Recollections from 185 Years Ago: Some Observations of the Patriot War

By John C. Carter

One hundred and eighty-five years ago, all was not quiet, nor peaceful in Upper Canada. It was a time of tumult and turmoil, uneasiness and unrest, the likes that the government and the population of that province had never seen before or since. Between December 1837 and December 1838, at least 14 armed incursions into Canada from the United States would be made by members of the Patriot Army. These actions would cause dissention and discord, fear and profound worry on both sides of the border for a period of 12 months.

Woodcut of the Battle of the Windmill by an unknown artist, commissioned by William Lyon Mackenzie, and published in Mackenzie’s Weekly Message (July 30, 1859).

After the initial rebellions against British rule in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 were put down, many of the rebels fled to adjoining American border-states. There, U.S. sympathizers and supporters augmented the ranks of the Patriot cause. Their ambitions were not dead, and early in 1838, convinced of the desire for a popular rising against what they perceived as British “tyranny and oppression,” the rebel forces banded together to renew their efforts to “liberate” the Canadas from British rule. This would signal the beginning of the Patriot War in Upper Canada.  

Feelings about these events varied, and were expressed by various period observers. Robert Marsh, a Patriot soldier from Niagara Falls, New York, described the mood on the border at this time. In his published narrative, he wrote that; “It was all excitement in Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and all along the frontier…the whole country was awake; many and strong were the inducements for young as well as married men to engage in so glorious a cause.” Subsequently, various armed invasions and rebellious acts occurred. These incursions ignored neutrality laws established by the federal government of the United States, and violated the sovereign authority of Canada.

Others made comments about these events. Irish writer and traveller, John Robert Godley, provided an international perspective regarding border tensions. In a published letter he stated; “I had no idea until I came to this country [Canada] of the extent to which the operation of the sympathizers were carried at the time of troubles in Canada; from all parts of the Union adventurers flocked to the border (literally in thousands), fully persuaded that the scenes of Texas were to be acted over again, and that the British dominion in America was at an end… these vagabonds perservered for a long time in predatory expeditions, taking advantage of the scarcity of troops in the Upper Province, and of the facilities of escape afforded by the river.” American author Nathaniel Parker Willis, noted that; “The United States contained many individuals disposed to sympathize deeply with the Canadians, and many restless spirits were inclined to join them, allured by the promise of large lots of confiscated land.”

Even Queen Victoria, the recently crowned young monarch of the British Empire, weighed in on the debate. In an address to the British House of Lords, she said; “I have to acquaint you, with deep concern, that Lower Canada has again been distressed by insurrection, and hostile incursions into Upper Canada by certain lawless inhabitants of the United States of North America. These violations of the public place have been promptly suppressed by the valour of my forces and the loyalty of my Canadian subjects. The President of the United States [Martin Van Buren] has called upon the citizens of the Union to abstain from proceedings so incompatible with the friendly relations which subsist between Great Britain and the United States.”

Sir Francis Bond Head was the lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada from 1835 until early 1838, when he was recalled and replaced by Sir George Arthur. Credit: Library and Archives of Canada

The Events:
During this period, two incursions took place in the Niagara River region (at Navy Island and Short Hills), four were evidenced on Lake Erie and the Detroit River (at Bois Blanc Island, Fighting Island, Pelee Island & Windsor), four happened in the area of the St. Clair River (at Goderich, Sombra, Nugent’s Landing & Bear Creek), and four occurred along the St. Lawrence River.  The events on and along the St. Lawrence River, included the invasion of Hickory Island, the burning of the steamer Sir Robert Peel, the raid on and plundering of Amherst Island/Isle of Tonti, and the Battle of the Windmill at Prescott.

