Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  The Place      History      History Articles

Return to History · Search “History”

Written in April 2008 for Thousand Islands Life Magazine by Paul Malo

Our prominent North Country historian, John A. Haddock, viewed the "Patriot War" as "one of the most curious, inexcusable and altogether insane episodes that central or northern New York ever witnessed." That was his mature hindsight, however. Haddock was twelve years old when the event occurred, and recalled "my absorbing interest in that movement, which in my youthful eyes was as patriotic and glorious as the war of the revolution."


This speaks to the romantic appeal of the project to a young generation at the time. It was an era of revolutions, of rebellions in the name of liberty. The notion of "democracy"--popular sovereignty--was endemic.


Canada was not a nation at the time. Like the United States, prior to the American Revolution, Canada was a collection of colonies. They were largely governed from London. Naturally, the recent precedent of the American Revolution loomed large in London, and north of the U. S. border.


As is oft observed, "the victors write the histories." The very term, "rebellion," as the historian, ___________, observed, "drips condescension." A rebellion is a failed revolution, as viewed by the victors. But this historian (who is Canadian) suggests that these events of the 1830s might have been a genuine revolution, defined as an "old order's loss of legitimacy." He decries the "insular historical interpretation" of most fellow Canadian historians, inclined like local historians to focus merely on particular campaigns in their areas rather than viewing the larger context of cause.


_____ presents a "bottom-up" sort of historical revisionism, believing that the troubles of the 1830s were not so much fomented by liberal professional leaders, the intellectuals who wrote position papers (comprising most of the historical record) as he is persuaded that the habitants (rural "peasant" folk of Québec) were reacting in opposition to old feudal tendencies while "actively responding to democratic appeals because the language of popular sovereignty was in harmony with their experience and outlook."


Regarding "what was in the air at the time," Haddock observed that von Schoultz was "long and sadly mourned, for all the prisoners he was perhaps the most thoroughly deluded with the idea that he was fighting for freedom." Indeed, all biographies of Nils von Schoultz agree. Although he was something of a young adventurer, he was drawn again and again to join other freedom fighters in Europe and America.


Nils Gustuf von Schoultz was not born Polish, as so frequently stated. He was a Finn, of distinguished family which fled to Sweden to escape Russian oppression. His culture was more Swedish than anything else. He married and began a family in Sweden. I had suspected the Polish identity was a romantic ploy to identify himself with the Polish insurgency of 1830-31, supposing that the "Szoltereky" portion of the name he used in later years was probably in invention, as he was passing himself off in America as a Polish aristocrat.


My suspicions were shaken by the historian, Donald Grant Creighton, who revealed that von Schoultz's Swedish family "had for some time had been settled in Poland. His father, who owned salt mines in the neighbourhood of Cracow, was a major in a Polish regiment; and Nils von Schoultz, brought up in an atmosphere of ease and dignity, had been trained as a chemist in the universities of northern Europe."


Salt apparently was the connection between Cracow, Poland and Salina in upstate New York. Salt was the principal industry of the Syracuse area. Von Schoultz had invented and patented a process for reducing impurities in salt.


Nils experienced the "November Uprising, an armed rebellion (1830-31) of the Poles against Russian rule, suppressed by the more powerful Russian army.


Von Schoultz had been a Swedish artillery officer but resigned his commission, presumably to join the Polish campaign and then, perhaps, the French Foreign Legion--although the bravado of such accounts is suspect. According to contemporaries, however, von Schoultz was not a braggart. To the contrary, he was reticent, the soft-spoken gentleman--and somewhat the classical rogue who was a lady's man. He was a wandering adventurer, short on common sense when caught up in some current enthusiasm, but otherwise intelligent, inventive--and a man of action who lived by his wits from day to day.


It has been customary to decry the insanity of the Patriot movement, which presumed to liberate Canada from an oppressive regime. Like Haddock, historians have tended to chuckle at the notion--but mostly they have been American historians who are less familiar with the real situation in Canada at the time.


In fact, John Lambton, Earl of Durham, was appointed governor general of British North American in the the spring of 1838. His mission was to determine the causes of rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada--unrest that preceded the Patriot campaign at Prescott but induced Americans to suppose Canadians were oppressed. Lord Durham also had the mandate to decide "the form and future government" of the Canadian provinces.


In short, Lord Durham concluded the root problem was, indeed, want of participatory governance. "Even before he embarked on his Upper Canada sojourn, Durham had come to the conclusion that the cause of rebellions in upper Canada was domination of those in the power elite over the general citizenry," according to historian Charles D. Anderson.


So there was some substance to an American impression of a repressive regime in Canada. But it was ironic that von Schoultz and company landed at Prescott, near Brockville, which Lord Durham considered a "hot bed of ultra-loyalism," considering the Brockville Tories "both misguided and dangerous." He refused to visit there, bypassing the town when traveling up and down the river.


Tories were not by nature sympathetic with democratic reform notions. After all, the Loyalists had left the United States because they were unsympathetic to the revolution.


Canada was dominated by the "Family Compact," an oligarchy of the land-owning and wealthy, such as Kingston's Cartwrights, for whom architect George Brown designed their magnificent Rockwood Villa in 1842, subsequently absorbed into the Rockwood Lunatic Asylum, west of Portsmouth Village. Lord Durham characterized the Family Compact as a "petty, corrupt, insolent Tory clique."


"In Upper Canada where immigrants from modest origins ... formed a growing proportion of the population, resentment focused ... on the wealth and power of the Family Compact," according to historian Craig Brown. Many ties of kinship linked families on both sides of the border, due to intermarriage and migration. It was common for Americans simply to purchase Ontario property and set up there. Consequently there was grave unease in the elite establishment about the loyalty of the less privileged among them.


Lord Durham, "easily the most highly-placed British political figure to enter the Canadian political stage to date," seemed to confirm the American impression of repression, saying that unrest was "a contest between a government and a people." When the governor general with a clear reform mandate asserted this, did the American view seem so mad as many have subsequently supposed?


Lord Durham, although born into "one of the richest and most influential families in the north of England," was reform-oriented, in contrast to the conservative Tories. The period was not merely one of revolutions, but of reform. Parliament adopted the Reform Bill in 1832. Slavery throughout the British Empire was abolished in 1833, a few years before these events. Dominance of the landed class was waning with growth of industry and commerce. Tories were the reactionary faction. Durham, in contrast (a Whig) represented change.


Why was the Hunter Lodge movement so successful in recruiting members in central and northern New York State? Indeed, this region was fertile terrain for all sorts of reform and utopian movements in the early nineteenth century. The reform impulse transcended boundaries. William Lyon Mackenzie, first mayor of Toronto and 1837 rebellion leader, became a radical journalist in the United States, where he became a citizen, residing in New York State. Ultimately, in 1850, Mackenzie returned to Canada, from where he wrote for newspapers of both nations. He returned to politics. "For the next seven years, Mackenzie was the loudest advocate in the Assembly for the cause of 'true reform.' This involved a resumption of several of his political stances from the 1830s. ... By 1858, Mackenzie advocated annexation of Canada by the United States and pushed this position regularly in the [his] paper [which] no longer even covered Canadian politics at all."