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William Lyon MacKenzie
Chapter XIII - Frontier Warfare


BEFORE the plans of the Upper Canadian insurgents were known, an influential meeting of the citizens of Buffalo, a frontier city on Lake Erie in the state of New York, to express sympathy with the Canadian revolution, was held. At this meeting, which took place on December 5th, an executive committee of thirteen, with Dr. E. Johnson at its head, was formed for the purpose of "calling future meetings in relation to the affairs of the Canadas, and to adopt such measures as might be called for by public opinion." On the eighth a similar demonstration took place at Oswego. On December 11th, the day Mackenzie had arrived on the south side of the frontier line, the largest public meeting ever seen in that city was held in the theatre at Buffalo to express sympathy with the Canadians.

On the following night, true to a promise made by Dr. Chapin on his behalf, Mackenzie appeared at the Buffalo theatre, where he addressed a large and enthusiastic audience. He explained the causes of the revolt, and argued that Canada was suffering all those evils which caused the thirteen colonies, now become the United States, to throw off their allegiance to England, a country of which the government at home was good, but uniformly bad abroad.

Before the meeting closed, Thomas Jefferson Sutherland stated his intention of going to Canada as a volunteer to assist the Canadians to obtain their independence; and he asked if any others present were willing to join him. At his request, a person in the meeting asked the people present to contribute arms and munitions of war for the benefit of the people of Canada. In accordance with this suggestion, contributions of arms were made. Sutherland claimed the conception of the plan of occupying Navy Island with a military force; on December 19th, 1839, he made oath that he set about carrying this project into effect without the privity or co-operation of Mackenzie. He added that Mackenzie only joined the Navy Island expedition out of motives of personal safety. Mackenzie had not been long in Buffalo before he was introduced to Rensellaer Van Rensellaer by some of the principal people of the place. They represented him as a cadet of West Point, and as having gained experience under Bolivar, in South America, both of which representations proved incorrect. He was a son of General Van Rensellaer of Albany, and belonged to the influential family of that name in the state of New York. Sutherland soon showed that he was totally wanting in discretion, by publicly recruiting for volunteers for Canada, issuing a public call for a military meeting, and marching through the streets to the sound of martial music. Mackenzie, seeing the folly of the procedure, begged Sutherland to desist; but it was to no purpose.

At that time, it was thought that Dr. Dun-combe was at the head of a large force in the western district of Upper Canada; and Mackenzie wished the friends of the Canadian insurgents to go over to Fort Erie, on the Canadian side, and there organize a force to join that of Dun-combe, or act separately, if that should appear to be the best course. But he was overruled; and it was determined that the refugees and their friends should take up a position on Navy Island. This island, awarded to England by the Treaty of Ghent, is situated in the Niagara River, a short distance above the world-renowned cataract. A swift current sweeps past the island on either side, on its way to the great Niagara Falls below; but its navigation at that point is practicable for steamers or row boats. Van Rensellaer had been urged by Sutherland to take command of the patriot forces; Sutherland, being previously unknown to Van Rensellaer, had brought a letter of introduction from Mr. Taylor, a previous Speaker of one branch of the legislature of New York. He was told that he would derive his authority from Dr. Rolph and Mackenzie; and he was to be invested with the entire military command. Van Rensellaer's own account of the reasons that induced him to accept this position, represent him as wishing the success of the cause of republicanism, and desirous of imitating the example of Sam Houston in Texas.

In the meantime, it became known that Governor Head was about to make a requisition upon Governor Marcy, of the state of New York, for the extradition of Mackenzie as a fugitive from justice for alleged crimes growing out of the incidents of the insurrection. Dr. Bethune was selected as the bearer of the despatch in which this demand was made. Governor Marcy declined to comply with the application, on the ground that the offences charged, being incidents of the revolt, were merged in the larger imputed crime of treason, a political offence excepted by the laws of the state of New York from those for which fugitives could be surrendered. Attorney-General Beardsley, at the request of Governor Marcy, drew up an elaborate opinion in which the inadmissibility of the demand was shown.

On December 13th, Van Rensellaer and Mackenzie landed on Navy Island. They called at Whitehaven, on Grand Island, ten miles from the city of Buffalo, on the way. There they expected to find assembled the volunteers by whom they were to be accompanied, and of whose numbers, enthusiasm, and equipment so much had been said. These volunteers had been represented as two hundred and fifty strong, and as having two pieces of artillery and some four hundred and fifty stand-of-arms, besides provisions and munitions in abundance. The surprise both of Mackenzie and Van Rensellaer must have been great when they found only twenty-four volunteers waiting to accompany them.

