Introduction to Samuel Snow's narrative
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It is a little known fact that there were seventy-nine American citizens in penal servitude as political prisoners in VDL in the early 1840s; transported after they were captured in a series of cross border raids following a home-grown rebellion against the colonial government in Upper Canada in 1837. In all, ninety-two "Patriot exiles" were sentenced to transportation to VDL as participants in the cross border raids at Short Hills, St Clair, Windsor and Prescott during 1838. Almost ninety percent of those were citizens of the United States. 1 Fourteen died as a direct result of transportation and the rigours of penal servitude. By the end of 1844 only half of those in VDL had been granted pardons and while nearly all were pardoned by 1848, five remained in penal servitude until at least 1850. By 1847 most of Patriot exiles had returned to the US where eleven of them either wrote, or had written on their behalf, accounts of their exile. The narrative of Samuel Snow was one of the first to be published. The patriot narratives represent the largest body of interlocking convict narratives in existence.
As Tom Dunning has pointed out, these Patriot narratives are written by men giving voice to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and as such tell us much about the construction of a radical republicanism in borderlands America. 2 These men saw themselves as courageous political activists impelled by moral duty to liberate their borderland neighbours. They were very conscious that the Upper Canadians had attempted a rebellion which had failed, they believed, only because imperial government had sapped the moral will of the Canadians. As they read the situation, their intervention was necessary to sunder "the chains which bound the hapless Canadians vassals of the British throne", as Daniel Heustis wrote. Once the spark was lit by magnanimous republican neighbours, Canadians would rise against their imperial overlords just as the American had done in their glorious revolution. So they thought. "We believed our Canadian neighbours to be struggling for that freedom which we were enjoying and which with a little aid they would be successful in securing", wrote William Gates. In his narrative Samuel Snow also claimed to have entered the Patriot service to do good by his neighbours so they might enjoy the same civil, religious and political freedom with which he was blessed.
Reading the hyperbolic narratives of some of the American prisoners one could be forgiven for thinking these evangelical republicans were the nineteenth century cousins of Timothy McVeigh. Like the present day militia movement, the Patriots also congregated with the like-minded in clandestine militarised organisations which mushroomed along the border in 1838. The largest and most significant of these were the Hunter Lodges, which were hierarchical and highly ritualised. Their members would communicate in rudimentary code which had its origins in the language of hunting. The lowest level, the Snowshoe, could be distinguished with the sign of the palm of the left hand placed over the back of the right with the fingers of both hands extended, or by lifting right hand, palm out, to the ear and pressing it forward. To be identified by a compatriot a Snowshoe would be asked: "Are you a hunter ?" in which case he would give the name of the preceding day. On initiation the Patriot Hunters took an oath:
to promote republican institutions throughout the worldto cherish them, to defend them and especially to devote myself to the propagation, protection and defence of these institutions in North America I promise, until death, that I will attack, combat and help to destroy every power authority of Royal origin upon this continent; and especially never to rest until all tyrants of Britain cease to have any dominion or footing whatever in North America 3
The membership of the Hunter lodges was said to be as high as 100,000, although official US and Canadian reports put the number of members somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 at the height of their activity in 1838, when the Patriots planned to spark an uprising in Canada, scheduled for July 4, 1839, in the fervent and foolish belief that tens of thousands of their oppressed neighbours would rally to their side. 4 The code for the revolutionary enterprise was "the hunt in the great north woods". William Gates, who was to be bitterly disillusioned by the revolutionary torpor of Canadians, spoke for many Patriots when he described the small force which invaded Canada at Prescott late in 1838:
"We were indeed a happy band. We had full confidence in our cause as a just and noble one. We believed we were about to do our neighbours a deed of charity, such as the golden rule inculcates, when it teaches us to do to our fellows as they should do to us."
