Bishop's Waltham

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The Rebellion of 1837/38: Lingering Resentments

The purpose of this article is to bring to remembrance some of the attitudes prevalent in the period of the rebellion of 1837/38 and to suggest that these events were the cause of lingering resentments long after people had forgotten family involvement in the rebellion. 

My father Gordon Wesley Udell was born in Stettler, Alberta on the 5th of September in 1918. His early records indicate that he was French by ancestry. His father George Wesley Udell held a strong dislike for “Englishmen”. I was to discover that other portions of the family held similar prejudices. For example Frank Udell of Lincoln Nebraska relates, “My Grandfather, and my Father, never spoke well of the English. I am sure my father did not even know why he disliked the English.  It was just one of those things that is passed on from generation to generation.  A great number of the original settlers of Sanilac County, Michigan were affected by the problems in Upper Canada in 1837/1838.  My ancestors, the Udell’s, Bennett’s, Matthew’s, and McClure’s all came from Canada between 1840 & 1870.”   Also Dr. Jon Udell in Madison Wisconsin advised me that their family tradition was they were descended from a French soldier from Quebec.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that I discovered that our family was descended from an “Englishman”, Mathew Udell. Why the strong feelings about “Englishmen”?  My theory is that it is due to what happened to the family during the rebellion of 1837/38.

My ancestor Mathew Udell was born in Ellastone, Staffordshire in the fifth decade in the 18th century. The family had lived there at least for 150 years by that time, as evidenced by church records.  The earliest spelling of the name in Ellastone was Udall. This early record is of the marriage of Mathew’s gr-gr-gr-grandfather, John Udall, to Elizabeth Bull in December 1640. Mathew Udell served with the 19th or Green Howard’s Regiment for 14 years before he joined the 26th, or Cameronian Regiment, while they were in Staffordshire, England in 1780. The 26th regiment subsequently shipped to Quebec in 1787. Mathew had a wife and daughter, names unknown, and a son John. John Udell served 5 years with the regiment. During this period of time Mathew and John served in various locations in Lower Canada and in Upper Canada at Forts Niagara and Erie.  John remained in Upper Canada when the regiment went back to Lower Canada in 1792. He received land in the Niagara region of Upper Canada in 1797. Mathew was discharged due to age and infirmity in Halifax in 1800 before the regiment went back to England. He subsequently petitioned for land in Quebec in 1802 after being discharged. This is the first document in which the name is spelt Udell.  His petition was denied.

Meanwhile Mathew’s son John Udell married Margaret Brown in the Niagara district. Margaret’s family had moved up from Pennsylvania. Her father James Brown had been blacklisted in Pennsylvania because of his service with the British Navy during the Revolutionary War.  Their first two children James and Catherine were baptized in St. Marks in Niagara on the Lake on the 21st of May 1804. 

The family moved to the Pickering and Markham area just north of Toronto a few years later.  In lands records John Udell is referred to as John Udell “the hunter”. John Udell “the hunter” was a member of township council in 1817. By the mid 1830’s they owned several farms in this region.  John and Margaret had nine or ten children: James, Catherine, Mathew, William, Joseph, Nancy, Jane, Hanna, John, my direct ancestor and George. There is a chance that George may be a son of James (i.e. a grandson of John and Margaret), but is mentioned in a history book on the family as a son of John and Margaret. 

Then the rebellion of 1837/38 occurred.

In Upper Canada the "Reformers" were demanding an elected and responsible legislative council and they arose against the "Family Compact".  Without getting into the reasons for rebellion it is worth noting that the majority of “rebels” where farmers.  Control, of the land and economy were not benefiting the majority of the population. This resulted in farmland being undervalued and farmers struggled to make ends meet. 

The leader of the revolt in Upper Canada was William Lyon Mackenzie.  He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1828 but was repeatedly expelled by the influence of the Family Compact.  He was also elected in 1834 as the first Mayor of Toronto.

A somewhat different view of the rebellion is offered in a history book of Toronto, which states:

"It is easy for moderns, knowing only the British freedom that has broadened down from precedent to precedent since 1841, to denounce the Family Compact as a tyranny, but let them put themselves in the place of the loyalists of the day, desperately eager to have security as British subjects.   Perhaps they might not be so censorious.  It is a significant fact that agitation and rebellion never got any support from Eastern Ontario or the Niagara peninsula, the original settlements of the folk who had been robbed and driven into exile by republicans.  Nearly all the "patriots" exercised about the Rights of Man, and deeply concerned about an abstract British liberty were either disputatious immigrants from the British Isles, perhaps not fully aware of the peculiar dangers that threatened Upper Canada, or late settlers from the United States who had lived for twenty years or more under the Republic and had come into central and western districts of the province in the quest for free land."

