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Feature: 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion had action in Amherstburg, led to responsible government

- Fort Malden has the only know remnant of an actual Rebellion flag -

Photo: Fort Malden National Historic Site, know for its rich history and dedication to the War of 1812, is also home to a display highlighting the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

by Sylene Argent

Fort Malden National Historic Site is home to an impressive display that highlights the local actions of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

  The Rebellion of 1837 can trace its roots back to the American Revolution, because of the Loyalists; the American colonist who stayed loyal to Britain and King George III and fought to keep the 13 colonies part of the British Empire, John MacLeod, Cultural Resource Manager with Fort Malden, said. Many of these individuals, after the Revolution, did not stay in America.

  When the system of government was being set up in Canada, it really was an Oligarchy where there was a Lieutenant Governor of the Province had to make the decisions.

  “The Legislated Assembly was elected by free men, but when it came down to actually making decisions, all the power rested with that hand-picked privy council,” MacLeod said, adding the Loyalists, who lost everything in America or their sons, the system was, “really was set up to make sure they were rewarded for their loyalty to the Revolution.”

  At the end of the War of 1812, there was an influx of new immigrants from all over Europe, in addition to some Americans, arriving to Upper Canada, who had no loyalty to the British Empire.


Copyright Parks Canada.

Those who had no loyalty to the British Empire, while watching what was happening in the Legislative Assembly that was really set up for the wealthy, they decided the only way to change the government was by armed revolt, MacLeod said.

  One of the primary leaders of the revolt in Upper Canada was William Lyon Mackenzie, who had just lost his seat as the first Mayor of Toronto. He never became president of the Republic of Canada, but his grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, later became the 10th Prime Minister of Canada.

  Because the local portion of Upper Canada was so isolated from Toronto, it made it an ideal spot for conflict. While Rebels fled to the United States from either being executed as traders or sent to Australia or New Zealand, the US, at the time, was going through a fairly major recession, so there were many young, unemployed men who viewed the Rebels as Patriots, MacLeod said. So, they supported them, even though the federal and state governments did not officially take a side on the matter and turned a blind-eye to the citizens who were supporting them. In some cases, he explained, doors to armouries were left open and the Rebels would arm themselves.

  The Rebellion of 1837 was not operated to take Canada from Great Britain and make it a part of the United States. “Their main goal was to change the system of government to a fair, responsible government – one man, one vote – where the power rests with the public, not the privy council,” MacLeod said.

  The first engagement of the Rebellion that took place locally happened in the winter of 1838, when the Rebels commandeered a schooner called “Anne,” with the idea of capturing Amherstburg and taking Fort Malden. At this point, there wasn’t a large, regular army in the area because the War of 1812 was over and the idea was the Militia crew could handle the situation, he said.

  The Rebels sailed down the Detroit River, and fired at Fort Malden as they passed. They then landed on Boblo Island and chased away the two centuries on guard. The next morning, MacLeod added, they reengage, and because of the close proximity of the island and mainland, the Militia was able to volley fire with muskets. They shot the helmsman who was steering “Anne,” which caused the vessel to ground at Elliott’s Point. The Militia captured the Schooner.

  The display at Fort Malden includes a China dish set from the Schooner “Anne.”

  Next, in February of 1838, the Battle of Fighting Island took place. Once the Militia sent out the alarm that this happened, the regular army had come back. The Rebels saw the British Regiments coming toward them, so they volley fired across the ice as they retreated back to the American side.

  The officer in charge of the British Regiment then noted he saw the Militia of the State of Michigan line the American shoreline and saw them disarm the Rebels of their flintlocks and sent them on their way, MacLeod said.  

The next engagement, MacLeod explained, happened at Pelee Island. The Rebels crossed frozen Lake Erie in March of 1839. The McCormick family farmed the island, and most were taken hostage. The ones who were able to escape the island send out an alarm, and the British Army did form a relief call out of Fort Malden and took the island.

  “That engagement actually was probably one on of the bloodiest when it came to the fighting at the time,” MacLeod said, adding the British used a pincher maneuver. Knowing that was happening, the Rebels sent out a fighting force that hit that 32nd Regiment pretty hard, MacLeod said.

  Many men were killed in this engagement, MacLeod said, adding there is a monument on Gore Street in Amherstburg for this and the men were buried beneath. Christ Church was the Garrison’s Church then, so any one in the military who died were buried in that cemetery.

  When the Officer in charge of the Rebel Army, and leader of the Pelee Island invasion, General Thomas Jefferson Sutherland, was captured, he surrendered his sword. This item is on display at Fort Malden.

Another item on display at Fort Malden is a blue jacket and cap, which belonged to a Captain William McCormick from the Essex Militia, which was most likely worn during that battle. He escaped the Rebels and brought news of the attack to Amherstburg.   

  The Battle of Windsor was the last event in the area during the Rebellion. It was not as bloody at the Battle of Pelee Island, but things did get a bit nasty, MacLeod said. The Rebels did cross over and captured Sandwich. The attacking force from Fort Malden did deploy against them. One of the stories includes a surgeon, Dr. Hume, of the 34th Regiment who got chased into a barn by the Rebels. He was murdered and his body was mutilated.

  Five Rebels were then brought to Colonel John Prince, who was commanding the Essex Militia, and Dr. Hume was one of his best friends. On the spot, Prince has some of the Rebels executed, “Which was totally against the rules of war at the time,” MacLeod said, adding typically a trial would have occurred. If found guilty, execution was an option for treason. The majority of Rebels, he said, were transported to Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania.  

  Another item on display is a drum that was found by Grand Marsh, in a swamp, a few weeks after the Battle of Windsor. One of the Rebels must have dropped it while retreating.

  Prince was court-martialled for his actions.

  Because of that, Prince was challenged to a duel. There are two pistols on display at Fort Malden that were likely what was used during the duel.

  Another item on display includes epaulettes that belonged to Francis Caldwell, who was a Captain of one the Essex Militia Companies, and a pay list for the 3rd Essex Militia.

  “Really, the system of government we have today can take its birth from the Rebellion of 1837,” MacLeod said. “This is where you do see the beginning of responsible government in the Province, where the privy council is abolished; where you do have, basically one man, one vote, and your legislator in Toronto has your voice and has your say.

“Fort Malden in quite blessed that we have quite a lot of high heritage value artifacts. These are, for the most part, objects that can be tied right back to people, places, and events,” MacLeod said. 

  On display in the Rebellion display at Fort Malden is the only known remnant of the Republic of Canada flag, which includes two stars – signifying Upper and Lower Canada – and a crescent moon – signifying the Hunters’ Lodges, which was a secret army, consisting of mostly Americans supporting Canadian Rebels. It is believed the remnant of the flag flew on the Schooner Anne.


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