Much has been written about the side wheel Canadian steamboat "Sir Robert Peel1" in connection with the story of its seizure and burning at Wellesley Island in 1838. But very little has ever been said concerning its origins.
Prior to 1820 steamboats began appearing on the Great Lakes, the first having been the Ontario at Sackets Harbor in 1818, followed shortly thereafter by the Frontenac built at Kingston. In the early days there was great rivalry between the United States and Canada as to who could build the biggest, swiftest and most luxurious steamboats.
One of the many shipbuilders who engaged in building vessels was William Parkins of Brockville. The first reference the Sir Robert Peel is found in the Kingston Spectator of Thursday, April 13, 1837:
"The Sir Robert Peel - We have had much satisfaction, in examining the beautiful Steam Boat, Sir Robert Peel, now being built at the shipyard in this Town. She is expected to be in full operation on the first of June; of which, from present appearances, there can be little doubt. The cabins are already fitted up, and Messrs. Ward and Co. of Montreal, are erecting and setting up the Engines. The shafts and cranks (made of malleable iron) will be shipped from Glasgow, in the first vessel which sails this spring, and nothing but the non-arrival, will delay the completion of the Engines by the time mentioned.
"The Sir Robert is 115 feet in length, and 20 feet beam, with a promenade, extending about two thirds the length of the Boat, and a Ladies' cabin on deck. The dining cabin is 68 feet in length, and the forward cabin 30 feet; the whole is fitted up in a superior style. From the power of the Engines, being horizontal cylinders, 32 inches in diameter, and 10 feet stroke, and the model of the Boat, upon the plan of the North River and Sound Boats, she is expected to be faster than any other, in the Northern Waters.
The boat is building by the proprietors, to ply between Prescott and Coteau du Lac; upon the completion of the Long Sault canal. In the meantime it is expected, that she will be employed by the St. Lawrence Forwarders in towing the freight boats, from the head of the Long Sault to Prescott. Should she not be thus engaged, she will run upon the Lake, either from Prescott to Niagara, or from Prescott to Oswego, or from Oswego to Hamilton, until the completion of the Canal, which is not expected until the close of the season of 1838.
"The Sir Robert will carry no freight but is admirably adapted for passengers, having about 75 standing berths, with a dining cabin, as before stated, of 68 feet in length. She does great credit to her builder, Mr. William Parkins of this Town. Should the anticipated arrangement be made with the forwarders, to tow from the Long Sault to Prescott, and improvements made for hauling from the Cascades to the Coteau, boats may be brought from Lachine to Prescott in three days, and need never be more than 5 days between those places.
"A barge leaving Lachine at 4 o'clock in the morning, towed by the Brougham, will arrive at the Neptune's wharf at the Coteau in time to be taken in tow by her the same evening, and will reach Cornwall early the next morning. She then has the whole day to reach the head of the Long Sault and being taken in tow by the Sir Robert Peel the next morning, will arrive at Prescott the same day."
The vessel was launched with great fanfare on May 5, 1837. The Brockville Recorder reported on May 11th that:
"She at first moved slowly on her ways for some twelve or fifteen feet, when her motion accelerated, and she made the final plunge in fine style, without accident of any kind. A large collection of people whom the novelty of a launch had brought together, were spectators of the scene. The William IV. and Brockville , were lying off the ship yard covered with passengers; and the steamer United States came into the harbour just as the new boat was towed up to the wharf by the Brockville."
The next reference we find of the Peel is this report in the Cobourg Star, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 1837:
"The new Steam Boat, Sir Robert Peel, arrived here Friday morning last from Oswego, on her first trip up the Lake, and returned by the same route on Monday evening. She is of altogether novel construction, being built for speed, of remarkable length and narrow in the beam so as to draw but little water (only four feet as she lay at the wharf,) and present the least possible resistance in her passage through it. She is tastefully fitted up, entirely for the accommodation of passengers, and is intended, we understand, to touch regularly here on her passage to, and from Oswego, Kingston, etc. every week, on the above named day.
