In the early days of December, 1837, occurred at Toronto the first outbreak of the Canadian rebellion, which was speedily crushed in that portion of the province. Though such was the case, a number of the insurgents betook themselves to a small island, well covered with trees.in the Niagara river, almost opposite the then village, now town, of Chippawa, about three miles above the Falls, called Navy Island. Here they were under the command of William Lyon Mackenzie and an American named Van Rennselaer. Their design was the invasion of Canada by the lake. Mackenzie had formed what he called a Provisional Government, and there is no doubt that he and his followers thought they would be able to effect a landing on the Canadian shore.
The Caroline was taken possession of without, as one historian puts it, "anything deserving the name of a serious conflict." The crew and passengers, thirty-three in all, were literally driven out at the point of the sword; and though one or two of the former showed fight and succeeded in wounding Lieutenant McCormick and two more of their assailants, the whole performance did not occupy many minutes.
Once the Canadians had possession of the vessel it was soon decided what to do with her. She was to be burnt and allowed to drift as she was burning down the stream and go over the Falls. She was set fire to by Captain Richard Arnold who lived in Toronto for many years afterwards, and died there on June 18th, 1884. No living soul was on board her, and before she reached the cataract she went to pieces, only fragments of her going down the mighty sheet of water. An amusing account of the Rebellion is given in a parody on " John Gilpin," published in 1838, W. L. Mackenzie supplying the place of John Gilpin. The verses relating to the destruction are as follows:--
Rennselaer then took the command
Of those degraded wretches,
For some had neither coat nor hat,
And some not even breeches.
To Navy Island then they went,
And there made a great splutter--
A constitution printed off,
And many threats did utter.
Alas ! for Yankee modesty,
It really is quite shocking,
Some ladies made the rebels shirts,
And some, too, sent them stocking.
Of many acts, which by our men
Right gallantly were done,
I've spun my verse to such a length
I can relate but one.
And that the very gallant act
Of Captain Andrew Drew,
Whose name must be immortalized--
Likewise his daring crew.
A Yankee steamer oft had tried
The rebels aid to bring.
This English seaman swore that he
Would not allow the thing.
The captain and his gallant crew,
Whose names I wot not all,
From Schlosser cut the steamboat out,
And sent her o'er the Fall.
Oh then the Yankees stormed outright,
And spoke of reparation.
A mighty flame then rose through
this Tobacco-chewing nation.
Captain Drew's exploit was rapturously applauded throughout Upper Canada, and in the following April, when the St. George's Society of Toronto dined together as usual on the evening of the 23rd, the toast of the "Royal Navy" was received with great enthusiasm. It was responded to by Captain Marryatt, the famous novelist, who, after he had returned thanks for the honor done to him in coupling his name with the toast proposed, gave, as an additional volunteer toast, " Captain Drew and his brave comrades who cut out the Caroline." The gallant Captain's proposal was received with loud acclamations.
For the next four or five months there were no naval events of any consequence in connection with the rebellion; but, on the 29th of May, an occurrence took place in the upper part of the St. Lawrence, at a place called Wells' Island, which caused quite as much excitement as the burning of the Caroline. It was there that the British steamboat, Sir Robert Peel, was seized by an armed band of men, between thirty and forty in number, under a braggart named William Johnson, who had blackened their faces and in other ways disfigured themselves for that purpose. After plundering the boat and ill-treating the passengers, among whom were several ladies, they took the vessel out into the river, set her on fire, and burned her to the waters' edge. There were about eighty passengers, who saved scarcely an article. A Mr. Holditch, of Port Robertson, lost $6,000, and Captain Bullock, of the Neptune, was also a heavy loser.
In the following November took place what is always known as the Battle of the Windmill. A number of desperadoes on board the steamer United States and the two schooners Charlotte, of Toronto, and Charlotte, of Oswego, attempted to invade Canada at Prescott. The project failed utterly, and also resulted in serious loss of life among the invaders. The notorious Johnson was again to the fore, be having command of one of the two schooners. In this engagement the following lake steamers, which had been armed in consequence of the rebellion, played an active park They were the Experiment, Queen Victoria and Cobourg, under Captains Dick, Sutherland and Colcleugh. The Transit, also, under Captain Richardson, did good service during the rebellion in transporting troops and carrying despatches.
The notorious Johnson has been mentioned more than once already. In the summer of 1838 he got himself into trouble with the United States authorities on a charge of piracy, and only narrowly escaped the fate he so richly deserved; but, as an American paper at the time remarked, "good rope could be better employed." Johnson was accused, among other crimes, of having used United States territory on the St. Lawrence in furtherance of his plans, he being a British subject. While a fugitive from justice, he issued the following proclamation:--
"I, William Johnson, a natural born citizen of Upper Canada, certify that I hold a commission in the Patriot Service of Upper Canada as Commander-in-Chief of the naval forces and flotilla. I commanded the expedition that captured and destroyed the steamer Sir Robert Peel. My headquarters was on an island in the St. Lawrence. I yet hold possession of that station. I act under orders. The object of my movements is the independence of the Canadas.
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This electronic edition is based on the original in the collection of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston.