Patriot War of 1837
The Canadian Rebellion
The Canadian Invasion
Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times
Northern New York was interested in the Canadian rebellion from the first and showed a lively sympathy with those who were seeking to throw off the British yoke. Editors in those days did not hesitate to color their news dispatches.
An Ogdensburg dispatch of 8 December 1837, published in the Jeffersonian said that “the sympathies of our citizens along the line are greatly excited in favor of the Patriots, and meetings are being called in all directions to embody and express the feeling of the public.”
On the night of February 18, 1838, an event occurred in Watertown that threw the community into excitement. That night the State Arsenal was entered by an unknown band and 400 stands of arms were taken. The Jeffersonian did not become greatly excited over this affair and dismissed it with this brief notice:
“The State Arsenal in this Village was broken open on the night of the 18th, and a quantity of arms taken, therefore it is supposed their destination is Canada, as a large number of loyal Canadians were said to have arrived in the village the evening previous. We understand that the keeper, Mr. Jason Fairbanks, Esq., has repaired to Albany to notify the proper authorities, and to receive such instructions, as the exigencies of the case require. A reward of $250 is offered for the recovery of the property and the conviction of the offenders. It is not a little remarkable that the arms taken are of those taken from the British in the last war.”
Simultaneously, State Arsenals at Batavia and Elizabethtown were entered and arms were stolen. Plans were under way for a military expedition to be fitted out in Jefferson County, the purpose of which was the capture of Kingston. Washington’s birthday, February 22, was selected as the date. The two days previous men began to congregate at French Creek, now Clayton. A supply of arms and munitions consisting, it is said, of 4,000 stand of arms, 20 barrels of cartridges, 500 long pikes and some provisions were assembled there. Several hundred men under General Rensselaer Van Renselaer gathered from all parts of Northern New York. Gananoque was to be the first objective and there from the force planned to march on Kingston. It was confidently expected that hundreds of Canadians would join the Patriot Army.
The force which had gathered at French Creek planned to move to Hickory Island, one of the Thousand Island group, about two miles from Gananoque in British waters. William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the Upper Canadian revolt, had come to Watertown and had joined the party. He had corresponded with friends in Kingston and they had agreed to spike the guns of Fort Henry and throw open the gates of the stronghold when the Patriot Army should appear.
But the plans failed. The weather was intensely cold and the men at French Creek suffered greatly from exposure. The discipline was lax and there was practically no organization among the promiscuous assemblage. Many of the Jefferson county men who had driven their sleighs to French Creek wanted to return home. Mackenzie was dissatisfied with Van Rensselaer and declared that he would not accompany the expedition as long as he was in command. This mutual jealousy, which seemed to have been carried over from the Navy Island incident, was enough to put a damper on the whole proceeding. Volunteers were called for to go to Hickory Island. At the first call 83 responded. Seventy-five responded to the second call and 35 at the third call. From then on it was every man for him self and a large part of the force went back home.
Kingston was but poorly defended and a vigorous attack might have captured the place. There was much uneasiness in the city and the militia took up a position on Wolfe Island. Colonel Cubbitt of the Royal Artillery commanded the force and he determined on a vigorous offense as the best defense and planned to launch an attack on Hickory Island, but the invaders of British territory had fled.
Mackenzie caused to be inserted in the newspapers a statement, which was published in the Jeffersonian as, follows:
Allow me the use of your columns to state, with reference to the extract which you published from a letter of mine last week, that I have neither seen nor corresponded with Mr. Rensselaer Van Rensselaer in his recent movements on this frontier, but have earnestly and invariably urged my friends to withdraw all confidence from him in matters connected with Canada. As to his generalship I do not pretend to be a judge of its merits. Others will do that. “Yours very respectfully. W. L. Mackenzie.”
Watertown, Feb. 22, 1838.” On the same day the Jeffersonian published this news item regarding the invasion under the heading - Rumors of War.
“It is said that a large collection of men are assembled at the port of French Creek in this county, having no ostensible object in view. Yesterday afternoon Judge McKnight, Sheriff Baker, District Attorney Sherman and Major General Cross repaired thither with a view of ascertaining whether any military preparations were going forward. They returned last night and report that a large number of persons had collected but that no movement of a military character had been discovered. All was peaceful, quiet and orderly. Today many persons have left this village for French Creek --- probably to gratify curiosity.”
The Jeffersonian was not greatly impressed with the military prowess of VanRensselaer, as the next week’s issue referred to him as “Mr. Van No General.” in the following article:
"A number of the Patriots under the command of Mr. Van No General, congregated on Hickory Island in the St. Lawrence Thursday of last week, for the alleged purpose of visiting Canada, but owing as is alleged to the stupidity, cowardice, drunkenness or some other trait in the said Van Rensselaer, the Patriots dispersed.”
The state arms taken from the arsenal have mostly been recovered; some indictments have been found against individuals charged with aiding the seizure.
William Johnston has been arrested and held in bail in the sum of $5,000 on the charge of setting on foot a military expedition against Canada. Mackenzie has left for Washington. Several companies of militia are stationed at French Creek and Cape Vincent. These will probably soon be disbanded.”
Two citizens of Clayton, New York John Packard and George Hulsenberg were captured by the British and lodged in the Kingston jail. The Jeffersonian said that they were in no way connected with the expedition but went to Hickory Island out of curiosity. The two men were imprisoned six months and were finally released.
On March 1 the Jeffersonian recorded this interesting item:
“On Tuesday evening Colonel Philp of the British army, aid to Sir John Colborne, arrived as the American escorted by a guard of 12 men and a part of the staff of Major General Cross detailed for that duty. Colonel Philp was not only guarded to the American but in it was escorted by a guard to and from the supper table, a guard placed at the door of his rooms, and on Wednesday morning he and his staff returned to French Creek. He came to investigate.”