"The Hon. Mr. Justice Jones and Lady of Brockville, and a large part of friends were on board; who, with her commander, Capt. Bury (a most gentlemanly and intelligent officer, formerly we believe in the East India service) report most favorably on her sailing qualities. They represent her as being wholly free of the disagreeable jar of the engine, common to other boats; and at the same time anticipate from her shape and light draught of water, that she will prove, when thoroughly in work, a great deal faster. With such qualities, she will doubtless soon become an established favourite."
The steamer made several voyages during July and August, touching at Kingston, Toronto and Oswego on Lake Ontario, and Port Stanley and Rondeau on Lake Erie. She was dry docked and laid up for the winter at the Kingston Marine Railway.
After the 1838 navigation season opened in May, the Peel made several trips back and forth between Kingston, ON and Oswego, NY. These trips were enlivened by competitive races with the rival steamer Great Britain. Such races were criticized by the newspapers that considered them dangerous. During one of these trips on May 16th the Sir Robert Peel caught fire. An ignited stick fell from the furnace into a pail of oil, producing a small explosion.
There was general panic. The Great Britain came alongside and took off many of the frightened passengers. Fortunately the fire was quickly extinguished before causing any damage and the steamer arrived in Oswego safely. Some of the passengers who remained aboard, however, came to the defense of Captain Armstrong. In a statement in the Kingston Chronicle on May 26, they said:
"We were very much delighted with the Sir Robert Peel, who in the short run from Kingston to Oswego had decidedly the advantage, and completely outdistanced the Great Britain."
Nevertheless, newspaper editors on both sides of the border characterized steamboat racing as "gross carelessness," as well as a "hazardous and presumptuous business" and that the steamers were "swift enough for any purpose for which they are designed.
Three days after, on May 29, 1838, the Sir Robert Peel stopped on Wellesley Island to replenish its supply of cord wood for its steam engine. While her crew loaded on wood, a group of men disguised as natives attacked with bayonets and muskets. Intending to confiscate the ship, the attackers tried to light the boilers, but not knowing the procedures, they drifted into the channel and ran aground on a nearby shoal. Before daybreak, the Sir Robert Peel was set on fire, burned to her waterline and sank. Today the wreck lies in 125 feet2 of water on the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.
Sir Robert Peel References
The following is a collection of excerpts from contemporary newspapers concerning the "outrage" of the burning of the steamboat Sir Robert Peel in 1838, compiled by Richard Palmer
OUTRAGE OVER THE BURNING OF THE SIR ROBERT PEEL
Rochester Advertiser, June 1, 1838
STEAMBOAT BURNT. - We learn by Captain Childs, of the steamboat Telegraph, that the steamer Sir Robert Peel was burnt at an island in the St. Lawrence, near French Creek, on Tuesday night last. The passengers who left the Peel and came on the Telegraph state, that while stopping for wood, a party of disguised men, about fifty in number, boarded the boat and ordered the passengers and crew on shore, saying they wished not to take any lives. On this order being complied with, they proceeded to fire the boat in several places, then left her to her fate. We shall wait for the particulars before we indulge in further remarks.
Buffalo Advertiser June 1. Correspondence of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser:
Kingston, U. C. , May 30, 1838
Gentlemen - I arrived in this place yesterday in the steamboat Oneida. The news of the loss of the British steamboat Sir Robert Peel, has just reached here by the Oneida, which took the passengers of the Sir Robert Peel, from Wells' Island, in the St. Lawrence, near French Creek.
The boat, I understand from the passengers with whom I have conversed, was bound from Prescott, up the river, with a valuable freight, and a number of passengers. While wooding at Wells' Island, about 2 o'clock, A. M. , she was attacked by a party of about 40 men, the passengers and crew driven on shore, the boat set fire to and totally destroyed, together with every thing on board, except a small portion of the passengers' baggage. It is said that one English gentleman lost (pound sign)15,000 in money, and that a large amount of specie was on board for the Toronto banks.