In any event Mackenzie issued a proclamation on the 25th of November 1837 calling Canadians to arms to overthrow the Family Compact.  One of the Patriots gathering places was Montgomery's Tavern, located several miles north of Toronto on Yonge Street.  An attack on Toronto planned for the night of the 6th of December proved unsuccessful when the Patriots, having delayed their advance until sufficient numbers had gathered, were met and fired on by the military.  The Patriots under Samuel Lout scattered and returned to the Tavern. Provincial Troops under Governor Sir Francis Bond Head and Colonel Allen MacNab attacked and disbursed the "rebel" forces on the 7th of December at the Inn.  

Over one hundred men were arrested and thrown in jail over the incident, including Joseph Udell, son of John Udell "the hunter". Several were charged with high treason and two, Samuel Lout of Holland Landing and Peter Matthews of Pickering, were executed by hanging.    

The rebellion was not a great military struggle but the repercussions for Canada lasted for many years.  Various "Hunter Lodges" were organized in American cities along the border and border raids were carried out for several years after the rebellion.  Several other international incidents occurred, including the seizure of Navy Island by the Patriots and the burning of the steamboat "Caroline" by the British Military Forces at Niagara with the steamboat as a result going over the Niagara Falls.

Considerable hatred and animosity resulted in the communities between the factions.  The History of Markham records the following:

"Fred Reid of Markham, a descendant of Frederick Eckhart, recalls. …Another brother, Gottlieb, remained in jail all winter.  He was tried for high treason and sentenced first to be executed, though the penalty was reduced to "transportation" to Van Dieman's Land. However, on May 12, 1838, Gottlieb was released through the offices of Peter Milne, Sr., magistrate in Markham Village. When Gottlieb died in the 1850's, his coffin is said to have been buried beneath heavy, criss-crossed planks - such was the bitterness left from the Rebellion period - to prevent Tories from molesting his body."

The following period of the 1840's was a period of considerable unrest in Upper Canada.  A group referred to as the “Markham Gang” reportedly terrorized the Markham and Pickering area.  This is the context in which Mathew Udell, the older brother of Joseph, was brought before the 1846 Home District Spring Assizes. The Toronto Examiner of the 29th of July 1846 provided the following commentary:

"(The activities of this gang noticed in several) adjoining townships within the last two or three years --- A number of thefts, in one case of a few yards of cloth, in another of pair of breeches, another of a few pans, and in another of seventy or eighty dollars accompanied by brutal violence, have been perpetrated upon the farmers, by persons who must have acted in concert.  Great terror pervaded the minds of the timid and those living in isolated and remote places, on account of the frequency of these depredations, and the apparent impossibility of detecting these offenders. --- At last circumstances came to light that led to the arrest of two or three, one of them, conscious of his quilt, and apprehensive of it being proven, took it into his head to confess his crimes, and turn Queen's evidence against others.  Upon information obtained from him a number of persons in the Township of Whitby, Reach and Pickering were taken up and lodged in goal.  --- In the course of trials of these men, it became evident to every reflecting mind that, in the anxiety, which every one felt to see the villainous gang exterminated, and all who belonged to it brought to condign punishment, there was danger that some innocent persons might suffer with the guilty.   It was remarkable fact that several of those charged were the sons of respectable farmers, while others were men with wives and children, cultivating farms of their own, with comfort and plenty around them!  What would have induced such men to commit such crimes? --- We must see some sufficient motive, before we can easily believe men, circumstances as we have described, guilty of such crimes.  At all events, it does seem to us, that when a conspiracy of this anomalous kind is asserted to be in existence, however desirable it may be to extinguish it, yet it is infinitely more desirable that the persons should be proved, beyond all doubt, guilty --- that when persons hitherto respectable, and in a situation far from want, are charged, and when consequences so serious (affecting not only themselves entirely but a numerous kindred) must inevitable follow a conviction.  Juries, if sometimes off their guard, should be watchful and scrupulous then; that Judges, if sometimes lax and one-sided in their interpretation of the law, and the application of its rules, should be otherwise then; that all, in a word, concerned in the administration of justice should take especial care that no improper spirit actuated them, and no undue influence or prejudice biased them. But it has been said by council --- that a spirit has prevailed the late trials far more dangerous to the best interests of the community than anything to be apprehended from the secret combination it was sought to break up to a juryman (of course, there were exceptions) of the necessity of evidence from an unpolluted source, that placed the prisoners quilt beyond all question, you were met with 'Ah, but such scoundrels ought to be punished. "But how do you know that the prisoner is one of them, except from the testimony from a man who has confessed himself the blackest of scoundrels?  'He looks like it; I've no doubt he is a member of the gang!'  Is this the kind of reasoning any one of us should like to hear from a man who had our character, liberty and life at his disposal? --- We hope (strange as it sounds) that all persons tried at the late Assizes were guilty.  We should be sorry to think that anyone of those now in the Penitentiary knows that he is the victim of individual malice, and public inattention to the rules of law and justice --- But what would be, what ought to be, our feelings if it appeared that there were political reasons for the extra-ordinary zeal of some of our authorities, and the leanings and one sided views of others?  It was hinted more than once during the Assizes there was no need of being very particular, that if the prisoners were not thieves, they were, at all events rebels; that if not punishing offenders, they were crushing political opponents --- It did not seem to us possible that political feeling entered into these proceedings when we heard one of the Magistrates who was particularly concerned in them, in frequent conversation with several of the jurymen who were to try the prisoners, descanting upon the virtues of the informers Stutts and Spencer --- inveighing against the different persons charges, and relating numerous little circumstances within hid knowledge which tended to establish their guilt --- We greatly fear that the demon of political hatred has again profaned the temple of justice."