A provisional government, of which Mackenzie was president, was organized on the island. A proclamation, dated Navy Island, December 13th, 1837, was issued by Mackenzie stating the objects which the attempted revolution was designed to secure, and promising three hundred acres of public land to every volunteer who joined the patriot standard. A few days after, another proclamation was issued adding to the proffered bounty a hundred dollars in silver, payable by May 1st, 1838. The fulfilment of the promises held out in these proclamations was, however, dependent upon the success of the cause in which the volunteers were to fight.

The provisional government issued promises to pay in sums of one and ten dollars each. They are said to have been freely taken on the American side; but what amount was issued I cannot ascertain. Dr. Rolph was appointed, on December 28th, " to receive all the moneys which may be subscribed within the United States on behalf of the Canadian patriots struggling to obtain the independence of their country;" but he declined to act in that capacity.

The handful of men, who first took possession of Navy Island, gradually increased to between five hundred and six hundred. From December 15th to the 31st the majority of those present were British subjects. After that date, the American element was probably in the ascendant. The arms and provisions were chiefly obtained from the States. The rolls of names have been preserved, with a partial diary of occurrences.

Van Rensellaer's conduct, while on the island, has been the subject of much obloquy. While his bravery is admitted, his intemperance ruined the prospects of the patriots. Having the entire military power in his hands, he chose to keep his plans to himself, and his refusal to act or explain his intentions finally exhausted the patience of his men. The latter were anxious to cross to the mainland.

A Loyalist force, at first under Colonel Cameron, and afterwards under Colonel MacNab, appeared on the Chippewa side, and a bombardment commenced. The fire of the Loyalist cannon and mortars, kept up day after day, was almost entirely harmless, only one man on the island being killed by it. The extent of the mischief done by the patriots was greater because they were not baffled by woods on the mainland, where the enemy was encountered. The men became impatient under the ineffectual efforts they were making; and Van Rensellaer was repeatedly urged to lead them to the enemy who neglected to come to them. In reply to these importunities, he would answer that when his plans were complete he would announce them ; that in the meantime it was for the men to hold themselves ready to execute his orders.

What gave courage to the patriots was the belief that the moment they crossed over to the mainland, they would be joined by large numbers of the population anxious to revolutionize the government. Chandler was sent over to distribute proclamations and ascertain the feeling of the country. He returned to the island with the report that a large majority of the population was ripe for revolt, and only awaiting assistance to fly to arms. Hastings was far from being one of the most disloyal counties in Upper Canada; and when it furnished nearly five hundred sworn rebels, some idea may be formed of the extent to which the revolutionary feeling had infected the population. With such information as this in his hands, a man of Mackenzie's impetuous temperament was not likely to be at ease under the inaction to which Van Rensellaer, as commander-in-chief, doomed the men under his control.

About this time, Thomas J. Sutherland was starting for the west. A letter to T. Dufort, then at Detroit, was written assigning to Sutherland the command of any force at that point likely to cooperate with those on Navy Island, but it was not sent. It cannot be now stated who signed the letter. The original is in Mackenzie's handwriting, and its 418 purport is that, "for the purpose of co-operating with the patriots now on this island in their intended descent upon Canada, and of giving great strength and more full effect to their plan of operations for the deliverance of that great country from the horrors of despotism, the bearer proceeds immediately to Detroit to take command of any army .which his efforts and those of his friends may raise for the invasion of Canada." But the signature to the original is cut off, and the document is still among Mackenzie's papers.

Up to December 29th, the volunteers on Navy Island had increased slowly, and they did not yet number quite two hundred. About an hour after midnight of that day, an event occurred which, for some time, threatened to produce war between England and the United States. "We observed," says Mackenzie, "about one o'clock, a.m., a fire burning on the American side of the river, in the direction of the small tavern and old storehouse commonly called Schlosser. Its volume gradually enlarged, and many were our conjectures concerning it. At length the mass of flame was distinctly perceived to move upon the waters, and approach the rapids and the middle of the river above the falls. Swiftly and beautifully it glided along, yet more rapid in its onward course as it neared the fathomless gulf into which it vanished in a moment amid the surrounding darkness. This was the ill-fated steamboat Caroline."

