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From Political Prisoner to American Pioneer

Patriot Chronicles: From Political Prisoner to American Pioneer

February 12, 1840 marked the end of a long voyage to a far away land. After 137 days and over 16,000 miles, HMS Buffalo docked in Hobart Town with the last batch of North American political prisoners who were transported to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land for their participation in the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion. Aboard were 92 English speaking prisoners who had been captured at the St. Clair Raids, the Battle of the Windmill and the Battle of Windsor. One chapter in the lives of these Patriot exiles had ended, while another was about to begin! This is a story about one of those men, James (Pearce) Pierce.

James Pierce was a 22 year old labourer from Orleans, New York. His journey into servitude began with his capture at the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838. He was one of 88 men from Jefferson County, New York who were involved in this armed incursion. Active recruitment for volunteers to join this adventure had begun by the Patriot Hunters in the spring of 1838. It had been most successful in Jefferson, Onondaga and St. Lawrence counties.

After the defeat of Patriot forces at the Battle of the Windmill, 136 men were taken prisoner. They were liable for prosecution under “An Act to Protect the Inhabitants of this Province Against Lawless Aggression from Subjects of Foreign Countries at Peace with Her Majesty,” because they had committed “armed hostilities” against Upper Canada. As a consequence, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, George Arthur, issued a general order directing a court martial to be held at Kingston. The Prescott prisoners had been sent there and incarcerated at Fort Henry. After trials and several executions, the remaining prisoners from the Battle of the Windmill were joined by Patriot prisoners taken at skirmishes along the St. Clair River and at Windsor.

In some period narratives it was unclear as to what the fate of these men would be. Windsor captive Elijah Woodman clarified the situation on April 1, 1839. He reported that; “....orders have arrived for transportation to Van Deman’s (sic) Land.” His Windsor colleague Elizur Stephens confirmed this in a May 29 letter to his brother in Oswego; “Our prospects have been verry (sic) flattering until within a few days but now they seem to wear a more unfavourable aspect we are all most sure of being transported [to] Vandemon’s (sic) Land and are to start within a few days.” While their journey would not begin as soon as Stephens believed, on September 23, 1839, a directive was issued for the prisoners to depart in short order from Kingston. Eighty-three prisoners, including James Pierce were placed on Durham boats to be taken to Quebec. In his diary for September 24, Peter Sweeney, lockmaster at Jones Falls wrote; “The windmill prisoners went through to Bytown in the steamboat Cataraqui and barge Queen Victoria.” Elijah Woodman corroborated this information in a letter that he wrote to his family. Woodman noted the Patriots had left Kingston on September 23 for Montreal by way of the Rideau Canal, aboard “Durham boats” towed by steamers. On September 27, the prisoners reached the harbour in Quebec, and were loaded aboard HMS Buffalo. The next day their journey to Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania) began.

The Buffalo anchored at Hobart Town on February 12, 1840. Early on February 15, the prisoners were loaded on a barge and in two row boats and taken ashore at the New Wharf. Here they were documented and given a number by government officials.

James Pierce was assigned #1558. On receipt of specific instructions from Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, the Patriots by-passed the usual disposition of criminals. Franklin ordered that these men be separated from “the usual class of thieves.” They were not sent to the Hobart Town Prisoners’ Barracks, but instead marched directly to a probation station situated near Sandy Bay. This action followed what was spelled out in correspondence of February 15 from Franklin to the British government. He ordered that these political prisoners “ placed on the roads by themselves, and landed direct at the place selected under a superintendent of experience and selected overseer.” Here they commenced to build a nine mile stretch of road between Sandy Bay and Brown’s River.

Woodman noted that the “Canadians” joined 76 British convicts at this site. Elizur Stevens explained the daily work routine at Sandy Bay in a March 6, 1840 letter to his brother and sister: “Our work consists of pecking stone and earth, shoveling, hauling with handcarts, &c. We have to work 11 hours in the day, for 5 ½ days in the week.” Prescott prisoner John Gilman added; “Our labour is of the hardest-mending roads. We have no teams of any kind, and have to do all the carting ourselves.”

While working conditions were harsh, Woodman, optimistically described his feelings about the Sandy Bay Probation Station; “We are so far treated with every degree of humanity and cannot complain as we have enough to subsist upon and very good barrack accommodation.” On June 9, prisoners Horace Cooley, Jacob Paddock, Michel Morin and William Reynolds escaped. They were soon recaptured and sent to the Port Arthur Penal Institution as second offenders. To forestall further attempts to abscond, Lieutenant-Governor Franklin ordered the rest of the Patriots in the work party to be moved inland to the Lovely Banks Probation Station.

