.  Elizabeth remarried and remained in Erie until she passed.  It is interesting to note she left Thorold where she had grown up and left behind her father and siblings. This could have been due to her father’s disapproval of their marriage or simply because Coltrin received better work in Pennsylvania. The American colony produced a tremendous loss for George Keefer and his daughters love for an American army surgeon most likely would have caused a serious issue between Elizabeth and George. The American Revolution set the stage for George’s chaotic and challenging life. The Revolutionary War took his father’s life, his family’s land and the war against Americans in 1812 took his wife’s and most likely the destruction of his property. The death of Catherine directly related to Coltrin’s presence with the army at the Keefer home, but this does not stop Elizabeth from falling in love. George’s heavy involvement in the community and Loyalist legacy could have also been embarrassed by his daughters’ action to marry the enemy. The couple’s decision to marry under a white flag at the end of the war could signify they did not want anything to do with the war or the vicious divide between Americans and Canadians. Elizabeth was able to move on after the war, starting a new life away from her family. How did the rest of her family move on?  

The family’s history during the War of 1812 is short and sweet; leaving very few details of what happened after the death of Catherine and Elizabeth taking over her mother’s position. Once the war was over, George would have returned to a home that did not resemble the log cabin he left in the Summer of 1812. The farm and other affairs had been neglected. His beloved wife lost and his eldest daughter now a grown woman ready to marry and leave the home. George would have met his son John for the first time and reunited with the rest of his seven children. The scene of his return home is heartwarming, yet sad. Many Niagara soldiers would have returned home to their families and possibly homes that faced disruption. These amilies had to pick up the broken pieces brought on by war, whether it was rebuilding their home, farm or relocating.  

From mid-1813, until the end of the war there is no information on the Keefer family’s experience, when the Americans left the Keefer property or how they left, and how much they lost from the American occupation. As noted, before, almost every family had filed a claim for destroyed property or stolen items after the War of 1812. It is highly unlikely that the Keefer Family did not lose anything under the occupation of the Americans. These wounded soldiers would have needed food, shelter, blankets, towels for surgeries, firewood to cook or supply heat and much more. Jacob Cochenour, from the township of Flamborough, in 1841 filed a war loss claim requesting the money owed to him for his sustained losses after the War of 1812. George could have filed for his losses after the war, but he seems to have received a generous amount of pay for his efforts in the Lincoln Militia and his rise to captaincy in 1815.  

Once peace was declared in 1814, he opened a general shop in Thorold and later one at Beaverdams, as well, built mills.   His active participation in the community directly after the war reflects the kind of money he had to start up these businesses and bring in more wealth for the family.  

The documents written about George Keefer’s life quickly discusses his engagement in the war and briefly discusses his family and then jumps into his entrepreneur activity, giving full detail of his business accomplishments. The Keefer family luckily was able to prosper after the War of 1812, even to the extent of building a large mansion in 1883. Their prosperity, active engagement and Georges fifteen children and five adoptive children continued to grow his wealth and spread his legacy. Despite the Keefer Family having such a long, rich and entertaining story they are not honoured as well as they should be. Their hardship and brave actions during the War of 1812 is completely forgotten and the Keefer property stands empty with no information on what this land resembles. It is sad to say that many stories such as George Keefer and his family are forgotten in the political, economic and nationalized perspective of history. The Canadian government tends to focus on the aspect of warfare when it comes to the War of 1812; emphasizing forts, artillery and the action. This emphasis on warfare is fun and entertaining but ignores the soldiers, their family and their stories.  

The house on the hill, Thorold, Ontario, 1812, may seem like a simple home for a family, but is much more than that. This log cabin tells the rich history of many Americans who journeyed in hopes of starting a new life in Canada but faced more chaos than expected. Looking at the story of George reflects the pain and hardship during the War of 1812 many experienced. But most importantly puts a face to the women, children and men who suffered. The Keefer family exhibits the truth behind War of 1812. The complicated relationship between Americans and Loyalists, fighting beside your friends and neighbours, leaving behind a family who risks destruction, and the true disheartening scenes that would break down the toughest person. These faces; these people; deserve to be honoured. Those on and off the battlefield deserve to be remembered for their pain, suffering and bravery. A war is not a war without the loss and destruction, and this should not be forgotten.