History Comes to Life

The Battle of Lake Erie, a key conflict during the War of 1812, will be commemorated with bicentennial events this summer.

It’s known as the War of 1812, but the hostilities that finished what the American Revolution started in fact lasted from 1812 to 1815. History shows that 1813 was a big year for important battles between the young United States and the mighty British Empire.

In September, thousands will gather on Lake Erie’s tiny South Bass Island to commemorate one of the most significant naval engagements of the war: the Battle of Lake Erie. Ohio schoolchildren learn the bare bones of this story: On Sept. 10, 1813, a fleet of nine American warships under the command of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated and captured a British navy squadron of six ships in the waters off South Bass Island. The victory secured Lake Erie for the Americans, cut off British resupply to the west and laid the groundwork for the recapture of Detroit.

“We have met the enemy and they are ours,” Perry wrote to General William Henry Harrison, earning a place in the annals of American historical quotations. His battle flag, inscribed with the inspirational words “Don’t Give up the Ship” is on permanent display at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.

And yet, “people across our country and in Canada know the stories of the War of 1812 but don’t always know where the stories happened,” says Steve Roberts, a National Park Service ranger at the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on South Bass Island.

The bicentennial offers an opportunity to reinforce the historic importance of this battle and to celebrate the 200 years of post-war peace between Americans and Canadians, Roberts says.

In addition, 2013 is the centennial celebration for the memorial, a granite column rising 352 feet over Lake Erie. The memorial, operated by the National Park Service, is the final resting place for three American officers and three British officers killed in the battle. It includes an observation deck that provides a 360-degree view of the Lake Erie Islands. The memorial has been under renovation for nearly seven years, after a 500-pound chuck of granite fell from the observation deck in June 2006. The monument reopened last summer following a three-year closure for major repairs.

The memorial will be the centerpiece of a summer filled with dances, parades, concerts and other events,
including a re-enactment of the battle by a Tall Ships flotilla on Sept. 2 and a military tattoo — a display of military music, drumming and drilling — on Sept. 7. The observances end with a ceremonial wreath-laying at the battle site on the bicentennial anniversary Sept. 10.

Military re-enactors, Native American groups and musicians all are involved in events at the memorial and throughout the harbor town of Put-in-Bay. With cannons firing almost daily and the island swarming with people in period costumes, this summer at Put-in-Bay will be busier than most.

“There is such an air of anticipation on the island,” says Carolyn Miller of Island Transportation, which provides tour trains and bus service on the island.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of the businesses ... are making special arrangements to repaint their buildings and make everything look great for the events coming up.”

Festivities at the memorial already have begun, although they were delayed by federal budget cuts. Upcoming highlights include:

The Centennial Celebration of Perry’s Memorial
Thursday, July 4. About 2,000 members of Masonic lodges in the U.S. and Canada will re-enact the laying of the cornerstone following a parade led by the U.S. Army Band.

Happy Birthday, Commodore Perry!
Friday, Aug. 23. Interpretive talks will remember the life and times of Oliver Hazard Perry.

The Regency Ball
Saturday, Aug. 31. This fundraiser for educational programs at the memorial will take place at the Niagara Center in Put-in-Bay and include on-the-spot lessons in dance steps from the 19th century. Seamstresses will offer pre-event advice on period dresses and there will be prizes for the couple with the most authentic garb.

Tall Ship Festival
Tall Ships will dock in Catawba Island, Port Clinton, Kelleys Island, Middle Bass and Put-in-Bay on the U.S. side, as well as in the Canadian ports of Kingsville, Amherstburg and Windsor, Aug. 29–Sept. 2. The Tall Ship Parade of Sail is scheduled for Sept. 1.

War of 1812 Lecture Series
At 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, Sept. 3–6, at the memorial’s Visitor Center. Topics include “The Battle of Lake Erie from All Perspectives” and “Tecumseh and the Native Americans in the War of 1812,” “Patriots in Petticoats and Civilians in the War of 1812,” and “The Untold Stories and Myths About the War of 1812.”

The events of this summer and fall are sure to capture the imagination of Ohio schoolchildren, who learn the Battle of Lake Erie as part of Ohio history lessons in elementary school. But the bicentennial will be especially meaningful to the pupils of Christine Ontko, who teaches social studies to grades 4–6 at the Put-in-Bay School. Ontko grew up on the island and has taught for 16 years in the one-building school district.

“All my students have been to the top of our monument and are aware of its importance as a symbol of peace,” she says.

And while the students of Put-in-Bay are no different from students everywhere, Ontko acknowledges that having a 352-foot reminder right in their back yard can be an effective teaching tool.

“History isn’t everyone’s favorite topic,” she admits, “but history makes more sense when you can feel and see the place in which a battle or important historical event took place.”

So it does. And the people of Put-in-Bay invite you to come this summer to make sense of this historic event.


The National Park Service is planning events all summer to mark the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, including concerts, parades, lectures and educational activities. Before you visit, check the Battle of Lake Erie Calendar at nps.gov/pevi/planyourvisit/special-events.htm.

The Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce is a source for island-based events and activities including information on free concerts and tickets to the Regency Ball, as well as transportation, lodging and dining options. See visitputinbay.com.

The Friends of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a nonprofit group supporting the national monument, is both supporting and tracking the events. To see their calendar, visit theperrygroup.org.
For more information about the Tall Ships visit and battle re-enactment (including opportunities to buy tickets and volunteer), see battleoflakeerie-bicentennial.com.

Events are planned off the island as well. “Perry’s Victory:  The Battle of Lake Erie” is a free exhibit of paintings, prints, sculpture, artifacts and music at the Toledo Museum of Art, Aug. 9–Nov. 10. The exhibit will include a showing of the Thomas Birch painting “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie.”

From June 3 through Sept. 13, an art exhibition titled “Peace Among Nations — The Lasting Legacy of the War of 1812” will be featured at the James A. Rhodes State Office Tower in Columbus. Works by artists of all ages from Canada and Ohio depict the War of 1812, the Battle of Lake Erie, the building of the Perry’s Victory Memorial, the U.S. Brig Niagara and the long-lasting peace between nations.

And the National Park Service reminds us that while to Ohioans, the Battle of Lake Erie may be the most famous encounter of the War of 1812, the war did not begin or end here in Ohio. “We have more than 25 units [parks and heritage areas] that have planned commemorative events during the War of 1812 Bicentennial,” says Christine Arato, national coordinator of the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration for the Park Service. 

These events will mark key points such as the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine. The defense of the fort, Sept. 13–14, 1814, inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” (nps.gov/fomc). And the Battle of New Orleans, the Jan. 8, 1815, skirmish that added a dramatic finale to a war that had been officially closed, will be remembered at the Chalmette Battlefield, part of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park & Preserve (nps.gov/jela/chalmette-battlefield.htm). See nps.gov for future listings.