Call to Alarm: Rebellion in Niagara

In 1837-38, the Canada-United States border at Niagara Falls erupted into a war zone thanks to a motley crowd of rebels and raiders under the leadership William Lyon Mackenzie.  Following the failed insurrection against Toronto on December 7, 1837, Mackenzie managed to escape to Buffalo.  He landed there on December 10, to cheers and accolades from an American population who had already been primed to support  the Canadians’ efforts to obtain freedom from the tyranny that they believed was British rule. Mackenzie delivered an evangelistic oration explaining the causes of the rebellion, comparing the spirit of Revolutionary War spirit of 1776 with that of 1837.  That night recruitment began for an army of liberation, with requests for men, money, ammunition and weapons enthusiastically and generously provided.

They advanced to Navy Island starting on December 14 with 24 volunteers and two small cannons. As news of the occupation spread, small groups of Canadian refugees and American volunteers from across New York state journeyed to Navy Island.  At its peak the island’s Patriot force numbered approximately 600, almost equally Canadian and American.  The north side of the island  boasted high banks with a good view of mainland Canada.  The Patriots immediately dug in their artillery there and commenced bombarding the Canadian Shore.

Lieutenant-Governor Bond Head sent Colonel Allan MacNab to defend the Niagara Frontier.  Militia, volunteers and native warriors joined MacNab and swelled his force to over 2,000.   A force of 1,800 men encamped along the Canadian shore near Chippawa.  MacNab ‘s orders were to be strictly on the defensive and not to fire upon the island.  The danger of complications with the United States neutrality laws was a deterrent.  Instead they embarked on a  series of military reviews and the installation of  a number of gunboats in an attempt to overawe the Patriots with their strength of force.

A letter (below) dated December 16, 1837, from Lieutenant-Colonel George Ham to his commanding officer, Captain Ogden Creighton, describes the state of affairs at the beginning of the conflict on Navy Island. Within only a few days of Patriot arrival on the Island, the situation was already too far advanced to let a portion of the loyalist troops go home.

Captain Creighton was a retired half-pay officer who had purchased an extensive tract of land on the south side of what is now Clifton Hill. He  built a substantial home on the crest of the hill at Jolley Cut overlooking the American Falls and the Ferry Landing.  This house, called Clifton Cottage, was taken over as headquarters for the government militiamen sent to guard the ferry in service at the base of the Falls.

Bombardment of the mainland, and after the Caroline incident, retaliation, continued two weeks beyond the capture of the Caroline on December 29; the Patriots finally abandoned the Island on January 13.  During the occupation, several hotels and other institutions in Stamford Township were pressed into service to accommodate the loyalist troops.  For example, the Pavilion Hotel was taken over by the military and used as a barracks during the rebellion; tradition has it that Colonel MacNab’s officers climbed to the observatory on the roof of the Pavilion and from there watched Mackenzie’s supply ship, the Caroline, passing  to and fro between Schlosser and Navy Island.  The National Hotel on the Portage Road (later known as the Prospect Hotel on Main Street) served as the “Brick Barracks” – later owner Jack Ward liked to show off the “detention cells” in the basement which he claimed had been in use in 1837-38.  After the occupation, a number of claims were recorded from persons requesting compensation for damages to their properties:  for many  barns and buildings burned and/or pillaged;  for damages done to houses in the ill-fated City of the Falls project; to Captain Creighton for the use of his house at Jolley Cut, and to Drummond Hill Presbyterian Church for the use of the church as a hospital during the uprising, to name  but a few.

This area was in turmoil for months to come from sporadic raids and the constant threat of Patriot insurrection.  The growth of the township, and villages of Drummondville and Clifton, were held in check for many years because of the  disorder caused by these events.

Handwritten letter brown ink on beige paper

Chippawa 16th Dec 1837

Half past four morning


I have just received a dispatch from the Assistant Adjutant General dated 12 O Clock night 15th Dec 1837. from which I make the following extract

"A person has just arrived from the opposite shore, stating that MacKenzie's party, about five hundred have proceeded downwards with a twenty four and two six pounders. it is supposed with the intention of making a lodgement on Navy Island, therefore the order delivered to Captain Creighton for sending a portion of the troops home is cancelled."

You will see by the above order that no one can be spared but all remain at their posts here until further orders.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant.

(signed) Geo. Ham Lt. Colonel


To Captain Creighton

Lundys Lane

order That all the troops remain in their present position (signed) Ogden Creighton,

Commanding at Lundys Lane

                                                                                                NFHM 2016.020.10  

© 2022 City of Niagara Falls