In early North America, the main arteries of trade consisted of the rivers and the chain of lakes between the then French dominated Canada and the sparsely populated east coast of America. Goods were carried in craft ranging from the fragile birch bark canoe of the Indians to the bulkier keelboats and bateau of the Europeans.

In the 1670's, sailing vessels first began to appear on the lakes as the French extended their territory further inland from the St Lawrence river. These lightly armed craft were in action on occasion with the local Iroquois but it was not until early in the next century that European opposition arrived, when Britain built a trading post on Lake Ontario.

Distances were so great and the Europeans so few, that no major aggression occurred between the two nations until 1754 when the conflict known as the 'French and Indian War' broke out. Intermittent actions continued between the two sides until the close of hostilities in 1763. Many vessels were employed ferrying troops and their stores, up and down the lakes and connecting rivers. Forts were built and destroyed at the water's edge as each side tried to control these important waterways.

Both sides mainly employed small schooners, although from time to time, their rig might be altered to that of a brig. their armament was generally very light, mostly 4lb guns, although on rare occasions 6lb or even 8lb guns might be carried. Other vessels on the lakes at this time were single masted sloops and radeaus. These last were flat bottomed, hurriedly built floating batteries with no discernible bow or stern. They were 3-masted with lugsails and must have been extremely bad vessels under sail. Their best feature was their armament that consisted of 6 x 24lb guns plus a mortar.

During the peace that followed, ship building on the lakes slowed down considerably as costs replaced security as the priority.

In 1775, when the American War of Independence began, the colonists siezed several vessels and used them to support raids on the British forts on the lakes. There was one major action during the conflict. This was at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain which, although a defeat for the colonists, caused the British land forces to put off an intended advance from Canada until the following spring, which may well have altered the outcome of the war.

Similar vessels were employed on the lakes during this war with the addition of ships, luggers, galleys and gondolas (a single masted gunboat), together with several cutters.

When once again, peace was restored, warship construction stalled, both in British Canada and the newly founded United States of America. However, when hostilities re-commenced between the two powers in 1812, shipwrights were once more in demand. In this war, vessels were again used to transport the warring parties and their stores, but due to a greater awareness on both sides of the importance of the lakes, several more significant actions took place. In this conflict, schooners still predominated but now they were often armed with heavier weapons, a large calibre carronade on a pivot not being uncommon. Ships, brigs, sloops, galleys and gunboats were also employed.

The various battles on the lakes during the War of 1812, again had a profound effect on the war in general and helped determine the final result.


Warships of the Great Lakes 1754-1834 by Robert Malcomson
Chatham Publication 1-86176-115-5

Navies and the American Revolution 1775-1783
Chatham 1-86176-017-5

The Naval War of 1812
Chatham 1-86176-063-9

The Battle for Lake Erie by Thomas & Robert Malcomson
Naval Institute Press 155750-053-3

Ghost Ships by Emily Cain
Fountain Press 0-86343-090-2

The History of the American Sailing Navy by Howard I. Chapelle
Bonanza 0-517-00487-9

The History of American Sailing Ships by Howard I. Chapelle
Bonanza (ISBN not known)

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