Patriot Chronicles: The Odyssey of Chauncey Sheldon

By John C. Carter

Between December, 1837 and December, 1838, there were at least 14 recorded armed incursions from United States into Upper Canada. These unsanctioned invasions were undertaken by what was referred to as the “Patriot Army.” Its intention was to overthrow what was seen by some as oppression and “British tyranny.” While none of these raids were successful, over 1,000 men who were involved or participated in these raids were arrested. Many were charged with piratical invasion/high treason, and one of those men was Chauncey Sheldon. This is his story.

 Jerusalem Probation Station, another Probation Station in Van Diemen’s Land, where North American political prisoners were sent to help construct. Credit: Graham Ryrie, Colebrook, Tasmania. 

Sheldon was a widowed, 57 year old ploughman and farmer, who lived in Utica, Macomb County, Michigan.1 Friend Palmer, a patriot supporter and eye witness to events along the Detroit River frontier, related how he speculated Sheldon became involved. Palmer wrote that Sheldon had travelled into Detroit with his team and a load of produce and flour to sell at market.2 While there, on the night before the incursion into Windsor, he was persuaded to visit the Brush Garden Hunter’s Lodge. There Palmer suggested that the Patriots; “…induced him [Sheldon] to join the expedition, telling him it was just a picnic and nothing short of that.” As a result, on December 4, 1838, Sheldon participated in the last invasion of the Patriot War, the Battle of Windsor. He was captured several days later and taken to London, Upper Canada.3 On December 27, 1838, Sheldon and twelve others were tried and convicted by court martial on charges of piratical invasion/high treason. He and other similarly convicted prisoners were then sent to the Toronto gaol. They arrived there on March 10, 1839. Sheldon’s death sentence was ultimately waived, but along with seventeen  other Windsor participants, they all were sentenced to transportation in Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania). He was the oldest of these prisoners to suffer this fate. The men were then moved to Fort Henry in Kingston, before travelling on to Quebec, to start their long trip to Hobart Town. In the May 4, 1839 issue of the Maumee [Ohio] City Express, an editorial said; “We cannot but hope that eighteen whose sentences have been commuted to transportation will receive a full pardon before embarkation to a penal colony.” Unfortunately, such would not be the case, and transportation proceeded.

Saltwater River Probation Station. A 3 dimensional computer generated image of the completed Saltwater River, where some of the Patriot prisoners (including Chauncey Sheldon) were sent to build in 1841. Credit: Graham Ryrie, Colebrook, Tasmania.

To Van Diemen’s Land:
Sheldon and the other Patriots were shipped to Van Diemen’s Land aboard H.M.S. Buffalo. After departing from Quebec in September of 1839, the Buffalo anchored off Hobart Town on February 12, 1840. The journey had taken 137 days, with the ship travelling over 16,000 miles. This voyage was briefly described by Battle of the Windmill prisoner, Alvin B. Sweet. In a March 29, 1840 letter to his parents, written from Hobart Town, Sweet recorded that; “Our voyage was a long one; we sailed from Quebec on the 27th September [1839], arrived at Rio [de] Janeiro in South America, Nov. 30, where we stopped five days for water and provisions. We had a very quick passage from Rio [de] Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, which we passed on the first of January, and arrived here and cast anchor on the 12th Feb. 1840…Our treatment on board the vessel was very good, every thing was done that could be for our comfort and convenience. The commander was a very fine man, and the surgeon was very kind and attentive to us all.”   Sheldon’s fellow Windsor prisoner Elijah Woodman also made a similar diary entry about the trip. He wrote saying that; “The commander of this ship has treated us with every degree of generosity and is making us comfortable as we can expect. His officers and the Surgeon spare no pains to our health and fare. The food is much better than we expected. Our passage has been very agreeable.” Presumably Chauncey Sheldon would have agreed with both these positive assessments.

Detail of casements and exterior barred windows of cells at Fort Henry, Kingston, U.C. Patriot prisoners were held here until they were freed, banished or transported to Van Diemen’s Land. From an 1841 watercolour by George St. Vincent Whitmore. Credit: Peter Winkworth Collection-R9266-519, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

The Probation System:
On arrival, each prisoner was given an official number. Sheldon’s was #2776. The men were not sent to the Hobart Town Prisoners’ Barracks/Tench as most prisoners had been previously, but were marched directly to the Sandy Bay Probation Station. As political prisoners, these men were separated from “the usual class of thieves,” following specific directions given by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin. Franklin ordered the Patriots to “…be placed on the roads by themselves and landed direct at a place selected under a superintendent of experience and selected overseer.”