Established in 1839, Lovely Banks was situated in the midlands, 36 miles north of Hobart. It was a road station established as part of the government’s plan for the construction and opening up of a main road north to Launceston.

William Gates, a prisoner captured at the Battle of Windsor, described the daily routine: “Our loaded carts we had to draw two miles five times a day. At early dawn we were roused, and away at our tasks by sunrise, which we were not allowed to quit till sundown, when we were marched back in double file, and by the time we had our pint of skilly, it would be long after dark, when, to cap our enjoyments, we would be forced to the huts and locked in, where was no fire or light, nor any convenience whatever: cold, shivering, hungry and generally wet to the skin with the chilly rains that fall almost daily.”

James Pierce and the rest of the Patriot exiles would have experienced similar conditions while at Lovely Banks. The Patriots toiled here until Linus Miller and Joseph Stewart escaped on August 29, 1840. They were recaptured, but as a result of this escape they were sent to Port Arthur. Lieutenant-Governor Franklin was so incensed about this escape, that he ordered the remaining men to be dressed in “magpie,” the standard convict clothing.

The Patriots were then sent to the Greenponds Probation Station (now Kempton). Here they continued with road and drainage work, and were involved in the construction of St. Mary’s Anglican Church. The Launceston Courier of April 5, 1841 reported an April 1 visit to Green Ponds by Sir John Franklin: “His Excellency proceeded yesterday to the Green Ponds, with the view of announcing to the Canadian prisoners that the representations which he made in their favour to the British government have met with the most favourable consideration, and that in consequence they will receive immediately the indulgence of tickets-of-leave. Without any needless profession of sympathy for these men, who, whatever may have been their former transgressions against all national law, have, during the period of their probation under sentence of punishment, conducted themselves in the most orderly manner, we may be permitted to observe.”

The Patriot exiles stayed at Green Ponds until May of 1841, and then were transferred 11 miles north of Hobart Town to the Bridgewater Probation Station. There they were joined by 300 British felons to build a causeway and punt across the Derwent River. Their work consisted of carting and wheel-barrowing stone to build these engineering projects. Bridgewater had gained a reputation for harsh punishment being handed out to convict labourers.

The Patriots witnessed this treatment but were not subjected to it. However working conditions were miserable as for much of the time prisoners had to stand in knee-deep water to handle stones and build piers. Soon after their arrival at Bridgewater, Sir John Franklin ordered that the large Patriot group be broken up into smaller parties, and to be distributed to other probation stations. Dispersal took place on May 29, 1841. Men were sent to New Town Bay, Jericho, Jerusalem, Brown’s River, Saltwater Creek, Mount Dromedary, Constitution Hill, Rocky Hills, Victoria Valley, Seven Mile Creek and Marlborough. At these locations, they continued with road work and assisted in the construction of buildings at new probation stations. It is unclear where James Pierce was posted from May 1841 to February 1842, but it would have been at one of these specific sites.

Lieutenant-Governor Franklin in an August 15, 1840 address to the Legislative Council had detailed new rules for the disposition of convicts. Moving from an assignment system, he noted that; “The prisoners who have arrived since November 1839, have been placed on the Public Works in Probationary Gangs, there to remain for the minimum period of one year, and the maximum of four years before they pass into private service.” He was empowered to grant tickets of leave (a form of probation) to prisoners after two years of hard labour on the roads, if their conduct merited such action.

James Pierce was one of 70 of the Patriots to receive this indulgence on February 10, 1842. These tickets were issued on the condition that prisoners only resided and worked in the districts of Fingal, Campbell Town, Oatlands, Bothwell, Hamilton and Swanport. This measure might appear to have been a useful tool for the Patriots, but Elijah Woodman pointed out its constraints: “We are hemmed in on all sides and watched very closely, being confined to six small districts....and cannot get from one to the other without a special order from the Chief of police.”

By March of 1842, James Pierce was located at Oatlands. A Police Report printed in the June 11 edition of the Launceston Examiner, noted that Pierce “....was sentenced [to] one month’s hard labour on the treadmill for being drunk at church muster.” He subsequently moved to Campbell Town and became involved with fellow Patriot Daniel Heustis in an escape attempt from Waub’s Boat Harbour (now Bicheno) on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land. Planned for April 1844, the escape did not come to fruition. Pierce returned to the Campbell Town area and worked with Elizur Stevens, Michael Fraer, Chauncey Mathers and Daniel Heustis, doing fencing for local land owners.