The ladies were driven on shore in their night clothes. The mate is badly burnt, and narrowly escaped losing his life.
I will not undertake to describe the excitement that exists here at this moment.
In haste, yours truly, From the Cleveland Herald and Gazette, June 2.
DESTRUCTION OF A BRITISH STEAMBOAT ON LAKE ONTARIO, IN AN AMERICAN PORT, BY A MOB:
By Canadian gentlemen, direct from Toronto, who came passengers (sic) in the Milwaukee this morning, we learn that the British steamboat Sir Robert Peel, plying between Kingston and Toronto, touching on the American ports on Lake Ontario, was attacked early in the present week while stopping at French Creek, in Jefferson county, N. Y. , by a party of some fifty persons, blackened and otherwise disguised, who took possession of the boat, robbed her of $100,000 in specie, and set heron fire.
The outrage is attributed to Canadian refugees in the vicinity of French Creek, in retaliation for the wrongs and oppressions of the Provincial government, which has driven them from their homes, and confiscated their possessions. "
ibid. , further down:
"From the Rochester Advertiser, June 2.
BURNING OF THE 'ROBERT PEEL'
The fact of the perpetration of this most dastardly outrage, is confirmed by the arrival of the Oswego yesterday morning. The 'Peel' is a perfect wreck. She was lying at the wood wharf on Well's Island, in our waters, about six miles from French Creek, and was boarded as before stated. The pirates were not as precipitate in their doings as was first represented, but spent an hour or more in rifling the boat. There is supposed to be no question but they secured the $25,000 in specie designed for the payment of troops, of which the 'Peel' was the bearer. No lives were lost, but the mate was severely burnt, not having been awakened until the flames had made considerable progress.
The greatest excitement prevailed at Kingston on hearing of the outrage, and summarily vengeance was denounced against the first American boat that should make that port. While this feeling was at its height, the Oneida was discovered making for that place. On her approach to the wharf, the crew of the 'Peel,' who were on board, begged of the multitude to 'spare the Oneida, for she had been a friend to them. ' This, for the moment, prevailed for the Oneida, but 'damnation to the Oswego,' was loudly vociferated. The Oneida, however, could not long be safe, and Capt. Smith was urged to get up his steam and depart as speedily as possible, which he did. The Oswego having heard the fate denounced, wisely abstained from entering at Kingston. She touched, however, at Brockville, where the regulars alone prevent an assault on her.
It was supposed by the captain of the 'Peel' that the object in seizing the boat was for the purpose of attacking Toronto, and an express to that effect was hurried along to the principle places to Toronto. The authorities, acting on this supposition, immediately manned the Great Britain, St. George, and another boat, the name of which is not remembered. One of these was to coast off Rochester, to intercept the 'Peel' if she had left the lower end of the lake, and the other two to re-capture her if found in the vicinity of the outrage. It was supposed she would be taken to Lewiston, to be armed and manned by the 'Patriots. '
The civil authorities on our side, were early on the alert, and had succeeded in capturing nine of the gang, who were committed to jail in Watertown, when the Oswego left. The names of only two are recollected, Leech and Cantling. Leech, it seems, made no scruple of his participation in the piratical exploit, for he, the next morning, exhibited the fruits of his night's work in the shape of specie, and various articles of silver manufacture belonging to the boat. It is affirmed with much confidence, that 'Bill Johnson,' notorious in that section for his personal prowess, was the leader of the gang of midnight marauders.
Doubtless the actors in this transaction will endeavor to palliate their conduct under the plea of avenging the "Caroline" yet it can be regarded in no other light than as the legitimate fruits of that senseless crusade which held the frontier in continual alarm during the past winter. Then, men who plead the binding force of our national treaties, were denounced as 'tories,' while those who winked at, or openly urged their infraction, were lauded as *patriots. * Those journals which aided in congregating portions of our population in large bodies along the frontier, and in supplying them there by exciting the sympathies of an abused people, have a heavy reckoning to make with those whom they have so grossly misled. The breaking open of arsenals -- the stealing of the public arms -- were then regarded as high evidence of patriotism by many journals, as well as individuals, and it is on this tacit approval of those outrages that the actors in the present scheme of villainy have been emboldened to proceed to its execution. Let the real authors of such outrages against the laws and property of this and other nations be regarded with the abhorrence they so richly merit. This act is nearly as bad as the burning of the Caroline last winter, which we all so bitterly denounced. That was an almost unparalleled atrocity, and this is nearly of the same character.
