Remembering an Overlooked Chapter of the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion/Patriot War
by Dr. John Carter
Headlines in the July 10, 1838 edition of the Sandwich Western Herald proclaimed the following; “Piratical Doings on the River St. Clair.” In his paper, the editor Henry Grant vividly portrayed an attack made upon Sombra, Upper Canada on June 28, by what he called “Pirates-Rebels.” This was one of at least 14 unsanctioned and armed incursions into Canada from the United States. These violent intrusions were made between December 1837 and December 1838, by members of the Patriot Army. Four of these incursions constituted the often overlooked and forgotten St. Clair Raids.
With William Lyon Mackenzie’s initial uprising being put down in December 1837 in Toronto, many rebels fled to adjoining border-states, including New York, Ohio and Michigan. There American sympathizers augmented Patriot numbers, and banded together to renew efforts to “liberate” Upper Canada from British rule, and from what they regarded as “tyranny.” Early in 1838, attacks at Bois Blanc Island, Amherstburg, and Fighting Island, and the invasion and Battle of Pelee Island by rebel forces, heightened concern about more unrest in the Western District of Upper Canada [today Kent, Essex and Lambton counties]. Editor Grant pointed out that for some time there had been a suspicion that the Patriots “…were hatching mischief in Michigan.” He added that “…scoundrels were skulking about the villages of Newport, Palmer and Port Huron.” Their goal he believed was to attempt a landing on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River, and overthrow the government of Upper Canada. In response, detachments of militia were posted along the banks of Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. They would not have long to wait!
The Attack on Goderich:
The first alarm of impending difficulties came on June 22, 1838. This caused the Moore Militia to be called out, but no rebel action resulted. Actual incursions would begin four days later. In the evening of June 26 in Palmer, Michigan (now St. Clair), American Patriot John S. Vreeland assembled some 30 rebels aboard a stolen schooner. Their destination was Goderich, Upper Canada. Militia from the Huron District (now Huron County), had been sent to help defend the Western District. As a result, Goderich was virtually left undefended and ripe for the picking. In a June 30 report from Detroit, a correspondent for the New York Courier & Enquirer wrote, that the invaders had “…plundered the stores of every thing valuable.” Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bonnycastle, Acting Commander at Fort Henry in Kingston, recorded that the Patriots had “…extended their plunder, however, as far as the Goderich frontier in a sloop, which was taken possession of, after the pirates had escaped by the U.S. steamer Gratoit (sic).”
American authorities were made aware of this incursion, and the Gratiot went in pursuit of the invaders. After a long chase the Gratiot closed upon the Patriot boat in American waters. The rebels aboard were armed, but instead of fighting back they chose to ground their vessel and flee. An article in the July 13 issue of the Kingston Spectator summed up this action; “On receiving intelligence that an armed buccaneer schooner was cruising in Lake St. Clair, the United States Officers embarked a detachment of men in the small steamer Gratiot; on approach the men [Patriots] took to the shore and disappeared.”
The Sombra Raid:
On the morning of June 28, a sloop belonging to Charles Bowerman, crossed the St. Clair River. They landed an armed party at Sombra, Upper Canada, near the general store operated by Claude Gouin. There stock was plundered, and then the raiders proceeded to the commissariat under charge of Captain McDonald. They stole 8 barrels of flour and 15 bushels of oats. Captain McDonald and local tanner Angus McDonald were taken prisoner. With the booty and captives stowed aboard the sloop, the Patriots sailed back to the American side.
United States Deputy Marshal Cornwall crossed the river from Palmer, Michigan, to Sutherland’s Landing (between today’s Courtright and Mooretown). His mission was to assure the commander of the Moore Militia, Lieutenant-Colonel William Wright, that he would do all he could to preserve the peace and to maintain neutrality. Cornwall informed Canadian authorities that the American steamer Gratiot would soon arrive from Detroit. Again it would be pressed into service to capture the rogue schooner, and to take the invaders into custody.
Subsequently, 17 Moore Militia volunteers and 7 Chippewa warriors from the St. Clair Rapids Reserve seized four log canoes and pursued the rebels into Michigan. Shots were fired and the Patriots ran their vessel ashore near the Reemer farm. An international crisis was diffused when American Captain John Clarke chased 17 attackers into the nearby woods. He then negotiated with Canadian Captain William Gurd and his native and militia contingent to return to the Canadian side, without further incident. The stolen goods were given back to their rightful owners, the McDonalds freed, and the sloop was hitched to the Gratiot and towed to Detroit. The potential for war between England and United States had been narrowly averted.
Reactions from several quarters were recorded. Writing from the St. Clair Mission, interpreter and assistant missionary George Henry, noted that a few Indians “…drove the unfortunate fellows [Patriots] over [the border] again, and chased them to the other side [of the St. Clair River].” In his diary of June 28, 1838, Captain Richard Emeric Vidal simply said of the events; “The whole day occupied fortifying the village [Port Sarnia]. The magistrates called out the militia…Mr. Gouin’s store plundered by the patriots.” The Detroit Advertiser of July 3, explained the fate of rebels captured by American authorities; “We learn that of the prisoners brought down Sunday night from St. Clair, and examined by Judge [Ross] Wilkins, that two were bound over to appear in the next Session of the District Court, and the other four were released.”
