Patriot Chronicles: Trying to Get Home, Escape Attempts, Some Successful & Some Not!
It was all the result of rebellious acts; between December, 1837 and December, 1838, more than 1,000 men were arrested and charged with piratical invasion and treason. They had been part of at least 14 unsuccessful armed efforts to overthrow the government of Upper Canada. Ultimately, 92 of these rebels would be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as political prisoners. They were shipped there in three batches; by mid-February of 1840, most were assigned to work at the Brown’s River and Sandy Bay Probation Stations. Thought of escape was paramount in the minds of many of the Patriot exiles. Both Brown’s River and Sandy Bay seemed conducive to this goal. Many American whaling ships were often docked nearby, in the Hobart Town Harbour and surrounding waters, and they afforded a potential opportunity for escape. This article describes those efforts.
Early Attempts to Escape:
On May 10, 1840, prisoners Horace Cooley, Michael Morin, Jacob Paddock and William Reynolds were the first to successfully abscond. Their flight and subsequent recapture were recorded in the “Police Report,” published in the [Hobart Town] “Colonial Times” for June 9 and 16, 1840. As second offenders, they were tried in court on June 9, convicted and sentenced to serve two years of hard labour, at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement. To frustrate further escape attempts, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin ordered that the group be moved inland, to the Lovely Banks Probation Station. The Patriots arrived there on June 20, 1840.
At Lovely Banks, working and living conditions did not improve. After much soul searching and preparation, Joseph Stewart and Linus Miller fled on August 29, 1840. Their freedom was fleeting, as they gave themselves up to authorities at Bagdad on September 11. These escapees were also sent to Port Arthur. Lieutenant-Governor Franklin was so incensed at this second escape attempt, that he ordered the remaining Patriots to be dressed in magpie. These men were then moved inland to the Green Ponds (now Kempton) Probation Station, arriving there on September 12, 1840.
Between this date and early 1844, Samuel Chandler, Benjamin Wait and James Gemmell were the only Patriots who were eventually able to carry out successful escapes. All three eventually made their way back to the United States, aboard whaling vessels. By then, most of the North American political prisoners had received their tickets of leave. However, a cumbersome process to get free pardons and Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardly-Wilmot’s decision to use his discretion, to grant pardons in stages, meant that not all prisoners were given their freedom, when pardon warrants were received from England. This resulted in a high level of frustration for the prisoners, over the utility of the system. For the Patriots, un-kept promises of being gazetted for free pardons weren’t good enough, and resulted in skepticism about the prospects for their release. Many regarded the promise of a full pardon as being a cruel hoax. Robert Marsh echoed this frustration: “...for as yet there appeared no hope, we having been so often deceived and disappointed, and the prospect still very gloomy of our ever getting our freedom, and no prospect but of lingering out a miserable life between hope and despair in that little prison island.”
In addition, ticket of leave men no longer qualified for government rations or lodging. To make matters worse, there was a severe economic depression at the time in Van Diemen’s Land. This situation resulted in too many former prisoners competing for a paucity of low paying jobs. Even if they were freed, how could the prisoners accumulate enough money to pay for their journey back home? The Patriots were placed in a position which was dire, and something drastic had to be done to ameliorate the situation!
The Planned Mass Escape:
It is unclear about when plans for a mass escape began to be formulated. However in a cryptic message in a February 22, 1844 letter to his father in New York State, Patriot exile Elijah Woodman noted that he knew of a place where a ship could be sent to pick-up some of the prisoners. Because of his poor health, Woodman added that; “I may not be able to receive any benefit from such an occurrence...but I leave it to others who are not as well calculated, to obtain passage as I.” Woodman, who at the time was living in Hobart Town, along with colleagues Henry Barnum, James Aitchison, James D. Fero and Robert Marsh, was in a good position to know of any escape plans being hatched. This was especially true, as Fero and Marsh would later be identified as two of the four* ringleaders in the plot, and they probably had included Woodman in their initial planning.
Daniel Heustis’ narrative account indicates that in February of 1844, Garrett Hicks and Riley Whitney had obtained passes to move to the Swanport District, to take up farming near Waub’s Boat Harbour (now Bicheno). Robert Marsh added that James D. Fero also succeeded in obtaining a pass for travel to that district. Fero went there for two weeks, returned with a favorable account, and immediately went back to Swanport, to avoid suspicion by authorities. The three men commenced to clear land and began growing potatoes and turnips. These crops were expected to be ready to harvest, at the time the prisoners would make their attempt to leave Van Diemen’s Land.
