The Long Journey of One Small Box

People find the darndest things at yard sales. In October 2020, a small wooden box caught the eye of John and Mary Claunch at a sale in southern California. Intrigued with the inscription on the box, they bought it for $2 USD and sought to learn more. Little did they know but their purchase would stir a lot of interest and lead to sending the box across the continent.

With a little research, the Claunchs discovered that the box was related to a historical event in Ontario, namely the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. Online, the couple also found historian and box-expert Chris Raible and reached out to him for more information. Chris provided some historical context of the Rebellion and explained the full significance of their discovery. Dated July 30th, 1838, the box they purchased was made by Jesse H. Cleaver of Lloydtown, Ontario. Now little more than a hamlet, Lloydtown was once a prominent community in this province’s history and had been one of the main centres of unrest leading up to the Rebellion of 1837. Citizens like Jesse Lloyd, one of rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie’s chief associates, was Lloydtown’s founder and influential in the community.  Lloyd took an active part in the reform movement and recruit other residents, like carpenter Jesse Cleaver, who were upset about poor road conditions and clergy reserves. 

The rebellion came to a head on December 7th, 1837 at Montgomery’s Tavern where rebel forces were defeated by government troops. In the fallout, some rebels fled across the border to safety while hundreds of others were arrested and thrown in the Toronto Jail. During their imprisonment, the men carved small wooden boxes as mementos for friends and family. It is believed that the boxes were made by a select number of woodworkers, using specialized carving tools, on behalf of other prisoners. Then they were inscribed with messages to loved ones as well as religious verses and political statements; most are signed and dated and some included hand-drawn sketches.

After learning the story of the prisoner box, Mary Claunch insisted that it belonged in a museum and, with guidance from Chris Raible and Dr. John Carter , the couple donated it to the King Heritage & Cultural Centre (KHCC). The donation is a simple rectangular box, measuring only 4.5 x 8 x 5 cm, with insets of lighter wood and a sliding lid.  It is one of four boxes attributed to rebel Jesse H. Cleaver (1802-1869) who was arrested in March 1838. The lid is inscribed to Mary Armitage, a friend who may have helped the family during Jesse’s imprisonment. None of Cleaver’s four boxes were created for his wife or members of his own family. Jesse Cleaver was released from jail in August 1838 but was banished from Upper Canada; he moved with his family to the United States and never returned to King Township.

Chris Raible, with assistance from historians Dr. John Carter, Darryl Withrow and Robert Harvey and genealogist Linda Corupe, has made the research of these unique boxes his life’s work. In 2009, the book From Hands Now Striving to be Free : Boxes Crafted by 1837 Rebellion Prisoners written by Chris Raible with John Carter and Darryl Withrow, was published by the York Pioneer & Historical Society and to date is the only published guide to these artifacts. Believing he may have found nearly all the boxes that survived, Mr. Raible’s research now focuses on the personalities, lives and backgrounds of the box makers. An update to the 2009 inventory, including nearly 60 more boxes, new research, and photos, is in the works. Of the 152 prisoner boxes inventoried to date, many are held in the collections of Ontario museums while others are owned by families whose ancestors had a direct connection to the rebellion. A handful are still missing in action. 

The Cleaver box is a first for the King Township collection and will go on display at the King Heritage & Cultural Centre later this year. How the box ended up at a yard sale in southern California remains a mystery.

The King Heritage & Cultural Centre (KHCC) is located at 2920 King Rd., King City. For additional information about the KHCC, please visit or contact us at 905-833-2331 or 

Copies of From Hands Now Striving to be Free are available for sale at the KHCC and online at:

Liza Mallyon

Collections & Exhibit Coordinator

King Heritage & Cultural Centre

Historians who help Chris Raible with his research of prisoner boxes, their makers and the Rebellion of 1837: From left: Linda Corupe, Chris Raible, Fred Robbins, Darryl Withrow, Dr. John Carter

Cleaver Box Inscription
“A present to Mary ArmitageFrom Jesse H. Cleaver. A state Prisoner, Toronto July 30th, 1838”

“May vengence draw his sword in wrath, And justice smile to see it done; And smite the traitors for the death Of Matthews, Lount, and Anderson May the King of terror strike the blow,And lay tese haughty tyrants low; That forge the chain, and bind the free; And hang the sons of Liberty”
(“Equality” is inscribed on the side.)

3 Replies to “The Long Journey of One Small Box”

  1. Robert Harvey says:

    please replace my comments above which has a number of errors with the next comment I will submit.

  2. Robert Harvey says:

    The donation of this little box is truly a wonderful thing! Such a poignant story both in the making and the finding of it. What a story this little box could tell of its’ journey these last 183 years. It has come home at last and all due to the efforts and dedication of the folks pictured above. Liza Mallyon of the King Heritage & Cultural Centre was also a principal participant in this story. Hopefully other prisoner boxes will come to light as a result of the discovery, donation and this article about Jesse H. Cleavers’ prisoner box.

    Bravo to all!

    PS: A big shout out to the Way Back Times for publishing this great article. Helps spread to word. Have to love the antique community.

  3. susan carmine says:

    Peter Matthews is My 5th Great Grandfather and reading the stories I find hurt my heart. When I was young my grandmother would talk about Peter Matthews and I regret not listening more often. It would mean so much to me if I were able to get one of these boxes for my home. In a way I think I would feel like a part of Peter Matthews was with me. Please if anyone has one let me know.

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