Today, Canada is parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy but there was a time that might have not been the case. Today, we have a monarch and prime minister, but for a brief time, there was a Republic of Canada and we had a president.
It occurred three decades before Canada was an official country, during the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.
I won’t go into too much detail on the rebellion, as that is something for an episode on its own, but it was an insurrection against the government of the British colony of Upper Canada in December of 1837. A rebellion had started the previous month in Lower Canada, which pushed the Upper Canada rebels to revolt themselves.
The Upper Canada Rebellion was defeated nearly as soon as it began and was led by William Lyon Mackenzie, who had spent time as mayor of Toronto and in the legislature of Upper Canada.
In the latter-days of the rebellion, he would create the self-proclaimed government of the Republic of Canada on Navy Island in the Niagara River, installing himself as president.
The republic had been declared after Mackenzie and 200 of his followers retreated from Toronto to Navy Island. On the island, he established an independent currency and received supplies from the American steamer Caroline. He was able to get followers to his republic by promising them 300 acres to any man that supported the cause. He also promised $100 in silver to his supporters, payable on May 1, 1838.
It was not long before the British decided they were not going to have a new republic on an island just off the coast of Toronto.
On Dec. 29, 1837, Commander Andrew Drew of the Royal Navy, and seven boats of Canadian militiamen, crossed the Niagara River to Fort Schlosser. They captured the Caroline and set the ship on fire, then sent it adrift towards Niagara Falls, resulting in one American being killed. It was claimed dozens of Americans died when they were trapped inside the ship but this was false. Nonetheless, the Americans burned a British steamer and the Caroline affair was triggered. This led to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries that would be resolved in 1842 when both countries admitted wrongdoing in the situation.
A few days later on Jan. 13, 1838, Mackenzie was forced to abandon Navy Island due to heavy fire by the British. Mackenzie and his supporters retreated to Buffalo, where they were captured by the U.S. Army and sentenced to 18 months in prison for violating the neutrality laws between the United States and United Kingdom.
Some supporters retreated to Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River and in the United States, Hunters’ Lodges were founded by some supporters in the United States. These lodges were a secret organization formed in 1838 that spread westward from Vermont thanks to Lower Canada refugees who fled after the rebellions failed. The lodges were modelled on Masonic Lodges, with four degrees of rank, which were Snowshoe, Beaver, Grand Hunter and Patriotic Hunter. The lodges also used a secret code they printed in newspapers to communicate with others. At their height, the lodges existed from Vermont to Michigan.
In September of 1838, 70 delegates from the western lodges attended a secret Patriot Congress in Cleveland, with the goal of creating a Canadian republican government. They also began to plan an independence war, modelled on the Revolutionary War of the Americans half a century before.
In this secret meeting, the president of Canada was elected, with A.D. Smith getting the vote since he was already the leader of the western lodges. The vice-president of Canada would be Colonel Nathan Williams, a grocer from Cleveland, while the Commander-in-Chief of the Patriot Army of the West was Lucius V. Bierce, the mayor of Akron, Ohio. The commodore of the Patriot Navy on Lake Erie was Gilman Appleby, the former captain of the Caroline.
The western lodges would be behind the Patriot War, which was fought over the course of 1838. To fund this patriotic movement, as they saw it, the organization formed a joint stock bank, called The Republic Bank of Canada, where bills were printed with the pictures of Samuel Lount and James Moreau on them. Both men had been executed for their part in the previous year’s rebellions. An official newspaper was also created for the republic, called The Bald Eagle.
The leaders of the Patriot movement had previously belonged to the Equal Rights Party, which was founded on a concept of radical republicanism and free banking, which is a monetary arrangement where banks issue their own currency, free from regulations.
With The Republic of Canada forming among the men of the Hunters Lodge, the Patriot War could rage.
The Patriot War was fought along the Canada-US border, when raiders attacked Upper Canada more than a dozen times. It was not a war between the nations as it were, but just a group of people, notably those in support of the Republic of Canada, fighting against British forces.
The first battles of the war were the bombardment of Navy Island and the sinking of the Caroline, but there would be several more in the coming months.
On Feb. 24 and 27, 1838, there were two attacks set for the birthday of George Washington. The steamboat Erie, loaded with 400 men, set sail on Feb. 23 but due to being poorly equipped, they were captured quickly by American authorities. On Feb. 25, British troops then arrived and dispersed the Patriots on Feb. 25. They then said they would send the troops back to the United States, but the US authorities put red flags down on the ice of the river to mark the border and they were under orders to shoot any British troops that crossed it. The British did not cross the line.