In October to December of I844, Pierce joined with Heustis and Hiram Loop to repair a dam on the estate of William Grey. Pierce was awarded an absolute pardon on July 16, 1845. Subsequently, he is mentioned in Elijah Woodman’s diary as being one of 19 pardoned Patriots who lived in Hobart Town between March 20, 1844 and October 25, 1846. Pardoned prisoners often gravitated to Hobart Town, with the hope of gaining passage aboard an American whaling vessel for passage back to United States. And so it was for James Pierce. He left Van Diemen’s Land in September of 1846 with fellow Patriot Jehiel Martin. A two month journey aboard an unnamed vessel found them in Sydney. Eventually Pierce made his way back to New York State. His days of being a political prisoner had mercifully come to an end! A new chapter in his life would soon begin.

By 1850, Pierce was living in Marshall, Oneida County, New York. The census listed him as a farmer. On April 5 he married Fidelia Pierce. A son Edward was born in 1851. The Pierce family then moved west to homestead in the wilderness of Kewaunee County, Wisconsin. In 1856, James Pierce purchased 160 acres of land near what was to become Pierce Town. Only two other pioneering families lived in the area at that time. James Pierce became involved in local politics and community life. He represented Pierce Town on the county board, acted as a juror, and became a member of the first local agricultural society. He applied to operate a post office, was successful in this request, and began the Rushford Post Office on April 4, 1861. James Pierce died from smallpox on February 1, 1863. His obituary in the February 18 Kewaunee Enterprise, stated that he; “....was a man, generous and kind, to his fellows, especially those in distress, and will be very much missed by a large circle of friends.”

James’ wife and son followed him to their graves only a few months later. In the February 16, 1894 edition of the Kewaunee Enterprise, Pierce was recognized as the founder of Pierce Town. The article noted that; “As a rule, the advanced guard of men who pierce the forests and first introduce civilization are men of strong minds, unfaltering wills and with marked traits of individuality. To this class belonged James Pierce.”

Pierce can truly be remembered as both a political prisoner and an American pioneer. In a footnote to this story, the Canadian High Commission in Canberra and the Hobartwill be re-dedicating a commemorative cairn to the Patriot exiles on February 17, 2015. This ceremony will take place exactly 175 years to the week of the arrival of H.M.S. Buffalo in Hobart Town, with the 92 English speaking North American political prisoners aboard. A fitting way to remember James Pierce and his colleagues!

Dr. John C. Carter’s Patriot Chronicles
  1. Patriot Chronicles: Four Who Didn't Come Home – June 2010
  2. Patriot Chronicles: James Gemmell, Man of Two Frontiers – August 2010
  3. Little Boxes, Little Boxes.. Fort Henry Connection – August 2012
  4. Patriot Chronicles: The Hickory Island Incursion – February 2013
  5. The Burning of the “Sir Robert Peel”… – April 2013
  6. Mass Escape From Fort Henry – July 2013
  7. Remembering the Battle – November 2013
  8. They left Jefferson County Forever… – February 2014
  9. Patriot Chronicles: Nathan Williams, A Rebel who Escaped – November 2014

By Dr. John C. Carter

Dr. John Carter is a frequent contributor to TIL. He is currently a Research Associate, at the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania.   In addition, Dr. Carter has provided a bibliography to study this important era of Thousand Islands history which can be found in THE PLACE, History page.  He can be contacted at

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Joan (Stone) Jakubowski
Comment by: Joan (Stone) Jakubowski
Left at: 4:50 AM Monday, February 16, 2015
Dr. Carter provides a chronicle to part of the whole story, truly amazing detail on the 92 prisoners. So many died in this incursion, their names gone, the 13 hung at Fort Henry forgotten, reasons how and why this happened not reported, the investigation by Assistant Dist.Att. Benton and his findings buried in history. Did the U.S. come to their aid, try to obtain a pardon, did the widows and children of the dead Patriots endure hardship, move south and west, to leave Northern New York and escape what was 48 years of French and British hostilities, if so, who were they, and when will they bring closure to their lost ancestry! The very presence of the exiled King of Spain in Northern New York 1816-1832 is partial evidence, his brother Napoleon's sighting in Cape Vincent another, and the large number of their high profile French Families have left trails proving they were in Northern New York. My thanks for Dr. Carter in reporting this important bibliography, am looking forward to read more of his findings.