THE CANADIAN REBELLION OF 1837

The U.S. on the Brink of War, Buffalo, N.Y.

Edited by Stephen R. Powell

-The excitement during 1837 in Buffalo was not only attributable to the financial crash. That may truly be termed the only "Panic" of 1837, but at one time during that year there seemed a likelihood that martial days like those of 1812-15 would return to the Niagara Frontier. The so-called Patriot war was staged almost within sight of Buffalo; and there was great danger that the two nations would become involved.

It is not necessary here to go deeply into the causes of that rebellion. When men are willing to risk their lives for a cause, there is generally a reason; injustice has been done somewhere. The cause of this insurrection, if it may be so dignified, dates back to the eighteenth century when, under British dominion, it was endeavored to divide the country fairly for the colonists into two spheres, French and British. As the decades passed, the French strove to encroach upon the British rights, and the British upon the French, the conflict for authority having also a religious aspect, Puritans against Catholics. Finance had some part in the strife; and a great grievance against the Government was through the policy of establishing almost an aristocracy by the giving of large grants of land, 10,000 to 50,000 acres not being uncommon, in "gross favoritism" to certain persons "on purely personal and political grounds." The breaking of the "storm-cloud of rebellion" may be believed to have been caused by the retention by the Anglican Church of the Clergy Reserves, and by the defiant action of the Church of England in Canada in establishing forty-four endowed rectories within the province of Upper Canada in 1836. There were other minor grievances or supposed grievances which tended to aggravate the situation.

The leaders most closely associated with the Patriot uprising were Louis Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie, the former of Lower Canada, and the latter of Upper Canada. Closely associated with Papineau was Dr. Wolfred Nelson, a man of English birth. Another, and also a physician, was Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan, an Irishman by birth and a forceful writer. Then there was Thomas Starrow Brown, an American merchant. The "father" of the Upper Canadian revolt, which mainly enters into this record, was William Lyon Mackenzie, "a wiry and peppery little Scotchman." He was "a born agitator," and lost no opportunity to use "his vituperative pen."

The risings in Upper and Lower Canada were simultaneous, and equally disastrous to the Patriots. "Papineau was ready for any thing independence, or even annexation with the United States," when on November 6, 1837, the first blow was struck at Montreal. An all-day attack on Patriots under Dr. Nelson at St. Denis, on November 23rd, ended in the repulse of the Government troops; but the Patriots soon went down to overwhelming defeat at St. Charles, thus ending for a time all resistance in Lower Canada. The rebellion in Upper Canada opened with a proclamation, entitled: "Independence." It was issued by Mackenzie, and pointed out that all strikes for independence on the American continent had been successful. It ended: "Up then, brave Canadians! Get ready your rifles and make short work of it." The centre of the revolt was, near Toronto, and an attack was planned on the city. Through misunderstanding, part of the troops attacked prematurely, and the Government forces were thus able to defeat each section in turn. Those leaders who could, escaped and crossed the border into the United States, where they found many sympathizers. Though the United States Government persistently refused to countenance the rebels, individual Americans enlisted in the cause, and the border became the region of unrest, raids, and more than one pretentious concentration of a "Patriot Army of Invasion." One Patriot army of 600 men had to surrender their arms to United States troops before they were permitted to recross the border, and Dr. Nelson, "commander-in-chief," was turned over to the civil authorities for violation of the neutrality laws.

This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com

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Center of Border Strife at Buffalo

The most important centre of the border strife was Buffalo. After defeat near Toronto on December 7, 1837, Mackenzie managed to reach Buffalo, "after one of the most thrilling escapes," and in the city he was warmly welcomed. Indeed, he found an organization of Buffalonians already formed to watch events across the border, and almost openly in sympathy with the rebels. Meetings were held, and "on the evening of the 11th, the day Mackenzie arrived in the States, the largest meeting ever held in Buffalo assembled at the theatre. When Dr. Chapin remarked, in the course of his address to the citizens, that he had a man under his protection at his house 'upon whose life a price was set, William L. Mackenzie, a tremendous applause burst forth from the audience, 'such a shout of exultation' as was never heard before * * * and the meeting closed with 'cheers for Mackenzie, Papineau, and Rolph."


"šone American woman was casting bullets in her own home "from a mould that ran sixty at a time." Forty soldiers were reported to be marching the streets of Rochester with drum and fife; and "seven-eighths of the people at Buffalo" were for the Patriots."


Mackenzie had thus reached good ground in which to work out his plans; and he soon became active. On the very next night he addressed a meeting at the Buffalo theatre, beginning a recruiting campaign, in fact. He called for "arms, ammunition, and volunteers," the Eagle tavern being designated as the place of deposit. There, during the next and succeeding nights. "Great activity was displayed," not the least surprising activity being the seizure from the sheriff of Erie county of "two hundred stands of arms," two fieldpieces and ammunition, by volunteers under a "general" of the Patriot army. The band of volunteers then "marched off to Black Rock." Ninety-seven young men of Buffalo pledged their "mutual support and cooperation for the commendable purpose of aiding and assisting" the Canadian Patriots in their struggle; and the recruited army, in fact, the whole of the Patriot forces in that section, were placed in the command of Mr. Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, nephew of the general of that name who had prominent part in the War of 1812. It was planned to seize Navy Island, a most unhappy decision; and, by arrangement, Mackenzie and Van Rensselaer "reached a rendezvous ten miles from Buffalo, there expecting to find a strong force of volunteers for the crossing to Navy Island. They found only twenty-four men. Nevertheless, "though disappointed, they determined to proceed." They reached the island, and there without difficulty set up a provisional government, William L. Mackenzie becoming "chairman, pro tem." He very soon issued a "bombastic highly-inflated" proclamation, which offered grants of 300 acres of public lands (Canadian lands of course), to "each volunteer who would join the Patriot forces," and also a cash bonus of $100, payable, however, six months later. The Patriot twin-starred flag was unfurled, and the Government began to function, even though its jurisdiction did not extend beyond the limits of the small island. Had they purposely sought it, it would be probably difficult to find a place less conveniently situated, as a seat of government, than Navy Island. Welch termed the place "a self-imposed military prison." He writes:

"It would seem to me that the seizure of Navy Island, as a strategic point from whence to conduct military operations, was a blunder on the part of the rebels at the outset. It was a self-imposed military prison for themselves. It was almost immediately invested at its nearest land point on the main shore of Canada, by the 'Loyal Troops,' who were in much better condition and better provided than the Islanders. Below them, to the North, were the terrible rapids of the Niagara; above them, to the southward, was the swift current flowing directly past them to the rapids, leaving only the neutral territory of New York, two or three miles distant, watchful for its national integrity; for their outlet of retreat and escape, after sure defeat, with no base of supplies, nor means of obtaining them, except in very limited quantities from transient smugglers in small boats. Neither had they but an inferior lot of boatcraft wherewith to help themselves, or to aid them in landing on the hostile shore, half a mile away, or to escape in another, direction.

"But they managed to exist there a number of weeks, sending occasional shots into Canada."

Communications, exhortations, proclamations, emanated from the Seat of Government, one just before Christmas avowing that sympathy for the cause was "very strong" in New York; that one American woman was casting bullets in her own home "from a mould that ran sixty at a time." Forty soldiers were reported to be marching the streets of Rochester with drum and fife; and "seven-eighths of the people at Buffalo" were for the Patriots.

Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com