When The Niagara Historical Society formed in 1895, it immediately began receiving artifact donations. Among the earliest received objects were two pipes given by John A. Blake, businessman and resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Catalogue of articles in Memorial Hall, 1911 p. 33.
These objects –both the Black Stone Pipe, twisted stem and the Sioux Red Stone Pipe, porcupine quill, ornamented stem– became disassociated with their collection documentation at some point. This put them at risk of deaccession and loss. Until recently, nothing was known about these artifacts. They were not known to exist in the collection and were assumed lost.
Black Stone Pipe, Twisted Stem
During the 2012 digitization project, Josh Lichty and I encountered an unidentified and unaccessioned spiral-shaped piece of wood. We noted that there was no associated provenance or artifact number and assumed it may have been a component of another object, possibly belonging to a spinning wheel or loom.
Several years later, I saw similar spiral shaped pipes at the Royal Ontario Museum and we were able to identify the artifact at the Niagara Historical Museum as a Plains pipe stem.
The identification of this object had been obscured because the stem and bowl had become separated within the collection. This began a search for a “black stone” pipe bowl within the collection. One was found that appears be the original, it is black stone and fits the end of the twisted stem. Therefore, the NOTL Museum appears to have retained one of the complete pipes donated by John Blake.
Because the twisted stem pipe was disassembled (and therefore unidentified), this -counterintuitively- protected it from being lost. It seems possible that this mishap protected the pipe from being sold. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the second pipe.
Newspaper advertisement for an auction at the museum.
Sioux Red Stone Pipe, porcupine quill, ornamental stem
This artifact no longer exists in the NOTL Museum collection. It was sold sometime around 1994. A photograph of it exists in the collection files at the NOTL museum. It is a remarkable piece of art. The porcupine quill design portrays a stylized representation of a human figure inside a church.
At the time, it was likely presumed to have no connection to the NOTL museum’s mandate and the Niagara community. As a result, it seems that it was not attributed to John A. Blake’s original donation at the time of sale.
Research into John Blake’s life, and his family/social connections, provides clues about the probable origin of these pieces.
The starting point for this investigation is a letter in the collection at the NOTL museum (2011.031.241a) which was written by John Blake on August 9, 1864 to his family in Niagara. The content of the letter does not give any information about the artifacts, but the paper on which it is written does.
It is written on the letterhead of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the letter, John mentions that he is waiting for a man named “Clark” to arrive. The Superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time was Clark Wallace Thompson.
Clark Wallace Thomspon, Minnesota Historical Society Portrait Collection
Clark W. Thompson was born in Jordan, Ontario and later moved to the U.S. He was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Northern Superintendency under President Lincoln.
According to researcher and author Colin Mustful, Clark Thompson “was involved in crooked business practices and corrupt political dealings—a man of industry who used his position and power to build wealth at the expense of Native populations”.
There is considerable evidence that Clark Thompson embezzled and withheld the funds he was meant to distribute on behalf of the U.S. Government to enrich himself. The consequences of his decisions were devastating. Death, disease and forced relocation ensued. He was Superintendent during the Dakota war of 1862, supervised the removal of the Sioux and Winnebago from Minnesota, and the disastrous removal of the Ho-Chunk people to the Crow Creek Reservation which resulted in mass starvation. Doubling down on this brutal corruption, he organized a campaign known as the “Moscow Expedition” which prioritized the creation of business contracts with his friends and associates over the provision of food, payment and other assistance to the indigenous peoples affected by his actions.
A text panel displayed at the site of the Blake family home on Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake mentions that John Blake collected Indian artifacts while travelling to the American west. Thus, it is apparent that these pipes were obtained through Blake’s close connection to Clark Wallace Thompson, and collected at the expense of desperate people who suffered repeated and systemic injustice.
On January 28th 1898, The Times newspaper (of Niagara-on-the-Lake) published a front-page spread of the Niagara-on-the-Lake hockey team’s victories against Niagara Falls and St. Catharines. Having defeated their rivals (on home ice) NOTL’ers relished their victories.
Citizens were entranced by this innovative, new and fast-paced winter pastime.
Illustrations accompany the article, heaping praise Niagara’s “boys in black and orange” and lampooning their hapless opponents.
I recall seeing photographs of the Niagara Hockey Club while working at the NOTL museum. I began to search for more information; only to find that there was very little written material available about the sport that was front-page news in the 1890’s. Reaching out to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Society for International Hockey Research, as well as to local historians and research repositories, I decided that a cursory examination of how ice hockey developed in Niagara-on-the-Lake would be worthwhile.