Colonel MacNab, in ordering the vessel to be cut out, acted under the misapprehension that she had been purchased by what he called the "pirates" and rebels on Navy Island. He determined to destroy her on the night of the twenty-ninth, it having been reported to him that she had been seen landing a cannon and several armed men that day on Navy Island. Captain Drew, R.N., was instructed to collect a force of volunteers to burn, sink, or destroy the vessel. The expedition comprised seven boats, with an average of about nine men each, armed with pistols, cutlasses, and boarding pikes. When they were opposite Navy Island, Captain Drew ordered the men to rest on their oars, and said to them, "The steamboat is our object; follow me." He soon discovered that she was at the wharf at Schlosser, on the United States side of the Niagara River. The boats went silently towards the fated vessel, and do not appear to have been discovered till within a few yards of her. The hands belonging to the steamer had gone to Niagara Falls that night, and William Wells, the owner, had allowed strangers—two of whom were sailors—to occupy their berths till their return. The hands came back at twelve; but the strangers do not appear to have left before the attacking party arrived. The crew of the steamer, which was only of forty-six tons measurement, consisted of two men and a black boy. They were surprised while asleep, and having scarcely any other arms on board besides a piece which was discharged by the sentinel on the approach of the boats, hardly any resistance was offered. In a couple of minutes the vessel was in possession of the assailing party; and, in the fray that took place on deck, five or six persons were killed. By the orders of Captain Drew, Lieutenant Elmsley and some of the men landed on the American shore, and cut the vessel from her moorings previous to setting fire to her, in order to prevent the destruction of other property by the spreading of the flames. A lamp was placed in a large basket used for carrying Indian corn, and the cross-bars of the windows torn off and placed above the lamp, which set them on fire. The vessel was then towed out by the boats from the wharf till she was under the influence of the current, and was then abandoned.

Under all the circumstances, the right of the British authorities to destroy the Caroline, even by the invasion of American territory, cannot be successfully disputed. The refugees had been seduced by American citizens into abusing the right of asylum; and they found among those citizens a large number who had joined their standard and engaged in a war against a nation with whom their own government was at peace. The executive government was not armed with legal powers necessary to restrain its own citizens; but it had not been entirely inactive. Two days after, the meeting of sympathizers was held at Buffalo, Mr. Benton, district attorney for northern New York, was officially instructed to watch and prosecute all violators of the neutrality laws. At the same time, Mr. Forsyth, secretary of state, by direction of the President, called the attention of Governor Marcy, of the state of New York, to the contest, and asked his prompt interference to arrest the parties concerned, if any enterprise of a hostile nature should be undertaken in the state of New York against a foreign power in amity with the United States. Similar letters were, on the same day, addressed to the governors of Michigan and Vermont, within the borders of which states some of the Lower Canadian insurgents, after the defeat at St. Charles, had taken up their quarters. But the destruction of the Caroline added to the sympathy for the cause of revolution in Canada an almost uncontrpllable indignation at the invasion of American territory, which all classes of Americans joined in representing as unwarranted by the law of nations, and not justified by the circumstances of the case. The President informed Congress that a demand for reparation would be made; public meetings were held to denounce what was considered a wanton outrage ; the press aided in inflaming the public excitement; and it was said that, when General Burt had collected from one thousand five hundred to two thousand militiamen to guard the frontier of New York State, it was with the greatest difficulty they could be restrained from going over to Navy Island to join the insurgents and sympathizers collected there.

However justifiable the destruction of the Caroline may have been in the eye of international law, it was an act of great rashness. A militia colonel, without the least authority from his superiors, had ordered the invasion of the territory of a nation with whom his government was at peace, and when that nation was using efforts, not very successful it must be confessed, to maintain neutrality in a contest in which they were in no way concerned. The British government assumed the responsibility of the act; and, with a degree of haste that was justly censured at the time, conferred the honour of knighthood on Colonel MacNab before the reclamation of the American government had been disposed of. The Upper Canada House of Assembly tendered its thanks to the men engaged in the destruction of the Caroline, and presented swords to Colonel MacNab and Captain Drew.

