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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Short Hills Raid

James made no mention of it in his 1842 letter to the New York Plebeian, but it is assumed that he was part of the group that fled to Navy Island in the Niagara River after the Toronto rebellion. He did admit in an October 1838 letter, written while at Fort Henry, that he went to Buffalo, New York. Most likely he also spent some time at the rebel base on Grand Island. In any case, he spent the next few months on the Niagara frontier and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the Patriot army.(1) He was captured after the battle at the Short Hills in June:

I was taken prisoner at the Short Hills,(2) carried before Sir George Arthur,(3) and promised a full and free pardon if I would tell all I knew of the conduct of Wm. Musson, Wm. Ketchum, and the Messrs. Mackintosh of Toronto, whom he said he suspected, but lacked the evidence to convict. I declined freedom on these terms, was tried before Judge Jones at Niagara in August 1838, with fifteen others, sentenced to be executed, but afterwards ordered to Van Dieman's Land.(4)

On the night of June 11, 1838, twenty-six armed rebels, Canadians and Americans, under the command of James Morreau of Pennsylvania, crossed the Niagara River on the steamer Red Jacket from their base on Grand Island (United States territory), and touched shore on the Canadian side. They hid in the woods under cover of darkness, careful to avoid the loyalist patrols. They had planned to join up with twenty-two supporters about twelve miles inland at the Short Hills(5) (now the town of Fonthill) on the Niagara Peninsula. James Gammell, age 23, was listed in the indictment as one of the local Patriot soldiers residing near the Short Hills in Pelham Township.(6)

The Short Hills raid was just one in a series of well intended, but loosely organized, inept cross-border raids, attempting to free Canada from the heavy hand of British rule. Colonel Morreau had expected to command a much larger group of local inhabitants, and, at the same time, the locals had been counting on a larger contingent from across the border. Morreau wanted to abort the planned attack. He advised the men to wait until July 4th, when they would have a better chance for success, but the rebels insisted that they had come to Canada to fight and wanted to strike a blow for freedom without delay.(7)

The night of June 20th they marched to the village of St. Johns, robbing a few homes of residents along the way. A small company of the Queen’s Lancers had stopped for the night at Osterhout’s Tavern. The Lancers had been forewarned of a Patriot invasion, and had stationed a sentry outside. At 2:00 am on June 21, he spied the rebels surrounding the inn. Some shots rang out, and the Lancers were awakened and started firing from inside. Half an hour of shooting did not force the surrender, so the rebels piled straw around the inn and set it on fire. The Lancers wisely fled the building and were marched into the woods, where they were forced to surrender their food, their arms and ammunition, and their horses. One of the rebels, Jacob Beamer, demanded that they be hanged on the spot to avenge the death of Patriots Lount and Matthews, who had been executed a few months earlier. The poor men insisted that they had had nothing to do with the execution, that they had wives and innocent children, and they tearfully pleaded for their lives. More rational and compassionate minds than Beamer’s prevailed, and the grateful troopers were released to go home. The Patriots quickly scattered in various directions.(8) Only one or two men on either side had been wounded, and not one had been killed. This fact seemed to have been completely ignored as the British moved quickly to capture and to severely punish the perpetrators.

Rumors of this insignificant victory at the Short Hills spread quickly and caused quite a stir. Sir George Arthur, newly appointed lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, received word that 1,500 Americans had launched a full-scale invasion of the Niagara Peninsula. For many months the British had feared such an invasion by Americans sympathetic to the Patriot cause. Arthur immediately called out the militia. Finding no battle to fight, the Tories turned their efforts to rounding up the rebels. They closed off the border crossings and scoured the area for a month. Within two days sixteen had been captured, and by the end of one week thirty-six of them were confined in the jail at Niagara-on-the-Lake.(9)

Like the others James fled into the woods after the raid, hoping to escape across the border into the United States, but on June 26th he was captured:

Garret Van Camp [who died later in Van Diemen’s Land]...turned traitor at the Short Hills, and was the cause of my banishment. Colonel Nelles had given me a pass to cross to the United States, as John M'Mullen, when a British Captain saw the mark of my sword-belt on the back of my coat. Van Camp, our comrade was sent for and was faithless enough to tell them that I was Lieut. Gemmell, of the insurgent service.(10)

James Morreau was caught within the first few days, and Benjamin Wait was captured on Navy Island and taken to Niagara Jail on June 25. Linus Miller and most of the others were rounded up by the end of the week.
  1. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription, p. 9.
  2. Short Hills is now a Provincial Park near St. Catherines, Ontario (near Niagara Falls.) A plaque and a memorial now commemorate the spot: “The Battle of the Short Hills, 1838.”
  3. Sir George Arthur was Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. He had previously been Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, May 1824 – Oct. 1836.
  4. Gemmell, New York Plebeian, p. 1. Van Diemen’s Land was a British penal colony off the coast of Australia.
  5. Michael Cross, The Wait Letters, p. 145. The Short Hills refers to the hilly country on the escarpment behind St. Catherines.
  6. Indictment, see Linus Miller, pp. 65-66.
  7. Miller, p. 24.
  8. Michael Cross, The Wait Letters, p. 145; Miller, p. 27; Colin Read, p. 109-110.
  9. Cross, p. 146.
  10. Gemmell, New York Plebeian , transcription, p. 9. Van Camp was a “poor, innocent, simple, quiet Dutchman.” (Wait, p. 115.)


  1. From: "Shaun McLaughlin"
    Subject: Patriot War Blog
    Date: Mon, 3 May 2010

    Hello Elizabeth,

    I just discovered your Gammell blog. You are to be congratulated on the quality of the research. I also started a blog, Raiders and Rebels, related to the Patriot War this year. My blog covers (or will cover) the Patriot War from start to finish and highlight individuals. I will be linking to your blog in upcoming posts on the Short Hills raid.

    Best wishes

    Shaun McLaughlin
    Ontario, Canada

    Writer and blogger

    My articles at Suite101

  2. The site of the raid was the village of St Johns West, in Thorold Township. Osterhout's Inn was on Main Street, now called Holland Road. There is no longer a plaque marking the spot.