While there were those in Upper Canada who did look longingly at the political institutions across the border (many of them having come from the US), in the main Upper Canadians had no great enthusiasm for American republicanism, for all their political dissatisfaction with the ruling oligarchy. The ruling elite, still smarting from the war of 1812, continued to view their republication neighbours with suspicion and abhorrence. In January 1838, after the initial rebellion sparked by his own heavy-handedness, the governor of Upper Canada told the Colonial Secretary "that hatred that exists in the breast of every loyal subject of upper Canada toward the Americans and American institutions is incurable". He grossly overstated the case, but it was true that Canadians still cleaved to the British colonial system, as the Patriots were to learn when they made their excursions across the border to find next to no-one rising in their support. The Upper Canadians affection for the Crown and preference for the imperial system was something even the rebels shared. As many were at pains to point out, they had rebelled against the corrupt colonial officials of the Crown, never the Crown itself. In this respect the Upper Canadians proved themselves to be, in the view of one US newspaper , "a cowardly people an inert, stupid mass without a spark of the fire of seventy-six ". It was a view belatedly shared by most of the Patriots, including Samuel Snow, who found themselves languishing under the imperial yoke in Canadian jails.
When Governor Arthur took over as the governor of Upper Canada early in 1828 he was resolved that the patriots were to be dealt with so severely it would terrorise any more Yankees wishing to export their abhorrent ideology to the Queens domain, so he told the Governor in Chief, Lord Durham, in June 1838.
Just under two hundred were found guilty of armed invasion or treason. Of these eighteen were executed, while the others were condemned to death, although concerns from the Colonial Office about limiting the number of executions prompted Governor Arthur to give pardons to the rest. At various times between December 1838 and May 1839, some eight-five of the Patriots received conditional pardons and were deported to the US. Some of the patriots insist that a further lot of pardons were written out during May 1839 but were suddenly withdrawn as a result of the Governor Arthur's caprice. They are mistaken about this. All along Arthur intended to reserve about a half of the condemned men for transportation, as a stern warning to any future Patriots, while showing clemency to the rest. As the British Ambassador to Washington pointed out in a confidential letter on 31 January 1839: "The penalty of transportation is regarded with extreme terror by the Americans". So when the conditional pardon which saved Snow and his companions from the gallows did eventuate it was not the banishment to the US as they had been led to expect, but "a fate worse that death itself": condemned to toil as slaves in exile at the end of the earth.
Although it is clear that there were behind the scenes negotiations between the US government of Van Buren and the British government to have all the convicted Americans returned to the US, the British Ambassador to Washington, Arthur Fox, was adamant that this should not happen. He wanted to transport all of the Americans to show the US that the British authorities in Canada could not be threatened with contempt. Van Buren, fearing another war with Britain, bowed to the British intransigence and made no formal objection to the transportation of American citizens to VDL, a response widely seen as cowardly which cost him dearly in political support in the border states.
After Governor Arthur, the patriots reserve their greatest scorn for President Van Buren for failing to intervene in their harsh punishment, and pictured him as "crouched abjectly at the foot of the British lion as if frightened by the roar of the royal whelp, vying with that royalty itself to crush the rising of the oppressed for liberty's sake". George Washington would be turning in his grave, they believed. It was not until several of the patriots had escaped from VDL on American whaling vessels and began agitation in the US about the plight of American citizens being chained and whipped and treated like slaves at the end of the earth that the US government strirred itself on their behalf and the Ambassador to St James, Mr Everett was directed to ask the British authorities about a pardon for the American Patriots.
Cassandra Pybus,International Centre for Convict Studies
1 There are several borderline case where national identity is blurred since residence on either side of the border was common. It seems that Nine of the men were Upper Canadian by birth or allegiance, three were from Lower Canada and two were from Scotland.
2Tom Dunning The Canadian Rebellions of 1837-38: An Episode in Northern Borderland History, Australasian Journal of American Studies, 14,2, 1995;
3 Described in Robert Davis, A Canadian Farmers Travels in the United States of America with remarks which are made on the arbitrary colonial policy practiced in Canada and the Free and Equal Rights and happy effects of the Liberal Institutions and Astonishing enterprise of the United States, Buffalo, 1837.
4 See Orin Edward Tiffany, The Relations of the United States to the Canadian Rebellion of 1837-1838, Buffalo, 1905, p63
ReadSamuel Snow's narrative,edited by Cassandra Pybus.