Nazi submarines in the Saint Lawrence

Among the things I would have expected to be taught (and remember being taught) in high school is the fact that during World War II German submarines were sinking boats and killing Canadians in the Saint Lawrence River and Gulf. Instead, I learned about it from this tweet:

Rimouski is on the south side of the Saint Lawrence, just a little bit down river from Tadoussac, visible in this photo from space that I wrote about before. The U-132 attack in July of 1942 was part of the larger Battle of the Saint Lawrence, which the Juno Beach Centre sets up this way:

During the night of 11th to 12th May, 1942, the inhabitants of Cloridorme, a fishing community in the Gaspé Peninsula, were awakened by an explosion that shook up their houses as an earthquake may have done. Some lights could be seen out at sea, then vanished; in the morning, lifeboats drifted ashore. After several hours of searching, 111 survivors were rescued, seven men are missing.

The attack made the headlines and public opinion was alarmed. A threat that no one had dared mention until then, had just materialized: German U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence; Nazi Germany threatening Canada from within. Public opinion demands an explanation and protests against censorship.

The prospect of Nazi submarines in Canadian waters is so intriguing that there are also many rumours and claims of Nazi subs even further inland, and of Germans coming ashore for provisions and for drinks at local pubs. Tristin Hopper reported on some of those stories for the National Post in 2013, including arguments that the subs came inland into Labrador, and “within sight of Baie-Comeau just as a young Brian Mulroney was taking his first steps.”

The evidence for those even more eye-popping scenarios, Hopper reports, is not particularly strong, and he quotes some very skeptical historians. I’m impressed enough by the battles we know did happen that I don’t feel a strong need to believe the murkier tales.

What I’m reading about Canadian history

I’ve said before that a tagline for this blog could be “I read Canadian history so you don’t have to.” I started out with very little knowledge of Canadian history and have written about the parts I’ve found interesting as I’ve learned. This is my 40th post out of the 52 weekly posts I promised this year, informed so far by 21 books and lectures as well as articles and other shorter sources. Here are some of the highlights.

The history book that kicked off my current binge was the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, based on the musical Hamilton (or maybe it was the other way around?). I loved it, not just because of the way it revealed the musical to be surprisingly faithful to the source material (Angelica Schuyler really did compare Hamilton to Icarus, and he really did write “I wish there was a war“) but also because there was somehow even more drama in Hamilton’s real life than in the Broadway version.

All of this has pretty much nothing to do with Canada, but because I do not have a Hamilton blog, here, very briefly, are the three craziest things from Chernow’s Hamilton biography that aren’t in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version. One, years before their final encounter, Aaron Burr helped prevent a duel between Hamilton and future president James Monroe. Two, Thomas Jefferson tried to have an affair with Angelica while they were both living in France. And three, after Maria Reynolds’ affair with Hamilton she got a divorce from James Reynolds, and Aaron Burr represented her! Come on!!

Ok so then I went looking for biographies of Hamilton-like figures from Canada’s story, which initially led me to Chester Brown’s “comic-strip biography” of Louis Riel, and Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer.

Champlain’s Dream is a beautiful book that paints Samuel de Champlain in a very positive light. Fischer’s vivid descriptions of Champlain’s voyages helped inspire my post Where the Great Lakes pour into the sea, itemized the extent to which the French were always renaming everything, and also illustrated that Canadian history is world history, since neither Fischer nor this book are particularly Canadian. (Fischer has a personal connection to Champlain via Maine, a state that Champlain explored with flagrant disregard for the Canada-U.S. border that didn’t yet exist.)

In Champlain’s Dream Fischer also says that he changed his mind about the meaning of a famous incident in Champlain’s life after reading the work of Bruce Trigger, an archeologist and historian who researched and wrote much of what we know about the Wendat (he called them Huron in his writings, the name the French re-named them, but later said he would have gone back and instead used Wendat, the name they gave themselves, if such significant revisions to massive print books were feasible).

When I say massive, just one of Trigger’s books on the Wendat, The Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660, is almost 1,000 pages including notes. The simple existence of this book — the fact that a person could write so much covering the history of just one group of people who lived in one small part of Canada (roughly today’s southwestern Ontario) and covering only the time before 1660 (which, I now realize, is a lot of time) — shook my lazy assumptions about the land now called Canada prior to colonization. I realized I could spend years only learning about Indigenous nations and still only skim those depths.

So I started reading The Children of Aataentsic partly in the hopes of getting a different perspective on Champlain, and I did indeed acquire a much less glowing impression than the one Fischer lushly painted. Still, while I was somewhat reassured that Trigger had a connection with Wendat communities, I worried that I wasn’t getting Wendat history from a Wendat person. The solution to that problem serendipitously presented itself only recently.

