The Caroline Incident during the Patriot War

Table of Contents:

reprinted from
Scott Eberle and Joseph A. Grande, Second Looks: A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County. Donning Co., 1993

Fear of war with England cropped up in 1837 as aresult of a rebellion in Canada called the Patriot War. The rebels, led by William L. MacKenzie, fled to Navy Island [island owned by Canada, located off the northwest corner of Grand Island] near the American shore of the Niagara River, where they set up headquarters. Popular support on the American side of the border was strong as open efforts were made to raise funds and recruit men.

The British government naturally demanded action to suppress such flagrant actions.

On December 29, a little steamer, the Caroline, was hired at Buffalo to ferry goods from the American shore to Navy Island. During the course of the night, several boatloads of armed men crossed the river from Canada. They seized the steamer, killing one man, towed her into the middle of the river, and, setting her afire, sent her blazing down the rapids toward Niagara Falls.

The war scare which followed resulted in the dispatching of army troops under Gen. Winfield Scott to the border at Buffalo where a military installation, the Poinsett Barracks, was constructed between Allen and North Streets on the east side of Delaware Avenue. It remained there until the 1840s, when it was replaced by a fort [Fort Porter] on the Niagara River opposite Fort Erie.

More Detailed Account
reprinted from
Rob Roy Macleod, Cinderella Island, Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, 1960

It was in December of the depression year of 1837 that William Lyon Mackenzie made his abortive attempt to overthrow the government of Canadaand set up a separate republic. His followers were defeated in a brief skirmish on the outskirts of Toronto, and on December 11, 1837, Mackenzie crossed to Grand Island and so made his way to Buffalo.

The border was in a ferment, with the hard feelings accented by the hard times. Threatened with the loss of their homesteads through foreclosure, many settlers were ready for any kind of desperate venture and only a spark wasneeded to set the border aflame again.

Mackenzie's arrival in Buffalo seemed to be the spark, for he was greeted by the largest mass meeting in the history of the town, held in the BuffaloOpera House. There was open recruiting for the "Patriot Army" and when official protest was made through diplomatic channels, Americans were invitedto join "exploration parties" and hunts for "deer and red foxes" in Canada.

The overt act came when the "Patriot Army" under Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, appointed a general by Mackenzie, invaded Navy Island on December 13, 1837. Here the flag of the "Canadian Republic" was unfurled for the first time.

The confused description of this flag is characteristic of the confusion of the record in regard to this little known war. One good authority says it had one star and two stripes, the latter representing upper and lower Canada; an equally good authority says it had two stars, with a moon breaking the clouds. And a soldier in Van Rensselaer's army says it had two stars, withoutany moon!

The original landing party was composed of little more than two dozen men, but Mackenzie spurred volunteers with offers of free land after the conquest of Canada. In order to reinforce this party and to carry supplies, Mackenzie'ssympathizers chartered the steamer Caroline, owned by William Wells, of Buffalo, and commanded by Captain Appleby of that city.

On the morning of December 29, the Caroline left Buffalo and moved down the river to Black Rock. Here a stop was made and the American flag run up, the steamer then proceeding down the river toward Navy Island. The captain declared a volley of musket fire was directed at him from the Canadian shore, but no harm was done.

Arriving at Navy, the Caroline tied up to two scows which served as a dock and, according to the affidavit of the captain, discharged "passengers and some freight."

At three o'clock in the afternoon, the steamer went to Schlosser's dock [later Niagara Falls] on the American side and after that made two trips to Navy, returning and tying up to the dock at 6:00 p.m. The captain says he had only ten men in his crew, but after he had tied up for the night 23 visitors were permitted to sleep on the ship, having no other place to stay.

About midnight the ship's watch saw a number of boats approaching from Canada and gave the alarm. This was a group sent by the British commander, Colonel Allan N. MacNab, to seize and destroy the Caroline, and was estimated by the ship's captain to include 70 to 80 men.

In the ensuing scuffle, Amos Durfee was killed and a number of others were wounded. The Caroline was set adrift and sent over the Falls in flames.

Thus a delicate international situation was precipitated. British armed forces had invaded American waters, killed an American citizen and destroyed an American vessel. But both the citizen and the vessel were aiding an armedinvasion of Canadian territory. And Henry Arcularius, Commissary-General of New York State, in a later report states that ten field pieces and a three pounder gun carriage belonging to the State of New York were recovered from Navy Islind after the shooting was over.

This affair was so distorted for propaganda purposes that to this day it is one of the most difficult stories of all frontier history to nail down. Accounts of what happened vary widely, depending upon their source. One reputablejournal of the day says 90 were killed, although it is quite definite that Durfee was the sole casualty. His body was brought to Buffalo and exhibited in front of recruiting headquarters, the
Eagle Tavern, on the night of December 30.

At the same tme the Buffalo city guard was called out and the 47th militia brigade mobilized.

The spectacle caused by this exhibition of Durfee's body is described by a writer of the time, "his pale forehead mangled by the pistol ball and his locks matted with blood! His friends and fellow citizens looked on the ghastly spectacle and thirsted for an opportunity to revenge him."

The next day firemen and soldiers marched in a huge procession behind his casket and a youngattorney delivered a funeral oration, "more exciting, thrilling and much more indignant than Mark Antony's." Thus was the funeral of the frontier Caesar made a sounding board for propaganda.

The pebble dropped in the pond of peace spread its ripples in an ever-widening circle. Henry Clay in the American Congress called the affair an"Outrage"; Canadian parliamentarians were equally bitter on the subject of "Piratical operations." British Consols dropped sharply in London on the war scare while tempers mounted on both sides of the border.

See also: Highlights of Buffalo's History, 1837

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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