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1837: The Boiling Point

In 1837, Governor Bond Head had two unhappy colonies to deal with. The question confronting the governor was: which of the two colonies would rebel first? Bond Head had to take the following into consideration:

  1. Both Papineau and Mackenzie were agitating for armed rebellion.
  2. Mackenzie was actively and openly training men to support some sort of military action.
  3. The Patriotes were French whereas for all their flaws the potential rebels in Upper Canada were English.

Bingo! French guys get it first.

Although the governor was concerned about Mackenzie's activities in Toronto, he believed the greater danger came from Quebec. Accusations of prejudice aside, Bond Head made the right decision to send troops first to Lower Canada. The Patriotes, though lacking organization, were a far more sizable force than Mackenzie's ragtag militia. Moreover, there were rumors that the Patriotes were planning to declare the independence of Lower Canada.

The first actual armed resistance took place inside the hamlet of St. Jean. British soldiers escorting two Frenchmen (arrested on charges of disturbing the peace) were ambushed by a group of Parti Patriote supporters. The two men were rescued and the rebellion was underway!37

patriotes flagFor Papineau it had come much too early. His movement lacked organization (or even a plan) and he knew that without help from America, the prospects for success were bleak. Nonetheless, the Patriotes began making preparations to defend themselves. For some reason they felt it important enough to start printing their own money. However, they did do a couple of "revolutionary" things: they designed a flag (see left) and put together a declaration of independence.38

In November 1837, armed rebellion broke out in and around Montreal. Governor Bond Head ordered British troops to put down the revolt. The man given the responsibility of leading the government's troops was none other than the former governor, John Colborne. Arrest warrants were issued for Papineau and the other leaders of the Patriotes. Papineau, along with his supporters, retreated to the Richelieu Valley and the county of Deux-Montagnes.39

Rebellion in Lower Canada

Britain's rejection of the Ninety-Two Resolutions was the last straw. The Patriotes organized public rallies in protest (and rallies turned into armed mobs roaming the countryside). As the rule of law broke down, armed supporters of the Patriotes took control of rural areas surrounding Montreal. With the arrival of Colborne's army in November, 1837, the rebels moved to the Richelieu Valley where they could expect support from the local population.40

The Battle of St. Denis
Colonial government forces under the command of Colonel Charles Gore marched into the Richelieu Valley on November 22, 1837. Gore commanded three-hundred British troops and expected to make quick work of the rebels. Opposing the British were the Patriotes 800 strong led by Dr. Wolfred Nelson.

The Patriotes barricaded the road and waited for the British to arrive. (Oh and when I say the road I mean the road—there weren't many others.) The Chateau Clique frequently blocked the Assembly from approving expenditures on necessary infrastructure like roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, etc. Manning the barricade were farmers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and public notaries. For his part Papineau was no where to be seen. As soon as he caught sight of the government troops approaching he "booked it."

In the early hours of the morning, Gore arrived three kilometers outside of the village of St. Denis with his troops. They had been marching all night through mud, cold, and freezing rain. They were caught off guard when a group of Patriotes ran out of a house and opened fire on them from behind the barricade. The British charged the barricade and the French withdrew behind the safety of a stone wall. The two sides continued to exchange fire for several hours.41

By mid-afternoon, the defenders of St. Denis received reinforcements from the surrounding villages. The English were tired, they had not expected such resistance, and they were nearly out of ammunition. Gore ordered his force to retreat. The battle left 12 British and 13 Patriotes dead.

The Patriotes celebrated their victory without their beloved leader, Papineau. (He was heroically hiding somewhere at the time of the battle.) Nelson meanwhile pondered the consequences of the battle: he knew full well that the Battle of St. Denis was only a skirmish; and he understood that one of the world's most powerful armies would return in greater numbers. The Patriotes would not catch the British sleeping again.42

The Battle of St. Charles

All the victory at St. Denis did was boost French morale; that is, it convinced doubters that Britain could be opposed successfully. Consequently, many doubters volunteered to join the rebels in their fight for independence. Despite the influx of volunteers, the French had little hope of overall victory. They were opposed by a professional army (including the elite regiment known as "The Royals"). Ultimately, the rebellion's success or failure depended upon the Patriote defense of the hamlet of St. Charles.