While I wasn’t yet aware of any Wendat source for Wendat history, there was a lot of buzz about a new book called Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel. I strongly recommend this accessible and entertaining/enraging book for anyone who’s wondering where to begin on this stuff. 9 things I learned from Chelsea Vowel’s “Indigenous Writes” is the only post I’ve written so far that’s specifically about a book itself, and is also my second-most-read post to date. It was also from Vowel that I learned of Canada’s mandatory “Eskimo Identification” tags.

Other than Indigenous histories, the part of Canada’s story most inaccessible to me as someone who doesn’t read French very well is French Canadian history. Thankfully, as a start, there’s Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America. It’s from Legacy that I learned of the French Canadian mayor of Los Angeles.

My parents-in-law gave me that book as a gift, and I’ve also helped myself to a few others from their shelves, including one with a title that immediately excited me: The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Border by Shaun J. McLaughlin. From that book I wrote three posts about the ill-fated Republic of Canada (another exciting name that isn’t actually in McLaughlin’s book, but which I discovered doing supplementary research), and two posts about the Battle of the Windmill, a ridiculous story about a group of mostly Americans who did a very bad job of invading and liberating Canada.

Speaking of battles, I have so far not been particularly drawn to military history, however I do about half of my “reading” via audio books, and there are almost no audio books about Canadian history, except, for some reason, a whole bunch of military history books by Mark Zuehlke. I chose to listen to Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory June 6, 1944, an entire book about a single country’s contribution to a single day in World War II. From this book I wrote about a jaw-dropping escape from a land mine and a not so well-thought-out plan to try to make tanks float. Now I find myself looking forward to reading (or listening to, probably) Zuehlke’s other books about Canada at war.

Come to think of it, I guess I have written about war more than I realized, though most of my discoveries about Canada and war have been mentioned as tangents in lectures I’ve listened to on different topics. Due to the aforementioned dearth of Canadian history audio books I’ve been listening to any history I can get via the Great Courses series, which are abundantly available on Audible.

It was, for example, a general history of WWII that alerted me to Operation Fish, the secret plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada in case Britain fell to the Nazis. A lecture on the American Civil War noted the time that Canada almost entered the Civil War against the North, a fact suspiciously and conveniently absent from Canada’s story as I’ve known it. And it was a lecture series on the French Revolution where I learned of the Voltaire quote from which this blog gets its name.

Most recently I was walking up the main street in Bracebridge, Ontario when I spotted, in the window of a used book storeHuron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle by Georges E. Sioui. This was the book I didn’t know existed, but had been looking for nevertheless! I picked it up and was excited to learn that not only is Sioui himself Wendat, but he was friends with Trigger and draws heavily on his work (meaning I didn’t have to throw out everything I’d already read about the Wendat). My two most recent posts, Standing for anthems and A circular past and an extended present, come from Sioui’s poetic and challenging book.

I started this project with a list of about 100 books I wanted to read, and I’ve now read about 20, so I only have… 157 left to go? Why did I keep adding books to the list?!?

A circular past and an extended present

Regular readers know I’ve become interested in the idea that it’s very difficult to understand the past unless you can gather enough context to develop what some call “historical empathy.” In short, people from the past have world views different enough from ours that their actions and experiences can’t be interpreted through our own sets of beliefs, values, and assumptions.

This post is about how the people who lived in the land now called Ontario more than 400 years ago thought about time and creation, in order to start building even a partial foundation of “historical empathy” before later posts get into more detail about how they lived, loved, fought, and died. My source is a book by Georges E. Sioui called Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. Sioui is a Wendat, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in the history of his own ancestors in order to “scale the imposing heights of the citadel of white knowledge” and be taken seriously as a scholar.

I’ve mentioned the Wendat before (the French re-named them “Huron,” because the French were always renaming everything). The Wendat Confederacy and its predecessors have thousands of years of history in the land now called Ontario and beyond. Sioui writes that they were “people who had possessed a civilization — a brilliant civilization worthy of being known and recognized.”

The challenging idea at the centre of his book is that Wendat civilization was fundamentally different from European civilization, and therefore can’t be understood using a European frame of reference. “First and foremost,” he writes, “Amerindian world vision is circular, as opposed to European-based linear world vision.”

One consequence of a circular world view is that the concept of “advancement” becomes difficult, if not incoherent. Europeans considered Wendats, who lived in villages and grew a surplus of corn, “to be ‘more advanced’ than their Algonkian hunter neighbours,” but “the Wendats apparently did not, in any way, see their move to agriculture as a shift to a superior subsistence mode. On the contrary, this society, with its strong spiritual (circular) sense, seems to have viewed the nomadic life of the hunter as being closer to holy things and therefore an ideal human condition.”

