Patriot War of 1837
The Canadian Rebellion
The Invasion Fails
Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times
Daniel Heustis of Watertown and Benjamin Collins of Evans Mills, arrests for setting out a military expedition to Canada.
An account of the Hickory Island affair given by one of the actual participants is contained in “The Remarkable Adventures of Captain Heustis.”
Daniel D. Heustis was a native of Vermont, born in 1806. In 1834 he came to Jefferson county where an uncle, James Good, resided in Watertown. In his book he describes Watertown as “the shire town of Jefferson County, and a place of some importance. It contains several manufactories and is the center of considerable trade.” For a year young Heustis was employed in the shipping business between Sackets Harbor and New York. The next year he went to work for Clark & Burr, leather dressers in Watertown.
During that time he made frequent trips to Upper Canada, buying hides and selling leather and there became imbued with the idea of Canadian Independence. In the spring of 1837, he went to work for a cousin, A. R. Skinner of Watertown, who was engaged in the meat and grocery business.
Just previous to the Caroline episode at Navy Island General Donald McLeod and Captain Silas Fletcher, two leaders in the Patriot movement in Upper Canada, came to Watertown, crossing the St. Lawrence in a small boat and landing at Oak Point near Hammond. They received a cordial welcome in Watertown and excited the sympathy of the people as they told of the wrongs, which had been inflicted on the Canadian patriots. They afterward proceeded to Rochester.
Heustis records that on 10th January 1838, he gave up business to devote his whole energies to the cause of Canadian independence. He started at once for Navy Island, accompanied by a number of other men, all well equipped and armed. They traveled by stage to Rochester, where they met other Patriot leaders and proceeded to Buffalo. Their Heustis met Mackenzie, General Van Rensselaer and “Admiral” Bill Johnston.
The Canadian government was aware of the intended plans to attack the frontier in the vicinity of Niagara and it was decided to strike elsewhere. After a considerable parley it was decided to attack Kingston.
Heustis, who had a captain’s commission, was ordered back to Watertown. A Mr. Gibson, also a Patriot leader, accompanied him by Mackenzie and his wife and. Gibson took lodgings at a hotel under an assumed name, and Mackenzie was kept secreted about two weeks, during which time his mail was sent in care of Heustis.
Circulars were sent throughout Jefferson County, calling on friends to make contributions. Provisions, money and clothing were freely offered. Sleighs were sent to the various towns in the county and the munitions of war were collected at Watertown. Active efforts were also made to get men and ammunition. It was at this time that the arsenal at Watertown was entered and several hundred rifles were stolen.
“It was the general opinion the next day,” wrote Heustis, “that the arms had gone toward Canada, and the United States Deputy Marshal, Jason Fairbanks, in his pursuit of them went in the opposite direction, and before he had traveled many miles ruined a valuable horse, worth nearly as much as the guns. For future security a guard was set over the arsenal, but arms were gotten from there on future occasions, and it was reported that the guards connived in the thefts.”
The affair was investigated by the grand jury but little evidence was brought out. That of a teamster named Carter, who lived near French Creek, was typical. He was asked if he was acquainted with Bill Johnston and he replied in the affirmative.
Question: “Have you been in his service recently?”
Response: “I have.”
Question: “Was you at Watertown on the 20th day of February?”
Response: “I was.”
Question: “Did you carry a load from Watertown to French Creek?”
Response: “I did.”
Question: “Where did you get that load?”
Response: “When I drove up to Gibson’s hotel in the evening, a man come out and said he would take care of my horses. He was a large man, or else he was considerably bundled up. I gave up the horses to him and went in to warm me. In about half an hour the horses were again brought to the door. I went out and the man told me to drive to French Creek as quick as possible.”
Question: “What did your load consist of?”
Response: “I don’t know.”
Question: “Why didn’t you look and see?”
Response: “I didn’t want to know.”
Question: “Was it light or heavy?”
Response: “It drawled pretty heavy.”
Question: “What did you do with the load?”
Response: “When I got to French Creek the next morning, I drove to Buzzell’s hotel, where I stopped and went in to warm me. Being very cold, I remained some time. When I went out my team was standing at the door but the sleigh had been unloaded. I then took my team and drove home and that is all I know about it.”
That was the typical of the testimony that was received at the investigation. At that time nearly every village had its military company, and a number of pieces of artillery were “borrowed.”
On the evening of 21st February 1838 about 600 men assembled at French Creek. Gen Van Rensselaer was in command. With a company of fifty men he marched over the ice to Hickory Island, about six miles.
The next morning, wrote Heustis:
“I led another company of fifty men to the island. Captain Lightle soon joined us with another company. About noon Leman L. Leach made his appearance with a company from Syracuse. Colonel Martin Woodruff remained at French Creek for the purpose of forwarding the volunteers as they arrived. A large number of men in sleighs visited the island during the day, but many of them stopped only for a short time. At no time did our force consist of more than 300 men.”
“Three persons were arrested, suspected of being spies from Canada. They were placed under guard and detained until night when they were released. About sun down Bill Johnston joined us. Our number had then materially diminished. There was much disappointment manifested at not finding a larger force present. We had calculated on a thousand men, good and true, for this expedition, and had provided an ample supply of arms, ammunition and provisions.”
With feelings of deep mortification we were obliged to pronounce the enterprise a failure. But so unwilling was I to relinquish my attack that I still offered to go if ninety-nine would accompany me in the hazardous assault. My proposal was considered too daring and impolitic, and but few were willing to embark in an expedition which promised nothing but inevitable defeat and destruction. We therefore returned to French Creek, Johnston and myself being the last to leave the island. Those who disappointed our expectations made various excuses.”
“Some of us remained at French Creek over night, but the larger portion dispersed in all directions. The inhabitants of the village, fearing an attack from the British in the course of the night, had fled into the country. The occupants of one or two houses, known to be Tories, burned blue lights in their windows that their British friends might spare them in case of an attack.”
General Van Rensselaer, after the failure, went to Syracuse where he was arrested for violating the neutrality laws. He was tried in federal court at Albany and was sentenced to a term in prison and to pay a fine.
Heustis got as far as Depauville on his way back to Watertown when he was met by United States Attorney N. S. Benton and Deputy Marshal Fairbanks and questioned. On 27 February 1838, Johnston was arrested on the charge of violating the neutrality law. At the time of his trail in Albany he was acquitted.
Heustis was also arrested but was discharged in United States district court. A number of others who were also arrested were likewise discharged, and the Hickory Island episode was over, as far as Northern New York was concerned.