A journey from the County of Dorset, in the South of England, to the County of Brant, in Ontario, in our time, could be accomplished in about fifteen hours, from start to finish, but in the year 1837, things were different. In June of that year, a well-to-do family from Dorset decided to try their luck in the New World, and having sent off their belongings, went by carriage down to the harbour of Poole. One of the sons of this family, John Moyle, aged 21, kept a very complete diary of this excursion into the unknown and it makes interesting reading.
At Poole, the family embarked in the brig PROCRIS, of Poole, which had been built in 1806 at Yarmouth, registered 392 tons, and was owned by J. Brown, of that port. The PROCRIS had a reasonably good voyage across the Atlantic and after six weeks, she dropped anchor at Quebec. I would like to point out that the Moyles travelled in a very pleasant, leisurely manner, stopping for several days or a week at each place. After a stay in Quebec, they boarded the steamboat JOHN BULL for Montreal. This vessel had been built in 1830 at Montreal, measured 188 x 32 x 11 with a tonnage of 734. She would probably have been quite palatial compared to the PROCRIS.
Some time was spent in Montreal before taking the stage coach to Lachine, where they took passage on the steamboat OTTAWA to Carillon and then transferred to a canal barge for the trip up to Grenville. Here, the steamboat BYTOWN, built in 1835 at Kingston, conveyed them to Bytown, for yet another stop-over. The journey through the Rideau Canal to Kingston was made aboard the steamboat CATARAQUI, built in 1836.
The Moyles spent a few days in Kingston before embarking on the COMMODORE BARRIE for Toronto. This steamboat made her first stop at Bath, where she connected with the BROCKVILLE, for the Bay of Quinte, and then proceeded up the Lake to Cobourg,Port Hope and Windsor Harbour (later Port Whitby), thence to Toronto. Direct connection for Hamilton was available, but the usual few days were spent in Toronto, after which they boarded the BRITANNIA for the short voyage to Hamilton. The final leg of the trip was made by stage coach. Young John Moyle remained in Upper Canada one year and then returned to his homeland, and the lady of his choice, who had indicated that she had no intention of leaving England for a life in the wilderness. He gave one other reason for parting from the family. He did not like the atmosphere of political unrest which prevailed.
The political unrest, which had been brewing for some time, and which was about to boil over, almost obscured a few developments of a purely local nature. Among these were the lease of MacNab's new wharf and storehouse, to George F. Corbett, a Kingston man, who in 1826 had been treasurer of the Cataraqui Bridge Company.
The Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Co. announced that they had placed the management of their business in the hands of MacPherson & Crane, of Montreal, probably the most powerful of the St. Lawrence forwarders, who were expanding their interests to include Lake Ontario. They had already acquired the Kingston shipyard of the late Robert Drummond, who had died of cholera in 1834.
Wednesday, 16 August 1837, was a gala day in Dundas. At long last the Desjardins Canal was officially opened "in great pomp and parade", to use the words of the Hamilton Gazette. The steamboat EXPERIMENT,"as gay as a newly decorated bride" led the way, followed by the BRITANNIA, crowded from stem to stern. Bringing up the rear was the
"new and beautiful little BURLINGTON, built purposely, we understand, for the canal by that enterprising and worthy gentleman, William Chisholm, Esq., M.P.P."To quote further from the Gazette, -
"We believe that Dundas never before presented so gay a scene, the streets, hotels, etc. being completely crowded. We understand that everything went off most pleasantly during the day, but we regret to say, not so pleasant during the evening - as Solomon knows to his cost!"The reporter is referring to Solomon Brega, a newspaper publisher, who, as a result of the political heat of the times, plus an overdose of wine, became so foul-mouthed that he was hurled bodily through the front door of the hotel. This was hardly a suitable ending for such an auspicious occasion, but then, these were exciting times.
At this time, there were two political parties in Upper Canada. The Tories, who were in power, and who represented the Establishment, and the Reformers, who were attempting to institute a more progressive form of government. The three main issues which affected the population as a whole, were the Clergy Reserves, Crown Reserves, and very large areas of land owned by members of the ruling clique, or as they were commonly known, "The Family Compact". Not one acre of all these lands paid taxes, and consequently, the tax burden fell squarely on the "little man", and the loss of income to the public purse was obviously delaying development of the Province. These grievances were legitimate. The spokesman for the Reformers was William Lyon Mackenzie, a grotesque little man with a fiery temper. He understood the problems, but was in no way capable of solving them. For several years, he had been stumping the country and was now preaching revolt. At the head of the Provincial Government, sat another misfit, Sir Francis Bond Head, who had been dispatched to Upper Canada as the result of a bureaucratic blunder, and who, in a very short time, had made himself universally disliked.