Many of us are so used to the idea that agriculture represents a “more advanced” type of society that this is surprising. We’re also frequently exposed — sometimes explicitly, sometimes insidiously — to the idea that European cultures were superior to Indigenous ones. But “the belief in cultural evolutionism — a fundamental premise of linear thinking — is absolutely and permanently foreign to Circle civilizations. In North America, in any case, over five hundred years of indefatigable assaults have failed to convert Amerindians to a linear perspective.”

A related distinction is that “Amerindians in general, and the Wendats and Iroquois in particular, have a sense of morality that differs completely from the Christian tradition. Christian morality advocates and seeks an absolute good, while Amerindian morality sees absolute good and absolute evil as equally dangerous concepts.”

Sioui recounts the Wendat creation story and points out that it involves a “woman who comes from a paradise and founds a human race in a world that is a testing ground fraught with danger; and the presence of two brothers, one of whom kills the other.” The similarity to the Christian myth of the Garden of Eden is striking, especially since both stories developed while the “old” and “new” worlds were completely isolated from each other.

But a key difference in the Wendat creation myth is that “life triumphs without eliminating death.” And instead of having “a single God who is infinitely good and who crushes evil… Wendats have Aataentsic and Tawiskaron, who protect them against absolute good.” [Italics in original.]

Therefore, in circular societies, “nothing exists by and for itself. Good is partly the product of evil, as evil is partly the product of good, which means that neither quality exists as an absolute.” Also, because of their animist spirituality, which depends on a “capacity to perceive the soul (anima) inhabiting all beings and all things,” the Wendat were “unaware of the concept of human and non-human exploitation aimed at the accumulation of power by certain groups within a society, to the detriment of the majority.” That any society could be unaware of that concept is shocking to me, since it is such a cornerstone of my own.

This spiritual and moral context is relevant to all other historical understanding, Sioui says. “For peoples without writing (a characteristic of Circle societies, generally speaking), life cannot and should not be a purely material and temporal venture. History that fails to address the human spirit and conscience is of no use.”

And, he says, historians have done a particularly bad job of appreciating the special circumstances that arose when circular Amerindian societies were suddenly severed from their past by the violent insertion of linear European societies:

Their historical trajectory was abruptly and radically curtailed by the coming of Europeans to the Americas. It is only natural that Native peoples should still feel the violence of the shock, as well as the psychological and spiritual trauma resulting from this collective severance. It is also normal, therefore, to find that Amerindians have been unable to distance themselves spiritually from the repercussions of its terrible impact, and that they cannot view this impact as over and done with; they see it as part of their present and something to which they must necessarily and inevitably reconnect.

Ok but time does move in a straight line forward… doesn’t it? That belief is so fundamental to my understanding of the world that all of this still feels a bit lost in translation.

The story that helped me get the closest to grasping a circular relationship to time was one that Sioui recounts from N. Scott Momaday, who himself is remembering a story his father told about his own father. As a storyteller, Momaday’s father “invariably slipped into the present tense.” A story that began “he loved melons… we stopped at a certain place” would become “he loves melons, and he always stops at that place.” Momaday says “this is a common thing in my experience of the Indian world. For the Indian there is something like an extended present.”

After quoting this story, Sioui writes that “with regard to their respective conceptions of time, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists speak languages that are unintelligible to Native people, and vice versa.”

Standing for anthems

The country where I live has been talking a lot about anthems this week. What does it mean to stand for a national anthem, and what does the anthem itself stand for?

Georges E. Sioui — an historian and Wendat who lives in Vancouver — remembers being taught the Canadian anthem at his Lorette reserve school, run by French-speaking nuns.

Sioui remembers his teacher, “her thick, dark eyebrows streaks of war paint rising to the starched white helmet beneath her veil,” imparting a pointed education when he was six-years-old.

‘Your poor ancestors were savages… The king [of France] took pity on them and sent missionaries to convert them, but your savage ancestors killed the missionaries. They became our Holy Canadian Martyrs, who died to save the savages.’

And with this, moved almost to tears, she made us kneel and pray for forgiveness from the Holy Canadian Martyrs for our ancestors’ cruelty… ‘You should ask God’s forgiveness every day for the sins of your ancestors and thank Him for giving you the Catholic faith and snatching you from the hands of Satan, who kept your savage ancestors in a state of idolatry, deceitfulness, thievery, war, and cannibalism. Stand up; we’re going to sing a hymn of thanks to the Blessed Virgin.’

