HMS Nancy (1789)

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Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HM Schooner Nancy
Builder: Richardson Forsythe and Company
Laid down: June, 1789
Launched: 24 November, 1789
Fate: Burned and sank, 14 August, 1814
Notes: Provincial Marine vessel
General characteristics
Tons burthen: 67
Length: 80 feet (24 m)
Beam: 22 feet (6.7 m)
Depth of hold: 8 feet (2.4 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: two-masted schooner
Armament: 2 x 24-pounder carronade, 2 x 6-pounder guns (1813)

Coordinates: 44°31′09″N 80°01′12″W / 44.519214°N 80.019951°W / 44.519214; -80.019951

HM Schooner Nancy was a schooner, built in Detroit in 1789. She served for several years in the fur trade on the Great Lakes, but is best known for playing a part in the Anglo-American War of 1812, serving as a vital supply ship for the British. Blocked in by an American fleet near the mouth of the Nottawasaga River, she was set on fire on 14 August, 1814 to prevent the capture of the ship and the cargo she carried. Forgotten for many years, the wreck was re-discovered in July, 1927 and raised to form the centrepiece of the Nancy Island Museum.


The Nancy was built by the fur trading company Forsyth, Richardson and Company of Montreal, at Detroit. (Although Detroit was by rights on American territory, it was not handed over to the United States until the Jay Treaty was signed in 1796.) At this time the company was one of the several merchant firms based in Montreal that made up the loose partnership known as the North West Company. The Indian trade on the Great Lakes was conducted by larger sailing vessels whereas birchbark canoes remained the principal means of transport in the fur trade of the Canadian north-west via the Ottawa River.

John Richardson, one of the partners in the company, travelled to the trading post at Detroit to begin construction, accompanied by a master carpenter and six other carpenters. Construction began in late June 1789. On 23 September 1789, Richardson wrote:

The schooner will be a perfect masterpiece of workmanship and beauty. The expense to us will be great, but there will be the satisfaction of her being strong and very durable. Her floor-timbers, keel, keel-son, stem and lower futtocks are oak. The transom, stern-post, upper futtocks, top-timbers, beams and knees are all red cedar. She will carry 350 barrels.[1]

The schooner, named after Richardson's eldest daughter, was launched on 24 November that year. The following spring, she made her maiden voyage to Fort Erie, under the command of Captain William Mills, and in June 1790, went to Grand Portage at Sault Ste. Marie with a full cargo. For the next twenty-two years, the Nancy was engaged in the fur trade. The ship changed owners several times, being sold first to George Leith and Company in 1793, and later to the North West Company. She changed commanders in 1805, when Captain Alexander MacIntosh replaced Captain Mills.

War of 1812

The Nancy was in MacIntosh’s wharf at Moy (Windsor) when the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and Great Britain. Moved for protection to Amherstburg, the ship was taken by the commander of the British garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel St. George, as a transport vessel. Before the war, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Elliott of the The Indian Department had surveyed the Nancy as part of an inventory of the means available in case of war. According to Elliott, the Nancy could mount six 4-pounder carriage guns and six swivel guns. The schooner was apparently armed with some 3-pounder guns. Most of these were dismounted from the schooner and used to arm several small gunboats patrolling the Detroit River. At some later date, the Nancy was armed with two 6-pounder guns and two 24-pounder carronades.

On 30 July 1812, the Nancy sailed to Fort Erie in convoy with the new Provincial Marine schooner Lady Prevost, returning with military supplies and 60 men of the 41st Regiment who then participated in the Siege of Detroit. After Detroit was captured by British and Indians under Major General Isaac Brock, the Nancy carried troops, stores and provisions between Fort Erie and Detroit during the late summer and autumn. The following spring, on 23 April 1813 the Nancy joined a small squadron in moving Major General Henry Procter's division from Amherstburg to Miami Bay, positioning them for what would be an unsuccessful Siege of Fort Meigs.

On 9 September 1813, while the Nancy was in Lake Huron on a trip to Fort Mackinac (which had been captured by a British force in the first few days of the war), the Americans won the decisive Battle of Lake Erie, capturing all the British armed vessels on the lake. Nancy was the only British ship remaining on the Upper Lakes. On 5 October, as Captain MacIntosh returned to the Detroit River, he sent some of the crew ashore to discover the situation. A storm blew up and MacIntosh entered the river anyway, as his anchors and cables were defective. A group of American militia on the river bank demanded that the schooner surrender. Instead, once the wind allowed, MacIntosh weighed anchor and sailed back up the river and into the lake. Although two American armed schooners and a gunboat were lying in wait for him further down the river, the Nancy was damaged only by musket fire from the shore.

On Lake Huron, the schooner was further battered by storms. Her sails and cables were too badly worn or damaged to withstand any more bad weather, so she sailed to Sault Ste. Marie, where she was laid up, and refitted by her crew during the winter.