Another Toronto newspaper published a supplement on the "Markham Gang" in which it is stated:

"that the present association grew out of or rather is but a continuation for other purposes, of the associations which were originally organized for the purposes of revolt previous to the late rebellion.  The principal families implicated in the present gang were also implicated in the late rebellion --- The cat is now out of the bag.  We now have it from one who has had access to the very highest sources of information, that our authorities thought they had discovered a ci-devant of rebels in the "Markham Gang" --- We shall not consume much space in proving the absurdity and falsity of the 'origin and history' which the Colonist has published and the Canadian of last week reiterated --- Whatever were the sins of the rebels, those of plunder and robbery were almost exclusively charges upon the lawless gangs of Orangemen, who undercover of authority, traversed the country, abusing defenceless women, and appropriating to their own use whatever of private property they could conveniently carry off --- We have no doubt some of the  'Markham Gang' were implicated in the rebellion.  And it may be that a majority of those apprehended admitted that they were 'democratic' in their principles, for we are told these questions were asked by the magistrates. What the question of their quilt we are unable to perceive --- (The evidence shows that the 'Markham Gang') grew out of the associations founded for the avowed purpose of suppressing revolt --- the notorious Green, --- who was the most hardened of the gang, was a Sargeant during the 'late rebellion' --- (Colonist was wrong to assert) that none but Canadians and Americans belonged to the gang, for Green was an Irishmen --- the far greater of their number of their robberies were committed upon persons, who, in the vocabulary of the Colonists and Canadian, are radicals, i.e. rebels --- the gang must be a continuation of the Orange Association, Blazers, etc., for they exhibit the same preference for radical property.  The truth is, this notion as to the origin and political character of these loafers, is the offspring of some wretched Tory's diseased imagination. They were as devoid of political principles or character, as of every other character but that of unprincipled rogues. And all who answered that description, whatever they might call themselves, were admitted without question to the mysteries of the order."

Mathew was tried, found guilty and sentenced to be imprisoned at hard labour in the Provincial Penitentiary for five years.  James Green is listed in the court records, just below Mathew, as receiving the same sentence of five years.  Mathew died intestate in jail on the 1st of September 1848.  The letters of administration granted to his wife Mary (Hamilton) Udell state that he left behind five minor children.  

The majority of the Udell family moved to Michigan and Wisconsin.  

While there may be varying opinions as to the motives of the "Patriots" one of the positive results of the rebellion of 1837/38 was the British Government sending Lord Durham to Canada to investigate the matter.  His report has been referred to as the ablest state paper of the century and made a significant contribution to the way in which the Canadian Government evolved reflected in the British North America Act of 1867.  In his report he states that if the Crown "has to carry on the Government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it on by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence."

My great-great grandfather John Udell is buried in Melvin Cemetery in Michigan. My great-grandfather John Eli Udell was born just before the infamous spring assize of 1846 and would have heard from his family many stories as a youngster about the events of the 1830’s and 40’s, and likewise would have passed some of this on to his children in stories and prejudices.  John Eli Udell is buried in Orillia, Ontario. My grandfather George Wesley Udell left Orillia early in the 20th century and homesteaded in Alberta.  As late as the 1950 and 60’s he held a lingering resentment of “Englishmen”.  

Of course I recognize that the Family Compact were not all Englishmen. The compact included people whose ancestry was Scottish, Irish and American, however, I understand how this may have been viewed from the perspective of the English as the dominant group in nation in control of society at the time.     

Fortunately this resentment was not evident in my father. While in England during World War II he met and married Kathleen Mummery. He was not to discover that the ancestry of the Udell family was English until I completed had done the research in the 1970’s.