How William Lyon Mackenzie Escaped Through Caledon …or Not!

They were smuggled food by a local farmer’s wife who, knowing she was being watched, would tie packages of food to her crinolines and go for a walk.

November 17, 2012 | | Historic Hills

Stories about the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada may well outnumber the shots fired in this haphazard uprising. Several of the tales describe how the rebellion’s fiery leader escaped capture with the help of supporters in Caledon.

On December 7, 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie became a fugitive with a price on his head. Three days earlier, this former mayor of Toronto, member of the legislative assembly of Upper Canada, newspaperman, agitator, and prominent member of the Reform Party had led several hundred farmers armed with clubs, forks and guns down Yonge Street.

The purpose of the march was to protest against and hopefully eliminate the privileges enjoyed by the colonial gentry, especially those with Church of England and Orange Order connections, and to establish responsible, democratic government in Upper Canada. Close to where Maple Leaf Gardens would rise a century later, the marchers ran into opposition and after exchanging a few gunshots, retreated to Montgomery’s Tavern (now a historic site at Postal Station K on Yonge Street just north of Eglinton).

Two days of inconclusive negotiations ensued, before about a thousand militia under James Fitzgibbon (the officer whom Laura Secord walked miles to find in the War of 1812) marched up Yonge and brought the rebels’ disorganized venture to an ignominious end.

Sir Francis Bond Head, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, whose arrogant misreading of the political situation had helped bring about the 1837 uprising, issued a proclamation offering a £1ooo reward for capture of Mackenzie.

Sir Francis Bond Head, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, whose arrogant misreading of the political situation had helped bring about the 1837 uprising, issued a proclamation offering a £1ooo reward for capture of Mackenzie. Click image to read the full proclamation.

Sir Francis Bond Head, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, whose arrogant misreading of the political situation had helped bring about the uprising, issued a proclamation offering rewards for capture of the leaders – £1000 for Mackenzie – and a vague promise of forgiveness for rebels who just went home. Some did so, but many went into hiding as the leaders, including Mackenzie, took off for the U.S. hounded by squads loyal to the colonial government.

… and the Mackenzie stories began

Mackenzie in a bed

James Bolton, a founder of the village of Bolton, was known to be a supporter of the Reformers (according to local historian Esther Heyes, he fled the country with the rebels), so it’s no surprise a rumour immediately arose that Mackenzie had hidden out in Bolton’s home after the battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. What makes this tale dramatically appealing is the part that says when loyalist militia searched the house, Mackenzie avoided capture by burrowing into a straw mattress beneath Bolton’s children.

Mackenzie in a wagon

The mattress story had credibility in part because Mackenzie was short – one of his nicknames was “Little Rebel” – and that also lent credence to the story that he was strapped to the underside of a wagon to protect him from the prodding bayonets wielded by search parties. The wagon in this story went through Brampton with Mackenzie aboard (or underboard) while escaping a near capture in Streetsville.

Mackenzie in a sleigh

In what is apparently a succeeding chapter, the wagon in Brampton was exchanged for a sleigh when the Little Rebel was taken north through the snow on Centre Road (now Hwy 10) to Charleston (Caledon Village) where there were citizens sympathetic to the rebel cause. This story has Mackenzie nearly freezing in the cold while his helpers refuelled at a local tavern. As this one goes, the result was another near capture because the only teetotaller in the escape group was overheard urging his comrades to get a move on because “Mackenzie is freezing out there!”

Mackenzie in a cave

One of the more sustained stories has Mackenzie and several followers hiding for several weeks in fissure caves along the Escarpment near Belfountain (and Cataract, and Rockside, and Greenlaw). They were smuggled food by a local farmer’s wife who, knowing she was being watched, would tie packages of food to her crinolines and go for a walk. At a key point she would bend to adjust her unmentionables and release the food to be picked up after dark by the rebels.

Mackenzie in a church

While in the Escarpment area, Mackenzie, known to be firmly religious, is alleged to have attended several Sunday services in the log cabin that served local Presbyterians while their Melville White Church was under construction.

On December 7, 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie became a fugitive with a price on his head.

On December 7, 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie became a fugitive with a price on his head.

Mackenzie’s Fate

Days after arriving in Buffalo, Mackenzie moved to Navy Island in the Niagara River where, with about 200 supporters, he proclaimed the Republic of Canada. They were soon forced off the island and Mackenzie was arrested by U.S. authorities for violating American neutrality. After a brief stint in jail he remained in the U.S., pursuing a rather uneven career as a journalist and publisher (and critic, this time of U.S. President Van Buren). In 1849, amnesty allowed him back into Canada, even though he had become a U.S. citizen in 1843. He resumed his political career here in 1851, defeating George Brown, publisher of the Toronto Globe, in a by-election, and continued to agitate for reform until his death in 1861.

Are the stories true?

Simple arithmetic makes all these stories hard to believe. Mackenzie fled Toronto on December 7. His presence was confirmed in Buffalo, N.Y. four days later on December 11 – this in an era when travel was difficult and Caledon was well off the best route. As Creemore author-historian Chris Raible, an authority on the Mackenzie era puts it, “If all the stories were true about how much Mackenzie was helped on his way [to Buffalo], it would have taken him four months to get there, not four days!”

Plus there are Mackenzie’s own words in The Life and Times of Wm. Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion of 1837-38, published by his son-in-law in 1862. In this diary Mackenzie says he and 16 rebels fled west from Shepard’s Mills (Yonge and Hwy 401), avoiding Streetsville (where “three hundred of the hottest Orangemen and other violent partisans were searching for us”), and made their way through Hamilton, Ancaster, Stoney Creek and Smithville before crossing the Niagara River to the U.S.

Although Mackenzie was notorious for fudging fact with rhetoric (the newspaper, Canadian Freeman, called him “William Liar Mackenzie”), there was no reason to do so this time. Together with other evidence and simple logic, Mackenzie’s own words make pretty clear that while on the run, he was nowhere near Caledon.

Then why the stories?

Some parts of Upper Canada benefitted from colonial, British-centric control, but Caledon was one of many that felt left out, so rebels on the run would have been confident of support here. Or at least a “blind eye.” Therefore it’s probable that this friendly territory, still quite remote in 1837, did attract some as a place to hide until the dust settled and they could go home again (mostly to the Newmarket and Pickering areas).

Over time, as stories about rebels-in-hiding were passed on orally, one or more of these men likely morphed into the Little Rebel himself. As appealing as the stories might be, there is no plausible evidence that the real William Lyon Mackenzie escaped through Caledon.

More Info

The Rebellion of 1837 was a dramatic period in Canadian history that wasn’t over with the rout of Mackenzie and his supporters at Montgomery’s Tavern. Read more from Ken Weber about other bloody conflicts and the fate of the captured rebels.
The Rebellion of 1837: Not Just Montgomery’s Tavern

About the Author More by Ken Weber

Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken is also the Historic Hills columnist and puzzle meister for this magazine and has a loyal following here in the hills.

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