Daniel Heustis noted that at the end of March of 1844, several whaling ships had anchored in the Hobart Town Harbour. He suggested that this is when the ringleaders went to Hobart Town “...with the view of making an arrangement, with the captains to take twenty** of us off.” Robert Marsh confirmed this arrangement: “After much trouble, one or two succeeded in getting to Hobart Town, and managed to see the captain of an American whaler, and agreed with him to come to a certain point on the opposite side of the Island.”
Patriot exiles from Campbell Town, Hobart Town, Oatlands and Swanport made their way to the farm near Waub’s Boat Harbour. Daniel Heustis noted; “We had to notify them, and then, by marches that would appear altogether incredible, were I to give particulars, we made our way to the coast.” Robert Marsh added details related to this undertaking: “Scattered about the Island, one, two, and three in a place having no money, not allowed to leave our districts; being closely watched, and of course some one or two, would have to take burthen or responsibility of making arrangements, and attending to getting them together at the appointed time, because some who would not be able to get their tickets changed, would be obliged to take Paddy’s leave; and would be liable to be taken on the way.” The narratives written by Marsh and Heustis, provide quite similar details of the events.***
While waiting for the appointed day agreed to for the rendezvous, the Patriots dug more than two tons of potatoes, put them in sacks made of kangaroo skin and hauled them five miles to the beach. This harvest and a supply of firewood would be used as payment for the escape. A fire was maintained near the designated pick up spot, as a signal for the captain, as where to put in with his vessel. After some delay, the whale-ship made its appearance, and the captain and some of the crew members came ashore in two small boats. Only three of the Patriots were there, as the other seventeen were hiding in a hut some five miles distant. The captain agreed to lay off until four o’clock that afternoon, when he would return to pick up all the men. Not more than an hour later, an armed man of war in the service of the government appeared off the coast, and remained in that quarter for several days.
Daniel Heustis expressed the disappointment of the Patriots; “Thus were our hopes again blasted! The whale-ship occasionally hove in sight, for many days, but the presence of the armed vessel prevented us from communicating with the noble-hearted captain, to whom we owe many thanks for the persevering, though fruitless efforts, he made to get us on board.” Robert Marsh added; “Now, what should you think our feelings must have been. After making as it were, this last desperate attempt-after doing all in our power, undergoing many and severe difficulties, which you can have but faint if any conception of...We held our ground, at great disadvantage, four days from the time of the appearance of the armed vessel, in hopes she would leave and give our own vessel a chance to return.” Unfortunately, such would not be the case.
The prisoners remained on the coast for ten days, still hoping that the American whaler might return. During this time they hunted and fished. After about eight days, three constables arrived from Swanport and endeavoured to elicit information about the designs of the Patriots. The lawmen left, after finding nothing contrary to the exiles’ explanation about hunting and fishing. Two days after this occurrence, constables again arrived and summoned the prisoners to appear in Swanport, in front of Assistant Police Magistrate William Taylor Noyes. The Patriots were charged with leaving districts, without orders, attempting to escape, and trying to abscond.
Charges had to be proven; witnesses against the Patriots told different and very contradictory stories. The Magistrate tried to have the prisoners make a statement that he could send to the Lieutenant- Governor, but to no avail. The Patriots confessed to no wrong doing. Daniel Heustis said of the proceedings; “After exhausting all his cunning, in unavailing endeavors to get some kind of confession out of us, the magistrate said, notwithstanding there were strong grounds for suspecting the charge to be true, he could not prove it, and should therefore discharge us, and send us back to our respective districts.” The enquiry ended without convictions being handed down. A relatively lenient judgement for the ticket of leave men, to resume their efforts of finding work in groups of 4-5 men was levied. Robert Marsh described the final pronouncement; “Sentence was passed, which was: that we should be separated four in a district, with strict orders for magistrates, constables, policemen, and all in authority, to keep a strict watch over us, and not allow us on any consideration to leave the district allotted to us, and we should be mustered in our respective districts, at the police office therein, every Saturday night; and if we failed in so doing, should be immediately reported as absconders, or bush rangers, and punished accordingly.” Yet again, freedom had not been realized.
The Patriots remained as ticket of leave men, in various districts of Van Diemen’s Land. However, things drastically changed in October of 1844, when word of the first Royal Warrants of Absolute Pardon**** arrived from England. With the start of 1845, the long-awaited exodus of the Patriot exiles from Van Diemen’s Land began.
What can be concluded about these events in the penal history of Van Diemen’s Land? Curator of Swansea’s East Coast Heritage Museum, Maureen Martin Ferris, has carefully searched existing records. She has uncovered no documentation, or official record, of the mass escape attempt. This finding is not unexpected; if the charges did not come to trial, and as an arrest did not necessarily generate a Magistrate’s Bench (Lower Court) Record, then any details about the event would not be summarized in Prisoner Conduct Records. Due to lack of evidence, this case was dismissed, and no legal documents about the planned mass escape were officially generated. While two of the published Patriot narratives record the occurrence, with similar details being provided, any official government records of the event are probably non-existent.
