A Hike on the History Trail… One hundred and Eighty years ago this week, an ill-planned skirmish led to the beginnings of Responsible Government in Canada.
Citizens of Upper Canada (Ontario) were not happy with Colonial Rule. They felt that they had no representation. There were major disputes over land allotments to members of the Anglican Church. A key figure in this story was William Lyon Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a newspaperman, a member of the Legislative Assembly and the first Mayor of Toronto. He would become the voice of Reform in Upper Canada.
By the fall of 1837, Canada was in political turmoil. Mackenzie went to Parliament to dispute new legislation and was dismissed. In mid-October, Mackenzie gathered 10 local radicals together. He wished to instigate a revolution. They could attack the Armoury, and capture members of the government. The reformers would then declare independence from Britain and create a Republic form of government.
A rebellion had broken out in Lower Canada in Late November 1837. The Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Bond Head, decided to send his troops to Quebec. Mackenzie saw the perfect opportunity for his rebellion. He could storm the city, all while the government troops were out of the province. On November 27th, he wrote a handbill to gather the reformers together. His plan was to begin on December 7th, 1837. They would meet at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street. Believing that fellow rebel Anthony van Egmond had great military experience, Mackenzie invited him to be military leader for the rebellion.
William Lyon Mackenzie wrote the Toronto Manifesto and has it published in his newspaper, “Colonial Advocate” on December 3rd, 1837. It is on this same day that Mackenzie visits David Gibson, his second in command. Gibson relates that John Rolph (a secret supporter of Mackenzie) had informed Samuel Lount (a co-reformer) to begin the march to the tavern on that evening.
By the morning of the 4th, the marchers were 150 strong. That morning, Captain David Bridgford (a sympathizer of the government) meets Lount on his way to Montgomery’s Tavern. He is captured by Lount, but immediately released. Bridgford goes to his friend’s home, Colonel Robert Moodie. Moodie is another support of the government. Moodie sends out a scout to see what is happening. The scout was then to inform Lieutenant-Colonel James Fitzgibbon of the gathering.
The scout was capture at a barricade near the tavern. Lount arrived to find that the tavern is not prepared for this many men. John Montgomery (who owned the tavern) leased it out days before to someone else and this man was not a supporter of the rebellion.
Colonel Moodie heard of the scout’s capture and he decided to inform Fitzgibbon himself. He mounted his horse and headed down Yonge Street, with Captain Bridgford following. They got to the area of the tavern and were stopped by the rebel men. Moodie, in his haste to get through the barricade, fired a shot into the air. The rebels fired back thinking that they were being fired upon. Colonel Moodie is shot. He would be taken inside and die a few hours later. Captain Bridgford is captured again.
In the morning, Gibson arrives at the tavern with over 150 men. Both Gibson and Lount are concerned over the reckless behavior of Mackenzie and question his ability to lead. Meanwhile, Fitzgibbon heard of the gathering and rallied about 1000 men together. That afternoon saw Mackenzie moving 500 men South on Yonge Street, gathering sympathizers as they marched. Mackenzie and his men would take the armoury.
Sir Bond Head, who was informed of Mackenzie and his rebellion, sends a truce. Mackenzie replied with his demands. They were immediately rejected.
When Mackenzie and his rebels arrived at the Bloor Toll Gate, he is met by 27 militia men, led by Sheriff William B. Jarvis. There was a single volley of fire. When the first line of Mackenzie’s men fell to the ground to reload their weapons, the rear lines thought that the front line had been killed. Mackenzie’s men fled back to Montgomery’s Tavern. Many men then deserted the cause.
The next day the remaining rebels were re-grouping at the tavern. There were some 500 men remaining. Some of the rebels held up the morning mail stage on Dundas Avenue. Mackenzie now had correspondence from the government stating that they would soon attack the tavern. Unknown to the rebels was the fact that Sir Bond Head had called in reinforcements from Hamilton, 1500 men strong.
On the morning of December 7th, the rebels ate. Mackenzie had pre-planned that Lount and Peter Matthews create a diversion at the Don River. The pair would burn buildings and a bridge. The remaining rebels were unaware that at that moment Fitzgibbon, along with 1000 men began to march northward to the tavern. The diversion did not stop Fitzgibbon.
Shortly, the loyalist militia arrived at Montgomery’s Tavern. One look and they saw how ill-prepared the rebels were. They were holding pitchforks and rifles. On Bond Head’s orders, Fitzgibbon’s men began to use artillery on the tavern. This created havoc among the rebels. They all ran away, ending the rebellion. Montgomery’s Tavern was destroyed and many rebels were captured. The skirmish lasted no more than twenty minutes.
This melee led to Mackenzie and Gibson having a bounty on their head, Lount and Matthews being executed and Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada Sir Bond Head being replaced. The new Governor-General, Lord Durham would be sent to Canada to study the causes of the rebellions. He would write the Durham Report. This report led to a series of changes and reforms, mainly the unification of Upper and Lower Canada as a single colony with one legislative assembly. His report also called for a government that is responsible to the people.