In Ontario, NOTL was a cultural, political and economic hub. The first provincial capital, first newspaper, first museum building and first railroad. As far as winter sports goes, Niagara-on-the-Lake also has a strong claim to having been the birthplace of the modern hockey stick, the wide-bladed goal stick, and the first use of the hockey net. An examination of NOTL’s claims will come secondary to a general analysis of the individuals, teams and places that helped develop a community of hockey fans in Niagara from the 1880’s to the 1920’s.
What follows is an examination of the early development and organization of “Canada’s game” in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is not intended to be a comprehensive study of all aspects of ice hockey in the region, instead focusing primarily on NOTL. Hopefully my work can help point others in the direction of where more research is needed. Since hockey was developed in the shadow of the more refined sport of curling, it is necessary to first cover the Niagara Curling Club and trace how organized hockey in this region developed from the success of this club.
The Origin of Ice Hockey in Niagara
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town that has made the most of its proximity to water. Located on a peninsula of land where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, the town has always capitalized on the freshwater resource surrounding the town. Large-scale fishing, shipping and boatbuilding industries have all developed over the town’s long history. In the late 1800’s –much more than today- creeks, rivers and ponds veined the region, maintained with care as they were essential to the livelihood of the community. These water sources helped irrigate the land and provided drinking water. In the days before refrigeration, NOTL’s many icehouses were supplied with ice harvested from ponds that were often purposefully dug in order to supply them.
Sometimes, even the mighty Niagara River froze solid. In 1909, large cataracts of ice froze the entire width of the Niagara and the daring could cross on foot into United States territory below Fort Niagara at Youngstown, New York. These ice jams raised docks and buildings from their foundations and caused thousands of dollars in property damage along Niagara’s wharf.
It was on these many frozen surfaces that people gathered to enjoy a skate, to curl, or to play ‘shinny’, an informal game that would closely resemble a children’s game of “mini-sticks” today. Shinny players wielded short branches as sticks, leaning over as they chased an improvised projectile, just as the mini stick contests begin now (often with a rolled up sock). But a child’s game of Mini sticks at least has a semblance of established rules. Shinny was not yet so encumbered by rules.
Shinny was played on Niagara’s many frozen ponds and creeks long before hockey began to be governed by a set of widely accepted regulations. It may come as no surprise to the self-styled Town of Many Firsts that the Niagara Region might lay claim the first recorded instance of ice hockey being played on skates, according to the Society of International Hockey Research.
During the 1839 Rebellion, Captain Richard Levine, a British officer with the 43rd Monmouthshire Light Infantry was deployed to Niagara. Stopping with his battalion that winter at Chippewa he stopped to record in his journal, “During the winter, the skating on the Chippewa Creek was excellent and added not a little to our amusement. Large parties contested games of hockey on ice, some forty or fifty being ranged on each side.”
Levigne continues his description and records a “corps of African skaters”, who had difficulty staying on their feet, attributing this to their race, ignorant of the much simpler explanation that skating is difficult for anybody, especially for the first time.
Though it may be difficult to ascertain what sort of rules applied to a hockey game in the 1830’s, Levigne’s journal demonstrates that the sport has been enjoyed in Niagara for hundreds of years. It is also likely that aboriginal people who populated the Niagara region before the arrival of Europeans enjoyed similar forms of winter recreation.
After the War of 1812, Niagara slowly entered an era of industrial development brought about by the creation of a harbor at the mouth of the river. The Niagara Harbour and Dock Company formed in 1831 and began reclaiming the marshland along the shoreline. They developed a booming industry, so much so that trains were built to accommodate the increasing ship traffic and to carry passengers and goods to Niagara Falls and beyond. The NH&D Co. was contending against the Welland Canal, which was completed a year before and provided access to Lake Erie by completely bypassing the Town of Niagara, as it was then still known. More challenges were to follow. In 1862 NOTL lost it’s political status as regional capital of Lincoln County to St. Catharines. This same year, The Niagara Harbour and Dock Company collapsed.
But the town managed to retain some of it’s clout as a major port on Lake Ontario, enjoying a degree of economic stability from the tender fruit growing industry which still benefits from Niagara’s prime agricultural land. Fishing also helped support NOTL’s economy, and the dock area remained a bustling port.
