Click on this image to order the book

Click on this image to order the book
The book version of James Gammell's life story is now available. Click on this image.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Canada’s Patriot War

The Patriot War of 1837-38 was a series of battles between the “Patriots,” as they called themselves, and the British troops, who had the support of the local militias. The British government had ignored for too long the protests of struggling merchants and farmers against repressive economic policies and taxation, and finally the protests turned into armed revolt. The rebellion erupted on two separate fronts, first in Lower Canada (Quebec),(1) and then in Upper Canada (Ontario). The Lower Canadian rebellion, initiated by the native French residents, was met with a strong show of force from the British, who burned a church and one entire village (Saint-Eustache), and declared martial law. While the British troops were thus occupied in Lower Canada, the Upper Canadian “Patriots,” joined by United States citizens, seized the opportunity to stage their own revolt. Their goal was to detach the peninsula lying between the Michigan frontier and the Niagara frontier from Canada and attach it to the United States. Their base of operations was located in Michigan,(2) where they were organized into secret groups known as "Hunters Lodges."

See link to map in footnote #1 below.

Living on his uncle’s farm near Toronto, James found himself at the very center of this political turmoil. He was drawn to join the Upper Canadian movement started by his fellow Scot, William Lyon Mackenzie. (The general population of Canada, however, did not support the movement, and therefore, in the end, it failed to lead to a Republic of Canada, one free of British rule, like its neighbor to the south.)(3) Mackenzie founded a reformist newspaper, The Colonial Advocate (1824), in the Upper Canada capital of York, later called Toronto, and made outright calls for a republican form of government. He eventually became the first mayor of the newly-renamed Toronto in 1834. Mackenzie’s dream of a rural utopia appealed to the frustrated farmers of the Gore district after a bad harvest in 1835. This had led to a recession, and in the following years, the banks had begun to tighten credit and recall loans. With a heavy burden of debt, the farmers had little hope of fulfilling the dream to expand their farms for their sons:

The existing land system assured that they would never have their own property; it doomed them, in this age before trade unions, to low wages and bad working conditions. There were other characteristics which marked rebels, as well. They were more likely to be of American or Scottish origin, than to be English. They were more likely to be Presbyterians or Baptists than to be Anglicans…They were men who found themselves blocked from achieving the promise of the New World by a closed and oppressive economic system. They were men who found the levers of political power jammed by a time-worn constitutional structure. They were men who found that, to gain the liberty, economic and political, that they claimed by right, they had to take up guns.(4)

James, in his early twenties at the time, no doubt saw little hope, under the existing regime, of owning his own land. Most likely he had planned to spend his life in Canada, but his decision to join the rebellion set in motion a series of events that he never could have imagined, and eventually pushed him westward.

When the Lower Canada Rebellion broke out in the fall of 1837, Sir Francis Bond Head sent all the British troops stationed in Toronto to help suppress it. At this point James, with all his youthful vigor, “joined [Mackenzie’s] insurgents behind Toronto, of [his] own free will, and had long been anxious for such a movement.” With the regular troops gone Mackenzie and his followers seized a Toronto armoury and organized an armed march down Yonge Street, beginning at Montgomery's Tavern (Mackenzie’s headquarters) on December 4, 1837. As James further explains, he played a key role in the revolt:

I was behind Toronto with the insurgents the first night,Monday—was in the Tuesday night's skirmish in the suburbs—took Sheriff Jarvis's fine blood mare, which Mackenzie rode until all was over on Thursday. I also brought in the Captain of Sir Francis's [Head] Artillery, of which we had none ourselves, nor even a bayonet—was of the small party of Wednesday who went and took the mails [mail coach] and carriages—and in the final fight at Montgomery's on Thursday [7 December 1837.](5)

The Siege of Toronto
December 1837
Artist, Stanley F. Turner (1883-1953), in public domain

On December 7th Mackenzie’s military leader, Anthony van Egmond, advised immediate retreat. Mackenzie hesitated, and Head's force of about 1000 men and one cannon arrived the same day. They overpowered Mackenzie's approximately 400 rebels. In less than half an hour the confrontation was over, and the Patriot forces dispersed. Meanwhile, a group of Patriot rebels from London (Upper Canada), led by Charles Duncombe, marched toward Toronto to support Mackenzie. British troops under Colonel Allan MacNab met them near Hamilton, Ontario, on December 13, and again, the rebels fled. James said that he parted with Mackenzie after the defeat, and never saw him again until he met him at his home in New York City four and a half years later:

