Taken from “A History of Jefferson County in the State of New York”
Franklin B. Hough

pp. 519-529


THE EVENTS OF 1837-1840.

The abortive attempt to revolutionize the Canadas, generally denominated the Patriot War, has claims to our notice, from the fact that Jefferson County was the theatre of excitement, and the scene of follies and excesses that for some time became the absorbing theme of discussion throughout the country, and called into exercise the military force of the country, to suppress these indications of sympathy with measures that threatened to disturb our amicable relations with a neighboring government.

Without attempting a discussion of the origin or merits of this movement, we shall limit ourselves to a recital of events that transpired in the county, or with which our citizens were directly interested.

The burning of the steamer Caroline, near Niagara Falls, on the 29th of December, 1837, by a band of men from Canada, aroused a general indignation throughout the country, and our citizens, everywhere, irrespective of party, held meetings to denounce the act, and to call upon the executive to provide for the protection of our shores against invasion by subjects of a foreign power.

In accordance with this feeling, congress, on the 30th of January, 1838, appropriated $625,000 for the protection of the northern frontier, and calling out militia or volunteers, or adopting such other measures as might be deemed necessary by the secretary of war, under the direction of the president. On the same day a circular was issued at Watertown, signed by six well known citizens, asking contributions in money, provisions, and clothing, in aid of the political refugees from Canada, who had taken shelter among us. They disclaimed any intention of aiding the revolutionary movements, and professed to be law-abiding and order-loving citizens.

Meanwhile, secret clubs, known as Hunter Lodges, had been instituted in most of the villages, at which plans for invading Canada were discussed, moneys raised for procuring arms and ammunition, companies enlisted, intelligence communicated in circulars and by cypher, and an arbitrary system of names for the several officers in the proposed service was agreed upon, to prevent detection. Preparations were made for an attack upon Canada while the St. Lawrence was still bridged with ice, and Kingston, was selected as a point upon which an enterprise was to be undertaken.

On the night of the 19th of February, the state arsenal at Watertown was entered, and four hundred stand of arms were stolen by persons who were supposed to be concerned in these movements. A reward of $250 was offered for the apprehension of the authors of this outrage, but failed to procure the intelligence sufficient to warrant their arrest. A portion of the stolen property was afterwards recovered. The arsenals of Batavia, and Elizabethtown were also plundered, and with these, and other means, a supply of arms and ammunition sufficient for extensive military operations were collected and concealed. On Tuesday, February 20, in the afternoon and evening, forces began to arrive at Clayton (French Creek), with 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. Several hundred men under General Rensselaer Van Rensselaer arrived in sleighs, from various places in this and adjoining counties, with the avowed design of making a lodgement at Gananoqui from whence an attack was to be attempted upon Kingston. The day following was intensely cold, and the men suffered much from exposure. There was little discipline, and less organization among this promiscuous assemblage; and even among those who affected the command, there was a mutual jealousy, and want of energy and decision, which a conscious sense of rectitude, and high conviction of duty can alone inspire. A portion of these repaired, on foot and sleighs, to Hickory Island, on the British side of the channel, about seven miles from Clayton. It is said that McKenzie was here dissatisfied that Van Rensselaer was to command, which threw a damper on the whole affair. On calling for volunteers to proceed, eighty-three appeared at the first, seventy-one at the second, and thirty-five at the third call; then, acting upon the maxim of “every man for himself,” this motley band dispersed; the officers, with the utmost difficulty, retaining a sufficient number to remove the arms they had taken over. It would seem that very little was to be apprehended from such invasions; yet the rumor of this movement, reaching Kingston, occasioned some uneasiness, and preparations were made to resist any attack that might be made, or act on the offensive should the occasion require it.

From the Kingston papers, we learn that Colonel Cubitt, R. A., commandant, and Lieutenant Colonel Bonnycastle, commanding the militia of that post, aided by the magistrates, organized a force of 1600, a part of whom took a strong position on Wolf Island. Arrangements were made to attack the invaders at their rendezvous, but before the morning of the 23d dawned, the patriot chieftain had fled, like Ben-hadad the Syrian,* (II Kings, vii.) with no one in pursuit, and leaving in his haste a part of the weapons and supplies he had carried into the territory of his enemy.