The hymn she then launched into was not the national anthem, but when the Canadian anthem came up at the end of that day, Sioui remembers it being part of the same chain of thought:

The nun — we called her ‘mother’ — proudly announced she was going to start teaching us our national anthem… ‘You must learn it as a prayer,’ she preserved, ‘because it’s more of a prayer than a hymn. It expresses not only our pride in being Canadians, but even more our pride in being Christians.’

This was the word of the Government of Canada. Today some people want to argue that history like this is in the distant past. Sioui’s story shows that it is within living memory, and those living memories draw the past into the present.

Notably, Sioui also writes that that phrase, “the distant past,” would not have made any sense to the original peoples of this land. The title of the book where Sioui tells the above story, Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle, refers to the idea that the Wendat and other Indigenous nations had a circular view of life, including a circular view of time, which is at odds with the kind of “linear” outlook that places the past far away in one direction.

I’m so accustomed to living in a “linear society” that I’m finding it difficult to deeply understand what it would be like to live in a circular one. To that end, next week’s post will summarize Sioui’s chapter on the “origins and mythology” of the Wendat Confederacy, a nation that was central for centuries in the lands now called Ontario, Quebec, and the northeastern United States.

8 surprising tweets about Canadian history

The bad news is I’m very sleepy, typing from a cozy bed, and I’m not going to last long. The good news is that I’ve got a collection of tweets to share with you, BuzzFeed-style, before I lose consciousness.

1. Bet you didn’t know Labrador has a flag, well it does

2. Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue is so wide because of carts

3. This is what the Toronto TD Centre looked like when it was built

4. Canada’s anti-Nazi war propaganda was great

5. Also from WWII, whatever this is

6. A visualization of human history in the land now called Canada

7. This crazy stat (though note the “Canadian” qualifier is what makes this true)

8. This perspective on the recentness of colonization

Are you better off than you were 400 years ago?

Here’s an impossible question: is life especially hard for you because you don’t have access to technologies you’ve never even conceived of?

An early episode of CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us included some Canadian celebrities talking about how hard life was hundreds of years ago. The examples cited were that “we’re very lucky… because we can get on a plane” and “I can’t leave my house without my phone.” This is an easy and common fallacy; it’s very tempting to apply our own “beliefs and experiences” to people from the past, and assume we can understand what it was like to be them.

In reality, the culture and context of people who lived centuries ago were different enough that it takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what their lives were like. For starters, people who lived in the land now called Canada hundreds of years ago had all sorts of problems, but a lack of mobile internet ain’t one. Hundreds of years from now human descendants, if there are any, will be tempted to think I suffered because unlike them, I was bound to one physical body, didn’t have a networked mind, and lived in a world that hadn’t yet unlocked the secrets of faster-than-light travel. They would be just as wrong.

Of course, this assumes that life is always getting better, and that if you could live at any time in history, you’d want to live now, if not in the future. Some critics of this idea call it “the myth of progress.” In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes that the cultural idea that things are getting better is a relatively recent one in human history, beginning in Europe around the time of that continent’s conquest of the Americas, about a hundred years before the dawn of Canadian colonialism.

Before that, most Europeans believed that history was static, and that if anything life had gotten worse since the time of a lost “golden age.” As Europeans began to colonize and conquer the Americas, the modern idea of progress was a nascent, experimental theory.

In Sapiens, Harari also argues that while new technologies have been good for the species, they have often been bad for individuals. Ancient foragers, he writes, were “as fit as marathon runners” and “had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.” One way to learn what forager life was like in the distant past is to look at hunter-gathers living today. “Even in the most inhospitable of habitats such as the Kalahari Desert,” today’s hunter-gatherers work an average 35-45 hours a week, less on average than non-foragers in either the developing or affluent world.

If the foraging life of earlier humans meant people were healthier and had more leisure time, why is the development of agriculture considered an improvement? The agricultural revolution was biologically good for the species because it allowed for an increase in population. From a biological perspective, more copies of a species’ DNA is a good thing even if the individuals carrying around that DNA are working harder and getting less in return. This is why Harari calls the agriculture revolution “history’s greatest fraud.”

The point, in the context of early Canadian history, is to be skeptical of the assumptions we might have about what kinds of societies are valuable for what reasons, and about how life does or doesn’t improve for individuals over time.

If you want to understand what life was like in pre-contact North America or early colonial Canada, and you do so primarily through a lens that views past people and their lives as primitive or lacking, your understanding will be very limited, in part because that’s not how they saw themselves. They, like us, could only ever compare their situation to what was possible and normal in their time. Additionally, even if they could compare their society with today’s, there’s no guarantee they’d prefer ours. The theory that people from the past or people with less advanced technology are always worse-off is hardly nuke-proof.