Certainly, this is a curious but forgotten story, in the shared histories of Ontario and Tasmania. We can conclude that this chapter in the penal history of Van Diemen’s Land, is unusual, but true – more fact than fiction!
*James Pierce and Daniel Heustis had been captured at the Battle of the Windmill, at Prescott, while James D. Fero and Robert Marsh were captured at the Battle of Windsor (as was Elijah Woodman). It would make sense that representatives from both groups would work together, to formulate plans for a mass escape.
**There is some confusion about how many escapees were actually involved. Period narratives note 20-22 men, but no complete record has been found, to verify all names and actual numbers. Existing documents list the following individuals, as those involved: Garrett Hicks, Riley Whitney, Daniel Heustis, Robert Marsh, James D. Fero, David House, Orlin Blodgett, Leonard Delano and James Pierce.
***For the complete descriptions about the proposed mass escape, which were included in the two narratives published after pardons were granted and on the author’s return to the United States, see Heustis, “Narrative”, pp. 126-29 and Marsh, Seven, pp. 144-53.
****It was somewhat ironic that these pardons had to be signed by James Ebenezer Bicheno, then Colonial Secretary of Van Diemen’s Land. Waub’s Boat Harbour where the planned escape by the Patriots exiles was to take place, is now named Bicheno after him!
Bibliography and Suggested Reading:
Alexander, Alison (ed.). The Companion to Tasmanian History (Hobart: University of Tasmania, 2005).
Carter, John C. “Nepotism and Mr. Noyes,” Glamorgan Spring Bay Historical Society Former Times (June, 2013), # 4.
Carter, John C., “North American Political Prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land: Working in the Midlands,” The York Pioneer (2012), v. 107.
Carter, John C., “Two 1838 armed incursions into Upper Canada resulting in transportation to Van Diemen’s Land,” Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings (December, 2015), v. 62, # 3.
Carter, John C., “Uncertain Future in an Unknown Place: North American Political Prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land,” Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings (April, 2010), v. 57, # 1.
Duff, Louis Blake. “Samuel Chandler of St. John’s,” Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records (1938), v. 5.
Guillet, Edwin C. The Lives and Times of the Patriots (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1938).
Hedquist, Elizabeth Gammell. Escape From Van Diemen’s Land: The James Gammell Chronicles (Provo, Utah: Y Mountain Press, 2013).
Heustis, Daniel D. Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Captain Daniel D. Heustis and His Companions in Canada and Van Diemen’s Land (Boston: Redding & Company, 1847).
Landon, Fred. An Exile From Canada (Toronto: Longmans, Green & Co., 1960).
Marsh, Robert. Seven Years of My Life, or Narrative of a Patriot Exile (Buffalo: Faxon & Stevens, 1848).
Miller, Linus B. Notes of an Exile in Van Diemen’s Land (Fredonia, N.Y.: W. McKinstry & Co., 1846).
n.a. “Hobart Town Police Report, Monday, June 1,” [Hobart Town] Colonial Times (June 9, 1840).
n.a. “Hobart Town Police Report, Monday, June 8,” [Hobart Town] Colonial Times ((June 16, 1840).
Pybus, Cassandra & Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. American Citizens, British Slaves (East Lansing, Mi.: Michigan State University Press, 2002).
Scott, Stuart D. To The Outskirts of Habitable Creation (New York: Universe Inc., 2004).
Thompson, John. Probation in Paradise (Hobart: self published, 2008).
Thompson, John, “The North American Patriot Prisoners at Convict Stations in Van Diemen’s Land,” Australasian Canadian Studies (2007), v. 25, # 2.
Wait, Benjamin. Letters From Van Diemen’s Land During Four Years Imprisonment for Political Offences Committed in Upper Canada (Buffalo: A.W. Wilgus, 1843).
The author would like to thank Maureen Martin Ferris, Norm Howard, Peter Huttemeir, Dr. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Dr. Stephen Petrow, Graham Ryrie, Susan Smith, and John Thompson for their assistance in preparing this article.
By Dr. John C. Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. John C. Carter is a widely published Ontario author, museologist and historian, who is currently a Research Associate, in the History & Classics Programme, School of Humanities, at the University of Tasmania. He is a frequent contributor to Thousand Islands Life, and can be contacted at email@example.com. Click here to see all of Dr. Carter’s TI Life articles.