Elijah Woodman

The prisoners were to build a nine mile stretch of road from Sandy Bay to Brown’s River. Another Windsor colleague, Elizur Stevens, explained the daily routine they experienced; “Our work consists of pecking stones and earth, shoveling, hauling with handcarts, &c. We have to work 11 hours in the day, for 5 ½ days in the week.” Battle of the Windmill/Prescott prisoner John Gilman, added that; “Our labour is of the hardest-mending roads. We have no teams of any kind, and have to do all the carting ourselves.” Samuel Snow, another Windsor prisoner noted that; “Our employment consisted of levelling Down hills, and levelling Up  valleys, breaking stone and drawing them in hand carts to where they were wanted, for making and mending macadamized roads.” These were the tasks that Chauncey Sheldon and the rest of the North American political prisoners would experience for the next two years.

New Zealand artist, Paul Deacon’s painting of H.M.S. Buffalo. It was the vessel that transported Chauncey Sheldon and other North American political prisoners to Van Diemen’s Land in 1840. Credit: Paul Deacon, Auckland, New Zealand.

After an escape attempt by several prisoners, the group was moved inland on June 17, 1840, to the Lovely Banks Probation Station, in the midlands of Van Diemen’s Land. They stayed there until September, and then were transferred to the Green Ponds Probation Station. They remained there until May, 1841. Another unsuccessful escape attempt resulted in these men being sent to the Bridgewater Probation Station. On May 29, dispersal from Bridgewater ended up with having smaller groups of prisoners being sent to several different Probation Stations. These included New Town Bay, Jericho, Jerusalem, Brown’s River, Rocky Hills, Constitution Hill, Marlborough, Victoria Valley, Seven Mile Creek, Mount Dromedary, and Saltwater Creek/River stations. Chauncey Sheldon would be in the small group that was sent to the Saltwater Probation Station, situated on the Tasman Peninsula.

This site was chosen by Charles O’Hara Booth, the Commandant at the notorious Port Arthur Penal Colony, to help accommodate the huge influx of common felons and convicts being sent from England. Built on a low hill overlooking Norfolk Bay, construction of the complex began there in March of 1841. In June, nine Patriot prisoners including Chauncey Sheldon, Robert Marsh, James D. Fero, John Berry, David House, Joseph Leforte, Patrick White and two others, were re-located from the Hobart Town Tench. They became a part of a corps of 300 convicts specifically employed in building permanent structures at this site. Buildings were made of weatherboard walls and shingle roofs. The store had slab walls and a bark roof, while other buildings were constructed of simple, rough spars covered with bark. Work also included grubbing and barking trees, sawing, splitting and carrying timber, quarrying and drawing stone, and the construction of huts and a causeway. In addition, the incarcerated wheel-barrowed casks of fresh water for drinking, one and a half miles from Saltwater Creek, to the site of the evolving station. These endeavours were overseen by the Superintendent, James Pringle.   

In ten months, work had progressed favourably. Well known, period Van Diemen’s Land journalist David Burn described what he saw there on a January 12, 1842 visit. He wrote; “This is a remarkably fine locality, with extensive penitentiaries accommodating about 400 convicts…Roads have been formed, piers constructed, land broken up and cleared; upwards of 50 acres luxuriantly cropped with cabbages, potatoes, turnips etc.” Known for their axe skills, the “Canadians” contributed greatly to this development.4 The site was well suited for growing grain and vegetables. Once the land was cleared, and crops planted, grown and harvested, it would eventually become the principle agricultural station on the Tasman Peninsula.Towards Freedom:  

Many of these prisoners received tickets of leave (a form of probation) on February 10, 1842. This indulgence was given to numerous prisoners, including Chauncey Sheldon.  This measure allowed the men who were granted it, to live and work in the Districts of Fingal, Campbell Town, Oatlands, Bothwell, Hamilton and Swanport. The Saltwater Probation Station men were shipped back to Hobart Town aboard a government schooner, and then went out to work on their own and to await receipt of their pardons. Chauncey Sheldon received his on December 6, 1844. He was 1 of 58 prisoners who were pardoned on an application made to the British Government by the U.S. Ambassador Edward Everett.   Everett suggested to American authorities of “…the propriety of making some provision to aid those thus liberated in their return, as there might be cases where without such assistance it would be impossible for them to get home.” His request unfortunately fell on deaf ears, as the U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth, decided that there was no such appropriation from which this type of aid could be legally provided.  A free voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, but not one back! Fortunately for Sheldon, the American whaling ship Steiglitz was at that time docked in the Hobart Town harbour, and its captain was looking for crew members. As a result, on January 29, 1845, Sheldon left Van Diemen’s Land aboard that vessel. He was accompanied by 26 other pardoned prisoners, all bound for Hawaii (Sandwich Islands).

