American Filibusters for Canadian Independence – The Rise of the Hunters’ Lodges

In 1837, the Canadian provinces of Upper and Lower Canada experienced several armed rebellions. Aided by American filibusters, one of these groups of agitators proved more organized than your average freedom fighters. Well funded and organized, this group of filibusters would prove a major thorn in the side of the future Commonwealth, and the United States government.

Upper Canada. DOSGuy / CC BY-SA 3.0
Upper Canada. DOSGuy / CC BY-SA 3.0

A combination of economic depression and discontent with the region’s Family Compact leadership, where a small group of prominent locals ruled the provinces, led Upper and Lower Canadians to take up arms against their aristocratic government.

Location of Lower Canada, 1837. Photo: Judicieux / CC BY-SA 3.0
Location of Lower Canada, 1837. Photo: Judicieux / CC BY-SA 3.0

Lower Canada, inhabited by the remnants of France’s Canadian holdings, grew especially disgruntled with the local Anglican Canadian leaders. While most of the discontented merely sought reform of the current system, some desired full independence from the British. When those in Canada failed to initially gain results, they looked to their southern neighbors for support.

Discontent in the areas of the United States near to Canada festered just as it did in Canada, and often did so more strongly than their northern neighbors as well. This Patriot movement, as it called itself, reached out to the disgruntled Canadians to break free of their British oppressors.

Painting of the Assembly of the Six Counties held in Saint-Charles, Lower Canada on October 23 and October 24, 1837.
Painting of the Assembly of the Six Counties held in Saint-Charles, Lower Canada on October 23 and October 24, 1837.

With the pen of legislative reform failing, the Patriots advocated revolution to resolve their neighbor’s plight. Indeed, the number of Americans advocating such action easily outnumbered Canadian agitators.

These American proponents of Canadian independence were centered in an unlikely location, forming a secret society intended to aid in the formation of a Republic of Canada. Thus came to be the Hunters’ Lodges of Cleveland, Ohio.

Dedicated to aiding their northern neighbors in revolution, the so-called secret society of the Hunters’ Lodges were in fact well known to Canadian and American authorities, both military and civilian.

Though the first lodge formed in 1838 in Vermont, Cleveland quickly became their headquarters, and Canadian authorities estimated their numbers as high as twenty-five to forty thousand members, stretching across a thousand lodges located between Maine and Wisconsin.

The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto, Canada.
The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto, Canada.

The Lodge’s first convention was held at the Cleveland headquarters, taking place from September 16 to the 22 of 1838. The convention immediately set forth a radical republican policy for a future Canadian republic, advocating central banking and a removal of the landed aristocracy.

The Lodge went out recruiting, dispersing handbills and other information to rally people to the plight of the nation’s northern neighbor. With taglines such as “Spirit of ’76!” hearkening to the American Revolution, the Lodges prepared to lead a Canadian Revolution.

Such loose-lipped policy for a self-styled secret society, rife with initiation rituals and other such Freemason-esque doings, meant authorities on both sides of the border not only knew what the Lodges were up to, they could also keep an eye on them as they did it. As a result, the Lodges increased their secrecy, lest their plans of revolution ended up thwarted before they even began.

View of the Battle of Windmill Point, below Prescott, Upper Canada.
View of the Battle of Windmill Point, below Prescott, Upper Canada.

Under the leadership of prominent Lodge member Dr. Henry S. Handy, who called himself “General of the Patriot Army of the Northwest,” the Lodges set out to gather an army to lead Canada to republicanism.

All those who flocked to the Doctor’s cause were required to swear an oath of secrecy. “In the name of Almighty God,” candidates swore allegiance to the “Sons of Liberty engaged in the Patriot service in the cause of Canadian independence.”

Swearing to obey their commanders and not tell non-members of the society or its activities, members received a badge and were forbidden to “sell, barter, or in any way alter” any badge they received. Thus rallied, sworn in, and, thanks to a bank established by the Lodge, armed and funded, the Hunters’ Lodge was ready to go to war.