For example, in the 16th century southwestern Ontario was home to The Wendat Confederacy, and they, writes Bruce Trigger, “knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own.” They traveled and traded over today’s provincial and international borders, and remained secure in this belief. And when the French arrived after thousands of years, they still didn’t really change their minds.

This was going to be a post about the Wendat, but again I got lost in the preamble, because I think the context is so important. So I’ve copy-and-pasted the next 1800 words over to another draft for another day.


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Weird things I apparently taught my American friends about Canada

As I’ve mentioned, I recently moved to California from New York. As a goodbye gift, some of my New York friends compiled a document called “A List of the Things We Learned About Canada From Chris Tindal.” It was a really special and thoughtful gift, especially now that I am able to use it as a blog post during this extra busy time.

Some of this is grossly inaccurate due to misunderstanding, and there are a few items that I can’t even explain the origin of. It might also look like I complained about Canada all the time, but I hope not. Mostly I suspect I was just trying to impress my American friends with weird stuff and make Canada seem exotic.

What follows is the slightly edited document. Actual history to continue next week.

A List of the Things We Learned About Canada From Chris Tindal

Chris Tindal, a man we will have worked with until 3pm today, contains within him a wealth of knowledge about Canadian history and minutiae. Over the last two or so years we have had many conversations with him about this nonsense. We have treasured these talks though we have failed to accurately remember them. We will attempt to relay that information, in our best addled recollection, in this doc.

1. Canadian radio stations are required to play a certain number of Canadian artists per day, so there are a lot of Canadian musicians Americans have never heard of.

There is a board that manages this, but I don’t remember the name of it. I do remember that there is a point system for figuring out how canadian a musical act is called MAPL. I think it is an acronym though I have no idea what it stands for. As a band a Canadian band member will land you one MAPL point, and you need at least two to be considered officially Canadian enough for radio. Radio stations need to then play a certain number of officially Canadian artists. This system works per artist – having one extremely Canadian band, for example a 40 piece operatic indie folk act from Ontario – will not be enough to carry your radio station.

2. Canadian people love that it bothers Americans that they call beanies “touques”, and they will never stop talking about it.

They treat this like it’s America’s problem even when we are the ones who invented skateboarding. The two things might not seem connected but I assure you they really are. Also, a toque specifically has a pom-pom, and all canadians get really fucking mad when beanies don’t have pom-poms.

3. There is a complex beer registry system in Canada and that’s why Canada doesn’t get a lot of good beer.

Having some kind of irritatingly pleasant deeply entrenched regulatory board for a banal thing is deeply Canadian. [Editor’s note: I do not remember being this hard on Canadian beer, though I do get very mad at The Beer Store. Also I am sorry that pretty much this entire document mistakes either “Toronto” or “Ontario” for “Canada.”]

4. Despite every funny person being from Canada, Canadian TV doesn’t really have satire, and isn’t a lot of fun.

This might be related to the irritatingly pleasant deeply entrenched regulatory boards I mentioned before?

5. At one point a video surfaced of a political candidate peeing in a cup and it was a big political scandal.

Canadian politics are fun. [Editor’s note: I had forgotten about this! A great moment in Canadian history.]

6. Chris once met the lead singer from a band he liked who was bartending in Toronto or something.

It was a band I was totally unaware of (see #1) but this was a big deal to Chris and he brings it up from time to time. It is an anecdote about the unpredictability of life and finding humility in an idol’s failure, and growing old. [Editor’s note: I do not think Edwin is a failure, and enjoyed the evening I spent in his bar.]

7. Instead of Bloody Marys Canadians drink something called a “bloody Caesar”

It is a Bloody Mary guaranteed to contain Clamato and some kind of novelty garnish. That’s it. Somehow this is of great cultural significance.

8. Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October

And they all drink bloody Caesars

9. Santa lives in Canada, and New Zealand is Australia’s Canada

10. The Queen has many birthdays

The Queen of Canada’s birthday is May 24th.

11. Canada has its own kindle! It is called a Kobo!

[Editor’s note: I love, and would not shut up about, my Kobo.]

12. Canada also has a national font.

[Editor’s note: I think this is a reference to how the word Canada often appears in the same font in government material?]

13. Canada was not actually an independent country until, I want to say, 1986

[Editor’s note: Ha, ok.]

