Home guard formed in Fergus to defend against rebellion

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

In large part through the efforts of the Legion and its Remembrance Day services, the significance of both World Wars is kept alive among our communities. 

Local military history though goes back much further than 1914. 

Four 19th century conflicts involved local people: the 1837 Rebellion, the American Civil War, the Second Riel Rebellion and the Boer War.

Dr. Hugh Templin, the former proprietor of the Fergus Elora News Express, was fascinated by the 1837 Rebellion, and published a pamphlet on its centennial. It is an excellent piece of work, showing the local manifestation of a larger conflict.

For more than a century the popular impression of the 1837 Rebellion has been coloured by the personality of William Lyon Mackenzie, who has enjoyed a far better reputation than he deserves. 

In his own day, Mackenzie was distrusted and had difficulty in being elected to any public office. Among other things he knowingly spread falsehoods, misled his followers and espoused vehement anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic opinions.

As was the case elsewhere in the province, most farmers in the Elora and Fergus area refrained from supporting Mackenzie, even though they sympathized with many of the grievances he championed.

It should be remembered that Mackenzie represented only one shade of reformist opinion in the 1830s. Party affiliations were loose and nebulous, and as the decade proceeded, the range of opinion widened. 

As early as 1835 various groups at both ends of the political spectrum could see that an armed conflict was likely. They formed private militia groups, often under the leadership of retired army officers.

Such was the case in Fergus, where a group of 24 men formed the Fergus Militia Company early in 1837 to defend against any armed rebels who might appear. 

Composed of rich men and their sons, the group drilled informally and shot birds in the woods for practice. All were from Fergus and Nichol. Interestingly, there were none from Elora.

Shortly before the Rebellion actually began, Mackenzie circulated a false story that he had seized the banks in Toronto. James Ross of Nichol decided to see what actually was happening. Reliable information was impossible to get at that time. The mails were slow, and there was no such thing as a reliable newspaper in the province.

After the Rebellion began in early December 1837, the Fergus Rifle Company was formally enlisted in the provincial militia. Following a religious ceremony on Dec. 10, the company marched off to Guelph, accompanied by two buglers and a wagon of supplies.

Their assignment was to protect the local government buildings. Returning from Toronto, with news that the situation was becoming ugly, James Ross joined the group at Guelph. The company was sent in a fruitless search for some rebels at Galt. 

Other than that, virtually nothing happened. Two men deserted after a week. Ross and Thomas Webster went home on the news that Mackenzie had been soundly routed. William Allardice and A. D. Fordyce stuck it out until Christmas, and others deserted soon after.

Down to 16 men, the Fergus Rifles, along with other units, proceeded to Niagara in January 1838 to defend against Mackenzie’s threatened invasion from the United States. 

Authorities had made no arrangements for food or shelter for them. James Walker became seriously ill and was taken home by A.D. Ferrier and William Reynolds.

Meanwhile there had been other developments at home. As soon as the Fergus Rifles left Fergus, a rumor circulated that a group of armed rebels was drilling in Eramosa under the command of James Peters, the township clerk. Their goal was reported to be to capture Fergus and burn it to the ground.

A home guard was quickly organized in Fergus with round-the-clock sentries at the bridge. Most local people found the defense efforts and perceived threats ridiculous. For several nights local boys amused themselves by making noises near the bridge, which provoked volleys of gunfire from the sentries.

During the first two weeks of December there were a number of meetings in Elora, the Bon Accord settlement and the townships to share reliable information. All resolved that there was no reliable information and the best thing to do was to go home and not get involved.

To the patriotic zealots in Fergus, though, these meetings obviously involved plotting by nests of rebels, but they lacked the manpower to take any action. 

The situation was different in Guelph. On Dec. 13 an unofficial group of 32 armed men set off for Eramosa to round up the rebels. This group was lead by Capt. John Poore, and had been drilling on his farm since 1835.

Poore’s raiders captured seven men and took them to Guelph for arrest on charges of treason. The armed men returned to Eramosa several times to loot farms. Fearing for their lives, many farmers had gone into hiding.

Four were released on bail. The remaining three, James Benham, John Butchard and James Peters, were taken to Dundas, where they endured terrible conditions until their trial in March 1838. 

The jury acquitted them in eight minutes. The crown could not produce evidence against them.

By the spring of 1838 it became obvious that there was no local threat from rebels or insurrectionists. The Fergus Home Guard had long since abandoned its sentry duty. 

The remnants of the Fergus Rifles eventually straggled home from Niagara. From time to time they had exchanged shots with unknown parties across the Niagara River. The only real excitement that saw was the burning of the American ship Caroline.

The major long-term effects were those provoked by the marauding band of Guelph ”loyalists” and their incursions into Eramosa. Their treatment of the so-called Eramosa rebels embarrassed many people who supported the government and their raids to loot farms turned many Wellington County farmers into life-long Reformers. The ripples would be felt for the rest of the 19th century.

Mackenzie’s hurried flight to the United States has enriched local folklore. There are a number of houses and barns in the area where he is reputed to have stayed or hidden. Similar stories exist elsewhere, but there is no evidence to support any of them. 

It is unlikely that he came anywhere near Fergus and Elora in his haste to get across the border.

William Lyon Mackenzie did have a local connection. He owned a farm near Arthur. This was a speculative purchase and it was seized and sold for unpaid taxes.

Most intelligent local people realized an armed confrontation would destroy the sense of community that they were trying to create in the new towns and townships of central Wellington County. 

This accounts for the fact that very few local people became involved in any way with the Rebellion, even though the opinions they held might be strong ones. They saw that political differences must be channeled through democratic institutions.

Through the 1840s and 1850s there was little popular interest locally in a volunteer militia. The Militia Act of 1846 and general orders of 1853 divided Wellington County into Battalion militia units. Only the senior officers took it seriously.

There was an annual muster day, which soon devolved into a booze-up. Few volunteers had uniforms or arms. On the annual muster day the men drilled in old farm clothes, with canes or umbrellas substituting for rifles. After 1853, only the officers met annually. 

All this changed in 1861, with the sudden threat of an American invasion. 

(Next time: New enthusiasm for the volunteer militia.)

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on March 11, 1998.

Thorning Revisited