The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Democratic Free Press (Detroit, MI), Wednesday, June 13, 1838, page 1

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We copy the following from our last eastern exchange papers:

From the Rochester Advertiser, June 1

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 indilge in further remarks.

From the Buffalo Advertiser June 1.

Correspondence of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser:

Kingston, U. C. , May 30

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,
Pierre A. Barker


(Wells' Island is one of the largest of the cluster called "the thousand islands. " It forms part of Alexandria, the most northern town of Jefferson county. )

From the Cleveland Herald and Gazette, June 2.


By Canadian gentlemen, direct from Toronto, who came passengers (sic) in the Milwaukie this morning, we learn that the British steamboat Sir Robert Peel, plying between Kingston and Toronto, touching on the American ports on Lake Ontaria (sic), 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 posessions. "

ibid. , further down:

"From the Rochester Advertiser, June 2.


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 bost 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.

ibid. , further down


*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 lyal 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.

By command of His Excellency,
C. A. Hagerman, Attorney General,
D. Cameron, Secretary. "

ibid. , further down:

From the Albany Argus, June 1

DARING OUTRAGE - An express from Watertown reached this city yesterday afternoon, bringing despatches 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,

H. Davis.

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. "

ibid. , further down:

"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. "

ibid. , further down:

"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. "

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Wednesday, June 13, 1838
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  • Michigan, United States
    Latitude: 42.33143 Longitude: -83.04575
Dave Swayze
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Democratic Free Press (Detroit, MI), Wednesday, June 13, 1838, page 1