During the evening of April 22, 1839, the schooner Stephen Girard, en route from Oswego to Cleveland, arrived at Gravelly Bay, on Lake Erie, after passing through the Welland Canal. It had been an uneventful voyage until Captain John C. Hugunin was preparing to pass through the lock into the lake.
At the moment this occurred, six Canadian militiamen started throwing stones at the American flag on board and then endeavored to detain the vessel by shutting the lock gates. Their actions damaged the yawl boat which was slung over the stern. The militiamen ordered that the captain haul down the flag. When Hugunin ignored their order, three of the militiamen jumped into the rigging, and in attempt to bring down the flag, broke the halliards, sending the flag crashing to the dock.
“Throw it on shore! Throw it on shorel” they shouted. But the soldiers eventually allowed the vessel to proceed. A lieutenant then reported the incident to Col. C. J. Baldwin, commander of the 6th Provincial Battalion of Militia, who was nearby. Baldwin endeavored to hail Captain Hugunin to return the flag to him, but he disregarded this and continued to sail.
Night setting in and there being no boat available, the colonel dispatched two men in a canoe to return the flag to the Girard, along with an apology. But the response from the Girard was, “Go to hell with the flag.”
The next morning a lieutenant was sent to Buffalo with a letter of apology to Captain Hugunin, and $80 to purchase a new flag and reimburse the captain for damage to the yawl. In case he did not find the schooner in Buffalo, he was directed to proceed to Cleveland. The officer arrived there four hours before the schooner. As soon as the vessel came into port, he presented Captain Hugunin with the money, a new flag, and Col. Baldwin’s letter of apology. The captain expressed his appreciation and ascribed the incident to its proper source - too much whiskey.
Following the incident, Col. Baldwin placed the militiamen under arrest and called a court of inquiry. Although the incident may have been the result of recent Patriot War tensions, it was apparent it was fueled by too much alcohol consumed in celebration of the soldiers’ impending discharge from the service.
The incident proved a great embarrassment to Canadian authorities. Captain Hugunin was also sent the following letter of apology from the canal collector:
Port Colborne, April 23, 1839
Capt. J .C. Hugunin:
Sir - I am very sorry for the unfortunate affair, which took place on board your vessel, last evening, and lament that I did not accompany you down, when you brought me your clearance.
Those of the men who could be identified, were immediately put under arrest, and will be punished for their folly. They were elated with the idea of having been disbanded, and had indulged in taking too much liquor. They are preparing to march from hence to-morrow evening. I understand your boat was injured, the repair of Which, and any other damages you may have sustained, I will engage to remunerate, on behalf of the Welland Canal Company. I hope you will not allow this event to prevent your returning through the canal, or influence others thereto, as you may be assured, every endeavour will be exercised to facilitate your transit through the canal, and prevent any obstacle upon your route.
I remain, sir, you most ob’t
J. Black, Collector, Welland Canal Co.
This story clearly reflects the feelings of rank-and-file Canadian militia troops at the time, stemming from the Patriot War. But the incident was isolated effectively by the actions of Col. Baldwin, thus preventing it from fueling the flames of the Patriot War, which were beginning to fade by that time. As the editor of the Cleveland Herald noted on May 5, 1839, Col. Baldwin’s letter of apology, “assures us, that the treatment of Captain Hugunin and his crew is sincerely regretted, not only by the officers, but by the intelligent citizens of the province, who earnestly desire quiet, and a return of confidence, good will, and all the amicable relations growing out of a free and friendly intercourse between the people of contiguous countries.
“The desire will no doubt be met by an equally conciliatory spirit, on this side of the line. Further aggressions on either side can do no good - the events of the former one have been traced in blood. They teach a stern lesson - a lesson that years of peace cannot efface.
“Captain Hugunin’s vessel sailed this day, for Oswego, via the Welland Canal; and we are pleased to be able to state, that the late unfortunate occurrence, promptly disavowed and appreciated as it has been, by the Canadian authorities, will not in the least affect the business operations of this section, through the canal.”
The Patriot War was a series of events too often overlooked by U.S. historians. From the “Caroline Affair” in 1837, through the attempt to blow up the steamer Great Britain at Oswego in 1841, the intermittent incidents along the Northern Frontier threatened to result in open warfare. It wasn’t until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, with its resolution of a flare-up over the Maine boundary, that relations between the United States and Canada can be said to have been stabilized once and for all.
St. Catharines Journal, April 25, 29, and May 16, 1839; Oswego County Whig, May 1, 1839.
The Stephen Girard was built at Chaumont, New York, in 1832, and registered at Sackets Harbor - 81.75 tons. Last registered at Oswego, New York, in July 1843, disposition unknown.
Captain John Clark Hugunin was born in Oswego on January 24, 1811, and died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, July 4, 1865.