By his Excellency Sir George Arthur, Knight Commander of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, Major General Commanding her Majesty's forces therein, &c. , &c.
Whereas information has this day been received, that on the thirtieth day of May inst. , the British steamboat Sir Robert Peel, while lying peaceably at an American island, was treacherously attacked by a body of armed ruffians from the American shore, set fire to and burned; the passengers among whom were defenseless females, wantonly and brutally insulted; and a large amount of money, and other property on board the said boat was either plundered or destroyed; and whereas the said robbery and outrage cannot fail to excite feelings of the utmost indignation in the minds of Her Majesty's subjects, who may be induced thereby to resort to acts of retaliation for the redress of injury, with properly considering that it belongs to the Government of Her Majesty to claim that redress, and to the Government of the United States to see that it be promptly rendered.
The steamboat Sir Robert Peel with the persons and property on board, lay at a wharf on the shore of a friendly power, in the confidence of that security which every civilized nation extends over the subjects and property of foreigners, within its territory in times of peace, and free commercial intercourse.
The Government of the United States, it may be confidently expected, will vindicate the national honor, and feel deeply the insult which this act of cowardly violence, committed in the dead of night, has inflicted upon their nation. They will not and cannot, with any regard to national character, delay to bring the criminals to punishment, or to render to the injured subjects of Her Majesty redress - though it be too late, in this instance, to offer them protection.
The demeanor and conduct of the population of this province, has been that of a people resting securely upon the sanctity of the law, and the regular exercise of the power of the Great Empire of which they form a part; and accordingly, even during rebellion and foreign invasion, this country has not been disgraced by any scenes of individual violence or revenge on the part of its inhabitants. The character which has thus been gained to this province, has commanded the admiration of the British people - demonstrated the proud superiority of British Institutions - and is too valuable to be sacrificed in the smallest part, for the sudden gratification of indignant feelings, however justly they may have been aroused.
I therefore express to Her Majesty's faithful and loyal subjects, my entire confidence in their dignified forbearance, and that the British flag, which has been so nobly defended by them, will not now be stained by having outrage or insult offered to the persons or property of foreigners within its territory and under its protection.
It need not be said to men who understand the character and institutions of England - that injury offered to one British subject is felt by all - and that the mutual ties of duty and affection, which bind a free and loyal people and their sovereign together, give the strength of the whole empire to an injured individual. This consideration is all that is necessary to restrain a loyal community with becoming bounds, and to insure their leaving to their government that claims for redress which this unprovoked outrage imperatively demands.
Until the American Government shall have taken such measures as will ensure the lives and property of British subjects within the territory of the United States from spoliation and violence, the utmost guard and caution is required on the part of masters of steamboats and other vessels, in entering American harbors, as it is but too plain that at present the subjects of Her Majesty may be sometimes placed in the power of lawless banditti, when they imagine themselves within the protection and authority of a friendly Government.
Given, under my Hand and Seal at Arms, at Toronto, this thirty-first day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-eight and of Her Majesty's Reign, the first.
G. ARTHUR By command of His Excellency, C. A. Hagerman, Attorney General, D. Cameron, Secretary. "
| DARING OUTRAGE |
Albany Argus, June 1, 1838
DARING OUTRAGE - An express from Watertown reached this city yesterday afternoon, bringing dispatches of Gov. Marcy,* from the District Attorney, Marshal, &c. , at that place; by which we regret to learn that a most extraordinary outrage was committed within American waters, early on Thursday morning. - The British steamboat Sir Robert Peel, lying to about seven miles from French creek, on the river St. Lawrence, was forcibly seized by a body of armed men, supposed to be Canadian refugees, set on fire, and entirely consumed.