The Final Chapter:
On reaching Hawaii after a three month journey, only six men continued on aboard the Steiglitz. Chauncey Sheldon was one of twenty who remained, all who were trying to find other ways to return home. The captain of the Steiglitz, Selah Young, noted that the men that he taken to Honolulu, “…are desirous of returning to the United States, and I have given them passage to this port.”  He added that they were; “…men of quiet and orderly habits.” He implored British officials to take some action to return these former state prisoners to United States, and said on his return from a whaling venture, that he would pick up any who remained. Neither of these initiatives would occur. Instead, a circuitous route would unfold for Chauncey Sheldon in his quest to get back to his homeland and family. Following a four month stay in Honolulu, Sheldon took passage on the American sloop-of-war Levant, which was bound for Monterey, Mexico. There he boarded the Warren for Panama, then from there took the American war schooner Flirt to Cuba, before sailing to New York City aboard the barque Mudara. He arrived there in March of 1846. Articles in several American newspapers note his presence there, before he ventured on to Le Roy, Genesee County, New York, to search for family members. He was 64 years old, but as the papers recorded, “…in good health and spirits.” One report noted that; “Mr. S. has many friends and relations in this and adjoining towns [Warsaw, N.Y.], who will be most happy to take by the hand a father and brother.”

Like most of the returned North American political prisoners/Patriots, Chauncey Sheldon would live out the rest of his life in relative obscurity, but his odyssey had finally ended! Another chapter in the Patriot Chronicles open and closed!

1   Sheldon was originally from New York State and lived in Genesee County, before he re-located to Michigan.

2   Michigan was experiencing financial turmoil and depression in 1838. The editor of the Detroit Advertiser wrote; “Great distress and excitement prevail in the country. Farmers have parted with their last year’s produce at high prices, and received bank bills that cannot be passed or redeemed for anything.” Perhaps this perilous situation was a reason why Chauncey Sheldon decided to join the Patriot cause, in hope of improving his fortunes?  

3  A contemporary author in a period piece about London, C.W., reflected upon the Patriot prisoners held at the London Gaol. He wrote that; “…great numbers were doomed on this spot to transportation, and the sentences were carried into effect with unrelaxing vigor.” Such was the unfortunate fate of Chauncey Sheldon.

4  Short Hills prisoner James Gemmell (one of the few who actually escaped from Van Diemen’s Land), suggested that some of the Americans who were sent to Probation Stations on the Tasman Peninsula, were put to work at the nearby coal mines as a form of punishment for breaking strict penal rules. There is no evidence that Chauncey Sheldon was employed in this manner.

Bibliography & Suggested Reading:
John C. Carter, “One Way Ticket to a Penal Colony: North American Political Prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land,” Ontario History (Autumn, 2009), v. CI, # 2.

John Gilman, “From Van Dieman’s Land, Feb.13, 1840,” The Albany [N.Y.] Argus (April 26, 1840).

Edwin C. Guillet. The Lives and Times of the Patriots (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1938).

S. Wrigley Murphy, “Historical Sketch of the City of London, C.W.,” in City of London Directory for 1863-4 (London, C.W.: Thomas Evans, 1863).

n.a. “A Great Glorious Escape from British Tyranny,” The New York Herald (June 24, 1842).

n.a. “Canadian Affairs,” The [Lebanon, Ohio] Western Star (December 21, 1838).

n.a. “Col. Chauncey Sheldon-British Slaves From Free States,” The [Rochester, N.Y.] Volunteer (July 3, 1841).

n.a. “Court Martial at London,” The [Montreal] Morning Courier (February 1, 1839).n.a. “List,” [Newport, R.I.] Herald of the Times (July 4, 1846).

n.a. “List of Prisoners captured after the action at Windsor, near Sandwich, 4th December, 1838,” The [Montreal] Morning Courier (December 18, 1838).

n.a. “Michigan,” [Batavia, Ohio] Clermont Courier (April 21, 1838).

n.a. “The Soldier’s Return,” [Montpelier] Vermont Watchman & State Journal (March 12, 1846).

n.a. “Upper Canada,” The [Montreal] Morning Courier (December 21, 1838).

n.a. “Upper Canada,” Cheraw [S.C.] Gazette & Pee Dee Farmer (April 26, 1839).

n.a. “Upper Canada- Patriot Prisoners-More Mercy,” Maumee [Ohio] City Express (May 4, 1839).

n.a. “The Windsor Prisoners. Taken to Kingston to be Banished,” [Swanton, Vt.] North American (May 22, 1839).Friend Palmer, “Incidents of the Patriot War,” in Early Days of Detroit (Detroit: Hunt & June, 1906).

Alvin B. Sweet, “American Prisoners at Van Dieman’s Land,” Buffalo [N.Y.] Commercial Advertiser & Journal (June 25, 1841).

John Thompson. Probation in Paradise (Hobart: self published, 2007).

S.S. Wright & Aaron Dresser, “Americans in Van Dieman’s Land,” New York Daily Tribune (February 20, 1844).

Selah Young, “Honolulu, April 23, 1845,” The [Honolulu] Polynesian (May 3, 1845).

Paul Deacon, Maureen Martin Ferris, Susan Hood, Graham Ryrie, John Schreiter, Susan Smith and the late John Thompson, have assisted the author in the preparation of this article. He thanks them all for their contributions and advice.

The author visiting the convict built Three Arch Bridge, near the site of the Rocky Hills Probation Station, Tasmania. Credit: Maureen Martin Ferris, Swansea, Tasmania.

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