Why, Joe? Why? The Question Behind the Nefarious Career of Joseph Willcocks

Joseph Willcocks’ band of American and pro-American Canadians living in Upper Canada engaged in widespread looting and burning farmhouses. (Public Domain)

When the War of 1812 Bicentennial Bandwagon hit the streets with calliopes in full throttle  a couple of years ago, it was a time for journalists who, until then, hadn’t known when the War was fought, for scholars and militarists for whom the War was Day Three of All Creation, for children who suddenly had a topic for their Heritage Fair projects ... and for Museum personnel who had a built-in exhibition theme.   Lists appeared from out of the woodwork: Greatest Heroes of the War; (followed by a somewhat smaller list) Greatest Heroines of the War;  Greatest Battles;  Most Boneheaded Tactics; Loudest Mistakes; Foulest Injustices; ad infinitum.  But one list that struck my curiosity was of Canadians “whose legacy was infamy,” “the Worst Canadian,” “Canada’s Most  Heinous Villain.”  Depending on who was compiling the list, the entries were many and varied, but one name stands out: Joseph Willcocks.

Joseph Willcocks’ legacy is Treason; he was “Canada’s Benedict Arnold”; he was the leader and creator of a small “army” of disaffected residents of Upper Canada who wreaked havoc across this young colony from the Niagara to the Detroit River during the War of 1812. 

One wonders in this modern day and age of “home-grown terrorists” what causes a person to make an about face in his or her – if not loyalties, then associations – to fight for the “other side”?  What kind of person was Joseph Willcocks?

Willcocks’ story begins innocuously enough, like so many other young men living in volatile times.  His elite Anglo-Irish pedigree includes a number of “politically responsible” relatives – should he have known better than his subsequent career indicates? Joseph’s brother Richard was credited with preventing insurgents from gaining possession of Dublin Castle in the United Irish rebellion in 1803 and he was knighted for his work with the Irish system of constabulary (the Peace Preservation Force – they didn’t like the word “police” in Ireland at that time).  The quintessential, stereotypical fearlessly competent “Irish Cop” we still celebrate today comes from Richard Willcocks’ initiative and honest leadership.  He avoided serious political involvement and at the end of his life was hailed as a most efficient and respectable public servant.   

Not so his younger brother Joseph!  Born in Palmerston, just outside Dublin, Ireland, in 1773, Joseph appears as the typical younger son who emigrates because the family is in financial difficulties. It was a time when young men attached themselves to well-placed patrons to begin their upward  climbs, and the progress of Joseph Willcocks’ career is closely related to those whom he chose to follow.   He arrived on the Upper Canadian doorstep in York of his uncle William Willcocks in 1799.  Uncle William was known as “the squire”, a merchant who was appointed magistrate in 1796, he became York’s first postmaster the following year.   William duly referred young Joseph to his first cousin, Peter Russell, and then promptly resigned as postmaster just as the authorities began to question  his accounts:  Toronto/York’s first-ever dodgy expense account review.

Back to Cousin Peter Russell as Joseph’s next patron:  he was  Receiver General, a high ranking official in Upper Canada.   Joseph was hired on as Russell’s private clerk, and later became receiver and payer of fees in the provincial Surveyor General’s Office.  Joseph petitioned successfully for a town lot in York and was also granted 1,200 acres in Hope Township.  Things were looking good for Joseph.  He moved into the Russell household in August of 1800. While there he pursued a new kind of social climb – by courting Russell’s half-sister, Elizabeth, a woman several years Joseph’s senior who was already for all intents and purposes in a “married” relationship with Peter.  Exit Joseph Willcocks.

The same day he was bounced out of the Russell homestead (August 23, 1802), Joseph went to visit Chief Justice Henry Allcock, a political rival of Russell’s.  Allcock went off to argue with Russell on Joseph’s behalf.  To no avail.  By October 13, Joseph had moved into Allcock’s home and was soon engraving deeds for the provincial secretary, William Jarvis.  He was then appointed registrar of the probate court and marshal of assize in May of 1803, and was Sheriff of the Home District by September, 1804.  Well done, Joseph.

