THE SHORT HILLS AFFAIR, PART 1
History is at once a tale of intrigue and bloodshed.
Lord Durham in his report on the Affairs of British North America, pulled no punches. He charged that Francis Bond Head and his Family Compact cronies on the Executive Council were responsible for the Rebellion of 1837 and for its awful aftermath. "It appears as if the rebellion had been purposely invited by the Government which then severely punished the unfortunate men who were deliberately trapped into taking part in it."
Following widespread persecutions and a rash of arrests the Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur and his Executive Council imposed unduly harsh repression by using political rather than judicial trials and by imposing severe sentences that included transportation, banishment and death. An atmosphere of tension and terror pervaded the province as fugitives were hunted down by Native warriors and militiamen. The latter, who had had no uniforms, could be identified by red flannel strips sewed onto their fur caps. Afterwards the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, criticized Arthur for his severity in general and for his use of Native braves in particular to hunt down and seize the insurgents.
Many of the bit players in the ill-planned rebellion fled to the United States where they haunted the border, unable to return to their country yet intent on doing something daring which would further the cause of the patriots. One abortive raid occurred at a place called Short Hills located in the Niagara Peninsula. It was a well-known area of agitation that was described by government officials as "perpetually disaffected."
While the brief encounter known as the Battle of the Short Hills was a minor skirmish, it resulted in some major punishments including an execution, the only one to take place at Niagara. Drastic measures were meant to dissuade other patriots from preying upon the province.
It all began on Grand Island, New York early in 1838 when Samuel Chandler, a wagon-maker and rebel from St. Johns, a village in the Short Hills region, confided to William Lyon Mackenzie that 100 well-equipped Short Hills' men were ready to join the rebel cause. Chandler said he knew of an additional 526 men in nearby Pelham Township who had also sworn to take up arms once Chandler and the group's leader, Colonel James Morreau, an Irishman from Pennsylvania, had assembled a largely Canadian company on Grand Island. This group was to serve as the core of the enterprise to take place in the Short Hills area.
This incursion into Canada and others like it along the border were the work, in part, of members of a secret society called the Canadian Refugee Relief Association. Established in Lockport, New York, the society's purpose was to identify and support Canadian refugees who had fled from the rebellion to the United States. Ultimately members of the Association expanded their mandate and sought to free the Canadas from the tyranny of British rule. Their plan was to create either an independent state or absorb these "two stars," that is, Upper and Lower Canada into
"the bright constellation of freedom's jewels."
In the early morning hours on Monday, June 11, 1838 the steamer Red Jacket edged up to the Canadian shore opposite the head of Navy Island. It discharged its cargo of twenty-six men along with enough arms for fifty other fighters. Nineteen were Upper Canadians; the remaining seven were Americans. All quietly left the ship and disappeared into the woods. They headed west on what they described as a secret mission "to bring independence to Canada." Prepared for sacrifice by sword or scaffold this band of young Canadians and Americans warily penetrated the hostile countryside aware that at any moment they could encounter militiamen or Native braves combing the countryside for fleeing fugitives. The insurgents' plan was to make contact with waiting rebels situated some 12 miles away in the Short Hills region southwest of St. Catharines.
Wearing a white ribbon on one side of their hats and a cut-out eagle on the other, the little party of patriots or as Sir George Arthur called them "these atrocious banditti," moved stealthily through the fields and forests for nine days. During this period they eluded their pursuers by hiding out with area farmers. This incursion was unique in one respect: they were able to remain some ten days in Upper Canada before their presence was generally known. Their intent was not to invade and overthrow the government but to mount an indigenous rebellion by enlisting and arming local people.
Morreau issued this proclamation.
"Canadians: We have at last been successful in planting the standard of liberty in one part of our oppressed country. Canadians! Come to our assistance as you prize property, happiness and life; Com to our assistance. Canadians! This is the hour of your redemption. Rally to the standard of the Free and the tyranny of England will cease to exist in our land. We pledge safety o fproperty and life to all who do not opposed us; but resistance shall be met by men who are determined to conquer or dies."
