The Rebellion of 1837
Photos and transcription by contributor Wayne Adam - Posted April, 2010
Plaque coordinates: 43.648780 -79.378254
Sir Francis Bond Head, a handsome, accomplished, adventuresome, former cavalry officer who had fought beside Wellington at Waterloo, was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada in 1836. Legend says it was a misprint on an official document that brought Sir Francis over from England, as it was his cousin, Edmund, who really was in line for the job. In honour of the new Governor, James Bell, being a staunch Tory, renamed his Coopers Inn tavern on Church Street the Sir Francis Bond Head Inn. At first, Sir Francis, who lived in the Governor's mansion on the site of present-day Roy Thompson Hall, was willing to listen to reformers like William Lyon Mackenzie and they, in turn, were happy to have Sir Francis as Lt. Governor, because his predecessor, Sir John Colborne, was a member of the much-despised ruling elite, the so-called Family Compact. However, Sir Francis stopped listening to the reformers and started to side with the elite after realizing it was they who could give him what he really wanted: power. In order to keep in the good books with the Family Compact, Sir Francis called an election after dissolving the assembly and, just to make sure the Tories (the Family Compact party of choice) won, he decreed that only men who owned property could vote. Immediately thereafter, Sir Francis issued hundreds of land deeds (along with free booze) to anybody who would vote Tory. That one act of disgusting largess was to be a turning point in Canadian history. Soon whispers of a rebellion began to seep out from the taverns, hotels, theatres and coffee shops that once lined our streets, with the loudest murmur coming from inside the Mackenzie camp.
On Monday, December 4, 1837, rebels started gathering at Montgomery's Tavern, now near the corner of Eglinton and Yonge Streets, where food and other supplies were to be organized. Men from outlying communities began to arrive in small and large groups, but no precise numbers are known. Beginning at nightfall on December 5th, 1837, the infamous government-backed fighting force known as the McGraw Troupe rode en mass down Church Street to the Sir Francis Bond Head Inn, where they dismounted, stabled their horses in a barn behind the Inn, downed a few pints, made their plans for the following day, and went to bed. The next morning, Wednesday, December 6th, 1837, the McGraw Troupe, all saddled up, galloped down Colborne Street and went on to meet up with Sir Francis and his 1000 volunteers. With the Union Jacks billowing in the wind and their fife and drum band reverberating patriotic tunes, they headed up Yonge Street to meet Mackenzie's men.
The proposed march down Yonge Street by Mackenzie was planned as an attempted revolution to seize the arms and ammunition that were stored in Toronto's then city hall, now the site of St. Lawrence Hall, and use those weapons to force the government to surrender in a bloodless coup. During the week of the rebellion more than 700 men would arrive at Montgomery's Tavern, although it is estimated no more than 500 rebels were gathered together at any one time. Colonel Moodie, with six other loyalists, attempted to ride through the rebel roadblock to warn Governor Bond Head in Toronto. Moodie fired his pistol, apparently over the heads of the rebels, the opening shot in the rebellion in Upper Canada. A number of the rebels returned fire, killing Moodie.
But now Mackenzie hesitated rather than striking directly into the city. This gave Governor Bond Head a chance to organize. The lack of action also led to more desertions from the rebel side. On Thursday, December 7th, Anthony van Egmond, a veteran military commander, arrived to be the military leader of Mackenzie's rebellion. Immediately, he realized the rebel forces on hand were desperately insufficient and advised an urgent withdrawal. Instead, Mackenzie remained and awaited the government counterattack. Fellow rebel Peter Matthews was given 60 riflemen and sent to the Don River Bridge as a diversion, but they were driven off. The main rebel force left at the tavern numbered just 400, with only 200 of those with firearms. In the distance, bagpipes could be heard announcing the approaching government forces. A brief exchange of gunfire occurred, but the heavily outnumbered rebels fled after a few minutes, suffering numerous dead and wounded. Mackenzie escaped to the hills and on to the United States, as did many other rebels.
And so ended the Rebellion of 1837 here in Upper Canada. In the aftermath of the Rebellion came a Tory reign of terror with 25 rebels executed in Upper Canada and 12 men in Lower Canada (Quebec). The patriots of Upper Canada were either shot or hanged here in Toronto, London and Niagara-on-the-Lake with 150 more sentences to banishment in Van Damien's Land, now Tasmania, and to Sydney, Australia. And to the victors? Huge celebrations back at the Sir Francis Bond Head Inn for a job well done. In reality we the people did eventually win when, in 1848, fellow reformer Robert Baldwin successfully introduced Responsible Government into Canadian Parliament where, for the first time, the Government would be responsible to the people rather than the other way around.
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