Henry Allcock had arrived in York in 1799, where he took the oath of office to become one of the three judges of the most important court in Upper Canada. His duties included attendance both at the court sessions held at the capital and at the assizes held in the local administrative towns: Cornwall, Kingston, Niagara, and Sandwich (Windsor).  No sooner had he settled in the province than he decided to run for the House of Assembly in the election of 1800; he was duly elected for Durham, Simcoe and the East Riding of York.  Except that soon after the election the petitions started from local inhabitants to Lt.-Governor Peter Hunter that Allcock’s agent, William Weekes (a close friend of our friend Joseph Willcocks) had used “irregular means” to secure the election.  On the grounds of these irregularities, Allcock was unseated and was dragged kicking and screaming from the House. Quite understandably, Weekes and Allcock fell out, and soon Weekes was accusing Willcocks of “being under the Pay of Government as their Informer.” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Joseph Willcocks).  Nevertheless,  Allcock gradually became a trusted advisor of Lt.-Governor Hunter, (patronage was indeed a many-tiered system), and helped him bring some order and regulation to the land granting system in the province.  By 1803, Hunter was recommending Allcock for an increase in salary as well as other high offices as a reward for his efficiency.  Soon Allcock was appointed to the Legislative Council on Hunter’s recommendation and became Speaker of the House.  As Allcock’s protegee, Joseph Willcocks was feeling secure in his newly appointed office: Sheriff of the Home District.  He wrote in his diary, “No Governor or King can dismiss me without [my] having committed some high offence.”  Although the “officers of Government disagree very much, I have the good fortune to be always on the strongest side.”  (Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Joseph Willcocks).

Unfortunately for Joseph, though, Allcocks returned to England in the fall of 1804 and the following year he was appointed chief justice of Lower Canada.  Joseph was left again without a high-powered patron.  He was no longer on the strongest side.   And he was left free to think.  He thought about the troubles in Ireland. He had not supported the United Irishmen in the rebellions, but now he considered that his brother’s efforts to quell the insurrection in Dublin may have been the wrong thing to do.  He thought about the politics of the day: the dominance of the Whigs in the UK and that of the Tories in the Canadas.  A party system had been developing in the parliaments in England, Scotland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom from the 1650s to the 1850s around the two factions, the Whigs and the Tories. 

The Whigs’ origins lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute  rule – they espoused the supremacy of parliament over the monarch. Whigs drew their support from emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants.  On the other hand, the Tories supported the established Church of England and the gentry; their support came from landed interests and the royal family. 

In the Canadas, Toryism meant support of the system established by Lt.-Governor Simcoe in the early 1790s: he was eager to establish a mini-aristocracy in Upper Canada; his was a reaction to the political ideals that had created the American Revolution.  Simcoe’s Logic: to make the colony an example of the superiority of British institutions; he appointed lieutenants of counties, introduced a court of king's bench and issued an act that would phase out slavery in Upper Canada.  Simcoe denounced democracy; equality had no place in his province.  Democracy and republicanism represented everything that was wicked as it pandered to the mindless whims of the masses.  He considered that the presence of a hereditary nobility would provide the loyal leadership and moral guidance the community needed, strengthened by the moral rectitude of only the Church of England – other churches allowed “dangerous thoughts” to infiltrate the minds of the “ordinary working class.”  He effectively defeated attempts to set up elected town meetings on the New England model.  Yet at the same time, Simcoe began the policy of granting land to American settlers, aware that they were the main hope for rapid economic growth.  He seemed to be confident that they would become loyal settlers and come around to his conservative anti-American way of thinking and change their minds about their democratic, egalitarian ideas and religions -- like Methodism and Quakerism.   Instead, their motives for settling in the north were mixed: some were half-hearted monarchists, but more were covert republicans, and most were more interested in the land than the politics.