14. Oh Smarties! They are Canadian m&ms that Chris Tindal deems superior.

15. Canada has many fine treats such as: Maple Sandwich cookies, Coffee Crisp, All Dressed Chips, and Hickory Sticks

16. Famous Canadians, a list, from memory only, please. NO GOOGLING.

  • Chris Tindal
  • Cap Tindal (or whatever your brother’s name is)
  • Handsome Idiot Justin Trudeau
  • Former PM _____ Trudeau (related to the handsome one)
  • Kate Beaton
  • Alanis Morissette
  • The original Avril Lavigne (maybe not Avril Lavigne’s doppelganger)
  • Celine Dion
  • Drake
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Neil Young
  • Rick Moranis
  • Mike Myers
  • Jim Carrey
  • Pamela Anderson
  • John Candy
  • The rest of SCTV
  • Kids in the Hall
  • Norm Macdonald?
  • Nelly Furtado
  • J-Biebs
  • Snow, the white rapper who penned “Informer”, a licky boom boom down
  • Bryan Adams
  • The Weeknd
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Uhhh winnie the pooh (like the actual bear) i think
  • Michael Ondaatje? Maybe he was born somewhere else?
  • The band Rush
  • Leslie Feist
  • Grimes
  • Carl Newman
  • Many many hockey players
  • Bret “The Hitman” Hart
  • Tommy Chong (from Cheech &)
  • Late Former Toronto Mayor Rob “Crack-smokin’” Ford
  • Troy Hurtubise, inventor of the “Bear-proof Suit”
  • Everyone named “Gordon”
  • There are definitely some TV anchors that are from Canada.
  • Steve Nash

18. Chris can name everyone on a Canadian coin from memory, as well as identify a respectable number of figures on American coins.

The Hunters become the hunted

So it’s November 13, 1838, and 182 members of the Hunters Lodge, a United States-based secret society dedicated to the liberation of Canada, are stranded on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River in Newport, near present-day Prescott, Ontario, after executing an ill-advised invasion.

* record scratch *

* freeze frame *

If you’re wondering how they ended up in this situation, read the first two posts in this series, The Republic of Canada and The Battle of the Windmill. This post concludes my summary of Shaun J. McLaughlin’s telling of The Battle of the Windmill, the bloodiest battle of the Patriot War.

It was extra bloody not because of the British or American militaries, both of whom opposed the Hunters (the former because their territory had been invaded, the latter because American Hunters, acting as individuals, were in violation of American law), but because of the Canadian militia, who were merciless.

By the way, do you like apples? On the first morning of the battle, there were “five hundred Canadian militia” and only a hundred professional soldiers. The militia squad that “took the brunt of Hunter fire” as bullets flew for the first time included two brothers named Macintosh, whose father, on the “family farm, twenty miles east… cultivated the crispy red apple variety that still bears the family name.” How do you like them apples?

Anyway, members of the Canadian militia had “drilled for hours on bayonet use” and “skewered slow-running Hunters with lethal, seventeen-inch, three-sided blades” as the Hunters ran.

Retreating to the relative safety of their stone buildings, including the windmill from which the battle gets is name, the increasingly ironically named Hunters also faced uncomfortably cold temperatures as well as bombardment from American and British ships on the river. Fortunately, one iron cannon ball “screamed in through a window” of the windmill and then, after settling and injuring no one, but still very hot, “helped warm the frigid room.”

“Winter arrived that afternoon” and snow began to cover “the unclaimed bodies in the battlefield’s no-man’s land.” By the next morning, “the wet snow that covered the bodies… had hardened to icy coffins” and one man “observed hogs eating corpses.” A truce was called mid-morning, “and for an hour combatants politely helped each other pry bodies from their wintry tombs.” It started snowing again later that night. The Hunters had still not liberated Canada from British tyranny, and now they were cold and miserable and eaten by pigs a bit.

On the third day, “gathering clouds dumped snow and sleet.” Some Americans on the New York side of the border tried and failed to negotiate the safe repatriation of the doomed Hunters. That night, three Hunters escaped across the river by canoe. They were the last to have such an opportunity.

On the morning of fourth day, Friday, November 16th, “just 117 Hunters remained fit to fight,” surrounded by a “force of regulars and Canadian militia” that “steadily grew” in number. The river also became “packed” with “gunboats towing barges with additional artillery.” The floating artillery “fired each gun every two minutes” and “steadily dismantled Newport.” By dusk the Hunters had retreated into “just two structures,” with “the majority huddled in the windmill.”

One American Hunter, Captain Heustis, was “infuriated” that his own government was against him in what he called his “struggle for freedom” in Canada. Heustis compared his fight to that of the Texas Revolution, in which individual Americans had also fought against a foreign power (in that case, Mexico).