This panic is said to have been enhanced, by the declaration of a militia captain, of the war of 1812, who passed up and down the crowd, and proclained (sic) with a loud voice, that before morning they would be all massacred! The thought of this awful fate gave wings to their flight, and, in an incredibly short space of time, the new recruits were dispersed to their homes, and the village was relieved of their presence. The next day, a British party visited the island, and found among other things a quantity of broken iron, intended to have been used as slugs, instead of grape shot.

Two citizens of Clayton (John Packard and George Hulsenberg) were captured and lodged in Kingston jail.


Soon after this affair, two companies of militia were called out and stationed at Cape Vincent, and about half a dozen at Clayton, where they remained several weeks, to intercept any other expedition that might be fitted out against Canada.

On the 10th of March, an act was passed by congress, empowering “the several collectors, naval officers, surveyors, inspectors of customs, the marshals and deputy marshals of the United States, and every other officer who might be specially empowered by the president, to seize and detain any vessel, or any arms, or munitions of war, which may be provided, or prepared for any military expedition or enterprise against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district of people adjacent to the United States.”

On the night between the 29th and 30th of May, 1838, the British steamer Sir Robert Peel was plundered and burned at Well’s Island, under the following circumstances. This boat was owned by David E. O. Ford, of Brockville, Jonas Jones, of Toronto, William Bacon, of Ogdensburgh, each a quarter, and the other quarter by George Sherwood and Henry Jones, trustees of the creditors of Horace Billings & Co., of Brockville. She was built at the latter place at a cost of $44,000, and first came out in June, 1837. She was 160 feet long and 30 feet beam, and was commanded by John R. Armstrong. She was then on her way from Prescott to Toronto, with nineteen passengers, and had left Brockville in the evening, which was dark and rainy, and arrived at McDonnel’s wharf, on the south side of Well’s Island, in Clayton, at midnight, for the purpose of taking on wood.

Threats of violence had been intimated, and before the steamer had left Brockville, it was hinted to one on board that there was danger of an attack, but this threat was not regarded. The passengers were asleep in the cabin, and the crew had been engaged about two hours in taking on wood, when a company of twenty-two men, disguised, and painted like savages, and armed with muskets and bayonets, rushed on board, yelling, and shouting “remember the Caroline!” drove the passengers and crew to the shore, allowing but a hasty opportunity for removing a small part of the baggage, and towards morning, having cast off the boat into the stream, to about thirty rods distance, set it on fire. The scene of confusion and alarm which this midnight attack occasioned among the passengers, can be better imagined than described.

Some of them fled to the shore in their night clothes, and a considerable portion of their baggage was lost. After the boat was fired in several places, the party, including Thomas Scott, a passenger (a surgeon, who had remained to dress a wound), got into two long boats, and steered for Abel’s Island, four miles from Wells’s Island, where they arrived about sunrise. He stated that there were twenty-two persons beside himself and the wounded man in the two boats. These brigands were known to each other by fictitious names, as Tecumseh, Sir William Wallace, Judge Lynch, Captain Crocket, Nelson, Captain Crocker, Bolivar, and Admiral Benbo. Several thousand dollars in one package, and also smaller sums, were taken from the boat, with various articles of clothing. The only house in the vicinity of the wharf was the woodman’s shanty, where the passengers found shelter until five o’clock in the morning, when the Oneida, Captain Smith, came down on her regular trip, and finding the distressed situation of these unfortunate persons, returned with them to Kingston.

It is said to have been the intention of those who took the Peel, to have captured with her aid the steamer Great Britain the next day, and to have cruised with these steamers on the lake, and transport troops and supplies for the patriot service.

The acknowledged leader of this infamous outrage, was William Johnston, better known as Bill Johnston, who, since the war with Great Britain, had been known on the lines as a vindictive enemy to Canada, and at a moment’s notice ready for any broil that might afford him an opportunity for revenging the injuries he claimed to have received from that government. He was born at Three Rivers, L. C., Feb. 1st., 1782, and from 1784 till 1812 lived near Kingston. He was here employed as a grocer, and at the occurrence of the war was connected with a military company, but was seized on a charge of insubordination, and lodged in jail, from which he escaped, and fled to the American shore. He was soon employed as a spy, and on one occasion robbed the British mail, containing important official despatches, which he safely brought to the military commandant at Sackets Harbor. In another of his adventures, he was cast on the Canada shore, and his companions allowed to return; but not wishing to run the hazard of a disclosure, he concealed himself, and finally escaped with much peril. His familiarity with the geography of Canada, made him particularly serviceable in procuring intelligence.