In the fall of 1837, Sir Francis Bond Head, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, had received a request from the Commander in Chief of Armed Forces in British North America.  Sir John Colborne asked Bond Head to send troops to Lower Canada, to assist him in putting down the Patriote uprising there. Believing that rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie had “completely failed” in his armed efforts and uprising at Toronto in December 1837, Bond Head sent almost all regular troops in the province to Lower Canada. The only few that remained were a small detachment of the 24th Regiment which were stationed at Bytown (now Ottawa). Bond Head wrote to then British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, and included a copy of his October 17, 1837 response to Colborne. It read in part; “I consider that the Province [Upper Canada] can dispense with as many troops as you may deem it desirable to require.” This action would prove to be a monumental mistake, as it left Upper Canada virtually defenceless from attacks by malcontents and Patriot invaders from the United States. Serious and rebellious consequences would occur as a result of Bond Head’s grievous error.

Rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie had fled from Toronto, and escaped to Buffalo. His arrival there was noted in the December 23, 1837 issue of the New-Yorker; “His appearance in Buffalo was hailed with great enthusiasm, and was the signal of accelerated movements on the part of the inhabitants.” There Mackenzie rallied disaffected Canadians and American sympathizers to join the Patriot cause. They soon established themselves on the Canadian Navy Island, situated in the Niagara River, and began preparing to launch an attack on Chippewa. 

Fervent loyalist and Todmorden Mills’ brewer William Helliwell, recorded the following about this event, in his diary entry for December 22, 1837. He wrote that he; “Was in Toronto today. Strange rumours of Mackenzie having several hundred men and field pieces on Navy Island and that they [government forces] had taken a 32 pounder from Niagara to cannonade him from the Canadian shore.” The following day, Helliwell noted that bomb shells, congreve rockets and mortars were being taken to Chippewa to bombard the rebel positions. In addition, a large force of militia had been sent from Hamilton to join what was estimated to be 2,000 volunteers who had assembled on the Niagara frontier, to repulse the Patriots and to drive them off Navy Island.

Brockville,Ontario artist, Frederick C. Curry’s drawing of his depiction of the burning of the steamer Sir Robert Peel. Credit: Library & Archives of Canada. 

Soon after the evacuation of Navy Island, American General Winfield Scott and New York Governor William L. Marcy arrived on the state’s northern frontier. They were there to assess the current situation and to take any immediate action which might be required. Their impact was noted in the January 20, 1838 edition of the New-Yorker. An informative article concluded that their presence; “…has had a most salutary and pacifying effect…Everything in reason is doing and will be done to maintain the neutrality of our territory and repress the belligerent spirit of the frontier towns and counties.” But would their efforts be effective or enough to achieve these goals? Only time would tell.

As the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Glenelg (Charles Grant), received regular despatches and reports from Upper Canada, which briefed him about the 1837/1838 rebellions. Credit: Wikipedia

Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head addressed the Upper Canada Legislature on December 28, 1837. He reported about events along the frontier and on Navy Island, and said; “I am informed that Americans from various quarters are hastening from the interior to join this standard of avowed plunder and revolt; that cannon and arms are publicly proceeding there; and under the circumstances, it becomes my painful duty to inform you, that without having offered to the United States the smallest provocation; without having entertained the slightest doubt of the sincerity of the American alliance, the inhabitants of this province may in a few days be called upon by me to defend their lives, their properties and their liberties, from an attack by American citizens, which, with no desire to offend, I must pronounce to be unparalleled in the history of the world.” Bond Head had finally come to the realization about the gravity of the situation! 

He also sent a dispatch to Major-General Lord Fitzroy Somerset in Montreal on January 2, 1838. This document confirmed that ; “… a party of Americans have taken possession of Navy Island, and are constructing works of defence on it, and inviting others to join them, with the intention of aiding  rebels who have been driven out of the province.” This would prove to be the first of at least 14 armed incursions from the United States into Upper Canada. In response, Bond Head would quickly reinforce the provincial militia and call back regular troops from Lower Canada. Both groups would immediately become involved in defending the province from these impending threats. He also corresponded with the New York State Governor, William Learned Marcy, to request that all efforts that could be made by American officials to uphold provisions in the American neutrality laws, were in fact instituted and carried out. 

Lithograph of Sir John Colborne, Commander-in-chief of British Forces in the Canadas. He corresponded with Lord Glenelg and the Earl of Durham about events central to the 1837 and 1838 Canadian rebellions. Credit: John C. Carter (author’s collection)

The Lieutenant -Governor reported that “upwards of 10,000 men” from across the province had answered his call, and “…nobly rushed forward to defend the revered constitution of their ancestors.” Loyalist militia helped to capture and destroy the rebel steam boat Caroline, and shortly afterwards, they participated in attacks on rebel positions on Navy Island. Bond Head triumphantly reported that because of these initiatives, that; “The rebels, dispersed in all directions, surrendered every where at discretion; and before sunset the whole conspiracy exploded.” 

Again this was a miscalculation of the actual situation which Bond Head made. Far from being defeated, a portion of the Patriot forces would move westward along Lake Erie to Ohio, and eventually set up headquarters near Detroit, at Gibraltar, Michigan. From there they would launch attacks and piratical raids into the Western District of Upper Canada. Other rebels would re-assemble in Upper New York State, and hatch plans to wreak havoc along the St. Lawrence River corridor and the Niagara River. Motives for these incursions varied. After several of the first armed invasions failed, American newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote in an editorial in his weekly New-Yorker, dated February 17, 1838. He mused; “Whether the ‘Patriots’ of Navy Island [Niagara River] or Bois Blanc Island [Detroit River] were impelled by a holy zeal for freedom or a hope of victory and booty, we leave them to their own consciences and the opinions of our readers.” Greeley also urged all American citizens to refrain from joining the rebel ranks, and not to break established neutrality agreements. While his pleas were listened to, some would take heed, while others would not. Almost a year of continuing unrest would follow.

Tumult and insecurity was far from being over, and residents in the eastern portion of Upper Canada and northern New York State, would soon directly feel the impact of these restless and dangerous times. In the February 1, 1838 edition of the Lewiston Telegraph, an editorial suggested that; “…the winter campaign of the Upper Canada patriots may now be considered as abandoned.” The article concluded that; “The feelings of the Canadians as developed by the late disturbances, are conclusively proved to be averse to a change of government. The appeal to arms was premature; and the revolt has resolved into reality the doubt which we expressed at the commencement of the disturbances-whether they had sufficient preparations for political freedom.”

Unfortunately this rather overly optimistic pronouncement would prove not to be the case. Along the St. Lawrence River, additional incursions would be experienced at the invasion of Hickory Island on February 22, in the capture and burning of the Canadian steamer Sir Robert Peel on May 29/30, in the raid on and plunder of Amherst Island/Isle of Tonti on June 6/7, and finally at the Battle of the Windmill on November 12-16, 1838. Calm would not return to the Canadas until early in 1839, when the Patriot War finally and thankfully came to an end. Today only written remembrances of these perilous times and events of 185 years ago remain.

Bibliography & Suggested Readings:

Beauclerk, Charles. “Operations in Upper Canada,” in Lithograph Views of Military Operations in Canada Under His Excellency Sir John Colborne (London: A. Flint, 1840).

Carter, John C.  Piratical Doings on the River St. Clair 1838 (St. Clair Township, Ont.: Heritage St. Clair, 2020).

Marsh, Robert. Seven Years of My Life, or Narrative of a Patriot Exile (Buffalo: Faxon & Stevens, 1848).n.a. “The Canada Insurrection,” The New-Yorker (December 23, 1837).

n.a. “The Canadian Struggle,” The New-Yorker (February 17, 1838).n.a. “Canadian Troubles,” The New-Yorker (June 16, 1838).

n.a. Correspondence Relative to the Affairs of Lower Canada, &c. – Upper Canada (London: The House of Commons, January 18, 1838). 

n.a. “From the West,” Albany Daily Advertiser (January 24, 1838).n.a. “Frontier Hostilities,” The New-Yorker (January 20, 1838).

n.a. Upper Canada: Papers Relating to Sir F.B. Head (London: Colonial Office, May 2, 1837).

n.a. “The Northern Frontier,” Lewiston Telegraph (February 1, 1838).Tiffany, Orrin Edward. The Relation of the United States to the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-1838 (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1905)

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