Friday, January 11, 2013

Stephen S. Wright and the Republic of Canada: The Battle of the Windmill

In the aftermath of the Upper Canada Rebellion, my ill-fated first cousin four times removed, and son of Tyrannus Wright, Stephen Smith “Sylvanus” Wright, became caught up in an American mission to free Canada from the despotic rule of Britain and its heinous leader, “Victoria Coburg”, and to establish the "Republic of Canada". In November 1838, he and his approximately 250 compatriots crossed the St. Lawrence River and invaded Canada, in what is called in the U.S. “the Patriot War”, and in Canada is called “the Battle of the Windmill”. They did not receive either the support of the local militia (in fact, quite the opposite), nor of the expected reinforcements from their own country. Abandoned by all, including their appointed leaders at the start, the band of brothers held out for a few days at the mill near Prescott against the British Army and the Canadian militia. As they were outnumbered and spent, their leader Colonel Von Schoultz, a Pole, and a former soldier under Napoleon, surrendered unconditionally. He and others were executed. Some were pardoned and allowed to return home, and many others were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land, now known as Tasmania. This included Stephen Wright, who, was sentenced to transportation “down under”. Fortunately for posterity, including us, Stephen wrote an account of his travails.

I first encountered a reference to my cousin Stephen’s troubles in Hough’s A History of Lewis County, New York:

During the excitement throughout the Northern border, in 1837,-’38,-’39, incident to the “Patriot War,” (so called) in an attempt to invade Canada, “Hunter Lodges” were organized in many of our villages; funds were subscribed, and enlistments were made.

Among the volunteers in this wild campaign, was Sylvanus S. Wright, a son of Tyrannus A. Wright, of Denmark, who was captured at the “Windmill,” below Prescott, and sentenced to transportation for life to Van Dieman’s Land. When pardoned by the Queen he returned to his former home, and was welcomed at Copenhagen with great parade. His narrative of three years’ captivity, was written up by Caleb Lyon, of Lyonsdale; but having it libelled Preston King, of Ogdensburgh, by statements shown to be false, (but doubtless made from misinformation rather than malice,) the author was compelled to suppress the pamphlet, and to widely publish an acknowledgement to Mr. King.

Having read this, I wondered how I could ever find a copy of this work since it had been suppressed. I was later to find it on the internet in its entirety. It is called, Narrative and recollections of Van Dieman’s Land, during a three years’ captivity of Stephen S. Wright together with an account of the Battle of Prescott, in which he was taken prisoner, his imprisonment in Canada, trial, condemnation and transportation to Australia, his terrible sufferings in the British penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land and return to the United States: with a copious appendix embracing facts and documents relating to the patriot war, now first given to the public from the original notes and papers of Mr. Wright and other sources (1844). It can be accessed at: It is a gripping and woeful tale, and only about fifty pages, and  worth the read. It is true that Mr. King does not come off well in the story. In King’s defence, Stephen Wright was not aware that his party did not receive reinforcements partially because both the Canadian and U.S. governments were blocking anyone from crossing the river to aid them.

In this work, written as a first person narrative, Stephen also describes his lengthy return home, via England (he therefore had circled the globe in his travels). He reports that he had the opportunity while there to see Queen Victoria herself and her consort Prince Albert:

I saw Victoria Coburg, surrounded by her lords and ladies, whose dresses were of every texture in the world, glittering in jewels and gleaming in gold; and I thought of the starving masses, whose money and life had been crushed out of them to support this extravagance; and my heart was sick of that bitter satire to every honest Briton—“Hurrah for happy England!” If what I saw was happiness, what is misery? Who has the moral courage to see the smoking bread of a well filled bakery, and yet starve to death? yet many have so died in London; thousands, and yet the half is not told. And if one morsel of that bread is taken, when no work can be had, the doom is transportation for life; while Prince Albert, that pauper upon England’s bounty, riots upon thirty thousand pounds per annum. Many could have been employed to do the state the same service he does, at a much cheaper rate. I saw him with the field martials’ star upon his breast, and covered with gaudy finery. It added nothing to its beauty to know that it had been washed in the tears and blood of the poverty-stricken ones of England.

Notably, Stephen writes, regarding his return to North America, “I would here thank the generous-hearted William Lyon Mackenzie, whose gentlemanly sympathy and hospitality was extended to us while in the city”, the said Mackenzie presumably being the same one who was a leader in the Upper Canada Rebellion, and whose descendant, William Lyon MacKenzie King, was later to be the Prime Minister of Canada. The city referred to is likely New York, as Mackenzie was living there at the time.


Elevenfloors said...

I believe that my gg-grandfather's sister, Laura Gates of Champion (daughter of Asa Gates and Mary), was the wife of Stephen S. Wright. Do you have further confirmation of that union?

Elevenfloors said...

I believe that Stephen was the husband of Laura Gates (daughter of Asa Gates and Mary of Champion, NY). Do you have any further confirmation of this union?

Sherry said...

Thank you for this. I had nothing about this marriage, but I see that others have it on Ancestry. I am adding it provisionally to me tree on Ancestry awaiting further research. Stephen's life post return from Tasmania has been hard to trace.