Into this atmosphere Joseph Willcocks thrust himself.  He became convinced that true loyalty meant withstanding arbitrary rule: any increase in power by the executive or the crown meant loss of liberty elsewhere.  A new sphere of influence for Joseph came in the form of Justice Robert Thorpe, called the “radical judge,” a strongly confident Irishman and champion of the people who was known for his criticism of perceived arbitrariness of the administrations of the governing party.  In his eyes – and Joseph’s –  the distance between colonial rulers and the seat of power (i.e., from York, UC, to London, UK) lent itself to corruption and misrule; they felt that executive councillors should hold themselves responsible to the legislature rather than to the governor.  They prided themselves on their loyalty to the country rather than to its leaders and believed in the independence of colonial legislatures.

With Thorpe’s election came the  dawn of party politics in Upper Canada, and  an organized Opposition. Political opposition centred around the reaction against the colonial elite and government changes in land policy which increased the fees on land grants and tightened the rules on the eligibility of loyalists for free land grants.  The changes that were occurring in the political dynamic of Upper and Lower Canada now were changes that would result in full-scale rebellion in 30 years’ time.  Joseph had worked in the land office, and as sheriff:  he had seen many small landholders forced to sell their land to pay off debts to merchants such as Robert Hamilton of Queenston.   When Thorpe ran successfully for office in 1806, Willcocks was active in his campaign, and an opposition group formed around Whig ideas and the leadership of Thorpe and later Willcocks.  Thorpe and Willcocks were official troublemakers.   With opposition in the House becoming more and more strident, Thorpe found himself withdrawn from office by the clique in power in 1807. Willcocks lost his job as sheriff soon after, “ostensibly for general and notorious bad conduct.” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Joseph Willcocks)


That was when Joseph Willcocks moved to Niagara and started a newspaper called the Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freeman’s Journal.  It was a small, four-page sheet full of Whig principles, preaching about liberty, oppressive land laws and arbitrary power; it was full of criticism of the government and those governing,  and it seems to have had a wide circulation.  The Guardian gave him an opportunity to publish his strong political opinions of land laws and the government’s arbitrary use of power; he encouraged others to engage in conversation by publishing and responding to letters that were written to the paper.   Joseph  ran successfully for office in the by-election of 1807 in the riding of West York, 1st Lincoln and Haldimand, but when he took his seat in January of 1808, he was promptly jailed for contempt of the House.  He and Thorpe galvanized their opposition to the likes of the powerful pro-government  Robert Hamilton and his cronies in the Niagara Peninsula.  Willcocks was re-elected in 1808, where he assumed leadership of the opposition, and was re-elected again in 1812. The opposition pressed for measures that, in retrospect, seem to be pretty progressive, but which the administration and its supporters in the Executive Assembly flat out refused to consider: lower salaries for public officials; easier regulations for loyalist and military claims for land; tighter controls over jury practices and electoral procedures; broadening the availability of schooling and – horror upon all horrors – resistance to several of the Assembly’s motions to unseat members of the legislature on the grounds that they were Methodist ministers.  By the time the elections of 1812 took place, Willcocks’ group had the majority of the legislature.

Portrait of Sir Isaac Brock L995.D.067.005The colony’s administrator, Isaac Brock, attempted to put the province on a war footing in the face of a certain American invasion.   Brock was rightfully worried about the state of Upper Canada in view of an impending war with the United States. He worried that the large population of immigrants from the United States would act as informants and perhaps saboteurs in support of Washington, should war break out. In March of 1812, after a particularly gruelling session of legislature, Brock wrote to Lord Liverpool that he was convinced that every militiaman should be required to take an oath renouncing allegiance to every foreign power, but that many settlers from the United States were openly determined not to act against their countrymen.  He complained about the number of aliens who had emigrated from the United States and had acquired property and consequent voting privileges; under their influence, Brock’s attempts to declare martial law had been defeated.  (Cruikshank, A Study of Disaffection in Upper Canada).  This was a direct reference to the Willcocks crew’s interventions.  Hoping to end up with a more agreeable and loyal legislature, Brock prorogued parliament and called an election.  Willcocks was re-elected and resumed the opposition.

