We often assume that Canada and the-United States have always been at peace and that no battles have been fought along the border. Fortunately, there has been no fighting in the last century and a half, but the border was not always peaceful. The army of the American colonies invaded Canada in the Revolutionary War and briefly held Montréal. Much of the War of 1812 was fought along this border and, during the Civil War, there were military skirmishes along the border, strange as that may seem. There were also military events along the Canadian border in 1837 and 1838 when an independence movement briefly flared in Upper Canada which is now known as Ontario.
William Lyon Mackenzie emigrated from Scotland to York, Ontario, today’s Toronto, in 1820. Soon after, he established a newspaper and began criticizing the British colonial administrators and the elected Parliament of Upper Canada. He voiced the complaints of many residents. There was an old and firmly entrenched Tory leadership called the Family Compact who dominated the political leadership. Many of those who arrived from Scotland in the 1820s and then later from Ireland were unhappy with the way the established Tories colony was run. One major complaint centered upon the way crown lands were held or sold. The new settlers thought the government’s policies retarded development. There were complaints about the allocation of very much of the Crown land to the Anglican Church. Another complaint dealt with the administrators’ reluctance to build roads that might serve the many rural areas where new settlers tried to develop prosperous farms. By the 1830s, Methodists and Presbyterians outnumbered Anglicans who filled many key positions in the colonial administration. Indeed, the Anglicans tried to impose an Anglican school system on Upper Canada, much to the displeasure of non-Anglicans.
Mackenzie brought attention to these grievances. Indeed, he traveled throughout Upper Canada and then compiled a 500-page report about what the colonial leaders and the Parliament did wrong. He was elected to that Parliament four times beginning in 1826, and every time, he was expelled for misbehavior. His newspaper constantly criticized Upper Canada’s administrators. At one point, representatives of the government apparently stormed his office in York and threw his press into Lake Ontario. He sued and won compensation from government. By 1835 or so, Mackenzie’s paper was advocating an overthrow of the government and the establishing of an independent nation. In other words, he advocated that his followers in Upper Canada accomplish what the American Revolutionaries had done six decades previously.
In the autumn of 1837, Louis-Joseph Papineau led a Parti Patriote in Quebec that challenged British authority. Spokespersons for the Parti Patriote did not, at least at the start, emphasize independence for Quebec. Rather, they wanted the Parliament of Lower Canada to have the right to make laws. The colonial rules of that time made the Quebec parliament almost useless since everything they did had to be approved by the British. The British feared a rebellion and dispatched troops. On December 14, 1837; a rebel force of, perhaps, 500 was defeated by a force of about 2,000 British troops at St. Eustache north of Montréal. There was only one other battle in Quebec with a loss of About 300 patriotes were killed by the British before the fighting in Québec ended.
Having traveled throughout Upper Canada, Mackenzie believed that many recent settlers and tradesmen would join with him in an effort to overthrow British imperialism. He seriously misjudged the large number of Tories and Tory supporters who did not want an independent Upper Canada. Knowing that British forces were tied down in Québec, Mackenzie assembled about 500 men north of Toronto at Montgomery’s Tavern and marched them toward that city where they would establish a new and independent government. When these men thought, perhaps erroneously, that they were coming under fire from British troops and Loyalists, they scattered. Two days later, December 7, colonial authorities amassed 1,500 militia men and routed the followers of William Mackenzie in a battle that left three dead. Two prominent rebels, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount were captured and hung by the British as a warning to others. However, they became heroes to the insurrectionists.
Mackenzie and one of his leading collaborators, a well-known physician, Dr. Charles Duncombe, escaped across the Niagara River to the United States. By the end of December, Mackenzie and Dumcombe were on Navy Island in the Niagara River. They raised a flag and Mackenzie proclaimed himself president of a new Canadian Republic. British troops knew that a ship, the Caroline, was supplying the rebels. They captured the ship on December 29, killed the crew, set it ablaze and let it float across Niagara Falls. Americans claimed that British forces seized a US ship in US waters and destroyed it. Some called for a new war against the British in Canada. However, President Martin Van Buren, perhaps remembering the dismal efforts of the US military when they sought to conquer Canada just a quarter-century earlier, took a dim view of a new war and reminded Americans that they could be severely punished if they joined Mackenzie’s insurrectionists in a battle against the British.
Mackenzie and his followers spent the next year trying to convince their Canadian followers and quite a few Americans that it was wise to take up arms and invade lightly-defended Upper Canada. Indeed, there was an organized group, Hunter’s Patriots, who sought to recruit Americans living near Canada to fight the British once again. Mackenzie and his followers conducted several military skirmishes against the colonial troops and Loyalists in 1838. On January 9, they tried to invade Bois Blanc Island, the island just offshore from Amherstburg. On February 23, they sought to invade Fighting Island—the large and now unoccupied island that lies in the Detroit River between Ecorse and Canada. Presumably, they hoped to wipe out the British military located at Fort Malden in Amherstburg. On February 26, 1838, Mackenzie’s followers briefly occupied Peel Island in Lake Erie, but could not sustain their invasion. On May 26, they tried to occupy Wellesley Island in the Saint Lawrence River. In November, Mackenzie’s forces fought British troops and local militia in the Battle of the Windmill near Kingston, Ontario.
The last major military event is commemorated in the historical marker you see. On December 4, 1838; American and Canadian supporters of Mackenzie’s insurrection came ashore at Windsor and burned a military barracks. Shortly thereafter, Colonel John Prince, commander of the troops at Fort Malden, led a force of 130 militiamen who quickly defeated the invaders. As noted, eleven were executed and 18 were sent as prisoners to Tasmania.
Although the colonial authorities hanged 20 for their participation in the uprising, they pardoned both Louis-Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie. He returned to Toronto and was elected, once again, to the Upper Canada Parliament. This time he was not expelled. He continued to be an enfant terrible and, by the 1850s, advocated that Upper Canada sever its ties with England and join the United States.
While the insurrections led by Papineau and Mackenzie were unsuccessful, they led the British to gradually but quite profoundly change their colonial policies in Canada, and on January 1, 1867, the Confederation of Canada more of less granted that nation and independent status within the British Empire.
Archeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario: Listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; October 29, 2008
Description Prepared: November, 2008
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