The Rebellions of 1837-1838 were insurrections against the oligarchic government of the British colonies of Lower and Upper Canada in 1837 and 1838. The rebellion began in Lower Canada but quickly spread to Upper Canada as well.
Readers will recall that twice in the preceding 60 years the English and the Americans had fought the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) and the War of 1812 (1812-1814). Afterward, former revolutionaries and their ideological descendants in the United States carried on a battle of ideas against the dictates of British rule in Canada. The British government feared the spread of American republicanism into their northern American colonies.
Following the French defeat in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Canada became a British colony with two major and distinctive sections, French and English, Catholic and Protestant: French dominated Province of Lower Canada on the lower St. Lawrence River and along the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; and the British (and Indigenous) dominated Province of Upper Canada, which included most of Ontario, where many Loyalist and British refugees had fled following the American Revolution.
In 1837 rebels from Upper and Lower Canada advocating more freedoms and democratic reforms had taken losses in skirmishes with British and Loyalist forces, and many had fled to the United States seeking financial and military help.
At first the rebels (known as Patriots) led rebellions in Upper Canada (around Toronto and London) with some success in October 1837, but the British army responded harshly.
In 1837 a mass meeting was held at St. Charles on the Chambly River (Grand Meeting of the Confederation of the Six Counties in Saint-Charles), some 36 miles from Montreal and also at St. Dennis and St. Eustache. At St. Charles, British forces attacked a group of 500 rebels causing 25 wounded, and 30 taken as prisoners, and 56 were killed. Rebels at St. Eustache laid down their arms and fled to the United States.
Some Americans living across the St. Lawrence had sympathy for the Canadians leading the rebellion, and some Canadians sought independence from the British. Canadian refugees were welcomed here with tales of British oppression.
This American sympathy proved beneficial to the Patriots as food, clothing, ammo, money and arms went to their aid. This action saw many attacks on ships and coastal and border forts such as at Oswego, New York.
In the 1830s Jacksonian democracy was ebbing somewhat, and the Panic of 1837 shocked the economy. Martin van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson as president, and slavery became a hot topic. Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836 setting the stage for a divided country on the road to the Civil War in 1861.
Navy Island & The Caroline
William Lyon Mackenzie spoke at a Buffalo meeting at which Jefferson Sutherland committed to an invasion of Upper Canada to gain independence. In December, 1837 he and about 200 supporters landed on Navy Island, a small island in the Niagara River two miles from Niagara Falls containing on old block house.
Mackenzie declared the Republic of Canada and meetings in support were organized. The Patriot forces on Navy island soon grew to some six or seven hundred.
Quebec Lieutenant Governor Head had ordered Col. Allen McNab to Chippewa opposite Navy Island to watch the insurgents and some rifle fire was exchanged. On December 29, 1837, McNab’s Loyalist and British militiamen crossed to Navy Island.
The Caroline, a 46-ton steamer built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, had brought rebels to the island, along with arms and ammunition. In response, the Royal Navy, led by MacNab and Andrew Drew, crossed the international border and seized the the ship, causing an international incident. The Caroline was set on fire and drifted towards Niagara Falls where it broke up with some pieces going over the falls. During the seizure a black American named Amos Durfee was killed.
A British subject, Alexander Macleod, deputy sheriff of the Niagara District (Upper Canada), was arrested while in Lewiston, New York, for the killing of Durfee. He was tried in Utica before Judge was Philo Gridley. New York State Attorney General Willis Hall served as prosecutor, but the United States government took charge of the defense of MacLeod, backed by England which set aside 20,000 pounds for his defense.
Some believed that the convicted and execution of MacLeod would lead to another war with England. Some Americans supported neutrality with Britain, who by then had become a major trading partner, investor, and economic ally. Other Americans were incensed and several meetings and rallies were held in cities such as Buffalo, Burlington, Albany, Rochester, and Detroit.
Several maritime incidents occurred with the United States claiming neutrality. In Eastern Michigan, U.S. Government forces sought to dampen the conflict by seizing weapons from the rebels, and Michigan Governor Stevens T. Mason thwarted the rebels with militia forces at what is known as the Battle of Windsor. During the wider conflict there, which ranged across both side of the border, some arsenals and jails were raided by the rebels in a attempt to get weapons.
After the failed rebellions of 1837, Canadian refugees and American sympathizers planned to invade Canada. Edward Alexander Theller, an Irish-born American in Detroit, was named a “general” in the “western division of the Patriot army.”