I parted with Mackenzie when he and Colonel Lount separated, after the Defeat, near Shepards mills, and never saw him again until one of the refugees directed me to his home in this city, a week ago.  I saw that he faithfully performed his duty behind Toronto, and if some who do not know, have blamed him in the United States, I am sure that those who were his companions cannot have done so.(6)

When the Patriots dispersed at Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, with help of Samuel Chandler, fled to Buffalo, New York. There he made speeches to enlist American support for the Patriot cause. Nearly 200 of the other Toronto rebels fled to Navy Island, located in the Niagara River, three miles upstream from Horseshoe Falls.(7) There on December 13th they declared themselves the Republic of Canada. They received supplies and arms, shipped to them on the steamship Caroline by supporters across the river in the United States. The British then crossed into United States waters, seized the Caroline, towed the empty ship out into the current, set her afire, and pushed her over Niagara Falls. A few months later Americans retaliated by burning the British steamer Sir Robert Peel while it was in United States waters on the St. Lawrence River near Wells’ Island. On January 13, 1838, under attack by the British, the rebels on Navy Island fled. Mackenzie was arrested in New York, charged under the Neutrality Act,(8) and spent a few months in jail. The other major leaders, Van Egmond, Samuel Lount, and Peter Matthews, were arrested by the British; Van Egmond died in prison, and Lount and Matthews were executed on April 12, 1838 in Toronto.

Map of the Niagara Frontier 1812
in public domain

The Patriots continued their raids into Canada using the United States as a base of operations and cooperating with the U.S. Hunters Lodges, who were dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Canada. In 1838, armed Patriots engaged the British troops again, once in June at the Short Hills (James was involved in this raid), and again in November in a bloody battle at Prescott, Ontario. In December, a year after the initial battle at Montgomery’s Tavern (Toronto), another group of Patriot rebels crossed the Detroit River into Canada just above Windsor on a small steamboat. They planned to set up a temporary government in rebellion against the British crown. A battle ensued; a number of men on both sides were killed or wounded, and the Patriots scattered into the woods. Of those who were captured and tried, six were executed and eighteen transported to Van Diemen’s Land. The Battle of Windsor, as it was called, marked the end of the Patriot War. While the Patriot War itself was a failure, it did compel the British to recognize the failures of the colonial government. Political change quickly emerged, leading to a more modern representative form of government in Canada.(9)
    The Province of Lower Canada was a British colony on the lower Saint Lawrence River and the shores of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (1791-1841).  It covered the southern portion of the modern-day Province of Quebec. The Province of Upper Canada was located in what is now the southern portion of the Province of Ontario.  Its name reflected its position closer to the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River than was Lower Canada (the same relationship as between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.)
  2. Following the “Toledo War,” Michigan became a state on January 26, 1837. In January 1838, despite the U.S. Neutrality Act, the state militia of Michigan became involved in the Patriot War.
  3. Linus Miller believed that the non-support by some Canadians was motivated by fear. An unsuspected Tory could report his rebel neighbor to the authorities and have him thrown in prison. As compared to the American rebellion, British forces in Canada had a strong presence in a much smaller area. Miller felt that many more Canadians might have joined the cause had they seen any hope for success. (Miller, p. 9) Pybus’ assessment is probably more accurate. She explains that for most Upper Canadians the rebellion was against corrupt Colonial officials, and never against the Crown. (Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 14.)
  4. Michael S. Cross, “Afterword,” The Wait Letters, Ontario, 1976, p.154.
  5. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription p. 11.
  6. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription p. 11.
  7. Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls) is the most impressive of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls.
  8. The Neutrality Act of 1794 made it illegal for an American to wage war against another country at peace with the United States.
  9. Much of the information for this synopsis of the Patriot War came from


  1. I may have had a 2th greatgrandfather that was in the Patriot war in Lower Canada his name was Robert Gamble, is there a list or Muster Roll I can find him?

    This website lists 58 lower Canadian prisoners who were sent via the HMS Buffalo to Australia. Robert Gamble's name does not appear. I am not aware of other muster rolls for Lower Canada.