Patriot War of 1837
The Canadian Rebellion
Towns and the Hunters' Lodges
Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times
One of the most interesting features of the Patriot War in its relations to Northern New York was the formation of what was known as Hunter’s Lodges. Practically every village in this section had its lodge, composed of those who were in sympathy with the struggles that the Canadians were making for their liberty. The first record of any association of this kind in the United States was in March 1838, when a meeting was held in Lockport, NY. A committee, of which William Lyon Mackenzie was a member, was named to secure information relative to the Canadian refugees in the United States. The name given to this association was the Canadian Refugee Relief Association. Headquarters were at Lockport and agents were sent to all parts of the United States, especially along the northern border.
The forming of this association was followed by the burning of the steamer Sir Robert Peel, treated more in detail in this series, and two attempts at invasion of Canada from the Niagara region. It appears that Mackenzie, though named a member of the executive committee of the association, was not present at the meeting and had no sympathy with his aims. When he learned that a military expedition was on foot he urged those responsible to abandon their efforts.
In March 1839, he issued a call for a meeting to be held in Rochester to be made up of Canadians or persons connected with Canada, to be known as the Canadian Association, the object of which was the measure of greater political power for Canada. Many Canadians had moved to this side of the border and during the summer of 1838 a secret organization was formed, composed of these refugees.
The headquarters were in Michigan and Henry S. Handy was appointed commander-in-chief. The members took an oath to bear allegiance to the cause of Canadian independence, and to keep their membership in the order a secret. Agents were stationed in various parts of the country. This movement was confined almost entirely to Michigan and it was planned to make an attack on Windsor, opposite Detroit, on July 4. General Brady, commanding the American forces at Detroit, got wind of the plan, and dispatched a force, which seized the arms of the would-be invaders. The whole plan collapsed for want of arms.
The real Hunter’s Lodges, however, had their inception in the east, and the first one, of which there is record, was formed in Vermont in 1838. The various Patriot organizations merged themselves into this one. After the failure of the plans for invasion in the west, those in the east believed that the greatest aid could be given by operating against Lower Canada. The Society seems to have taken its name from a man named Hunter, who was active in the rebellion in Toronto, and escaped into the United States at the risk of his life. After he reached this side he began the organization of the society that was to bear his name. The movement spread rapidly, and within a few months, lodges were established in all the chief centers from Maine to Wisconsin and as far south as Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
There were different degrees of initiation, and a complete system of secret signs, badges, passwords, cipher of secret alphabets for correspondence, peculiar raps for obtaining admittance at the door, all of which were used as a means of communication with each other and for determining the degree and rank of the various lodges. As if to make more certain the secrecy of their intentions, and to escape the vigilance of the government paid spies, the leaders belonged to two or more patriot societies, thereby possessing a larger number and a variety of secret means of identification and communication. The emblem of the order was the snowshoe.
The most important lodges were located at Rochester, Buffalo and Lockport, New York; Cleveland and Cincinnati Ohio; Detroit and Port Huron Michigan.
The headquarters of the west were at Cleveland and those of the east at Rochester. The membership of these Hunter lodges has been variously estimated from 15,000 to 200,000, but during the years when the lodges were the most active the membership was between 25,000 and 40,000.
Owing to the secrecy imposed on the members an accurate estimate of the membership is impossible. All classes were attracted to the lodges. Many were sincere in their desire to free Canada; others were attracted by the secrecy and mysticism, which enveloped it, much in the same manner that some adventurous spirits are attracted to the Ku Klux Klan of today. “Laborers left their employ,” says the report of the select committee of Upper Canada, “apprentices their masters; mechanics abandoned their shops, merchants their counters; husbands, their families; children, their parents; Christians, their churches; ministers of the gospel their charge, to attend these meetings.” Judges, legislators, governors, army officers, and even the vice president of the United States were claimed as members. From the 16th – 22nd September 1838, a meeting of the Grand Lodge was held at Cleveland at which representatives were present from the various subordinate lodges. At that time the republican government for Upper Canada was constituted. “Bill” Johnson, the St. Lawrence river pirate who burned the steamer Sir Robert Peel, was appointed “admiral” of the Patriot navy in eastern waters. It was estimated that there were nine steamboats and 25,000 Patriots ready to bear arms for the Patriot cause. The Republican Bank of Canada was to be established, with a capital stock of seven and a half million dollars. The stock was to be secured by the confiscation of Canadian property, and although the members pledged themselves to rise $10,000 in two weeks, it appears that while they were willing to die for the Patriot cause they did not care to invest their money in it, as only $300 was subscribed.
During the fall of 1838 the Hunters south, north and east of Oswego began to move. Hunters from Oswego, Salina, Liverpool, Syracuse, Auburn, Great Bend, Pamelia, Dexter, Evans Mills, Watertown, Brownville, Leraysville, Sackets Harbor, Cape Vincent, Chaumont, Williams Bay, Alexandria, Orleans, Flat Rock, Ogdensburg, Rosiere and other points began concentrating along the St. Lawrence in considerable numbers. That was the beginning of the invasion-of-Canada, which was to culminate in the tragic Battle of Windmill in which so many Jefferson county men lost their lives.
The first Hunter’s lodge was formed in Watertown May 1838, according to Daniel D. Heustis, one of the survivors of the Battle of the Windmill; Mr. Heustis was the author of a book telling of the Battle of the Windmill and his subsequent imprisonment and banishment to Van Dieman’s Land. “Some time in the month of May,” wrote Mr. Heustis, “a Mr. Estabrooke of Cleveland, Ohio, came to Watertown, and instituted a secret society or lodge on the same plan as those previously established at Cleveland and other places. I was admitted as a member the first night. Very soon lodges numbered nineteen hundred members. Some of our members went into neighboring towns and organized other lodges, and in a short time they were formed in nearly every town in the region.” Those lodges had as officers, Doremus Abbey, Daniel George and Russell Phelps, all Jefferson county men who were subsequently hanged at Fort Henry. These meetings were held at the old Mansion house, which stood where the Iron Block on Public Square, then occupied by the Conde store stood. One was organized in Ogdensburg on 12 Feb 1838, which was attended by Mackenzie. The following morning a cannon was fired several times to honor Mackenzie, but it only caused much excitement. That evening, attracted by the firing, some Prescott people crossed the river out of curiosity and the Patriots detained them all night. That served to increase the ill feeling between the two countries.
Even after the rebellion was completely put down the Hunter’s Lodges continued their existence on this side of the border until 15 September 1841. President Tyler issued a proclamation calling upon all good citizens to sever their connection with them. The need for their existence was over, and they soon went out of existence, leaving nothing but memories.