At a recent interview, Johnston assured the author, that he had been promised 150 men by a Cleveland committee who had planned the capture, and that the assailants numbered but thirteen men.

Governor Marcy immediately hastened to the county upon receipt of the news, and on the 4th of June offered a reward if $500 for Johnston, $250 each for David McLeod, Samuel Frey, and Robert Smith, alleged to be concerned in the destruction of the Peel, and $100, each, for others who might be convicted of the same offence. In a letter from Watertown, dated June 3, to the secretary of war, he advised the co-operation of our government with that of Canada, in pursuing the offenders.

On the 2d of June, the Earl of Durham, captain general of the British military forces in Canada, issued from Quebec a proclamation, offering a reward of £1,000, for the conviction of any person actually engaged in, or directly aiding and abetting this outrage. The inhabitants were assured that a sufficient military force should be immediately concentrated at such points as shall be best able to protect the frontiers from aggression; and the United States government was called upon to vindicate her laws, and enforce the neutrality of her borders. Her majesty’s subjects were exhorted to abstain from acts of retaliation.

His Excellency Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Colburn, arrived at Brockville on the 5th, to direct personally any measures that might be deemed necessary.

Several arrests were made the next day, and on the 7th of June, Wm. Anderson, James Potts, Nathan Lee, Chester Warner, Seth Warner, Wm. Smith, Marshall W. Forward, Wm. S. Nichols, and Henry Hunter, all, but Lee, Canadians, were in jail at Watertown, charged with having shared in this affair. Several others were afterwards committed, and for several days it was thought necessary to guard the jail containing the prisoners, as threats of attempt at rescue had been made.

On the 23d of June, the trial of these prisoners commenced at Watertown, with that of Anderson, who was indicted for arson, upon six counts; the first of which expressed that crime in the highest degree. This trial was conducted before John P. Cushman, one of the circuit judges, Calvin McKnight, Benjamin Wright, and others, and excited extraordinary interest. When submitted to the jury, the latter, after a deliberation of two hours, brought in a verdict of not guilty.

On the 13th of December, seven prisoners were, for want of witnesses from Canada, discharged from confinement, but not from indictment.

Immediately after news of this reached Washington, Major General Macomb was dispatched to Sackets Harbor, to take such measures as the exigencies of the occasion required.

On the 20th of June he sent word to Sir John Colborne, or the officer commanding at Kingston, inviting his co-operation in a search among the Thousand Islands for persons who had plundered and burned the Peel; and about a week afterwards, Colonel Dundas, of the British army, commandant at Kingston, and Captain Sandom of the royal navy, crossed to hold an interview, which resulted in an agreement for a joint effort to be made on the 2d of July, to arrest the parties. After a search of several days, their retreat was discovered; but in their attempt to take the outlaws, all but two escaped. The gang consisted of but eight men at that time, of whom, Johnston was one; they were well supplied with arms and ammunition, and had a fast-rowing boat. Those efforts, to arrest the leader of the expedition, were fruitless, and he was not captured till after the affair at Prescott, late in the ensuing autumn.

The immediate command of the frontier was given, on the 28th, to Lieutenant Colonel Cummings, of the 2d infantry, and subsequently to Colonel Worth. The steamer Telegraph was chartered by our government, and several steamers were fitted up by the Canadian authorities, for the protection of the borders. Congress, on the 7th of July, appropriated $20,000 for the defense of the St. Lawrence line.

On the 11th of November, the steamer United States touched at Sackets Harbor, on her downward trip, having on board 150 male passengers with little baggage; and many circumstances occurred calculated to excite suspicion that they were engaged on some military expedition. Their number was here increased by twenty or thirty more, and at Cape Vincent by ten or eleven. On arriving a little below Millen’s Bay, she overtook the Charlotte of Oswego, and the Charlotte of Toronto, two schooners that had left Oswego on the 10th, while the United States was in port, which vessels were taken in tow, one on each side, with which she continued down the river. As soon appeared, these vessels contained munitions of war, and the great numbers of men, who, with the passengers on board the steamer, were mostly destined for a descent upon Prescott.

It is not within our limits to detail the events that ensued, and the melancholy issue of the memorable battle at Windmill Point* (*This expedition is fully described in our History of St. Lawrence and Franklin counties, pp. 661-674.) which revolutionized public opinion on the subject, by revealing the consequences to which these measures were tending. It also had a salutary influence upon the public mind, by disclosing the cowardice and treachery of those who had been foremost in promoting the expedition, but who shrunk from the test of leaden bullets, and fled; leaving the unfortunate victims of their duplicity, the majority of whom were youth under age, to atone with their blood, or with long, bitter years of exile, for their indiscretion.

