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Friday, January 29, 2010

Fort Henry

In accordance with British Home Office regulations, prisoners transported from the colonies were first sent to England and then to Australia.(1) August 23rd marked the beginning of the first leg of that long journey for James and his comrades. In a heartbreaking parting with Chandler, Wait, McLeod, and Beemer, still on death row,(2) Gemmell and the other prisoners, chained in pairs, boarded the steamer Traveler to be transported across Lake Ontario to Fort Henry.(3) Here they met up with other Patriot prisoners captured at Toronto the previous December, including John G. Parker and Leonard Watson, who still had not been tried. Sixteen of the Toronto group had earlier made a daring escape from Fort Henry; fourteen of them had succeeded in crossing the border to safety in the United States, but Parker and Watson had been recaptured. Many of the local townsfolk visited the interior of the fort “with no other motive than to witness the theatre of so noted an escape from such an impregnable fortress.” These men had successfully dug through a four-foot wall, using nothing but a ten-inch length of iron and a disk nail, and traversed nearly half of the underground rooms and an outside trench before reaching freedom.(4)

At the fort, living conditions were relatively good; best of all, the men were allowed to mingle outside in the open air of the prison yard for one hour a day. They were permitted to write and receive (censored) letters once every two weeks. But in spite of improved quarters, one of their own, David Taylor, age 26, died soon after arrival. He had a severe cold, made worse by the journey from Niagara. At Fort Henry he was too weak to leave his bed. The doctor visited him daily, but did little else; and in a few days he died, three of his comrades at his bedside. He was buried in the prison yard on August 27th. Then their grief turned to joy on August 29th when their companions who were left at Niagara marched into Fort Henry in chains, but still alive.(5) Benjamin Wait’s wife, Maria, had been successful in having their death sentence commuted to transportation.

The next two months of confinement at Fort Henry passed rather peacefully. This was not your usual gang of prisoners—there was no gambling, no swearing, no lewd conversation. The Patriots spent their hours in useful and uplifting activities, such as reading, writing, making wooden boxes(6) and other mementos for family and friends. Wait, Parker, McLeod, and a few others even met together “for the purpose of literary improvement and amusement for the long evenings.” Taking turns writing, delivering, or listening to original lectures, “the time rolled cheerfully and unheeded on.” Every Sabbath Randall Wixon delivered an interesting scriptural discourse. Of Wixon, Benjamin Wait wrote, “We had great reason to regard the presence of this very excellent man as contributing largely to our spiritual good and temporal quiet.”(7) Every day the sheriff and deputy, accompanied by a group of military officers and guards, entered the prisoner living quarters for a thorough inspection. All objects in the room were moved, so that every square inch of floor and wall could be seen and sounded. The men were lined up in single file for a roll call. They were counted and their names carefully checked against the list. Officials had been stunned by the recent daring escape of Patriot prisoners, and they weren’t about to let it happen again. (8)

Sir George Arthur
(in public domain)

 Sir George Arthur visited Fort Henry twice while Gammell and the others were imprisoned there. On his first visit, after reviewing the troops, he set up an office where he could interview each prisoner one by one. He promised Miller a free pardon if he would confess that he was sorry for what he had done and promise to take no further part in the rebellion, but Miller wrote that he declined the offer on those terms.(9) Gammell also refused to compromise his solemn oath to the Patriot cause:

Sir Geo. Arthur visited us occasionally while we were under sentence of death [or transportation], and when he told me I had been deluded by Mackenzie, I replied that it was not so - that we were in the right - that if ever there was a just cause it was ours and - that I had weighed the matter and was sincerely sorry we had failed. Sir George's behavior to us was polite, and affable. Of the justice of our cause, I have never since entertained nor expressed a different opinion…(10)
This confident, almost defiant, version of James’ interview with Sir George was reported in retrospect when James returned to the United States in 1842. There is a stark contrast between that version and the humble, apologetic petition James actually wrote to Arthur while still at Fort Henry. Given the desperate situation James found himself in, it isn’t hard to understand why he wrote this, and why he may have been ashamed that he did so:

I therefore beg to state that I have received a letter from James Reid _____Gore of Toronto – Mr. John Burgess Township of ____Toronto – Thomas McGill township of Etolescoke who will be security for my future good conduct in the event of Your Excellency’s pardoning me upon those considerations.

I would further desire to state that when I left the country last spring it was for the purpose of procuring medical aid upon a complaint which had baffled the skill of several physicians to whom I had applied in Brantford. It was through the advice of my friend that I went to Buffalo to apply to the celebrated German Physician who resides there – It was there that I became acquainted with the wicked and designing men who induced me to embark in this enterprise the just punishment for which I am now suffering.

I am deeply penitent for the crime I have been guilty of and hope your Excellency will pardon me upon the ________ of my never for the future meddling in any case with political affairs of the Country and becoming a good peaceable quiet & industrious Citizen – And as in duty bound I will ever pray –

Your Excellency's obdt. Humble Servant
/s/ James Gemmell
Fort Henry, Oct 18, 1838 (11)

In this letter we see evidence that Uncle James Reid was working behind the scenes, as a representative of James’ grieving mother and family, to secure a pardon for his nephew. James’ petitions were denied, or possibly just ignored, as were all the petitions on behalf of the Patriot prisoners.

For a virtual tour of Fort Henry, click on the link in footnote #3 below.
  1. Pybus, “Patriot Exiles,” p. 189.
  2. Miller, p. 98. These men were all highly esteemed, except for Beemer.
  3. Fort Henry is located in the city of Kingston and situated on a hill overlooking Lake Ontario. See
  4. Wait, p. 35-36. (See Lindsey, pp. 369-373, for John Montgomery’s first-hand account of the escape.)
  5. Miller, p. 102-105.
  6. Canadian Chris Raible has collected some of these surviving boxes, called “Rebellion boxes.” They were carved and engraved with a message and the name of the carver. He has recently written a book about them.
  7. Wait, p. 36, 113. Wixon “had but one leg, was a Baptist clergyman, and [his] only crime was, having acted as assistant editor of the “Correspondent and Advocate,” during the absence of Mr. [William Lyon] McKenzie, the proprietor…some years prior to the insurrection.”
  8. Wait, p. 36-37.
  9. Miller, p. 105.
  10. Gemmell, New York Plebian, transcription p. 11.
  11. Archive Office of Tasmania, document #114656.

1 comment:

  1. Liz, thank you for your efforts to write the history of our great-great grandfather. From my mission to Upper Canada, 1965-67, it seems I unknowingly crossed paths with grandfatjher James throughout the Toronto and Niagra Falls areas. In 1997, Jan and I toured Fort Henry and all cities from Montreal to Toront to Niagra and back to Quebec thru New York, unawares of our family history.
    Love, cousin Bary Gammell