The subjoined extracts from the letters to the Executive, afford all the information yet received touching this affair. We trust that, by the prompt action of the civil authorities, aided by the military, all farther aggression or apprehended retaliation may be prevented; and that the perpetrators of the outrage may be discovered and brought to merited punishment.
Gov. Marcy, conceiving the circumstances such as to require the immediate interposition of the state authorities, left town soon after the arrival of the express, in the evening cars for Utica, and thence by relays of horses, to Watertown.
*Governor of New York
From Geo. E. Sherman, District Attorney
To His Excellency, William L. Marcy,
Dear Sir -- I have this moment received by express, from H. Davis, esq., custom-house officer at French Creek, a letter, of which the following is a copy, and the information herein may be relied upon as correct:
"Clayton, May 20, 1838,
"Sir -- Last night the British steamer Sir Robert Peel, was boarded near this place by about 50 armed men in disguise; the persons on board driven on shore; the boat set on fire, and wholly consumed. You are requested to aid the proper authorities in the affair, or to advise the proper course to be taken. Respectfully yours,
In addition to the above, the messenger informs me that, although no lives were lost, as is yet known, the mate of the Sir Robert Peel was badly burnt on board the vessel.
Our steamer Oneida, on her way to Ogdensburgh, this morning, volunteered and took the crew on board and carried them to Kingston. The whole community here is excited and alarmed to the greatest extent, at this unwarrantable outrage, and a retaliatory spirit that has only slept upon the other side, will, it is feared, be excited, and to an extent beyond control.
The steamer Sir Robert Peel, it is said, was taking wood at Mullet creek by, or at the Narrows below, about 7 miles from the creek.
I deem it due to the Executive that he should be immediately apprized of the affair; the more especially as we are left here without any regular officer of the army to whom to apply. Col. Cummings, who has been at Sackett's Harbor, and who had been directed by Gen. Wood, as it was understood, to take charge of this frontier, is now absent.
I have this moment learned that Capt. Armstrong had command of the Robert Peel, against whom, it is said, the refugees had an old grudge. He resided in this village during the last winter, and was charged with being a spy upon their operations. I mention this circumstance as authorizing the belief that this act has proceeded from the patriots, or refugees, on this side.
The present impression is, that we shall be unsafe on the frontier without and armed force; and immediate measures will be required to afford ample protection to British vessels in our waters, or all confidence and intercourse will be broken up.
I have thought it advisable that Gen. Cross, of the militia, should call out one or two companies of dragoons, to go to French Creek, whither I shall proceed with the sheriff this afternoon.
No person to our knowledge was recognized as having engaged in this outrage, but individuals residing at French Creek have been missing for several days. A portion of the Sir Robert, it is said, was owned by a citizen of Ogdensburgh.
"G. C. Sherman, Esq. "
From Jason Fairbanks, Deputy Marshal:
"I intend immediately to repair to French Creek, with Doctor Carrier, the collector, and an officer, authorized to call out the militia if necessary. A letter has just been received from French Creek calling for a force to protect them from being burnt to-night, as a measure of retaliation.
"All is excitement here; and a rumor is afloat that the arrangements of the pirates were to make a simultaneous attack upon eight different boats at different places. "
|From Francis Malleby, Master, U. S. N. |
"The vessel was set on fire and consumed within seven miles of French Creek, and within our waters, while taking in wood. There appears no doubt that the expedition was got up from this side, although, as yet, no persons have been identified as actors in the scene. It is satisfactory to state that no lives have been lost. "
BURNING OF THE ROBERT PEEL. - We are gratified to learn that the villainous outlaws who were engaged in the burning of the British steamboat Robert Peel, in the St. Lawrence river, are Canadian fugitives, and not American citizens. We learn from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, that seven out of the eight individuals who have bee arrested for their connection with the affair and put in the Jefferson county jail, are Canadians. "
"The proclamation of the present Lieut. Governor of Upper Canada, which we publish to-day, respecting the burning of the Robert Peel, is a much more discreet document than might have been expected from Sir Francis Bond Head, on such an occasion. His admonition to the populace, cautioning them against retaliation, and urging them to leave the affair to be settled by the proper authorities of two governments, is appropriate and well-timed.