In early January 1838 while forming an attack on Fort Malden on the Detroit River at Amherstburg in Upper Canada his schooner Anne ran aground near the fort. Canadian militiamen stormed and seized the Anne, capturing all 21 men on board, including Theller, who was wounded. Theller was taken to the citadel in Quebec.
British and American troops were killed in the Battle of Pelee Island on March 3, 1838 as the Patriots were forced to surrender arms by U.S. authorities. Still the Rebellions were not over.
The Hunters’ Lodges
The Hunters’ Lodge (Freres chasseurs, Hunter Brothers), organized in Vermont was the last of a several secret organizations formed in 1838 in the United States during the rebellions. The organization quickly spread, establishing lodges not only across Vermont, but in Western New York, Ohio and Michigan. The most active Lodges were in Watertown, Oswego, Salina (now Syracuse), Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.
The Hunters’ Lodge movement absorbed Henry S. Handy’s “Secret Order of the Sons of Liberty” in Detroit into a Grand Lodge in Cleveland where in September 1838, 70 delegates from the western Hunters’ Lodges attended a secret, week-long “Patriot Congress.” They appointed a provisional Canadian republican government, established the Republican Bank of Canada, printed bills with pictures of Patriot War martyrs, and established a newspaper, The Bald Eagle.
In November 1838 Hunters’ Lodges planned attacks on several cities: Detroit, Quebec, and Prescott to Windmill Point. The British and American troops cut off the rebels with 137 taken as prisoners and 80 rebels killed. This is referred to as the Battle of Windmill which ended when the British brought artillery from Kingston, Ontario.
In December 1838 the rebel leaders met in Detroit and were joined by Theller, who had escaped prison in Quebec. U.S. troops prevented another attack, and the rebel volunteers dispersed, ending the Rebellions, but not the movement which carried on in the short-lived Equal Rights Party in the United States, and the Locofocos, a faction of the Democratic Party from 1835 until the mid-1840s.
The Rebellions should also be seen in the wider context for the battle for civil and political rights embodied by the Anti-Rent Movement (1839-1845) in New York State and The Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842) in Rhode Island.
Historians have disagreed about how much popular support each rebellion received and to what degree the uprisings were necessary. One argument is that they were the inevitable result of undemocratic, unworkable colonial systems, and an imperial government in London that was out of touch and unsympathetic to reform.
Another view is that the insurgencies amounted to pointless bloodletting, which may have even slowed the pace of reform. Historian Robert Budd Ross maintains that the causes go back to the English conquest in 1759 plus repressive measures and hatred between the people and governing classes.
In general both British and American armies did their best to dampen the rebellion and were successful. The rebels rarely had much solid leadership nor adequate arms and weapons to stage a revolt. The rebels we routed at all points and some imprisoned and banished to Australia. A few were executed.
Some were jobless poor, victims of the Panic of 1837, but contemporary observers and some later historians tagged the rebels as a ”motley crew of loafers, renegades, and deadbeats.” They were called drunkards, charlatans, rouges, and scoundrels ready to promote their own selfish ends under the guise of furthering freedom.
One fact is clear however, the rebellions prompted the appointment of John Lambton, known also as “Radical Jack”, 1st Earl of Durham and the writing of the Durham Report, which recommended the two colonies Upper and Lower Canada be united as one. The United Province of Canada came into being in 1841, and this, in turn, led to the introduction of more responsible government.
Although the rebel leaders were thwarted in their goals, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Mackenzie each found a place in history as unlikely folk heroes who fought bravely, if not carefully, for democratic ideals.
Their failure paved the way for more moderate reformists, such as Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada) and Robert Baldwin in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada), who would work together across language lines to bring democratic reform and self-government to the newly united Canada. LaFontaine and Baldwin served as the ministers of the United Province of Canada.
Illustrations, from above: Battle of Saint Eustache, December 14, 1837; “L’Assemblée des six comtés”, oil on canvas painted by Charles Alexander Smith in 1890-1891; a map showing the location of Navy Island in the Niagara River; “The insurgents in Beauharnois, Lower Canada, November 1838,” by Katerine Jane Ellice (Library and Archives Canada); and “The Battle of Odelltown,” Quebec, November 1838, one last of the Rebellions of 1837-1838.
John Warren contributed to this essay.