President Van Buren seems to have been sincerely anxious to avoid a war with England; and it required all his address to prevent the Caroline massacre from interrupting the friendly relations of the two countries. The demand upon England for "reparation and atonement" was under consideration for two years and a half before it was disposed of. In the meantime, Alexander McLeod was arrested on a charge of having murdered Amos Durfee, whose body was left on American territory at Schlosser, the night the Caroline was cut out. While the whole question was still open, the British government demanded his " immediate release." The demand was refused; and McLeod was put upon his trial in the Circuit Court of the state of New York, at Utica, in October, 1841. The trial commenced on the fourth, and lasted eight days. Whether McLeod was guilty or innocent—the jury declared him not guilty—it must be admitted that many a man has been hanged upon much weaker evidence than that which was produced against him. The verdict of not guilty probably prevented a war between England and the United States.

Mrs. Mackenzie was the only female who spent any length of time on Navy Island. She arrived there a few hours before the destruction of the Caroline, and remained nearly a fortnight with her husband, when ill-health obliged her to leave. Mackenzie accompanied her to the house of Captain Appleby, Buffalo, and while on his way he was arrested, in the railway car, by the United States marshal for a breach of the neutrality laws. He entered into recognizance in five thousand dollars for his appearance, and returned to the island the next morning, where he remained till General Van Rensellaer announced his intention to evacuate it with the force under his command, which he did on January 13th. The Buffalo committee of thirteen seems to have had more power than the provisional government, for the question of evacuating the island was decided by them.

When the patriots took possession of Navy Island, they expected soon to be able to cross over to the mainland and join Dr. Duncombe's forces in the west. The doctor, who had been in constant correspondence with the Lower Canadian patriots, had under his command between three and four hundred men; but a large number of them were without arms. They were assembled at Brant-ford, whither Colonel MacNab, with a detachment of about three hundred and sixty men, repaired. On his approach, Dr. Duncombe retreated to a place called Scotland. Colonel MacNab was reinforced at Brantford by one hundred and fifty volunteers and one hundred Indians, under command of Captain Kerr. When a plan of attacking the insurgents simultaneously at three points had been agreed upon, and was to have been executed next morning, Dr. Duncombe retreated. He told the men that Mackenzie had been defeated near Toronto, and that they had better disperse. In the meantime, Colonel MacNab, learning of the anticipated retreat, despatched messengers to Simcoe, Woodstock, and London, requesting all the volunteers that could be mustered to march down and intercept the rebels. On December 14th, while at Scotland, Duncombe's force was increased by about one thousand additional volunteers. Hundreds more had been expected to join him from the neighbourhood of St. Thomas and other places in the west. Here Colonel MacNab seized all Duncombe's papers, as well as those of Eliakim Malcolm, and took several prisoners, whom he sent under an escort to Hamilton. In spite of the retreat of Duncombe, and the dispersion of his men, Colonel MacNab sent to the governor a strong recommendation to sanction the raising of volunteer companies of one hundred and fifty men each. While at Scotland, deputations of insurgents visited him offering to surrender their arms, take the oath of allegiance, and, if necessary, form part of his force. In other places large numbers of undetected rebels, when they found the tide turning against them, joined the loyal forces; so that the number of volunteers was no proof of the popularity of the government. At a place called Sodom, in the township of Norwich, many of Duncombe's men surrendered themselves to Colonel MacNab, who, with a degree of humanity that reflected credit upon him, after receiving what arms they had, permitted them to return to their homes on condition that they should again surrender themselves should His Excellency not extend the royal clemency to them. Some of the ringleaders were sent to London, under an escort, for trial, and Joshua Guilam Doan, for whose apprehension a reward had been offered, was executed there on February 6th, 1839. On December 19th, 1837, Colonel MacNab received a report that considerable disaffection prevailed in the western district, particularly in the neighbourhood of Sandwich. But the insurrection was put down in the western part of the province without a shot being fired.