In Hamilton, the local member in the Legislative Council was Allan Napier MacNab, a professional politician who had obtained his basic training in the Debtors' Prison in York. After being baled out of that hell-hole, he studied law, and in 1826 opened a law office in Hamilton, where he prospered, largely through land deals. He was once more incarcerated briefly, being suspected of involvement in the tarring and feathering of a reformer, George Rolph, in Dundas, but this was never proved. After this piece of night-work, he ran for public office and in the election of 1830, was successful.
In 1832, when Mackenzie made it known that he was coming to Hamilton for a meeting with one of his henchmen, orders were issued that he was to be assassinated. For this job, MacNab selected William J. Kerr, a magistrate and commissioner of the Burlington Canal but the choice was a poor one. Kerr bungled the assignment. He, with two hired thugs, did succeed in giving Mackenzie a severe beating, but they were driven off and Kerr was actually taken to court. The case was whitewashed, naturally, a fine of about £20 being imposed. The thugs were not arrested. Kerr was no more able at the business of murder, than he was at the business of building canals. To MacNab's credit, he managed to keep his coat-tails out of the mud that time.
So it was that by December of 1837, the political pot was nearing the boil. Granted, the conditions in Upper Canada never reached the degree of violence that was attained in Lower Canada, but it was bad enough. Mackenzie was gathering his followers for a rumoured attempt to seize the seat of government at Toronto. Watching the turn of events, MacNab saw an opportunity by which he could prove himself to be a man of action and a hero of no small stature. While Bond Head tried to ignore the hand-writing on the wall, MacNab rounded up about sixty of his devout constituents and boarded the steamboat EXPERIMENT for Toronto, on the 6 December. The following day, Bond Head having been jerked out of his lethargy, MacNab and his "brave men of Gore", now equipped with government weapons, were able to join the march up Yonge Street toward the comic-opera "battle" of Montgomery's Tavern. Here it all ended - an anti-climax - a complete flop, as far as rebellions go. A few bodies sprawled in the snow, the Tavern blazing merrily, and the gallant men of both sides running like hell through the woods in every direction. Among those heading west, was William Lyon Mackenzie, who would make good his escape from the scene of his own personal disaster.
Other steamboats involved in this affair, were the TRAVELLER, the TRANSIT and the BRITANNIA. The latter, having laid up at Niagara, was hurriedly fitted out to take Lt. Col. John Clark and one hundred "brave and loyal militiamen" of St. Catharines and district to Toronto. However, the BRITANNIA, when about half way across the Lake was forced to turn about and run for Niagara, the seas being too boisterous for her.
Mackenzie, after an eventful retreat which included such hiding places as woods, caves, pig-sties, hay-lofts, etc., reached the Niagara River, above the Falls, and decided to locate on Navy Island. Another bad decision. He was still within sixty miles of MacNab, and before the end of the year, this would cause more trouble. Mackenzie and a number of his followers, estimated at slightly under two hundred, in all, were camped on Navy Island and were receiving their supplies and arms from the United States. On the 29 December, the small steamboat CAROLINE, owned by Wm. Wells, a United States citizen, was seen unloading men and arms on the east side of the island. MacNab, now being in charge of the Niagara Frontier, with the rank of Colonel, appointed Capt. Andrew Drew, R.N. to command Naval operations and instructed the latter to destroy the CAROLINE that same night.
Drew's raiding party comprised about sixty men in seven boats, five of which reached the CAROLINE, which was tied up for the night at the wharf at Schlosser, up river from Niagara Falls, N.Y. One of the boats was in charge of Capt. John Gordon, of the steamboat BRITANNIA, and another had among its men, Capt. Edward Zealand, of Hamilton. Reports of this affair are contradictory, but in the brief scuffle, at least one man was killed by the boarding party and several others wounded. The CAROLINE was set on fire and cut adrift. An eye-witness account, published later, states that she drifted very slowly along the shore and at one point, grounded in a shallow. As her superstructure burned away, and she lightened, she again moved downstream, completely breaking up in the rapids above the Falls.
This was the act of impetuous men. MacNab and Drew could not be justified in the destruction of the CAROLINE in United States waters. Had they waited, and taken her in Canadian waters, off Navy Island, they would have indeed been heroes. They were lucky in that the United States did not take any drastic action. On the other hand, those Canadians who suffered later as a result of reprisals, were not.
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This volume is copyright The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes and is published with permission of the Estate. The originals are deposited in the Special Collections of the Hamilton Public Library.