But Brock was a very skilled politician. His success early in the war at Michilimachinac and Detroit helped to bring much of the population around to the idea that a successful defence of Upper Canada was possible. He managed to neutralize Joseph’s opposition by appointing him his personal emissary to the Grand River Mohawk.  (Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?) Nevertheless, it was a very important position, with a vital objective:  to ensure their participation and loyalty to the Crown.  Joseph appears to have actually done a good job. He convinced the Natives  to abandon their previous conviction not to fight the Americans but to remain neutral.  He also helped recruit militia.  He seems to have enjoyed his status on Brock’s staff.  He was on the winning side again, described as a “zealous loyalist” and was known to dislike Americans and consider them “not an honest people.”   He even performed admirably, fighting alongside the First Nations warriors under Sheaffe’s command at the Battle of Queenston Heights.  But his current “patron”, General Brock, was killed at Queenston Heights, and the political dynamic in the province was about to change.  Brock’s replacement, Roger Hale Sheaffe, did not have Brock’s charisma.

 Joseph seems to have been hedging his bets in the period leading up to the outbreak of war. Thomas G. Ridout wrote to his father in May, 1812, “That blackguard Joe Willcocks dined with General Brock and turned Government man for a while, and then joined his own party again."  (Ten Years of Upper Canada in Peace and War, 1805-1815, being The Ridout Letters”)   At the same time Willcocks was playing nice with Brock, he was brought up on sedition charges in the County of Norfolk.  The court bill for sedition accuses Willcocks of engaging in conversation in May, 1811, with a Mr. Backhouse and declaring: “that he had obtained a power of attorney from the Six Nations of Indians on the Grand River as their public agent to transact all their business ..., and that said Indians had promised to stand by him or with him...”, “...that now he had the power of declaring ... that the country would shortly be taken possession of by the Americans; that a Mr. Dickson had offered him two hundred pounds to be quiet and become a Government man but that he had refused it and said that he would not take less than five hundred pounds;  that he now had Government in his power; that he would run his risk to make his fortune another way; that the Province would soon be overrun; that there was not one man in ten would defend it except the few old Tories, and that the Indians would soon put them aside or cut them  off...”.  “...relative to the revolutionizing of the Province, ... that he [Willcocks] was then going to the House of Assembly; that it was the last time the Assembly would sit in the Province under the British Government; that on or before the fourth of July the Province would be in possession of the Americans; that he would be raised to an elevated station or placed high in power under the American Government.” (Cruickshank, A Study of Disaffection in Upper Canada, p. 26)

The jurors apparently had no problem finding Joseph Willcocks guilty. Yet this was when he appeared in the legislature at his most co-operative and loyal.   Niagara merchant William Hamilton Merritt wrote in early 1813 that Willcocks had become a “zealous loyalist: he has behaved very well on all occasions and so have all his party, altho’ they are trusted with no office whatever.” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography – Joseph Willcocks).  In April, 1813, William Warren Baldwin, one of Joseph’s earliest acquaintances in York, noted that he was actively recruiting for the Incorporated Militia. (Ibid.)

1813 was a year in which the Americans made bold strides into Upper Canada.  Willcocks fell out with Sheaffe, who had stiffened resistance to the American threat by punishing Canadian agitators.  In 1813, Joseph began to correspond with the American Secretary of State, supplying information on British troop movements.   In April, Fort York fell, the Americans burned and looted York, the colonial capital.  In May Fort George fell.  The Niagara Peninsula, Joseph’s constituency, was overrun – occupied territory.  The government imposed military rule and harsh measures against people who expressed disloyal opinions.  Joseph, as leader of the opposition, with his Whiggish idealism, saw this as an abandonment of democratic principles.   In July he committed treason by crossing the Niagara River to offer his services to the Americans while still a standing member of the Upper Canadian legislature.  He informed the American Secretary of State, “I do not hesitate to say that as soon as the British are driven out from amongst us I shall ... with the assistance of my friends render this province independent of British influence.”  (A Tale of Two Brothers, Initiatives of Change USA) He raised a force of about 150 Canadians, most of whom were disaffected American immigrants but which also included a few of Joseph’s buddies, members of the Upper Canada legislature.  The unit called themselves the Canadian Volunteers, and they appeared in varying numbers at most of the ensuing battles and skirmishes from Niagara/Newark to Dover.