As an “unstoppable wall of death” in the form of British regulars advanced on the Hunters, the Hunter leadership finally left the windmill, flying a white flag of surrender. “A squad of Canadian militia ignored the surrender notice and fired at them, sending them scurrying to the windmill.” Witnessing this display, a captain in the British navy “ordered his marines to shoot any militiaman who fired on a truce flag again.” Later, as the Hunters surrendered for real, they were protected by British regulars, though not with complete success. As Hunters were leaving the tavern, the other stone building they occupied, Canadian “militiamen bayoneted two men who walked out with their hands up.”

It’s unclear exactly how many men died. One source says 17 Hunters were killed, which McLaughlin says is “a testament” to their “defensive strategy and the thick stone buildings of poor little Newport.” McLaughlin also finds the official death count of 13 Canadian and British troops to be “suspiciously low” given that “we do know that bodies so littered the battlefield that it took a truce on the second and fourth days to remove them all.” No matter which number we choose, “it was the deadliest encounter for Canadian forces in the Patriot War.”

The windmill itself survived and remains standing today, converted into a lighthouse. You can go stand there, read the plaque, picture the battle unfolding around you, and even look across to the easily-visible American shore from which the raid was launched.


Remember the event that helped kick this all off, when Canadian militiamen rowed to Navy Island, aka the “Republic of Canada,” and set fire to the American ship the Caroline, sending its flaming hull over Niagara Falls? A “radicalized” Canadian rebel named Benjamin Lett had been on Navy Island with William Lyon Mackenzie, and he “harbored a grudge” about the burning of the Caroline. Almost a year later, near Navy Island, on the morning of the last day of the Battle of the Windmill, Lett knocked on the door of a man named Edgeworth Ussher (I swear George R. R. Martin didn’t write this), who “had piloted [the] fleet of boats” that had attacked the Caroline.

Ussher opened the door, saw Lett, and slammed the door in his face. “Lett fired his pistol through the sidelight, killing his victim instantly.”

The Battle of the Windmill

When we last left off, the refugee rebel mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, had just been driven from his declared Republic of Canada on Navy Island, which helped rally Americans to his side and started a year-long series of battles and invasions known as the Patriot War.

Violence begets violence, often in ways that are hard to predict in the moment. As Upper and Lower Canadians rebelled, Americans were watching. And what they saw were oppressed Canadians, fighting for their freedom from British tyranny. The rebellions looked to many Americans like a northern version of their own Revolutionary War. Defeated Canadian rebels fled to the United States, exploiting a legal loophole known as “this border isn’t tightly controlled yet,” and their stories inspired would-be American liberators to rally to their side.

The Upper Canada Rebellion took place at the end of 1837 in December, and the Republic of Canada occupation of Navy Island ended in January 1838. In May, a secret group called the Hunters Lodge, comprising both Canadian rebels and sympathetic Americans, formed to build up an army and plan an invasion of Canada. In September they “held a convention in Cleveland, Ohio, to pick new leaders for pending invasions of Canada that fall,” writes Shaun J. McLaughlin in The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Boarder (from which this post draws heavily).

Formed in the style of masonic secret societies, members in the Hunters Lodge held one of four levels of membership: “snowshoe, beaver, master hunter and patriot hunter.” The Hunters had at least $150,000 and “large stores of arms.” They “bragged that they had twenty-five thousand armed men ready to fight,” but that would prove overly-confident.

The Patriot War included many small plots, invasions, and skirmishes, but the Hunters’ decision in the fall of 1838 to invade Prescott, Ontario was “one of the worst decisions” of the war, writes McLaughlin, and led to its bloodiest battle.

Thanks to a spy, the Upper Canadians were expecting an attack in Prescott, which is on a narrow stretch of the Saint Lawrence River near Kingston, where the Canadian and US sides are easily in view of one another. The Hunters didn’t know about the spy, but their leaders did know that not nearly enough men had shown up for the invasion. Despite suspecting “our scheme will fail,” the leaders conversed and agreed to press on. “I’d prefer to be shot” than back down, said one. “I would rather die than be branded a coward,” agreed the other.

The Hunters had managed to assemble 400 men split over three boats, which were lashed together and steaming towards Prescott from the American side. But when the moment of truth arrived, and the men were ordered to all consolidate onto the two smaller boats that would land on the north side of the river, only half of them agreed.

Under the cover of darkness, the first attempted landing went hilariously wrong. Both schooners approached the Canadian shore, lashed together. “As they came upon the wharf,” one man jumped out, tied a rope, and then jumped back in “just as the rope broke.” As the sun rose the next morning, people on both sides of the border “witnessed the embarrassing result of the Hunters’ aborted raid:” the schooners were both beached near the shore on the American side.