Incursion at Nugent’s Landing:
Letters written on June 27 by Chatham area magistrates Duncan McGregor and James Read to Canadian officials, noted that another group of rebels had landed at Nugent’s Inn, which was located about 2 miles above Baby’s Point (now Port Lambton). Wallaceburg resident Hugh McCallum confirmed this information. He wrote; “The Radicals have landed at Nugent’s Inn…So all lovers of their country had better come forward immediately in its defence.”
At Nugent’s Landing, the Patriots hoisted a liberty pole and a tri-coloured flag and awaited further orders. The invaders had been transported across the St. Clair River aboard the U.S. steamer Macomb. Local observers claimed that up to 300 “pirates” had landed, and that 400 more were expected to cross in small boats and canoes. In a subsequent report issued by Upper Canada’s Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur, this number was significantly downgraded to less than 100. The Moore Militia marched to Nugent’s Inn and arrested 6 men. Those incarcerated included Canadian citizen Horace Cooley. He had previously been in jail on a charge of carrying messages between the Patriots in Michigan and discontented residents in Upper Canada. He would be one of the few captured Patriots to suffer the consequences.
The Bear Creek Incident:
In another action on July 29, 4 rebels invaded the house of Mr. Lick on Bear Creek near Wallaceburg. It was being used by local militia as a post to watch the movements of the Patriots. The invaders shot and mortally wounded Captain William (Carrie) Kerry of the Kent Militia, before making good their escape. Incriminating evidence left at the scene, pointed to William Putnam as being the leader of the invading party as well as the murderer of Kerry. This unfortunate event was recorded in the New Fairfield diary of Moraviantown missionary Abraham Luckenbach. He suggested that the original number of insurgents was estimated at between five and six hundred. After closer investigation this number proved to be no more than fifty. Luckenbach wrote that this incident and rumours of Patriot incursions, saying; “…made all the inhabitants in our area uneasy.” He concluded however, that the government of Upper Canada “…had the upper hand more and more every day, and protected us from inner turmoil.”
In the aftermath of the St. Clair Raids, 11 captured Patriots were eventually tried before the Court of the King’s Bench in Sandwich, Upper Canada. Charles Bowerman and Horace Cooley were found guilty of burglary and sentenced to hang. Their executions were later commuted. Only Cooley was transported to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania). He was accompanied by 91 other Patriot colleagues, sent there as political prisoners for their involvement other incursions associated with the 1838 Upper Canadian rebellion/Patriot War. After an unsuccessful escape attempt, Cooley was delivered as a second offender to the notorious penal settlement at Port Arthur. On receiving his pardon, Cooley remained in Tasmania. There is no record that Horace Cooley ever returned to his home in London, Upper Canada.
John Vreeland who had previously been involved with armed incursions at Navy Island, Fighting Island and Pelee Island, became the first Patriot member in the United States to be convicted of violating American neutrality laws. He was found guilty, fined $1,000 and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. This prompted the following observation published in the July 25 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer & Daily Courier: “The sentence of Major Vreeland will have a tendency to cool the ardor of some of the most patriotic on this (U.S.) side.” Somewhat prophetic, as no further incursions occurred along the St. Clair River corridor!
The St. Clair area returned to relative calm and normal conditions. Interaction and harmony between international neighbours in Canada and the United States began to resume. In a May 4, 1839 letter from American General Hugh Brady to Commandant of Fort Malden, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Airey, Brady suggested that action was still expected by the Patriots who; “…intend to commence operations about the time the farmers commence planting their corn, and that their plan is to send over small marauding parties to burn houses, and destroy other property, in hope of producing retaliation, and thus keep up excitement until the Governments are induced to call the militia into service.” While rumours of more attacks swirled, fortunately no further invasions would be made into the Western District until the Battle of Windsor in December, 1838. The St. Clair Raids can be regarded as an important but often overlooked part of the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion/Patriot War, and they constitute an integral chapter in Ontario’s historic past.
“Another Murder by the Patriot Pirates,” [Sandwich] Western Herald (July 17, 1838).
“A Warning to Buccaneers,” Detroit Daily Advertiser (July 16, 1838).
John C. Carter, “Story of the ‘Patriot’ Raid on Goderich and other raids following the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion,” Huron Historical Notes (2014), v. XLIX.
John C. Carter, “The ‘Hurons’ and the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion: From ‘Bloody Useless’ to ‘Bloody Useful’?,” Huron Historical Notes (2015), v. L.
John C. Carter, “The St. Clair Raids brought rebel conflict close to home,” St. Clair Beacon (November, 2012).
Dorothy Marie Mitts, “Pirates on the St. Clair,” Sarnia Gazette (July 4, 1973).
n.a. “The Pirates Again,” [Kingston] British Whig (July 21, 1838).
n.a. “Piratical Doings on the River St. Clair,” [Sandwich] Western Herald (July 10, 1838).
n.a. “St. Clair Buccaneers Routed,” Detroit Advertiser (June 30, 1838).
Robert B. Ross, “A Memory of Putnam,” in “The Patriot War,” Historical Collections, Michigan Pioneer & Historical Society (1894), v. 21.
Orrin Edward Tiffany. The Canadian Rebellion of 1837-38 (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1905).
J.M. Warwick, “Invasion Scare of 1837-38,” Sarnia Observer (April 16, 1949).