The Walrus Blog

Beyond the Pale

A librarian recalls the War of 1812’s invasion of York, and US soldiers’ looting of the first-ever Toronto Library
Elmsley HouseToronto Public LibraryOriginally built in 1798, Elmsley House served as Upper Canada’s Government House from 1815 to 1841. (Photograph of photo-mechanical reproduction of a drawing by Jane Harris.)

Throughout human history, libraries have been targeted in seemingly personal attacks by invading forces. The immense Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BCE — whether by accident or on purpose is not entirely clear; the Japanese army destroyed many Chinese university libraries during WWII; the Khmer Rouge burned most of the National Library of Cambodia in the 1970s; and Iraq lost huge portions of its national archives during the 2003 war, perpetrator unclear.

The invasion of York during the War of 1812 contained a touch of “comic opera” quality, as historian and former University of Toronto professor George Glazebrook called it in his 1971 book, The Story of Toronto, that was especially evident in the looting of the first-ever Toronto Library. As a long-time librarian, I often think that libraries are special; this part of the war’s history suggests that they may indeed be considered sacrosanct in the conduct of warfare.

The fifteen-ship American fleet first appeared in the York harbour on April 27, 1813. According to Glazebrook, York was “defended by a few obsolete cannons and 300 regulars, with the shaky support of an equal number of inexperienced militia against an invading army of 1,700 supported by powerful guns on a ship that moved at will.” Despite the weak defensive line, Canadian and British casualties in the invasion were less than half those of the Americans. 

Shooting GalleryExpanded coverage of the War of 1812’s bicentennialCannonBryan DickieTo coincide with The Walrus’s March 2012 cover story, Stephen Marche’s “That Time We Beat the Americans,” and the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, we have set out to document contemporary battlefields, artifacts, and ephemera from Canada’s defining moment. As celebrations unfold over the next two years, this gallery will grow with additional content from historic sites, museums, and anniversary events throughout the country.

From the onset, the occupying army had a difficult time governing York. The Americans even paroled captured prisoners because there was insufficient room on the ships to hold them. Despite attempts at control, American troops looted stores and residences, and burned the government house, legislative building, and Elmsley House – which at that time contained York’s only library. Facing an increasingly chaotic situation, Major General Henry Dearborn of the US Army ordered the troops to quickly leave the unruly York. And they did, but only after a six-day occupation marked by the thefts of military supplies, some government funds, and “a good deal of liquor.”

The damage done, York lost its entire library collection when Elmsley House was looted, and the Toronto Library — which had operated by private subscription since 1810 — closed its doors. But when Commodore Isaac Chauncey of the US Navy found out about the theft of the library’s collection, he was appalled. He directed the US forces to collect all of the stolen books, although inevitably some were not found. On November 14, 1813, nearly seven months after the looting, Chauncey shipped what remained of the collection to officials in York. He included the following letter:

When the Squadron under my Command visited York in April last, much to my mortification I discovered that Some of the Men had pillaged a number of Books belonging to the Toronto library, as soon as the circumstance was made known to me I interdicted an intercourse with the Shore and a general Search was made and all the Books in the Fleet collected and boxed up with intention of having them returned immediately, but circumstances in Some degree beyond my control have prevented my carrying those wishes into execution before this late period. I have now the pleasure of Sending you (by the Lady of the Lake, flag of truce) Two Boxes containing the Books that were taken from York by any person belonging to the fleet. I have no doubt however, but that many others were taken by the soldiers and will be finally lost to the Library but I am confident that it was owing to the extreme disposition of General Dearborn that they were not collected and returned. I beg you Sir to assure the Trustees of the Toronto Library that it has been a source of great mortification to myself and Officers that so useful an institution should not have been deemed Sacred by every person under our command — you however Sir must be aware, that it is not always in the power of Officers with the best disposition to control those placed under them Situated as they were in York.

Alan Walker of the Toronto Reference Library warns that General Chauncey’s return of the books may not have been completely altruistic: the general may have been seeking an excuse to allow American officers to visit York in order to learn what reconstruction progress the Canadians had made.

In August 1814, twenty-seven months after the invasion of York, British troops burned the Capitol Building in Washington, within which was the town’s first reference library. Many historians see this as retaliation for the burning of the Toronto Library and the buildings in York. Thomas Jefferson later sold his entire collection to the US government, forming the basis of the present-day national Library of Congress.

York’s residents never did revive the subscription library, and one of the Toronto Library’s original board members, William Allan, kept the returned books in storage for nine years, until finally complaining about the duty. In December 1822, the books were sold at public auction. Someone did seem concerned about the books’ fate, because in 1823, an ad in the Upper Canada Gazette offered a reward for the recovery of missing portions of several works that were broken up by the American troops. The Toronto Public Library didn’t officially open until 1884, but has since grown to be the world’s busiest urban public library system.

Libraries do seem to hold a special significance in society that even an invading army recognizes – and either respects, or deliberately flouts. Is there an implied code of war that finds looting libraries less moral than other acts of war? I like to think there is.

The Toronto Public Library will commemorate the looting of the Toronto Library and the return of its books in April 2013.

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  • Matt

    Great article on the War of 1812/Toronto history that has almost been forgotten.

  • Kristin

    The War Museum has the oldest overdue library books in Canada on display in their 1812 exhibit. The books had been on loan from the Niagara library when the building was burnt. I’d be curious to know which stands as the example: Toronto or Niagara?

  • Mark Hahn

    Although this kind of great for putting a human face on history, it does tend to promote a backward-looking worldview. In that sense it is not surprising to see Harper pushing 1812 so hard. I find it much more edifying to use the history to ask a _progressive_ question, like “what does the history of X suggest we should do about current issue Y?”

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