The Rebellion of 1837

1837In the first week of December 1837, community residents watched as a growing number of rebels streamed down Yonge Street — recently paved with crush stone — for an inevitable conflict with the government.

Some residents, like James Nightingale the butcher (at Brookdale Avenue) sympathized with the rebels’ frustration with the Family Compact that was tightly controlled by the colony’s wealthy families. Others, like farmer Peter Lawrence (at Lawrence Avenue), were appalled that citizens would resort to violence in opposing the crown and the Lieutenant-Governor.

Rebellion marchersThere were more than a hundred of them on the Sunday — rebels armed with pikes, pitchforks, clubs or rifles — coming from the townships to the north. They were seizing Tory sympathsizers as prisoners along the way. Their destination was Montgomery Tavern on the site of today’s post office at Yonge and Montgomery, just north of Eglinton. The impressive inn boasted 27 rooms on the main floor and 19 on the second.

But as big as the inn was, there was a problem. Rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie wasn’t expecting his supporters to gather until Thursday. He was unaware that some of the rebel leaders had advanced the order to march by three days to maintain the element of surprise. So, Montgomery Tavern had neither the space nor the food for the growing crowd.

By Tuesday, small groups of rebels were sent out into the neighbourhood to track down more food. Some of them made their way back up Yonge Street. One brigade seized meat from Nightingale’s slaughterhouse. Another group took cattle from the Ketchum family farm north of today’s Blythwood Road and herded them up to Nightingale’s.

Over the next few days there were several military skirmishes to the south in Toronto, incidents that were usually followed by hasty retreats back to the inn. By Thursday, government troops and Tory supporters arrived just south of today’s Eglinton Avenue and set up their cannon.

A direct hit into the wall of the tavern sent the rebels scattering. The Tory prisoners still being held in the tavern’s ballroom were brought outside by David Gibson and Leonard Watson to be marched back up Yonge. Gibson, a local politician and surveyor, was a one of the rebel leaders. Watson was the contractor who had just that year turned Yonge Street from a mud road into one with a hard surface.

They used that hard surface to take the prisoners about a kilometre north, hiding them behind Samuel Huson’s impressive new farmhouse in Lawrence Park. Once it was clear that troops were continuing to move north, the decision was made to release the Tories.

But the situation remained tense. One of the rebels, 21-year-old William Alves who had been an employee at Montgomery Tavern, aimed his gun at prisoner Archibald Macdonell, a Toronto wharf owner who had been captured Monday night. Macdonell grabbed another guard’s gun, forcing a standoff. He told Alves he regreted that he and others had taken up arms against the government. “It is a glorious cause,” replied Alves. “and I will die for it.”

However, Alves, Gibson and the other rebels took off, heading north past Lawrence’s farm and Nightingale’s slaughterhouse. Alves was captured and ordered transported from the Canadas for 14 years. Gibson escaped to the U.S. after his home was burned by the troops. He returned in 1849 and built a new house on his property which is now the Gibson House museum a block north of Mel Lastman Square.

Sketch (about 1921): The March of the Rebels upon Toronto in December, 1837, by C. W. Jefferys, from the Government of Ontario Art Collection

This article, written by Gary Schlee, originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Community Life.

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