Start of the 1838 Rebellions

Fears of Patriote Uprisings

A skirmish at Dickinson's Landing in Upper Canada between Patriots and the Loyalist Cavalry in 1838

Caption: A skirmish at Dickinson's Landing in Upper Canada between Patriots and the Loyalist Cavalry in 1838

But the calm was nothing more than an illusion. Many rumours made the rounds about the secret Patriot societies, and the new governor-in-chief himself, Lord Durham, believed there could be as many as 3,000 partisans in Montreal alone. Pierre-Édouard Leclère, superintendent of the newly created Montreal police force, received scraps of information every day to the effect that a great and terrible revolt was in the offing.

These fears were not without foundation. The strategy of the Hunters' Lodges, which was formulated by their leader Robert Nelson, was to have some of their members take Sorel and then join up with a Patriot army from the United States to take Fort Chambly and Fort Saint Jean. At the same time in Montreal, other Patriot Hunters would disarm the troops during religious services on Sunday, when the soldiers were armed only with bayonets. 101 Uprisings were then to break out simultaneously at several points. But on November 2 the plot was revealed and British troops were placed on alert. The following day a large contingent of regular troops moved towards the American border. At the same time, however, loyal citizens were arriving at Fort Lennox to take refuge: the Patriotes had crossed the border and taken Napierville!

As it happens, Nelson, who had been proclaimed President of the Republic of Lower Canada, had set up his headquarters in this small town. When joined by the republican forces of Dr. Cyrille Côté, he prepared to advance on Montreal. The Hunter Patriots then came out from the shadows and began to gather in several areas to the south of Montreal. But in spite of the plans concocted in Vermont the organization was far from tight. It "consisted simply," reported one Hunter, "in the promise by a number of men to respond, bearing arms, to the call of the chiefs who had just been designated. As for our weaponry...our partisans [at Saint-Timothée] could amount to approximately 100 hunting muskets, most of which dated back to the French regime; others were armed with pitchforks used as spears and `scythe blades' turned into sabres."102

On Sunday morning, November 4, approximately 600 Patriotes, half of whom were armed with muskets, took control of the small town of Beauharnois southwest of Montreal. There, Colborne ordered the militia of the counties of Glengarry and Stormont in eastern Upper Canada to join him, placed the garrison on a war footing and issued an order to mobilize the volunteers. In less than a few hours 2,000 volunteers were guarding the entrances to the town and patrolling the streets. Any action by the Hunter Patriots against the garrison was neutralized. In addition, several suspects were taken in by the police and the volunteers, for martial law had taken effect. Colborne, a cautious soldier, waited for reinforcements because it had been estimated that there were approximately 5,000 Patriotes to the south of Montreal. The actual number was more like 2,500 or 3,000 and they were already riddled with internal conflict and treachery.

Additional Images

Patriotes at Beauharnois in November 1838