Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Samuel Snow: An Everyman Freedom Fighter

During the Patriot War, tens of thousands of Americans pledged money and materials to help the Canadian rebels win political freedom in Upper Canada. A smaller number—I estimate between 1000 and 2000—actually took up arms and risked their lives by invading Canada. Most of these were the so-called "ordinary guy"—farmers, laborers, and tradesmen. Samuel D. Snow was one of these. The only difference being that he wrote about it.

Samuel was born in Massachusetts in 1800 or 1801. By the start of the Patriot War, he was a miller, married with four children, and living in Strongsville, Cuyahoga County, Ohio (southwest of Cleveland). In his 1846 memoirs, The Exile's Return: Or Narrative of Samuel Snow, he recalls listening to inflammatory speeches about the lack of Canadian liberty given by Dr. Charles Duncombe as early as "1835 or 1836. " (Snow's dates are off. Duncombe was not preaching rebellion that early. He did lecture on the Patriot cause in Cleveland in March 1838.)

Duncombe's rhetoric moved him, as did news of the early battles in the war. He left his comfortable life in November 1838 and journeyed to Detroit. There he enlisted under the Patriot general William Putnam and trained for the raid on Windsor.

"Early on the morning of December, 4th, 1838," Snow wrote, "our whole number crossed to Windsor, being one hundred and sixty four of us, including our officers. … We went over on a steamboat obtained the night before. Upon landing, we attacked the British barracks, carried them by storm after a short but spirited resistance, and then burnt them. In this, our first performance on British soil, we had occasion to rejoice; thirty or forty prisoners fell into our hands, and some sixty or eighty stands of arms.

"We now took marching orders for [the village of] Sandwich. Before leaving for the latter place, however, we burned a steamboat in commemoration of the ill-fated Caroline."

Snow and fellow chronicler Robert Marsh make a point to state that they were under orders not to molest Canadian residents or their property. This was likely in response to Canadian press accounts to the contrary. Snow wrote: "On the way to Sandwich our party held sacred the property of the inhabitants; it was not in a single instance violated, to my knowledge." (Of course, he ignores the destruction of the privately-owned steamer Thames that he helped burn.)

The Patriots initial success was short-lived. The attack on the barracks occurred at 4 A.M. Shortly after daybreak, a force of 400 militiamen engaged the raiders in an orchard. After a brief exchange of gunfire, which killed several Patriots, including General Putnam, Snow and his comrades retreated to a nearby forest. After a brief conference, they agreed to all go their own way.

Snow escaped capture that day and camped with others in a secluded forest the first night. The next day, he and two companions headed north across ice that partly covered Lake St. Clair. On the third day, they attempted to cross the St. Clair River to Michigan by ferry, but the ferryman said he was under orders to take no one across. Snow and his two friends, turned inland and hiked east towards Chatham, Upper Canada. Upon arrival, they were arrested and taken with to London, Upper Canada, for trial.

While Snow waited for trial in the same jails as Robert Marsh, he never complained about the vermin and unheated cells as Marsh did in his book. Snow did remark on the unwholesome nature of their food.

Like the other Windsor prisoners, Snow stood trial in London, Ontario, where he was convicted and sentence to transport for life. He witnessed men hang. He and 17 others, including Robert Marsh, were carted to the Toronto jail in April 1839. In June, they joined other Patriot prisoners at Fort Henry. Snow sailed away in September 1939 with the windmill prisoners to the penal colony in Tasmania.

On January 27, 1845, Snow departed Tasmania on the same whaling ship as Daniel Heustis, Robert Marsh and other pardoned American prisoners. Snow returned to Strongsville, Ohio, in May of 1846 and found his wife Mary and four children alive and well, thanks to the generosity of friends and neighbors.

Snow's short book (just 32-pages) displays little of the political discourse and stubborn defense of his actions found in Robert Marsh's book. Snow simply told the story as he saw it. A simple man with strong ideals, his memoir reflects those two qualities.

In 1850, Samuel and Mary (they were 50 and 46 respectively) had their fifth and last child. Mary died in 1863 shortly before their son Edwin perished in the American Civil War. After Mary's death, Samuel moved from Strongsville to Augusta, New York, where he lived there with relatives until he died in 1880.
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