Bill Johnston was captured November 17, and conveyed to Auburn, where he escaped. He was afterwards recaptured by William Vaughan (about seven miles north of New London, and ten from Rome) by whom he was delivered to the United States marshal and lodged in jail at Albany. He escaped from thence, and was for some time obliged to avoid the pursuit of civil officers. After tranquility had been restored, he returned to quiet life, at the village of Clayton, and, by the present administration, has been appointed keeper of Rock Island Light, that shines on the spot where the Peel was burned.

The patriot prisoners, under the command of Von Schoultz, a Polish exile, who had seen much military service in his native country, were conveyed to Fort Henry, at Kingston, and tried by a court martial, that begun its session November 26, 1838. The rule adopted by this court was to execute all of the officers that were known to be such, try and sentence the rest, reprieve the minors, and banish the remainder to the penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land. It is probable that they were induced to relax somewhat from the rigor with which they begun, from the feeling which the issue of the expedition had occasioned in the States, and the disposition that was everywhere evinced to discountenance further aggression. In Jefferson County, meetings were held at Cape Vincent, December 18th; at Sackets Harbor on the 21st; at Depauville and Ellis Village on the 27th, and at La Fargeville on the 31st, at which contributions were made for supplying the wants of the prisoners, and published in the papers, discouraging any further agitation of a question that threatened to embroil the two nations in a war, and make their territory the theatre of a sanguinary struggle. Several gentlemen from abroad were especially active in quieting this excitement, of whom Judge Gridley and Joshua A. Spencer, of Utica, were prominent. The grant jury, at the December term of the county court, as a body, published a short manifesto, deprecating the continuance of the secret association, and a meeting was held at the court house in pursuance of a notice from the bench, on the evening of December 18th, to promote the peace and harmony of the frontier.

Of this meeting the Hon. Calvin McKnight, first judge, was chosen president, Daniel Wardwell, Eli Farwell, Thomas Loomis, Abner Baker, Jr., and O. V. Brainard, vice presidents; Dr. Reuben Goodale, and Joseph Mullin, Esq., secretaries. Colonel C. Baker, late sheriff, and E. G. Merrick, Esq., related their recent visit to Kingston, to learn the condition of the prisoners. They had found the authorities disposed to give these unfortunate men all advantages consistent, and the citizens of Canada generally active and determined in their purpose of resisting any attempt at revolution. They had employed secret messengers to visit the states, gain access to the hunter lodges, and keep them informed of every movement on foot, with the preparations made, and persons engaged in these measures. The meeting was addressed by J. A. Spencer, Esq., of Utica, Judge Gridley, Hon. Samuel Beardsley, Attorney General R. Hulbert, T. C. Chittenden, E. Camp, William Smith, and Daniel Wardwell, who urged the importance of sustaining our laws and adopting immediate, but pacific measures for preserving tranquility, arresting further agitation and mitigating the fate of the prisoners in Kingston. At an adjourned meeting, held next day, the following resolutions were passed, which are believed to embody the sentiment of the majority of our citizens.

Resolved, That we regard the preservation of peace with Great Britain, as all important to the best interests of the American and British nations; but that we have no reason to expect its long continuance, unless our citizens refrain from hostile invasions of, or intermeddling with, his territories.

Resolved, That the inhabitants of our frontier are loudly called upon by every consideration of justice and sound policy, to exert themselves to the utmost of their power, to prevent all hostile invasion into the neighboring Canadian provinces, by bands of armed men from our borders, and that we pledge ourselves to our government, and to each other, faithfully and fearlessly to discharge this sacred and too-long neglected duty.

Resolved, That any movements injurious to Canada, are open, flagrant violations, alike of international law, of the enactments of the Congress of the United States and of the Canadian Provincial Parliament, and that our ministerial officers, civil magistrates, and judicial tribunals should be vigilant and prompt to arrest, and ready to condemn every and any violation of our laws.

Resolved, That there is too much reason to believe, that many of our citizens have formed themselves into secret lodges, or societies, under the sanction of extra-judicial oaths, for the purpose of promoting the organization and armament of bands of men, to invade the Canadas, and that we earnestly call upon these misguided citizens every where, and at once, to disband.

