Authors: Jennifer Crump
Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000
Word of the rebels' actions in Lower Canada had encouraged those with similar complaints in Upper Canada. For years, American settlers had been pouring into Upper Canada, drawn by the lure of cheap land. By 1812, these “late Loyalists” vastly outnumbered the original Loyalists and despite the fact they had to swear allegiance to the crown no one was quite sure where their sympathies really lay. As in Lower Canada, a small group of elite merchants ruled the city of Toronto, and therefore the province. They controlled the executive council and the finances of the province, and more importantly they were responsible for dissemination of the vast tracts of rich land known as the Clergy Reserves, most of which was tithed to the Anglican Church. Within the legislative council moderate reformers led by men such as Robert Baldwin called for representation by population. More radical reformers, like William Lyon Mackenzie, called for more extensive reforms that would create a social, legislative, and economic structure more like that in the United States. Mackenzie was an influential newspaperman whose newspaper, the
, was the voice of the reform movement in Upper Canada. A brilliant orator, he was elected the first mayor of Toronto. Both Baldwin and Mackenzie were vigorously opposed by the Family Compact as threats to their power. And like in Lower Canada, widespread crop failures and economic difficulties exacerbated the situation.
In 1835 Mackenzie helped draft a list of demands similar to the
's 92 Resolutions, and sent it to England with a demand that they be immediately implemented; “This country is now principally inhabited by loyalists and their descendants, and by an accession of population form the mother country, where is now enjoyed the principals of a fair and responsible government and we feel that the practical employment of the same system in this part of the empire to be equally our right.”
Mackenzie also suggested that all confidence has been lost in public offices and councils.
Sir Francis Bond Head was dispatched by Britain as the new lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in the hope that he could find common ground between the reformers and the establishment and forestall violent clashes of the kind that were threatening Lower Canada. Britain could not have made a worse choice. Bond Head quickly allied himself with the conservative members of the Family Compact. He directly intervened in the election of 1837, helping to ensure that the reformers, like Mackenzie, were evicted from the seats in the legislature and securing those seats for conservatives instead.
With their route to legislative reform blocked, Mackenzie and the other reformers became convinced that the only way they could achieve reform was armed insurrection. Baldwin quit the legislative assembly and attacks were made on Mackenzie's reformist newspaper, the
. At the end of July a group of reformers led by Mackenzie met to write a declaration that was strikingly similar to the one issued by the Americans prior to the American Revolution. In October, Bond Head, in a somewhat arrogant desire to show that all was well in his colony, sent all of his troops to Lower Canada to help quell the rebellion there. Mackenzie saw his chance. When word reached the rebels that the rebellion in Lower Canada had failed, they knew they must act. On December 5, a group of rebels met at Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto. There they were joined by other reform minded men from the counties. Few had weapons, most carried only their pitchforks and their outrage.
The men marched down Yonge Street toward city hall, where the intended to take control of the rich cache of arms and ammunition stored there. They approached the city just as darkness fell and were challenged by a small group of conservatives led by the sheriff. After firing first on the rebels, the volunteers abandoned their position and ran. The first line of the rebels immediately opened fire and then dropped to their bellies to allow the second line to fire. In the darkness, the second line believed that their entire front line had been killed by the sheriff's men and they too turned and ran. The lines behind them quickly followed suit. The opening move of the rebellion was an embarrassing disaster.
Two days later, Sir Allan Napier MacNab led a regiment of some 900 militiamen to Montgomery's Tavern, where they engaged the handful of rebels who had remained with Mackenzie. The battle lasted scarcely half an hour and the majority of the rebels, including Mackenzie, fled to the countryside. The volunteers may have believed that the rebellion was over, but Mackenzie was far from finished. Mackenzie escaped to Niagara and set up camp on Navy Island in the middle of the Niagara River. He promptly renamed the island the Republic of Upper Canada and offered free land to anyone who was willing to join him. On the American side of the river the people were delighted to see such open defiance of British rule. They had heard of Mackenzie, who had openly called for joining Upper Canada to the United States and who frequently referred to Upper Canada as the State of Upper Canada. The Americans offered to supply the fledgling republic by way of the steamer
The March of the Rebels upon Toronto in December, 1837.
MacNab and his men finally tracked Mackenzie to Navy Island and were outraged when they realized the assistance the Americans were lending the rebels. On December 29, MacNab ordered his naval commander, Andrew Drew, to destroy the
. In the dead of night, Drew and his men rowed over to Navy Island but failed to find the ship. They then decided to row across to the American side where they killed a night watchman, set fire to the
, and then sent it careening toward the falls. The Republic of Upper Canada was finished. The Americans were outraged. The British claimed the attack on the
was a pre-emptive strike while the Americans claimed that such strikes were only legal if circumstance were “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice for means and no moments for deliberation.”
On January 9, a group of rebels who had found shelter in Detroit sailed across to shell the town of Amherstburg, but they immediately retreated when challenged by a ship commanded by Upper Canadian Loyalist militia. On January 13, Mackenzie and his men abandoned Navy Island.