The Canadian Volunteers were attached to Brigadier-General George McClure’s brigade who occupied the area around Fort George. Joseph must have had a great influence over McClure, for he was soon made a sort of “police officer” of the occupied territory.  By the winter of 1813, he had risen in rank from major to lieutenant-colonel and was considered an outstanding military leader on the American side, commanding expeditions to Stoney Creek and Grimsby on the Niagara Peninsula and putting Newark to the torch in December. Introducing his own little reign of terror, Willcocks and the Volunteers rampaged across the peninsula burning and looting well beyond what normal warfare requires.  His trail rambled across territory owned and/or occupied by previous opponents, the names that stay with us well into 19th Century Niagara:  Hamilton, Merritt, Street, Nichol, Jarvis, and many many others.   After the burning of Newark and the instant repercussions suffered at the hands of the United States Army by McClure as commander, Willcocks was sent to Washington to plead McClure’s case.  Instead, Joseph abandoned McClure and spent his time in Washington trying to persuade the Army to have the Canadian Volunteers made a regular Army unit. The Americans valued him for his “zeal, activity and local knowledge” and said he was “surpassed by none in enterprise and bravery.” On September 4, 1814, Joseph Willcocks was dead, shot by a former neighbour during the siege of Fort Erie. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the American side of the Niagara River.  His name went down in infamy: one Canadian historian almost two hundred years later remarked that Willcocks’ death in action during the war was “...less satisfactory than having him hanged but a great deal better than letting him go.”  (Donald E. Graves, An Account of Political Disaffection in Upper Canada during the War of 1812).

Joseph Willcocks was an intelligent, overly ambitious, idealistic, stubborn young man.  He was rash and outspoken, an opportunistic social climber. These were not exactly the qualities that would stand him in good stead in the conservative structure of Upper Canadian politics and society.  For the most part he actually was loyal to Britain and to Upper Canada: he just wasn’t loyal to (or even tolerant of) the rigid oligarchic clique that was administering the colony.  He professed that he did not particularly like the Americans, that he did not consider them an honest people.  Yet those were the people he turned to in the end.

The answer to the question, “Why, Joe, Why?” comes, I think, with the statement he made ‘way back in the halcyon days of 1803, when he wrote in his diary, “I have the good fortune to be always on the strongest side.” Joseph’s ambition was to always be on the strongest side.  He jumped from patron to patron, always trying to attach himself to whomever would be the most use to him.  But he made a mistake with Thorpe and Weekes: attaching himself to an equally rash Weekes (who was killed in a duel before he could do Joseph much good – or harm) and the malcontent Thorpe cost him his position on the fringes of Upper Canada’s oligarchic elite.  Having lost his entree into polite society, Joseph seems to have done a complete about face and gone to extremes.  Rather than try to mollify the elite and win back his position, he became that society’s most outspoken critic; he condemned everything, almost without exception, connected with that society.   Together Thorpe and Willcocks championed the Whig idea that colonial legislatures had to hold onto power against executive despotism and arbitrary rule.  When in 1813 the government suspended habeas corpus and instituted martial law, Willcocks saw that Upper Canadians were willing to forfeit their power and allow the indignity of arbitrary and, what was worse, military rule. No longer were they concerned to defend their own liberties. He couldn’t hold allegiance to the administration of Upper Canada, or with the elite group that dictated it.  In his own constituency in Niagara, he turned with a vengeance on those he felt were responsible.  He went to extremes.  He didn’t have to go that far.

Willcocks was not pro-American.  He probably had never overcome his early conviction that the Americans were “not an honest people.”   But in the spring and summer of 1813  Americans started to look like they might win.  “I have the good fortune to be always on the strongest side.”


© 2022 City of Niagara Falls