The Welsh Surveyor or Spy? War of 1812

Windsor’s poet laureate Marty Gervais thinks the history books may have fudged the story of the capture of Detroit in the War of 1812.

“I believe the British got the plans for the fort from a Welsh surveyor on this side of the river,” said Gervais.

In fact, he goes so far as to call Thomas Smith a British spy. He bases his claim on several source texts which he has been reading while researching a new book on little-known stories about Windsor.

Gervais has also written a poem about Smith which he will read this Saturday during a free performance by Windsor Symphony Orchestra at Riverfront Festival Plaza as part of Windsor’s commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the capture of Detroit.

The poem, Future City on the Detroit River: Thomas Smith, Surveyor, will be recited during the performance of a new work by Windsor composer Brent Lee, titled Brock at Detroit.

History records that British Gen. Isaac Brock and Chief Tecumseh somehow got their hands on the plans for Fort Detroit prior to launching their attack on Aug. 24, 1812. The next day, U.S. Gen. William Hull surrendered the fort with barely a shot being fired.

Who provided Brock with the plans has remained something of a mystery. But Gervais said it isn’t a huge leap of logic to suspect Smith, a Welsh-born surveyor living in Petite Cote, present-day LaSalle.

“He had been working hand in-hand with the Americans since 1805 designing street plans for the city of Detroit,” said Gervais. “They trusted him.”

But he was staunchly pro-British and when the Americans declared war in July 1812, Smith handed fortification plans to a member of the British Indian department, who in turn gave them to Brock. Smith was identified in correspondence only as a “gentleman of veracity.”

Some historians believe the fort’s layout was among papers which the British seized when they boarded the American packet Cuyahoga near Amherstburg a month earlier.

Either way, it makes for an interesting debate 200 years on. It also sets up Thomas Smith as a forgotten or ignored hero of the war.

In his role as Windsor’s first poet laureate, Gervais has been writing about Windsor and its characters. Besides the poem about Smith, he will read another about Simon Girty, the late-18th century vigilante who was revered on this side of the border but hated by the Americans he terrorized.

Gervais’ new prose book, The Other Windsor: Forgotten Stories, will be published by Biblioasis in October.

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2 thoughts on “The Welsh Surveyor or Spy? War of 1812”

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