General Sutherland left Navy Island for Detroit, where he found Henry S. Handy, of Illinois, in charge of the "Patriot Army of the NorthWest" as commander-in-chief. The governor of Michigan does not seem to have been unfriendly to their plans, which were to attack Fort Maiden at Amherstburg and to seize the public stores at Sandwich and Windsor. Thomas Dufort had been instrumental in getting a council of war together, at the instance of Bidwell, who, in the previous November, had urged him to proceed to Michigan and secure assistance, and he so far succeeded as to get some of the leading men in that state to form a council of war, which lent all the aid in their power to a scheme of co-operation with the patriots. Men and arms were secured, and also schooners for their transport, but serious dissensions between Handy and Sutherland, treachery, lack of judgment, inexperience and misadventures combined to render the expedition futile. From one of the schooners General Theller fired a shot from a nine-pounder into Amherstburg, instead of at the Fort, without even demanding a surrender of the place, and then retired. General Sutherland, who was in charge of another schooner with sixty volunteers, landed his force on Bois Blanc Island opposite Fort Maiden, and issued a proclamation to the citizens of Upper Canada. The schooner Anne with arms, munitions and troops on board, came to his assistance, but being insufficiently rigged, drifted on the Canadian shore, where she was beached in three feet of water. A brisk fire was opened on her by the Royalist troops, who later boarded and captured the vessel.

Sutherland, on returning to the mainland, was arrested in Detroit, but Handy continued to drill men on Sugar Island until the failure of supplies, and ice starting to come down the river, he was forced to ask and obtain the friendly offices of the governor of Michigan to take his troops back to Detroit. A later attempt to renew the attack on Fort Maiden, with arms which the militia of Detroit stacked in the outer porch of the Detroit City Hall, where Handy's men might get them, was put an end to by the United States troops under General Brady.

A few weeks after these events, on a cold night in February, a patriot force under Colonel Vree-land crossed the river to Windsor with only forty-three firelocks, but the expedition was, on the twenty-fifth of the month, put to flight by a force of British regulars.

The refugees from Canada were frequently in danger from secret enemies or private assassins. On January 21st, 1838, Van Rensellaer wrote from Buffalo to Mackenzie, who was in Rochester, to warn him that there were desperadoes in the former city whose object was to assassinate him.

Soon after they left Navy Island, Mackenzie and Van Rensellaer found it impossible to continue work together. In the month of February, an expedition was planned for the purpose of making a descent upon Kingston. Van Rensellaer claimed to have originated the intended movement. However this may be, he and Mackenzie were playing at cross-purposes, and the latter decided to have nothing to do with the expedition if it was to be directed by Van Rensellaer.

It had been arranged, by correspondence carried on by Mackenzie, that a rising should take place in Canada when the expedition crossed. Near the end of February, Van Rensellaer crossed from French Creek, a village situated on the American side of the St. Lawrence a short distance below Kingston, to Hickory Island, about two miles from Gananoque, with a force that has been variously stated at from fifteen to twenty-five hundred men. Van Rensellaer, while here, kept his bed in such a state of intoxication that he could not give an intelligent answer to any question put to him. The men, disgusted or alarmed, began to move off in squads, and, when all chance of success had been lost, a council of war was held, and it was determined to retreat. Van Rensellaer reported that the morning after the island was evacuated, the Loyalists landed upon it two hundred strong.

Van Rensellaer by way, it would seem, of accounting for his own failure, published a letter, dated Albany, March 29th, 1838, in which he blamed Mackenzie for having interfered with his plans. That letter contained accusations against Mackenzie which Van Rensellaer himself afterwards admitted to be unjust. In an unpublished letter addressed to a Mr. McMahon, and dated Albany, February 24th, 1840, he says: " Since I have had time for reflection, for arriving at correct information, and for weighing dispassionately circumstances which led me to an unjust conclusion while penning my statement, although I am yet of opinion that he has committed errors—and who has not?—I am bound as a man of honour to admit that all my charges, whether expressed or implied, against his moral integrity or honesty of purpose, are, as far as my present knowledge and information extend, incorrect." After which confession he exclaims, "I am mightily relieved."

Soon after this, General McLeod despatched Colonel Seward with about four hundred men to Point au Pel£ Island. Subsequently he received a despatch from Colonel Bradley, informing him that Seward's force had been defeated, with a loss of fifteen or twenty missing, and had retreated to the American shore. "The loss of the enemy," says McLeod, in an unpublished letter, 4'is fifty or sixty, and a great number wounded." The Loyalist troops were supported by cavalry and artillery, and one of the patriot colonels attributed their retreat principally to want of artillery. Nine prisoners were taken by the British, among whom was General Sutherland. He was not taken on the island, and his trial was afterwards declared illegal by the British government and his release ordered. He was, however, kept in prison for a long time.

From this western frontier a combination of great force, extending over the two Canadas, was soon to be made, and but for the occurrence of an accident, it is impossible to say what the result might have been.


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