The next morning the invading force did successfully land on the Canadian side with men and artillery, on “a point one mile downstream from Prescott” near the battle’s eponymous windmill. “They immediately took possession” of the windmill and raised a flag that boasted Canada had been “liberated” by the Hunters.

They really believed “that Canadians would flock to the Hunters as liberators.” Reader, the Canadians did not. Upper Canada, and especially Prescott, was full of British loyalists, because of the thing where the Americans had fought a whole war against the British, strongly incentivizing any loyalists in The Thirteen Colonies to head north.

In addition to the windmill, the Hunters soon held “the barn and all unoccupied buildings” as “most residents fled.” Meanwhile, a small naval battle flared-up on the Saint Lawrence, as two ships played cat-and-mouse back and forth across the boarder. The British ship was called the Experiment, and the ship that had been captured for use by the Hunters was called the United States.

Ultimately the two ships charged each other, seemingly playing chicken. The Experiment swerved at the last second and “fired at close range… removing half of [the United States‘s captain’s] head.”

At this point, the Hunters had picked fights with loyal Upper Canadians, the British military, and the U.S. military, because they were in violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act, which made it illegal for any American to go to war against a power that was at peace with the U.S., which Britain was. Soon U.S. troops had arrived on the U.S. side, and “an American steamer… patrolled in mid-river to prevent any further crossings.”

With that, “the trapdoor” closed. Throughout the night rowboats went back and forth “carrying men in both directions” as some people deserted and others joined the fight, but by the morning the 182 Hunters who occupied stone buildings on the Canadian side of the river were stuck, without hope of reinforcement, and with both the British military and Canadian militia closing in.

Find out what happens next in the third and final post in this series, The Hunters become the hunted.

The Republic of Canada

Because my current interest in history began with the American Revolution, one of the first questions I asked was: why didn’t Canadians fight for independence like Americans did? One answer is that they did. Violent rebellions in present day Ontario and Quebec happened within living memory of and were influenced by the American Revolution and, while they were not on the scale of the Revolutionary War, they did contribute to Britain loosening its grip on its remaining North American colonies.

I’d heard of those Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, but not of the so-called Patriot War that immediately followed. This year-long war, explains Shaun J. McLaughlin in The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Boarder, was “a historical oddity,” an “undeclared war between the United States and the Canadian colonies.” What makes it odd is that it was “not a war between nations,” but rather a war fought between an alliance of likeminded Canadians and Americans against the combined might of the British and American militaries and Canadian militiamen.

The pivotal event between the Rebellions and the Patriot War was the declaration of a Republic of Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie. As you may know, Mackenzie is most famous for leading a rebel assault against Toronto, the city of which he had recently been mayor. What’s less well-known is what he did next.

Having lost the battle but not yet the war, Mackenzie and other rebels fled to the United States. There, the “fiery and accomplished orator” rallied Americans to his cause of a free Canada, comparing “the suffering of Canadians to the ‘same evils’ that had caused” the American Revolution.

On December 14th, 1837, Mackenzie and other “Patriots” invaded Canada with 24 men and two cannons. Well, kinda. The invasion involved the occupation of the small Navy Island in the Niagara River, technically on the Canadian side. Still, Mackenzie proclaimed a “Republic of Canada,” a kind of government in exile, and the bold move attracted more people to the island.

“At its peak,” writes McLaughlin, “the island’s Patriot force numbered approximately six hundred, almost equally Canadian and American.” Their artillery also increased to twenty-four cannons, which they used to bombard the Canadian mainland.

Loyal Canadians were unamused by said bombardment. Just two weeks after the beginning of the Patriot occupation, sixty Upper Canadian militiamen “rowed across the icy river in darkness” to seize and set aflame the rebels’ supply ship. In a scene worthy of HBO, “the blazing craft grounded on rocks and broke apart, its pieces plummeting over the falls.” The short-lived Navy Island occupation fizzled out two weeks later, in part, says McLaughlin, because the rebels were bored and cold.

One detail prevented the Republic of Canada’s demise from being a tidy victory for Upper Canada. The supply ship the militia destroyed — the Caroline — was American, and an American soldier was killed in the process. So, that was a whole thing. Americans were outraged, and “sent money and ammunition to Mackenzie. American volunteers soon outnumbered Canadians in the Patriot army.”

Thus, “a bungled revolt near Toronto” evolved “into a yearlong undeclared border war” between Canadian rebels and American would-be liberators on one side, and the British and American militaries and loyal Canadian militia on the other.

Read the next post in this series, The Battle of the Windmill.

Featured image: a contemporary painting of the destruction of the Caroline by George Tattersall.