On November 25th, St. Charles, a small community built upon the banks of the Richelieu River, was still and quiet. The colonial commander, Colonel George Wetherall, proudly marched 425 British soldiers towards the sleepy town. As the soldiers marched they noticed a barricade beside the road. Once Wetherall and his men got close enough to the barricade, the Patriotes opened fire. The two sides exchanged musket fire for several minutes. Then the Royals charged the barricade. Despite the best efforts of the poorly-equipped Patriotes, the Royals pushed them from their defensive position. As the Royals advanced, the defenders retreated into the cold waters of the Richelieu.43

At another spot on the battlefield, Patriotes holed themselves up beside a seigniorial manor house. The French defenders of the house came out of the front door as if to surrender to the British (they knelt on one knee with their rifles turned upside down). Seeing this the Royals let down their guard to go arrest the defenders. But, at the last moment, the French opened fire on their would-be captors from point blank range. After this bit of treachery, the Royals yelled and charged at the Patriotes slaughtering them. By the end of the day, 150 Patriotes and 3 British soldiers lay dead on the battlefield.

After hearing of the Patriote defeat, Papineau and Nelson made good their escape to the United States. Those unlucky enough to be caught by the British ended up in a medieval-like prison in Montreal.44 It didn't take long for news of the rebellion in Lower Canada to reach Mackenzie in Toronto. He became convinced that the time for action had come and he immediately set about preparing his supporters for rebellion.


The Battle of St. Eustache

Following the Battle of St. Charles martial law was declared in the district of Montreal. On the 4th of December, General Colborne personally led a colonial force of 2,000 British regulars against the village of St. Eustache. By the time Colborne reached the village only a couple hundred French remained to fight.

Leading the defense of Eustache was the courageous and diminutive Dr. Jean-Olivier Chenier. A born leader of men, Chenier commanded respect because of both his physical strength and strength of character. For instance, when someone suggested they should flee from the English, Chenier replied: "Do what you want, but as for me, I am here to fight, and if I am killed, I am going to take a few of them before dying." Some of his men worried that they did not have enough weapons. "Rest assured," he told them, "Some men will be killed, and you can take their guns."45

On December 14, 1837, Chenier and his men set up their defense at the church of St. Eustache. The two sides did not exchange fire for some time as though they were waiting for some sort of divine intervention. General Colborne broke the silence when he ordered his artillery to bombard the church. The resultant cannonade continued for two hours. As night fell on the small town, Colborne gave the order for the Royals to charge the church. The Royals were pushed out of the building by the musket fire of the defenders. The British then decided to light the church on fire. The defenders realized that if they remained in the church they would be roasted alive. So the rebels tried to escape. Colborne gave orders for his men to kill anyone coming out of the building. One-hundred Patriotes were killed in the battle including Dr. Chenier.46

Following the successful end to the campaign in Lower Canada, Colborne left leaving behind a bunch of rowdy, English-Canadian drunken militiamen. In the spirit of James Wolfe, the English militia set about burning the farms and homes of the habitants of Deux-Montagnes and the Richelieu Valley.47

The Rebellion & Its Aftermath

Following the defeat at Eustache eight-hundred Frenchmen suspected of treason were arrested and tried before a colonial court. The court handed down the following sentences:

  1. Papineau and fifteen other Parti Patriot leaders were banished forever from Canada.
  2. Ninety-nine were sentenced to death (12 were actually hanged).
  3. Fifty-eight were banished to penal colonies in either Bermuda or Australia.
  4. And the rest were set free.

In addition to the arrests, many habitants had their property confiscated and/or destroyed. While all the drama was taking place in Canada, Papineau was on his way to spend a short exile in Paris, France.

A second rebellion broke out in Quebec in February, 1838. A group of Patriotes-in-exile in the United States launched a series of small raids into Lower Canada. They were led by Robert Nelson (Wolfred's brother). During the first raid into Lower Canada, Nelson read a proclamation declaring a new republic with himself as president. When he returned to the American side of the border, he was arrested and thrown in jail. The Americans did not disapprove of what Nelson was doing and soon released him. In the end, the second revolt was even more poorly organized than the first and was put down within a week of the first raid by local volunteers.48

Rebellion in Upper Canada

mackenzieOne of Mackenzie's first revolutionary acts was to change the name of his newspaper to the Constitution (a clear reference to the American republic). He then issued the Toronto Manifesto (also called the Toronto Declaration) declaring the independence of Upper Canada on December 3, 1837. Inspired by the uprisings in Lower Canada, he began riding around the countryside urging the people to cast of their chains and rebel. He managed to convince a small number of people to join his cause. And with his small band of followers, he determined to march on York (Toronto) and declare a glorious new republic!

Without a doubt events in Quebec influenced what happened (or did not happen) in Upper Canada. For instance, Bond Head was confident the rebels would not dare try anything so long as he was in charge. Therefore, he sent his entire army to put down the rebellion in Lower Canada. Mackenzie used the opportunity to launch a rebellion of his own (albeit premature). His logic was solid enough: with the British regulars gone he could capture York's city hall, take possession of its arm store, and overthrow the colonial government.