On Feb. 27, 1,500 men left from Jefferson County, New York to seize Hickory Island near Kingston. Unfortunately, a rivalry between William Lyon Mackenzie and General Van Rensselaer resulted in the troops disbanding.
The Battle of Pelee Island would occur on March 3 under Captain George van Rensselaer, who was a relative of the general, and under General Thomas Jefferson Sutherland. They were able to take Pelee Island but their relief arms were captured by US authorities, which left them with only 200 guns for everyone. The British then attacked, killing 10 troops and capturing many more.
It was after this battle that William Lyon Mackenzie was captured for violating the neutrality laws.
On May 29, a band of patriots, dressed as First Nations people, burned the Sir Robert Peel steamer at Well’s Island.
On June 21-23, 24 men, mostly Canadians, assembled near Lewiston, New York and crossed the Niagara River with the hopes of creating an uprising in the Niagara area. They attacked troops stationed at a tavern and were quickly captured.
Following the organization of the Hunters Lodge, which had come partly from the Canadian Refugee Association and the Secret Order of the Sons of Liberty, there were continued attacks in the hopes of creating the new republic.
From Nov. 13 to 18, the Hunters Lodges in both eastern and western divisions decided to launch an invasion of Upper and Lower Canada. This had been agreed to on Nov. 1, and it was decided the eastern division would attack Quebec on Nov. 3, under the command of the vice-president. Col. Nathan Williams of Cleveland planned an attack on Detroit.
Oddly, Major General, and I use that term loosely, John Ward Birge convinced the eastern New York lodges to join him in an attack on Prescott on the St. Lawrence River instead. The leader of the attack was a polish soldier who had been part of the Polish Rebellion.
On Nov. 11, 400 men boarded a steamboat in Sackets Harbor, New York. Men quickly disagreed with how to attack and Birge took 200 of his men to Ogdensburg with the intent of waiting for reinforcements that never came. Nils Von Schoultz, the Polish officer, took 150 men and reached Windmill Point near Prescott on Nov. 12. They set up camp just prior to the British and Americans cutting off Windmill Point, forcing the Canadian Hunters Lodge members who had come in support to withdraw.
The standoff continued for several days until Nov. 16 when artillery was brought in from Kingston, and 80 patriots were killed, while 137 prisoners were taken.
Oddly enough, in a weird quirk of history, the Patriot prisoners were defended by a young lawyer from Kingston, by the name of John A. Macdonald.
On Dec. 4, 1838, the Battle of Windsor, the final planned battle by the Hunters, occurred. A total of 600 men established a camp just south of Detroit with Lucius Bierce in command of the camp. He knew there were not enough men for a successful attack but E.J. Roberts pushed for one anyway. On Dec. 3, the militants seized the steamboat Chaplain and used it to sail north to Windsor in the middle of the night. Moving towards Windsor, the men encountered a detachment of militia at a store being used as a guardhouse. The invaders decided to set fire to the store to get the defenders out. They went nearby to the house of a black Canadian named Mills and asked him for embers from his fire, and invited him to join their cause. He instead responded with “Three cheers for the Queen” and they killed him. The guardhouse was then burned down and the occupants were taken prisoner. Continuing on to Windsor, the men set fire to the steamer Thames. They then encountered Surgeon John Hume, who heard alarm bells and was heading to Windsor to offer his services. The Hunters killed him, cut off his limbs with an axe and left his remains with hogs.
The Hunters then took positions at a local orchard farm outside Windsor, which at the time had 500 people and only 20 militia.
By 7 a.m. though, a 60-man company of militia arrived from Sandwich nearby, and were able to repel the invaders and then captured several of them. At 1:30 p.m., a company of British regulars arrived with 20 mounted First Nations and a cannon. The Hunters had made their escape by this point, and only one person was captured. This meant the militia had only four prisoners and Colonel John Prince ordered them all shot.
In total, the Battle of Windsor resulted in eight dead among the British and Canadians and 25 among the Hunters and Patriots.
With its army in disarray, its leaders in hiding, this effectively ended the Patriot War and the push for the Republic of Canada.
After the war, 93 Americans and 58 Canadians who had pushed the war and the Republic of Canada were transported to Australia to serve their sentence. They were interned near the current Australian community of Concord, which is why the area has names such as French Bay, Exile Bay and Canada Bay.