Patriot War of 1837

The Canadian Rebellion

US 15-star Flag Hunters Flag by Paul Sharon Canadian Flag

Rebellion in the Canadian Provinces

Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated 1923
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times

The course of the rebellion in general in Canada will be outlined as briefly as possible in order that the reader may have a clear understanding of the relation of the events in Canada to those on this side of the border. The growing ill feeling was bound to make it felt sooner or later and it was not long in breaking out.

The leaders most closely associated with the Canadian uprising are Louis Joseph Papineau of Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie of Upper Canada.

The rebellions in the two provinces seem to have been entirely separate enterprises, each independent of the other, yet the principal events in each occurred at the same time.

Louis Joseph Papineau, as his name indicates, was French. He was born in Montreal in 1789 and was elected to the assembly of Lower Canada when he was scarcely 20 years old, and in a short time later he was elected speaker. He was brilliant and full of energy, but he lacked the judgment essential to good statesmanship. Above all he was vain, and his greatest regard was for himself rather than his country. He sought to place himself in high places, and in this he was the very antithesis of Washington. Closely associated with Papineau was Dr. Wolfred Nelson of English birth, Edmund B. O’Callaghan of Ireland and Thomas S. Brown, an American. William Lyon Mackenzi was a peppery little Scotchman. He was brave and energetic, an extremist in most cases and withal a born agitator, but not the type of a man to be trusted in an emergency lacking the essential qualifications for real hardship.

England sent to Canada Lord John Russell who was authorized to investigate and report to parliament. He failed to recommend that the legislative council be elective and the storm broke over this. Mass meetings were held in Lower Canada at which strong resolutions were adopted.

The French people of Montreal formed an organization known as the Sons of Liberty while the loyalists formed themselves into the Doric club. The first open break was in the streets of Montreal when members of the two clubs clashed.

A meeting was held at St. Charles on the Richelieu River in October 1837, and arming and drilling of the rebellious subjects started. The next month, British troops were sent to break up a gathering of the rebels of St. Denis and a pitched battle ensued on Nov. 23 in which the insurgents were successful. This was followed two days later by a battle at St. Charles in which the insurgents were badly beaten, losing 150 killed and 300 wounded. Papineau fled to the United States.

The rebellion in Lower Canada was crushed in less than a month. An abortive attempt was made to lead another expedition in Lower Canada from Vermont the next year, but it collapsed in less than a week.

Sir John Colborne had been governor of Upper Canada until 1836. He was of the most reactionary type and his administration was characterized by a growing ill feeling. He was recalled in 1836 and Sir Francis Bond Head was appointed. He had no administrative capacity. He boasted that he had no political experience and no political views. If anything, he was worse than his predecessor. He took part in the 1836 elections that resulted in severe defeat for the forces opposed to the government. Mackenzie continued his attacks on the governor, who was gradually losing his influence.

The rising in Lower Canada was followed by Mackenzie’s revolutionary appeal to form the state of Upper Canada, with him as head. Headquarters were established at Navy Island in the Niagara River. The insurgents took up temporary headquarters a short distance outside Toronto, which was the center of the rebellion. An attempt was made by the insurgents who numbered about 800, to capture Toronto, but the arrival of the Canadian militia scattered them and Mackenzie, on whose head a reward of a thousand pounds had been set, fled to the United States and crossed the border on the Niagara frontier.

Navy Island was now the center of activity. The steamer, Caroline, carrying supplies to the island, was burned by the British. This incident, who caused most critical relations to exist between the United States and Canada, will be described elsewhere. Another attempt was made to invade Canada from the Niagara frontier, but it, too, was a failure.

Events now moved westward and for a time there was much activity in and around Detroit. The insurgents attempted to put an expedition into Canada, near Windsor, but the vigilance of Colonel Brady, commanding the United States troops at Detroit, prevented it. A number of abortive attacks were made, in one instance the rebels managed to cross the river, but the British regulars attacked them and the force was literally cut to pieces.

All along the border from Vermont to Michigan there were sporadic Outbreaks, but in no case did the Patriots make any headway. Many took advantage of the unsettled conditions to engage in bushwhacking or guerilla warfare, preying alike on rebel and loyalist. They sought to keep up the strife for the sake of plunder.

Mackenzie was finally arrested in New York State and was tried in Albany for setting on foot a military expedition against Upper Canada. He was found guilty and was sentenced to serve a year and a half in prison, but was pardoned after ten months.

Sir Francis Bond Head was recalled as governor and Sir George Arthur was named to succeed him. He had been in charge of the convict settlements in Van Dieman’s land, and he was harshness itself. Lount and Matthews, two leaders of the rebellion in Upper Canada, were hanged, despite the numerous petitions to reprieve them. On June 28 (?), 1838, amnesty was granted to all suspected persons who were not actively engaged in the rebellion. Some of the leaders who were arrested were pardoned in 1843 and in 1849 a general amnesty was granted. This terminated the whole affair, which was disgraceful in the extreme.

It was disgraceful to the government, which governed so badly that it gave rise to the rebellion; it was disgraceful to those who carried it out in such an ill conceived and ill-executed fashion.

Succeeding articles in this history of the Patriot War will outline in greater detail those events in which Northern New York was more directly concerned.