The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser states, that the Transit, which arrived at Lewiston on the 1st, had a piece of artillery and 20 armed men on board, as a guard against any such violence as was perpetrated on the steamer Sir Robert Peel. "
Early Steamboats Built at Brockville
The New Mills: 'List Registered Canadian Steamships 1817-1930 over 75 Feet’
Albion 101 feet long, 16' beam, 8' hold. Built by William Parkin of Brockville. Launched April 10, 1838. Rebuilt 1842 adding passenger accommodation. Owned by several forwarding partnerships. Used as a Rideau Canal and Ottawa River passage boat, later usually towboat. Damaged by ice Smiths Falls Nov. 11, 1842 and sank. Boiler exploded Oct. 5, 1846 between Ottawa and Grenville, 2 killed. Last newspaper reference 1855.
Brockville 145x23x8 Owned by C. Jones, Brockville 1835; often chartered to others. Built by Shea & Merritt ("of Montreal") Brockville and launched April 9, 1933. Two engines built by William Avery, Syracuse, New York. Originally used on the Kingston-Dickinson's Landing route, later Prescott-Bay of Quinte. Had 34 berths; gents' cabin 84' long. Blown from moorings at Bath, Ont. Nov. 20, 1835, both stacks carried away. Hull converted to 3-masted schooner Portsmouth 1848.
Sir Robert Peel 115 x20 Owned by H. & S. Jones, Brockville. Built by William Parkins, Brockville and launched May 5, 1837. Engine cylinders 32" bore, 10 " stroke built by Ward Bros., Montreal. Designed for shooting rapids: "remarkable length and narrow in the beam" (Cobourg "Star"), drew only 4 feet of water. 75 berths with 68 ' dining cabin . Built for Prescott-Coteau when canal opened, but not used there; ran as opposition boat Prescott-Oswego-Cobourg-Toronto. Caught fire by racing with "Great Britain" May 16, 1838 near Oswego, damage not serious. Destroyed by fire when burnt by rebels May 29, 1838 Wellsley Island near French Creek, (Clayton) New York.
Union Launched May 13, 1826: No information
Compiled by Richard F. Palmer
Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and well known for his weekly historical columns for the Oswego Palladium-Times called "On the Waterfront." His latest book, published by Blue ledge Systems Inc. is the biography of Captain Augustus Hinckley, famed Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River mariner, along with the maritime history of Clayton. He is also a regular contributor to the Maritime History of the Great Lakes website and is frequently consulted by people searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario.
Additional References for the Patriot War, 1838
Reference Material from the Patriot War 1837-38 written and compiled by Paul Malo, See THE PLACE, HISTORY.
Articles by Dr. John Carter: Patriot Chronicles: Four Who Didn't Come Home, June 2010; Patriot Chronicles: James Gemmell, Man of Two Frontiers; August 2010; Little Boxes, Little Boxes.. Fort Henry Connection, August 2012; The Burning of the “Sir Robert Peel”…, April 2013; Mass Escape From Fort Henry, July 2013; Remembering the Battle, November 2013; They left Jefferson County Forever… February 2014.
Reference on the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence, see “Shipwrecks of the Thousand Islands”, by Skip Couch and Dennis McCarthy, 2010, Blue Ledge Systems, Inc.
1 An in-depth review of the Burning of the Sir Robert Peel was written for TI Life by Dr. John Carter in the April, 2013 issue.
2 Information regarding the “wreck of sir Robert Peel, can be found in “Shipwrecks of the Thousand Islands”, written by Skip Couch and Dennis McCarthy,2010, Blue Ledge System Inc.