Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hunter Prisoners Sent Home, But Not All

Following the hanging of Lyman Leach in February of 1839, 146 prisoners, mostly Americans, continued to languish in Fort Henry, Kingston. Officially, 123 faced the death sentence. As the cold grip of a Canadian winter began to thaw that spring, so did the chilly attitude of the Upper Canada government.

Lt-Governor Sir George Arthur never intended to hang all the prisoners, despite their verdicts and sentences. With most of the Hunter officers dispatched, and with public sentiment turning away from additional executions, Arthur and the colonial establishment commenced a period of repatriation.

Repatriation Begins

This new policy coincided with an organized and concerted effort by American civic leaders in the border states, especially Jefferson county, to plead for mercy and to not antagonize the Upper Canada establishment. Promises were made to prevent further raids. (Bernard Bagley, Bill Johnston's friend and lawyer, was among the American organizers.)

Men of means contacted colleagues and friends in Canada asking them to release specific people. Pardoned men, some barely literate, submitted eloquent letters to local papers on their return thanking the British for their leniency. It paid off. Numerous men, especially young men, were pardoned and sent home that spring.

In his memoirs, Captian Daniel Heustis wrote that by "the first of May, 64 of our number were pardoned and sent home to the United States, and 22 others were discharged without a trial, making in all 86, leaving 60 still in captivity."

Aside: The removal of Hunters made room in the casements for 18 Patriot prisoners captured after the last raid on Windsor. They arrived in late May.

Repatriation Ends

Heustis said that 25 others, including himself and William Gates, were on another list of men to be repatriated but that listed was torn up. He gave no reason, but Gates, another Hunter who wrote his memoirs, gave this version.

"Free pardons for myself and 24 others were made out and sent down to sheriff [Alan Macdonell], who, in the plenitude of his power, kept them in his own hands for two weeks. During this time, a British officer for some unknown purpose crossed the lines to French Creek, in Jefferson county. Our American friends not relishing his presence, treated him with that attention which they thought most befitting such gentlemen. Not having the right sort of perceptions to appreciate such honors, he became greatly enraged with the favors bestowed. Making his way back to Kingston, he gave an embittered account of the affair to the high sheriff, who forwarded a still more exaggerated report of it to the lieutenant-governor, accompanying it with the pardons which he had so unjustly withheld from us. The old sinner, Sir George Arthur, was so incensed that he committed them all to the flames."

Gates appears to refer to Captain James Macfarlane. He escorted young Hunter Vaughan home to his father, Captain William Vaughan, in Sackets Harbor, New York. Macfarlane, a militia officer who sat on the court martial of the captured Hunters, was threatened by a mob in Oswego while returning home and claims he had to flea for his life.

While the Macfarlane incident did arouse resentment in Upper Canada, historian John Northman presents a different reason for quashing of the 25 pardons that seems more likely. He wrote that, on May 4, 1839, Sheriff Alexander McMartin escorted seven pardoned American raiders, captured on the schooner Anne in January 1838, to the border near St. Regis. Awaiting them was Judge H. W. Tucker. Instead of humbly thanking the sheriff, he complained of British tyranny and mistreatment of the prisoners. Stupidly, Tucker broke the fragile protocol upon which repatriation subsisted.

The Macfarlane and McMartin incidents made it politically impossible for Arthur to continue being lenient. He shut the door to further repatriation. But Arthur did tell the remaining prisoners through Sheriff Macdonell that the hangings were over. Transport to Tasmania was now there fate.

Long Wait Begins

With the period or pardons at an end, the remaining 60 prisoners sat out the hot summer inside the fort. In June, 18 men convicted for the bloody raid on Windsor joined them in their cells.

The men sought whatever solace and amusement they could. Heustis, the senior ranking Hunter still alive, worked hard to maintain the men's spirits.  

"On the ever glorious Fourth of July," he wrote, "we celebrated as well as circumstances would permit. Out of several pocket handkerchiefs a flag was manufactured, as nearly resembling the star spangled banner as we could conveniently make it. This emblem of freedom and national independence we hoisted in our room, taking good care that the officers did not get a peep at it. We procured some lemons and sugar, which enabled us to pass round a refreshing bowl of lemonade. We then let off our toasts, in which the heroes of '76 were duly remembered."

Heustis recounted how Arthur visited them once during their imprisonment. "He was a short, stout-built man, and had a tyrannical look about him, which did not belie his character. Just before he left, he made a brief address to us; in which, among other things not so complimentary, he said, 'If you had been fighting in the right cause, you would have been an honor to your country'."

Heustis and the other Hunters never viewed themselves as criminals, preferring the role of liberators in a losing battle. Heustis put it this way: "…we had faced the enemy, as did the heroes of Bunker Hill, if not with equal success in the final result, at least in the same spirit and for the attainment of the same object, and we saw no cause for self-reproach."
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