By recapturing Detroit, the Americans had cut the principal route by which the British at Fort Mackinac and other posts in the North West were supplied. During the winter, the British opened an alternate route overland from York on Lake Ontario via Yonge Street to Holland Landing and the Holland River. From here, the route entered Lake Simcoe and led to the head of Kempenfeldt Bay (Barrie) where Nine Mile Portage led to Willow Creek, the Nottawasaga River and Lake Huron. Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall reached Fort Mackinac via this route on 19 May 1814, to take charge of the post and the surrounding area. McDouall was accompanied by Lieutenant Newdigate Poyntz of the Royal Navy who took charge of the naval establishment on Lake Huron, which essentially was the Nancy only. (MacIntosh was retained as a pilot.) Plans to turn the schooner into a gunboat were discarded as unproductive, and the ship continued as a supply ship during that summer, making three round trips between the Nottawasaga and Mackinac.

Destruction of the Nancy

During one of the ship's supply trips to the Nottawasaga, in July 1814, an American force left Detroit, intending to recover Fort Mackinac. Their frontal assault was defeated in the Battle of Mackinac Island. However, they had learned of the location of the Nancy from a prisoner, and three of their vessels proceeded to Nottawasaga Bay.

At the Nottawasaga, Lieutenant Miller Worsley of the Royal Navy had succeeded Poyntz and taken command of the Nancy, which was about to sail to Mackinac with 300 barrels of flour, bacon and other rations. He was warned of the American presence and had the Nancy towed two miles up the river, where he hastily built a blockhouse armed with two 24-pounder carronades and a 6-pounder gun (presumably dismounted from the schooner). His force consisted of 21 sailors, 23 Ojibwa and 9 French-Canadian voyageurs.

On 14 August, Captain Arthur Sinclair led three American ships (Niagara, Scorpion and Tigress) into Nottawasaga Bay. The Americans believed that the Nancy was still out on the lake and heading back to the Nottawasaga, and intended to wait in ambush for her in the bay. However, Sinclair landed some of his embarked troops to make an encampment on the spit of land between the river and the lake shore, and some wood-cutting parties discovered the schooner's hiding place.

The next day, three companies of American regular infantry supported by a 5.5-inch mortar and the guns of Sinclair's ships attacked Worsley's position. Face with overwhelming odds, Worsley determined to scuttle the Nancy to prevent her being captured by the enemy, with her valuable stores. A line of powder was set running to the Nancy and from there to the blockhouse. At four o'clock, the Nancy was set alight [2] which in turn by way of the powder train, set off an explosion in the blockhouse. The blockhouse explosion surprised Sinclair, causing him to think that one of the howitzer's shots had found its mark.

After the action, the gunboats Scorpion and Tigress were left to guard the river to prevent canoes and bateaux from getting supplies to Fort Mackinac. Eventually the river mouth was blocked with felled trees, and the two gunboats proceeded along the north shore in the hope of intercepting fur-laden canoes on the lake. Worsley and his men removed the obstructions and reached Mackinac in a large canoe on 31 August after paddling and rowing for 360 miles. They subsequently surprised and captured both American gunboats in the Engagement on Lake Huron.


The North West Company was compensated 2,200 pounds by the Admiralty after the war for the destruction of the ship in service, with additional compensations for services between 1812 and 1814 totalling 1,743 pounds, 5 shillings.

Nancy Island

An island grew over the remains of the ship as silt was deposited by the river around the sunken hull. The hull remained visible under water. It was discovered on 1 July 1911 by C. H. J. Snider, a noted Canadian marine historian and editor of the Toronto Telegram, but drew little notice until after 1924. In August of that year, Snider, Dr. Alfred H. Macklin, C. W. Jefferys and Dr. F. J. Conboy began a fund-raising campaign to assist with the recovery of the wreck the following year.

In the process, the recovery crew found numerous valuable artifacts including an assortment of 24-pounder and 6-pounder shot. Following further explorations by C. H. J. Snider and his salvage crew, the hull was excavated. The Nancy's figurehead, ship's cutlery and numerous personal artifacts were recovered from both the bottom and the banks of the Nottawasaga River. Dr. Macklin and C. W. Jefferys persuaded the Government of Canada to provide a World War I style metal military storage building for the museum. The Nancy Museum was opened on the island on 14 August 1928 to recognize the ship and its major contribution to the war effort and the border committee.


  1. Cruikshank, Ernest: An episode of the War of 1812: The Story of the Schooner Nancy; in Zaslow (ed), p.143
  2. Gough p.139


  • Zaslow (ed), Morris (1964). The Defended Border. Macmillan of Canada. ISBN 0-7705-1242-9. 
  • Gough, Barry (2006). Through Water, Ice & Fire: Schooner Nancy of the War of 1812. Dundurn Press. ISBN 1-55002-569-4. 

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