Around Christmas in 1837, British militia from Upper Canada were encamped on the Canadian side of the Niagra River near the river formation, Navy Island. The troops were ordered to observe the Canadian island as Canadian rebels occupied it. In frustration, the defensive force, led by British Colonel Allan MacNab, witnessed United States citizens supplying tactical support and aid to the outlaws.
Ever since the end of the War of 1812, a faction of US citizens favored expansion into the colonial British lands of Canada. In concert with the Americans were Canadians who wanted independence from Great Britain.
A rebellion, led by William MacKenzie, erupted in Quebec in 1837 that was quickly suppressed by the British. MacKenzie escaped to Buffalo, New York. It was while he was in the US that he recruited several Americans to join his rebellious band. By late autumn MacKenzie and his rebels occupied the large island a mile above Niagra Falls on Canadian territory. The rebel plan called for a large force of men and armaments to launch an invasion of mainland Canada and begin a war of independence from Britain.
At the same time, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Francis Bond Head, need to exercise caution while handling the emerging rebellion. Any misstep could lead to all out war with the US. Along with the caution was a possibility that the militia could be overwhelmed by the rebels. Any disabled ships and troops could be swept into the strong current of the river to destruction over Niagra Falls.
Throughout the day of December 29, 1837, a steam packet ship called the Caroline passed back and forth from the American side of the river to the island carrying weapons, supplies, and rebels. Colonel MacNab and his soldiers watched the illegal activity taking place. It was at this point that MacNab decided the acts of piracy had to end.
Loyalist Captain Andrew Drew of the British Royal Navy took command of a night time raiding party to the United States side of the river. The British attack consisted of seven boats, each manned by eight troopers and an officer armed with pistols and swords. Even though the Caroline was docked in US waters, the order to capture the Caroline had to be obeyed.
The original British plan was to sail the Caroline to the Canadian mainland and use it as evidence against the rebels. The troops from the seven boats easily chased the American crew from the Caroline and took over the ship. Steam could not build up quickly enough for a successful passage to Canada so the order was given to scuttle the vessel by setting it ablaze.
In flames, the Caroline broke apart in the upper rapids of the Niagra River where parts of the vessel and the engine became embedded. However, exaggerated news reports inspired dramatic gossip and drawings about the vessel supposedly going over the Falls. Zealous news reports also claimed several injured and killed Americans. In reality, a black American, Amos Durfee, was the lone fatality. He was the victim of a musket shot.
Reaction was furious. Americans along the frontier territories were angered about the overt violation of American sovereignty and the death of a US citizen. Armed civilians crowded into Buffalo, New York, ready to invade Upper Canada in revenge. In an effort to quell any renegade invasion of Canada, President Martin Van Buren dispatched Major-General Winfield Scott and militia forces to the border areas.
The frontier Americans nurtured and maintained a grudge against the British Canadians for the next few years. Their thirst for revenge came to a head in 1841. A deputy sheriff from Canada, visiting New York, supposedly bragged that he was the man who shot Amos Durfee. Alexander McLeod was arrested and indicted for arson and murder.
The British-Canadian government demanded McLeod’s prompt release on the grounds that his actions were performed in the act of a military operation. Tempers were inflamed on both sides of the border over the upcoming criminal trial. General Scott was responsible for the personal protection of the prisoner and the US Attorney General took charge of the defence. So much time had elapsed that by the time of the October trial and verdict of acquittal that the public reacted with near indifference.
The following year, Britain’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Baring the Baron of Ashburton, met with US Secretary of State Daniel Webster to draft the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Among many matters, some US-Canadian border issues were settled, and diplomatic statements were made in regards to the Caroline Affair. The crisis was officially closed.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes this historical footnote:, In 1945, Navy Island was proposed as the site for the International headquarters of the new United Nations. Of course this never happened. The island is now under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada.