The History of Fort Willow

Brief History of the Fort and the Nine Mile Portage

Fort Willow was a link in a vital supply chain that maintained British control of the western reaches of Upper Canada. The Fort sits at the eighth mile mark of the Nine Mile Portage, which connects Barrie with the Nottawasaga River.

Prior to the War of 1812, the Nine Mile Portage was used by the local Natives and some European fur traders. The first mention of the portage by the British Military was in 1793, in a map drawn up by Lt. Pilkington (aide-de-camp to Governor Simcoe).

The War of 1812

The portage would not see regular use by the British military until the War of 1812. After suffering defeat to the Americans at the Battle of Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie in 1813, the British lost control of the lower Great Lakes, eliminating the vital supply route to Fort Mackinac in western Upper Canada. The British feared that if supplies failed to make it to Fort Mackinac, the alliances with the Native peoples there would be lost, and the British would lose the ability to hold the western reaches of Upper Camada against the Americans. To allay these fears, the Nine Mile Portage and Fort Willow were established as an alternative supply route for Fort Mackinac.

From 1813 to 1825, Fort Willow and the Portage served additional functions – as a supply route for Drummond Island (the garrison from Fort Mackinac was relocated to Drummond Island by 1817), as a fur trade route for the North West Company and smaller local fur trade firms, as a safe route for the Indian Presents (which were essential for maintaining alliances with the Natives in the west), and as a supply route for the new Naval Base at Penetanguishene.

After the War

Fort Willow painted in 1825

The portage and depot finally went into decline by 1825, due in part to the expense incurred in maintaining the Portage and Fort, but more importantly due to the fact that the Penetanguishene Road (modern Highway 93) from Kempenfeldt Bay to the base at Penetanguishene had finally been completed.

By 1831, the portage was reported as overgrown and difficult to navigate, and by 1835, it was reported that all buildings at Fort Willow had burned down.

The First Reconstruction

After its abandonment by the British military and early settlers, the site of Fort Willow fell into disuse. Eventually, the property was used for animal pasturage, and most traces of the site disappeared to nature.

In the late 1950s, interest in the site was renewed by archaeologist Wilfred Jury. After Jury’s preliminary excavations identified the site’s location and some of its structures, the 1960s saw attempts at partially reconstructing the site by building a blockhouse and palisade. However, after fire destroyed the blockhouse, the site again fell into disuse.

The Fort Willow Improvement Group

In the late 1990s, a group of volunteers – the Fort Willow Improvement Group – began working with the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (the property steward) to clean up the site, erect historic signage, outline the original locations of the buildings, and repair or replace the crumbling reconstructed palisade.

Most of what you see around you at Fort Willow today was put together by these volunteers. Today, the Fort Willow Improvement Group has retired, but the torch has been taken up with another group of volunteers, the Friends of Historic Fort Willow.

The Archaeology

The site of the Fort was first pinpoint with certainly by archaeology Wilfred Jury in the late 1950s. Recent archaeological work at the Fort began in 2005 as an archaeological field school run through St. Joseph’s High School under direction of teacher and licensed archaeologist Trevor Carter. Since 2005, the annual field school has unearthed over 20,000 artifacts associated with the Fort.

The Friends of Historic Fort Willow

Today, the Friends work with the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority to maintain the grounds of the site, conduct repairs on the reconstruction, generate new historic signage as needed, and work on promoting the Fort through various local events (like the Festival at the Fort).




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