As in the days of New France, the British authorities expected Canada’s local population to share the burden of colonial defence. Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe, eventually set up a more regular system for his province’s militia consisting of units in each county. All males aged 16 to 60 were eligible for service, and were commanded by a county lieutenant, typically a prosperous landowner or other notable. (York’s first county lieutenant was the former Ranger officer Aeneas Shaw). Peacetime duty was not onerous. Once a year, on King George III’s birthday (June 4), the men assembled for some parade ground exercises, perhaps a marksmanship competition, followed by a few rounds of ale at the local tavern.
The militia’s role was to supplement regular British troops in time of need. One such occasion came in 1812, when Britain was once again at war with its erstwhile American colonies. By now York County’s population had grown sufficiently to support three regiments, all of which readily answered the call to Upper Canada’s defence. Under the command of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, York’s militia participated in capturing Fort Detroit in August 1812. However, its most illustrious victory came at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, where the three regiments fought alongside other militia and regular units against the invading Americans. General Brock’s famous words urging them to battle, “Push on, the brave York Volunteers,” are still commemorated in the motto of the university that bears his name. While an enemy bullet felled Brock, his forces did push the Americans off Queenston Heights. According to the general’s second-in-command, the York Militia “led their men into action with great spirit.”
Matters did not go quite as well the following spring, when the Americans sent a large force by ship across Lake Ontario to capture York. Landing just west of Fort York on April 27, 1813, they easily overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered regulars, militia and Indians that guarded the provincial capital. While the defenders proved unable to keep York from falling into enemy hands, they did put up a stiff fight that cost the Americans dearly. Particularly aggrieved after Fort York’s powder magazine exploded in their faces, the Americans burned down most of York before retreating.After that engagement the county’s militia regiments no longer fought in the war’s remaining campaigns, although some former Rangers saw action at Stoney Creek and Lundy’s Lane.
The decades after the War of 1812, leading up to the Rebellion of 1837, were relatively uneventful for York County’s militia, leaving them in ill repair when called upon to defend the Crown.