Stunned by the insurrections in the Canadas, the British began a buildup of troops in the region. They had been lucky before â the insurrection in the poorly defended colonies could easily have ended very differently. Since ice blocked the St. Lawrence, several regiments were sent on the arduous overland journey from Nova Scotia to Lower and Upper Canada. But soon the St. Lawrence was free of ice. By the middle of 1838 over 10,000 British troops were stationed in the Canadas. Thousands more volunteers had been trained and armed in the militia. They had good reason to prepare. There were rumours of secret societies, populated by escaped rebels and their American sympathizers, who were already organizing another attack on the Canadas.
These secret societies were known as the Hunters' Lodges, complete with secret passwords and signals. By mid-1838 their members were believed to number more than 40,000. Their sole purpose was to drive the British from North American and liberate Canada. The members of the lodges were heavily armed; many of the American members were battle-hardened veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and the War of 1812. One of their first forays into Canada, on February 28, was led by Wolfred Nelson who crossed the border with 300 men to declare the independence of Lower Canada before fleeing back to the States when the British Army challenged him. Not willing to become involved in another war with the British so soon, the American Army promptly disarmed the would-be rebels as soon as they crossed the border. Sporadic pitched battles were waged on Pelee Island, near Windsor, and in the Niagara Region, but nothing came of them.
But in Lower Canada there were no illusions that the rebels were finished. The government firmly believed that the city was rife with rebels who were simply waiting until the right moment to declare for their cause and overthrow the British. On November 2, the suspected plot was finally uncovered. The
and Hunters were planning to take Sorel and then move on to Forts Chambly and St. Jean. In the meantime,
within the city of Montreal would overcome the British soldiers during Sunday service when they were only permitted to carry bayonets. The city was on high alert.
On November 3, they attempted to cross the border to attack Sorel and several of the other southern parishes but were turned back by the British. On November 5, they managed to make it to Napierville. They quickly spread to control other towns but the British and militia were not far behind. In a three-pronged attack the British took one after another of the villages that the
had so recently taken for their own. First Beauharnois fell, then Saint-TimothÃ©e. Lacolle fell on November 7, followed by Odelltown and Baker's Farm on November 9. Finally the troops converged on the final rebel holdout at Napierville. Facing what they thought would be a potential massacre the rebels quickly abandoned the town and fled back across the border.
To the east, the general alarm was sounding as a 400 strong army of well-equipped rebels and hunters entered Canada near Prescott. When he realized he had been spotted and that any attempt to take Fort Wellington would be suicide, the rebel leader Nils von Schoultz withdrew to a windmill just east of the fort. On November 13, shells from two ships moored on the nearby St. Lawrence began to fall on the windmill and some 500 troops advanced to surround it. In the smoke and confusion of the battle most of the rebels and American volunteers managed to escape back to the United States, but 130 were captured. Twenty militiamen died in the skirmish, along with 30 rebels.
On December 4, the rebels made one last attempt, stealing over from Detroit to capture the city of Windsor. No sooner had they taken possession than a group of loyal militia attacked and forced them to give up the city. Four militiamen and 27 rebels were killed. Upon learning that one of the militiamen who had been killed was his best friend, their commander, Colonel John Prince, ordered five rebels shot on the spot. The rebellions had finally ended.
Insurgents at Beauharnois, Lower Canada.
In the dying days of the rebellions, the Canadas mobilized almost 20,000 volunteers for their defence. Both colonies were paralyzed with fear. Were the insurrections finally over or were the rebels simply in hiding, awaiting their next opportunity to strike? The casualties of the battles in Upper Canada had been relatively light but those in Lower Canada had been devastating. Almost 300
had fallen, virtually all French Canadian, and with farms and fields scorched and destroyed their families and neighbours were impoverished. A rural constabulary was created in order to repress and rout (often violently) any potential liberal thinkers from among the French population. Thirteen rebels and their American sympathizers were executed in Upper Canada and a further 86 were shipped to Australia. In Lower Canada, 12
were hung and another 58 were transported to Australia.
The rebels were eventually defeated, but many of their leaders would later became Canada's most prominent politicians â Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and George-Ãtienne Cartier to name but a few. In Lower Canada, the rebellions prompted the genesis of French-Canadian nationalism.
While the rebellions may not have succeeded, they lead directly to the Durham Report. John George Lambton, the Earl of Durham, was dispatched to Canada to discover the roots of the Canadian problem and to propose suggestions for reform. What he found there initially surprised him. “I expected,” he wrote, “to find a contest between a government and its people: I found instead two nations warring in the bosom of a single state: I found struggle, not of principles but of races.”
He recommended that the two Canadas be joined into one province and that responsible government, such as that already enjoyed by the British, be put in place. The first recommendation was quickly adopted; the second would take a little longer to achieve but eventually it too would come.