Resolved, That we regard the late attack on Prescott as characterized alike by rashness, weakness, and folly; and that while we pointedly condemn and rebuke those engaged in it, we feel called upon to express our solemn conviction that most, if not all of them, were influenced by misrepresentation, and acting under a delusion as strange and unaccountable as is has been disastrous and fatal, without any feelings of hostility towards our Canadian neighbors, but under the expectation and belief, that instead of fighting with, they would be hailed by them, as the champions of liberty, and received with open arms and heart-felt greetings.

Resolved, That we, in common with all our countrymen, feel a deep commiseration for our misguided citizens, captured near Prescott, and now in confinement at Fort Henry, in Canada, and that while we acknowledge the right of the provincial authorities to condemn according to the laws of their country, in the exercise of this authority we hope to see justice tempered with mercy, and expect to witness magnanimous treatment towards these unfortunate men, worthy of a brave and generous people.”

Delegations were sent from various places to Kingston, to obtain some mitigation of the fate of the prisoners, among which were the Hon. John Fine, and C. G. Myers, of Ogdesnburgh, the persons above named from this county, and numerous relatives of the patriot captives, who were treated with civility, and shown all the indulgence that under the circumstances could be extended. Von Schoultz, Daniel George, Dorephus Abbey, Duncan Anderson, Christopher Buckley, Sylvester A. Lawton, Joel Peeler, Russell Phelps, Sylvanus Sweet, and Martin Woodruff, were hung; eighteen released, fifty-eight pardoned, sixty transported, three were acquitted, four turned Queen’s evidence, and of ten we have been unable to ascertain their fate.”

(*For a list of these prisoners, with the fate of each, see history of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, p. 673.)

On the 8th of April, 1839, the British steamer Commodore Barrie, under the orders of Col. A. McDonell, sheriff of Midland District, Upper Canada, arrived at Sackets Harbor, with twenty-two prisoners, pardoned by the lieutenant governor. The magistrates of the village were sent for, and the colonel informed them what had been done for the prisoners, and earnestly hoped, that it would have a happy effect in allaying the existing excitement. This was met by an answer expressing, in warm terms, their sense of gratitude for this exercise of clemency, and the thanks of our citizens to the government. The pardoned prisoners, before separating for their homes, drew up and signed a paper expressing their obligation to the Canadian government, for the clemency shown, and urging pacific measures in future. On the 27th of April, thirty-seven more prisoners arrived at Sackets Harbor.

On the 6th of June, 1840, an infamous attempt was made at Oswego, to burn the British steamer Great Britain, by conveying on board a trunk, charged with explosive and combustible materials. The explosion took place, doing considerable injury, but the flames were soon arrested. Lett and Defoe, two Canadian refugees, were arrested, charged with this outrage, and a confession was obtained, in which the design of burning the vessel was avowed, with the hope of renewing irritation between the two governments. The trunks contained copal, turpentine, nitre, and powder, packed in cotton, to which a fuse was attached.

With this, closed the active measures of disturbance on our border, but the irritation was slow to subside, and restless spirits were found, who labored to excite a broil between the two nations, without success. For one or two years a steamer was kept in commission on the lake, and troops were stationed at Madison Barracks still later. That some were honest and believed themselves patriotic in this affair, may be admitted, while it can not be denied that the majority thirsted for power, wealth or plunder, according as they were actuated by ambition or avarice.

Among the humbugs connected with this speculation, was the plan of a bank, the ostensible object of which was, first, to “aid the cause of liberty,” by loans to the President of Convention, for the patriotic service, after which loans were to be made to individuals, for private business. The capital was at first only $7,500,000, in shares of $50 each, but it was designed to be extended, so as “to allow every individual on the continent to hold one share.” The whole wealth, revenue, and resources of the patriot dominions (that they had, or that they may hereafter have dominion over), were pledged for the faithful repayment of the sums subscribed, with interest. Subscriptions were taken of sixpence a week, or half a dollar every two months.

“The vignette of the bills are to be heads of the late martyrs to the cause of liberty in Canada; the head of Matthews on the left end of the bill, the head of Lount in the centre, with the words, in a semi-circle over it, The Murdered; Death of Victory; on the margins of the bills will be the words Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The name of the bank will be the Republican Bank of Canada.”

We have no statistics of the dividends of this institution, but have been assured that there were such---the capital being divided among a few.

On the 5th of September, 1841, the prevalence of the secret clubs called forth a proclamation from President Tyler, for their suppression.

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