Northeastern (46th Annual) and North-Central (45th Annual) Joint Meeting (20–22 March 2011)

Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM-5:30 PM


KLEPETKO, Ross W., Geology, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617 and STEWART, Alexander K., Department of Geology, St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617,

As American forces tried to invade British Canada during the oft-forgot War of 1812, the key naval stronghold on the northern frontier became Sackett’s Harbour, eastern Lake Ontario, NY. Sackett’s Harbour allowed the Americans to patrol the important waters of Lake Ontario and monitor supplies headed to Upper Canada via the St Lawrence River. As a result of increasing hostilities, a battle for supremacy of Lake Ontario transpired at Sackett’s Harbour on May 29th 1813.

Of the recognized geological controls on the battle, the modern, lake-coast processes, such as wave refraction and long-shore drift, were the most important. These processes lead to the creation of: a) Navy Point, b) the mainland connection adjacent to Horse Island, c) a mainland beach across from Horse Island and d) a seven-meter limestone cliff. Navy Point, the base of operations for the US Navy and home to the recently laid-down USS General Pike, is a spit that protects the harbor from “storms on Lake Ontario [that are] much more dangerous than those on the Atlantic coast.” The mainland link to Horse Island, a tombolo, is connected to a constrained, 700-meter-long beach. Together, they controlled the location of a British amphibious landing because of the adjacent, protective limestone cliff. As a result, the American’s withdrew “from [Horse] island and [were] placed behind a gravel ridge [beach berm] on the main” to stop the British assault. Lack of winds, fear of the lake's unknown bathymetry and the ominous cliff face, elevated due to isostatic rebound, prevented crucial British naval support to their ground troops. The daring HMS Beresford kedged in to support, but her fire “[fell] against the rocks below the battery” and/or was overshot. With the principal Fort Tompkins protected from naval cannon fire, its thirty-two pound gun was able to do significant damage to the British assault.

While these geological processes and formations did not give the Americans an outright advantage that guaranteed victory, they did influence the tactics for both sides. Ultimately, the British may have suffered a tactical defeat, but the hasty burning of the USS General Pike by US forces assured a British strategic victory by allowing their continued naval supremacy of Lake Ontario into late summer.