The "Battle" of Yonge Street

On the morning of December 5, 1837, Mackenzie marched a rebel "army" down Yonge Street in the direction of York City Hall. Out of a force of seven-hundred men, only a handful actually had muskets. The rest were armed with pitchforks, clubs, and a playdo-resolve. For his part, Mackenzie wore several heavy coats thinking the garments would protect him from bullets. As the rebels proceeded down Yonge Street, church bells rang in warning.

All seemed to be going according to plan when suddenly the rebels were brought to a complete stop. To their horror a few hundred meters away they saw what they believed to be a cannon coming towards them. When the "canon" drew close enough, it turned out to be only a wagon full of wood being drawn by a horse. I'd have to say the French showed a heck of a lot more courage and resolve compared to these Englishmen. These would-be rebels counted themselves lucky, swallowed any reservations they had about continuing, and continued marching towards their objective.

Yonge Street, in reality, was more of a country road than anything linking Montgomery's Tavern which was a little distance away from Toronto. And since rebellions apparently give you the munchies Mackenzie stopped to eat at the tavern. While he was having his meal (probably haggis or some other equally detestable Scottish food), messengers representing Bond Head arrived. They wanted to discuss whether or not a truce could be reached. However, when the governor discovered how poorly armed the rebels were he broke off negotiations and quickly raised a militia of 250 volunteers.49

The "Battle" Continues

After finishing his dessert, Mackenzie and his men went back on the march. The rebels were confronted by two dozen members of the local militia led by Sheriff Jarvis. As Mackenzie's men came into full view, Jarvis ordered his men to fire (after the first volley they turned and ran away). The rebels returned fire (and then ran away in turn, too).

What had happened, I guess, is that the rebels in the front of the line dropped to the ground to allow the men behind them to fire. The men in the back, seeing the men in the front drop, thought their comrades had been hit and then ran away. Who could blame them? We can't all afford multiple and glorious overcoats like Mackenzie...

Bar Fight at Montgomery's Tavern

After the fiasco on Yonge Street, the remaining rebels fled back to Montgomery's Tavern to re-organize. (Also, running away can make you really, really hungry.) Two days (and six meals later) Bond Head arrived at the tavern ahead of 1,500 men. Mackenzie's supporters numbered only 500 at the time. The colonial militia fired a cannon ball through the window of the tavern, causing panic among the rebels. The battle lasted only 30 minutes before the rebels—including Mackenzie—fled for their lives. The Rebellion of Upper Canada had been effectively crushed (or had it?).

The Republic of Navy Island

Following the defeat at Montgomery's Tavern, Mackenzie fled to New York. In anavy island mapn effort to keep the rebellion going, he landed on Navy Island with a boatload of American supporters. (Navy Island was in the Niagara River and technically part of Upper Canada.) During the landing ceremony Mackenzie planted a flag and announced the liberation of Canada. He also declared himself the first president of the Republic of Canada.

His American guests cheered but the celebrations didn't last long. British shore guns began bombarding the proceedings. Mackenzie was too tenacious a man to be discouraged, though. He established what basically would amount to a provisional government on the island. As his followers launched raids into Upper Canada throughout 1838, he enticed people to join his cause by offering them free land.50

Tired of the rebel presence, the Canadians finally rowed to the American side of the Niagara River and set fire to Mackenzie's supply ship the Caroline. As the vessel burned, the Canadians loosened the vessel from its moorings and sent it over Niagara Falls in a fiery blaze. And during the brief fight, the Canadians accidentally killed an American citizen. The murder of the American pushed Canada and the United States to the brink of war. Although relations between the two countries became strained, they never fought one another. Moreover, the rebellion of Upper Canada was finally over.

It is informative to note that more men died during Mackenzie's American-backed border raids than in the original 1837 rebellion. More than 1,000 rebels were captured, 20 hanged, and more than 800 sentenced to prison. The rest were either sent into exile or else banished to the brutal penal colonies of Australia.51


The Result of One-and-a-Half Rebellions

The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, though small in scale and somewhat pointless, resulted in some interesting developments both at home and abroad:

  1. The rebellions influenced Great Britain to eventually grant Canada (and other colonies within the British Empire) responsible government.52
  2. Radical reformers like Mackenzie disappeared from the political scene in Canada. They were replaced by moderates like Robert Baldwin.53
  3. Thankfully the American Government resisted the temptation to go to war.
  4. Mackenzie, Papineau, and Wolfred Nelson, were all pardoned and allowed to come back to Canada. Papineau, in particular, was the only one to have an impact on later events (he helped establish the Parti Rouge in the 1840s which would later become the Liberal Party of Canada).54
  5. Without the reformers the Family Compact and Chateau Clique were left in firm control of Upper and Lower Canada.