To their great dismay, however, the frontier fighters discovered that the area was not ripe for rebellion and that the anticipated support from populace in the peninsula never did materialize. Instead there was incredulity at their gullibility.
By mid-June the provincial military learned that a band of rebels was in the area. Sir George was told by the commanding officer on the Niagara that "rebels or American vagabonds have recently crossed the river and proceeded to the country in the rear of Chippewa and Drummondville where there are many swamps affording convenient places for traitorous assemblages and where I regret to say the population is represented as very disaffected."
This incursion, trivial as it now seems, caused remarkable excitement in the province and gave rise to the wildest rumours. Arthur was well aware of the fact that there were "on the American frontier thousands of lawless characters." These types were referred to as "the scum of the population" by an American agent sent to Canada by the president to inquire into the treatment of American citizens then in confinemnet in Canada charged with political offences.
Lieutenant James Magrath with a troop of 14 cavalrymen, the Queen's Lancers, entered the region to investigate rumours of a rebel strike to take place in the Short Hills' area. On June 20th nine of the Lancers stopped for the night at a place called Osterhout's Inn.
Up to this point there had been no violence. Now some of the patriots began to press for action claiming the hour to act had come. Morreau was having second thoughts about the whole enterprise and along with several others disagreed and suggested that they abandon the raid and retire. Others pressed for action arguing that they must make their move and "strike a blow". A good way to do so they said was to make a daring attack on the Lancers. Morreau disagreed and resigned as leader but opted to remain with the party as a private. At two o'clock in the morning of June 21st the patriot force laid siege to Osterhout's Inn. They were determined to capture the Lancers, relieve them of their arms and equipment and in so doing openly defy the very forces of the government.
Barricaded within the inn the Lancers held the rebels at bay until Morreau suggested that straw be placed around the building and set afire. As soon as the Lancers smelled smoke they decided there was little sense in continuing the conflict and surrendered. They were promptly marched into the woods. Disagreement occurred among their captors over what to do with the prisoners. Some shouted "Hang them, hang them." Luckily for the lancers wiser heads prevailed and they were simply relieved of their weapons, uniforms, equipment and horses and released "on parole."
While only fifty patriots were involved in the attack it was erroneously rumoured there were four times that number. Mackenzie learned of the Short Hills fracas from the frontier newspapers which further exaggerated the brief encounter by reporting that some 526 men had been involved.
Following the raid some of the patriots melted away into the woods, a resistance strategy used by the Highland Scots after the Battle of Culloden. This kind of guerilla action was hard to defend against. Morreau and a few others returned to their camp where some decided to head for the border. A few others elected to remain in the area. Some of the patriots disguised themselves as Lancers and for a while moved about freely whistling all the while God Save the Queen for good measure.
Within a short time members of the militia and a number of Natives moved into the area and the hunt for the dissidents was on. Learning with alarm about the presence of their pursuers, the rebels retreated to a point a few miles above Smithville where they decided to disband and disperse. It was every man for himself.
The petrified patriots took off in all directions, Some fled towards the border while others bolted across the countryside. Abandoned guns and gear littered the route as the fugitives lightened their load in a frantic flight for sanctuary. Few found it. Morreau endeavoured to escape by swimming Black Creek but was captured in a state of exhaustion by a lone, loyal Scotsman who bound and brought him in a wagon to the Pavilion at the Falls. For his pathetic patriot the Scot was astounded to receive a reward of 500 pounds. Forty-one other rebels were loaded onto wagons and taken off to jail at Niagara [Niagara-on the-Lake] where they were held for trial before Justice Jones on a charge of high treason.
Nervous police officials having been forewarned of a possible attempt to free the prisoners during a general invasion supposedly scheduled for July 4th quickly carted twenty-three of the culprits to the jail in Toronto for safe keeping. On the 14th of July they were returned to Niagara. The Short Hills' trial opened on Wednesday, July 18th, 1838. It was to be short, sharp and severe.
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