Bludgeons on the Bay of Quinte: Sovereignty, Revolution, and the State in Upper Canada

Nathan Ince

At 10 PM on the evening of July 11, 1835, a group of Mohawk launched a raft onto the waters of the Bay of Quinte. They had good reason to begin their journey under cover of dusk. The two hundred logs that made up their raft had been illegally cut down the previous winter by settlers encroaching on Mohawk lands. The theft had been discovered in the spring, at which point the Mohawk seized the stolen timber with the help of a deputy surveyor of woods. They had subsequently tried to auction off the confiscated goods, but no bidders came forward, likely due to the influence of the local lumbermen who were already threatening violence in response to the seizure. Instead, a sawmill owner in the Prince Edward District on the other side of the Bay of Quinte arranged to buy a discounted selection of two hundred logs. The Mohawk thus set to work with their oxen to move the timber down to the shore and build it into a raft for transport. After three days of work, they were ready to set out.[1]

Timber raft on the St Lawrence, W. H. Bartlett, in Canadian Scenery Illustrated, 1842, Newberry Library (Ayer 169.3.W71)


Their journey proved shorter than anticipated. The raft had not yet travelled one mile when the Mohawk spied three boats setting out in their direction from the opposite shore of the bay. On board were twenty men armed with clubs and stones. Their leader announced that these logs were rightfully his property, and under threat of violence the bandits made off with the raft, leaving the Mohawk behind on the shore.

The Mohawk did not intend to lose their property so easily. Early on the morning of July 13, a party of armed warriors set out to reclaim the timber, accompanied again by the local deputy surveyor of woods. On the previous day, they had received counsel from an official in Belleville that they should try to recover the raft peaceably if they could, but that if they encountered resistance they would be fully justified meeting force with force “even at the risk of the offenders’ lives.”[2] After a search of some eight hours, the warriors found their raft pulled up on shore by the town of Demorestville, where the thieves had already begun cutting it to pieces. Upon landing, the Mohawk party was surrounded by “riotous” locals who shouted insults and forcibly prevented them regaining their property. Despite the arrival of two magistrates, the crowd only grew more violent, and it was with difficulty that the Mohawk fought their way back to their boats, leaving the timber behind.

This episode on the Bay of Quinte in July of 1835 reflects the sort of extralegal settler violence against Indigenous communities that was common across Upper Canada.[3] It also reveals that such extralegal violence not only threatened First Nations but aimed at the very foundation of the British administration of the province. Charles Warren, the deputy surveyor of woods who accompanied the Mohawk, described the clash at Demorestville in revolutionary terms. Among the riotous crowd, Warren wrote, “republicanism was the watch word of the day. Governor, Agents, and Clergyman were alike abused, Mr. Given’s life threatened openly by those rebellious scamps and my own attempted.”[4]  According to Warren, along with this assault on Indigenous life and property came an explicit challenge to the existing political order in Upper Canada.

This was nothing new. The administration of Indian Affairs had been a lightning rod for the opponents of government since the earliest days of Upper Canada. Prominent critics such as Robert Thorpe, John Mills Jackson, and Robert Gourlay had all advocated a complete reform in Indian Affairs, including the abolition of the Indian Department and the conversion of all Indigenous land to freehold tenure, available to be bought and sold on the open market.[5] William Lyon Mackenzie proposed similar measures, such as granting the settler-controlled assembly the ability to secure Indigenous land surrenders, and more generally advocated abolishing all limits to settler expansion.[6] There was no question who such proposals were meant to benefit. By the 1830s, the Reform movement had explicitly become a movement for “white and freeborn men,” closely tied to Jacksonian Democracy and the nascent Free Soil movement gaining strength in the American Republic.[7]

It was therefore no accident that theft and violence toward the Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte was accompanied by republican epithets toward the pillars of Tory rule during the clash at Demorestville in the summer of 1835. Despite appearances, the riotous settlers were representatives of a coherent political program whose chief tenets were white supremacy and Jacksonian settler sovereignty.[8] The prevalence of this ideology on the Bay of Quinte became apparent two years later. When rebellion broke out in the Canadas in the autumn of 1837, the white settlements around the Bay of Quinte were a hotbed of rebel activity.[9] The neighbouring Mohawk for their part exerted every effort to defeat the revolutionary movement that threatened their homes and lives.[10]

This revolution was routed on the battlefields of 1837 and 1838, but that proved only a temporary setback. Over the following decades, the British Empire conceded most of the Reformers’ demands, and a new political order, dominated by settlers and their interests, took shape in Canada. This was the result not only of political compromise and agitation in the legislative assemblies, but of decades of extralegal settler violence against Indigenous communities that had worked to discredit any political system not exclusively founded on the interests of white landholders.[11] The settler revolution had begun long before 1837, 1848, or 1867, and the victories of this earlier period had laid the foundation of the state that found full expression in the Dominion of Canada. On the Bay of Quinte in July 1835, as they drove off Mohawk warriors and government officials in defence of their stolen timber, the settlers were already sovereign.


Nathan Ince recently completed his PhD at McGill University. His dissertation, titled “An Empire within an Empire: The Upper Canadian Indian Department, 1796-1845,” explores the relationships between Indigenous communities, Imperial agents, settler society, and Canadian state formation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

[1] For the seizure of the timber, see Charles Warren to J.B. Clench, 18 April 1835, 59450-49451, vol. 58, RG10, Library and Archives Canada (LAC). For the rest of the story, see Charles Warren to J.B. Clench, 16 July 1835, 59257-59259, vol. 57, RG10, LAC.

[2] Identified as “Mr. Sampson” in the archive, this individual was likely James Hunter Samson, a member of the Upper Canadian legislative assembly for Hastings County and a prominent Tory.

[3] See for example Susan M. Hill, The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2017), 167-168; David Shanahan, “Tory Bureaucrat as Victim: The Removal of Samuel Jarvis, 1842-1847,” Ontario History 95, no. 1 (2003), 45-47.

[4] The Mr. Givens referred to here was Saltern Givens, the Church of England missionary to the Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte and the son of James Givens, the head of the Indian Department in Upper Canada.

[5] See for example Robert Thorpe to Sir George Shee, 1 December 1806, in Report of the Canadian Archives for 1892, ed. Douglas Bymner (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1893), 58, 90, 98; John Mills Jackson, A View of the Political Situation of the Province of Upper Canada (London: W. Earle, 1809), 20-22; Robert Gourlay, Statistical Account of Upper Canada (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1822), 2:488.

[6]See for example the 3rd and 21st articles of Mackenzie’s Constitution for the Republic of Upper Canada, in The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, eds. Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1985), 95-103.

[7] For “white and freeborn men,” see A. Van Egmond, “The Curse of the Canada Company,” 4 October 1836, in The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, 29-30. For more on white supremacy and the Patriot movement, see Thomas Richards Jr., “The Lure of a Canadian Republic: Americans, the Patriot War, and Upper Canada as a Political, Social, and Economic Alternative, 1837-1840,” in Revolutions across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion, eds. Maxime Dagenais and Julien Mauduit (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 113.

[8] Jason Opal, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[9] Betsy Boyce, The Rebels of Hastings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

[10] Nathan Ince, “’As Long as that fire Burned’: Indigenous Warriors and Political Order in Upper Canada, 1837-1842,” Canadian Historical Review (advanced access).

[11] Sidney L. Harring, White Man’s Law: Native People in Nineteenth-Century Canadian Jurisprudence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 35.


Featured image: [First Nations Village, Bay of Quinte], by Henry W. Acland, 1860. Library and Archives Canada, Box number: BK-105, C-128452.

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