Heritage Moments: The Firebrand in Buffalo, the Rebellion in Canada

Dec 4, 2017

Buffalo used to be a mustering ground for invading armies, both official and unofficial. The target was always Canada: several times during the War of 1812; ahead of the Fenian Invasion in 1866; and – least remembered by Americans but no less important – during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 and its aftermath.


In the 1830s, the Canadas were in turmoil. In Lower Canada (present-day Quebec), patriotes rebelled against the English-speaking elites. In Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), farmers and reformers rebelled against an aristocratic elite that controlled politics and business and stifled dissent.

The rebel leader in Upper Canada was William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scots immigrant who in the 1820s owned a printing shop in Queenston, where he published a reformist newspaper. Soon he moved to Toronto and eventually became that city’s first mayor, still leading an increasingly vocal opposition. Figures in the ruling elite hired thugs who busted up his Toronto printing press as tensions mounted.

In 1837 it all boiled over into open rebellion, with the revolutionary firebrand Mackenzie signing a “Declaration of Independence” from Britain for “the State of Upper Canada.” On Dec. 7 government forces met Mackenzie’s ragtag band of 500 rebels at a Yonge Street tavern just north of Toronto and routed them in a battle that lasted only 20 minutes.

Mackenzie fled, down the Niagara Peninsula to safety in Buffalo, where he was welcomed with open arms. His calls for a democratic Canada resonated with Buffalonians, who still despised the British some 25 years after the War of 1812. They also appealed to Americans newly flush with a sense of righteous power in the wake of the Texas Revolution of 1836. If the Mexicans could be expelled by American principles and grit, Buffalonians believed, so could the British. Was it not America’s manifest destiny?

Mackenzie was taken in by the city’s leading citizen, Dr. Cyrenius Chapin, who had fought the British in 1812. Chapin organized a public meeting in support of Mackenzie the following day, Dec. 12, at a Buffalo theater. Nearly 3,000 people reportedly showed up. Mackenzie addressed the enthusiastic crowd, praising the tenets of the American Revolution and calling for the Canadas to throw off their allegiance to England. Then a Buffalonian, Thomas Jefferson Sutherland, spoke, telling the crowd that he would fight for Mackenzie and an independent Canada. The response was ecstatic, and soon volunteers were signing up and arms being collected at the Eagle Tavern.

William Lyon Mackenzie
Credit Library and Archives Canada

Within days, Mackenzie’s new rebel army occupied virtually uninhabited Navy Island, just northwest of Grand Island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. He called it “the Republic of Canada” and issued a proclamation. “We have planted the Standard of Liberty in Canada,” he wrote, for equal rights, civil and religious liberty, the abolition of hereditary honors, an elected assembly and “an end forever to the wearisome prayers, supplications and mockeries attendant upon our connection with the lordlings of the Colonial Office, Downing Street, London.”

Very soon government troops set up cannon on the Canadian shore, and for days the two forces traded volleys. Finally on the night of Dec. 29, government soldiers rowed across to the American side and ambushed the rebels’ supply ship, the Caroline (owned by Buffalo grain merchant William Wells). One American died; the ship was set ablaze and sank in the river.

Americans were outraged by the destruction of the Caroline, especially when inaccurate reports circulated that the ship went over Niagara Falls and as many as 22 Americans were killed. But on the Niagara Frontier itself things briefly quieted down. The rebel army withdrew from Navy Island and shrank considerably. Mackenzie fled and began a long exile in the United States. Meanwhile President Martin Van Buren worked to defuse tensions with the British, a change in American policy that set the U.S. and Canada on a path that would, well into the future, finally lead to friendship.

Still, guerrilla actions continued for several years after 1837 on the Canadian side of the Niagara, often organized on the U.S. side. One of the British officers who burned the Caroline was murdered at his home. The first monument to General Brock, British hero in the War of 1812, was blown up. More than 30 rebels – some Canadian, some American -- were captured trying to start a new uprising; one was executed, and many of the rest were banished along with other rebels to prison colonies in Tasmania. The convict ship that carried them halfway around the world? The H.M.S. Buffalo.

The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada were put down quickly and decisively. And yet Mackenzie lived to see many of the principles he fought for become reality. After investigating the causes of the rebellions, the British government broke up the power of the elites and made the government answerable to the elected assembly. The old firebrand Mackenzie eventually returned home and, his reputation restored, resumed his political career. (His grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, would lead Canada as prime minister for two dozen years between 1921 and 1948, including all of World War II.)

It took a long time for Canada to become the beacon of democracy and equality it is today. Mackenzie started that transformation.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Dr. Cyrenius Chapin: Karl-Eric Reif

William Lyon Mackenzie: Dylan Mayberry

Thomas Jefferson Sutherland: Roy Durward

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Brodie Spies (Niagara College Canada, Welland)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Robin McCulloch, professor and program coordinator, acting for film and television, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Bruce Gilbert, professor of broadcasting -- radio, television and film, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)