The reclaimed dock area, and the slip located at the foot of Ricardo Street would soon play a significant role in introducing winter recreation, and ice hockey to the local community.
In 1862, an enterprising ship captain Duncan Milloy moved to Niagara from Toronto. Milloy operated the steamship “Chief Justice Robinson” in Lake Ontario in 1853, and a year later commanded the Zimmerman, which burned in port at Niagara in 1863. After the Zimmerman burned, Milloy proposed a new ship design to Louis Shickluna that would be called “City of Toronto”, 221 feet long weighing 512 tons. The need for passenger carriers had slowed down, and Milloy’s ship was the only one that continued to make journeys from Niagara and Lewiston to Toronto from 1861 on.
The Formation of the Niagara Curling Club
Hockey in Niagara has its roots in Duncan Milloy’s decision to move to Niagara in 1862. Born in Oban, Argyllshire, Scotland, Milloy would have been well aware of his country’s favourite winter pastime. His Scottish heritage and his move to Niagara Dock area where he bought large parcels of land intersected for the benefit of Niagara‘s well-to-do residents in need of ways to pass the cold winter evenings. The slip became a somewhat reliable frozen surface on which to curl, and people were eager to join in the games.
In 1871, Duncan died at Oban House, now the Oban inn and his eldest son William took over the captaincy of The City of Toronto steamship.
In the 1880’s Niagara was experiencing the first wave of it’s tourism industry, which now –along with vineyards- is central to the town’s economy. The majestic Queen’s Royal Hotel (the hotel that lent it’s name to the present-day Queen’s Royal Park) once commanded the townscape and announced to passerby’s that Niagara-on-the-Lake was ideal for summer vacations. Graced with a natural coolness in the summer, people flocked to the Queen’s Royal and many other hotels for vacation and summer residence in Niagara.
The Queen’s Royal was well known for it’s sporting tournaments, which held world-class athletic events on its grounds. Lawn Bowling and Tennis championships brought in thousands of spectators, as did the Chautauqua grounds located to the west of town. But in the cold winter months there was much less recreation and a lot less activity in town, until The Milloy’s curling slip became so well patronized that it was determined to create Niagara’s first Curling Club.
The Niagara Curling Club held their first official meeting on December 5th, 1884 and promised to organize and govern the sport in an official way. Funds were raised through membership dues and would ensure the club had equipment and that the ice surface was maintained. This was a club for the wealthy and the military men that had seemed to control Niagara as far back as any could recall. American officers from Fort Niagara were invited to join free of charge as honorary members, while Niagarans had to cough up the $2.00 fee.
The 1884 roster of the curling club is “who’s who” of Niagara. It contained at least 10 who were or would become city councilors, clerks and reeves, the well known physician Dr. Anderson, steamship Captains the Milloy brothers, Reverend E. Stuart-Jones of St. Mark’s Church, future Mayor T.F. Best and John Carnochan, whose daughter Janet established the town’s Historical Society & the province’s first Museum building to go along with it.
The General Brock Connection
The man who offered to be patron for the Curling Club was retired American Brigadier-General Henry Livingston Lansing. Lansing had served on a State senate committee that formed NY state regiments during the Civil War, and was Brigadier General of the 31st NY Buffalo Militia. In 1863, Lansing provided men to suppress the draft riots in New York City, assisting General John E. Wool in restoring order to the city.
This was the same John Wool who had –fifty years earlier- led a group of American soldiers up a hidden fisherman’s path during The Battle of Queenston Heights. Wool and his men outflanked the British, capturing the redan battery and killing General Brock when he attempted a counterattack to retake it.
How ironic it must have been, if it was known by the other curling club members, the patron of their curling club once served with the man responsible for the death of Niagara’s most significant war hero. Brock’s towering monument at Queenston had already been constructed (twice) by the time Lansing served as patron to the club, and Brock’s status as a Canadian hero –even if he was from Guernsey- was cemented in Queenston limestone not far from the place he fell on that fateful day in 1812.
The Old Tannery Rink
On a cold December day in 1884, due-paying members of the Niagara Curling Club gathered inside the Court House that now serves as the town’s Chamber of Commerce and Shaw Festival Theatre. Foremost on the agenda was the need to secure a permanent sheet of ice on which to curl. The club proposed that they approach the Milloy brothers, who had inherited the docklands around the slip when their father died, to make use of the building known as the “Car Factory” at the dock. There was also a tannery and basket factory in this area, and so the rink is sometimes referred to by these names.
While there was no organized hockey being played at the Old Tannery Rink, it is plausible that shinny was. The surface was open for skating evenings, and where there is ice, hockey players find a way to congregate. When Joseph Masters, a lifelong resident and NOTL city counciller prepared a piece about the history of Niagara’s Dock Area (presumably in the 1950’s), Mrs. Creen of the Historical Society requested more information about the use of the old Curling Club rink. Asking if it was used for hockey, Masters responded in his own handwriting on top of her typewritten questions, “probably shinny, our Margaret used to come home with bruised shins from the square shaped puck”.
On January 24th, 1885 The Milloys granted the request, refusing to accept any rent from the club for use of their facility next to the slip. Their one condition was that the rink also be used for public skating evenings, the 10 cent admission going towards insurance and maintenance of the facility. Just six days later, the first skating carnival was held and was followed by three more in February bringing in a sum of $45.25 for the club.
By February 2nd 1885, the Curling club was meeting in their office at the Milloy Rink. It was the first indoor rink in Niagara-on-the-Lake if not the entire region, and it was a large, two-story structure housed in the old car factory building that was located next to next to the tender fruit basket factory on Ricardo Street. This building also appears to have been a Tannery, and a basket factory for packaging the region’s fruit products.
One of the first official matches of the club at the new rink took place against the team from St. Catharines in February. On March 4th, the St. Catharines Standard ran a story about the match, complaining that the ice inside the “old tannery” was covered with coal oil, as water for the rink had been transported from the river to the rink inside coal barrels. This posed a serious problem for the St. Catharines team, whose flinty granite curling stones did not slide nearly as well as Niagara’s “Poron” stones.
In spite of St. Kitt’s complaints of a substandard facility, the rink served the club admirably for a number of years. A regular maintenance person named Kent was hired to look after the rink for only $7.00 a month. His offer, being half the amount requested by Mr. J. Abbott ensured that he was given the job. Maintaining the building took regular work, and the club looked into improving the facility with funds from the treasury.
The Curling Club looked into improvements to the rink, such as a large capacity water tank to be placed on the second floor. In October of 1885, the Club made their first proposal to William Milloy that they would shingle the roof if he would allow them to retain use of the building for two more seasons. According to Mr. Milloy, the cost of shingling the roof, extending and excavating the interior, whitewashing, glazing the floor and installing a water tank would cost $225.00. The committee debated this figure considerably at the next meeting on November 12th because there was a concern that Milloy might sell some of his estate at the Dock area and that the club would be out of pocket for the improvements.
Attempting compromise, the club was in favour of shingling one side of the roof and patching the other side, and if the building happened to be sold within the next two seasons, then the club would be paid a $100.00 rebate. The circumstances perhaps becoming too complicated, Col. Thompson proposed that the club not entertain the Milloy’s offer. Mr. McDougal seconded the decision, and there seems to have been a growing consensus that building a new rink altogether was the right move.
Several years later (1892) Thomas P. Blain, a wealthy merchant wrote to Niagara Mayor Henry Paffard. He was eager to get rid of the old tannery building as back rent was owed to him from the curling club. It is revealed in the letter that the club had not paid rent for 4 years (since 1888).
Constructing a new rink would require a considerable financial commitment, one that was somewhat available considering the club’s well-to-do membership. Moreover, the new facility could accommodate other winter activities like ice skating, and it could be used or rented out in the summer months for a variety of purposes, like a pound for stray livestock – which was a serious problem in Niagara-on-the-Lake of the late 1800’s.
To raise funds for the rink, Thompson, McDougall, Best and Carnochan formed a committee to create a joint stock company “comprised of as many shares and at such a price as shall build and complete a building suitable for a skating and curling rink, and which building shall be eligible for any other purpose, during the summer months, but which shall be offered to the Niagara curling Club as a Curling Rink to be used in such a manner as it sees fit.”
This company was confirmed at the next meeting on November 14, and reported that the club had been offered the use of two curling rinks in a building that the company intended to erect at a rental of $50.00 per curling season (November 15th to April 15th, 1886). The club approved the decision of the company to construct a building and rent it out for the winter months for curling at the stated price.
It was then moved by Dr. Anderson that the club make further enquiry into the three possible locations for the rink: The Town plot, Spring Hill (near the engine house, located on Spring Street, which was renamed Ricardo) and the Queen’s Royal grounds. Dr. Anderson also requested that they start obtaining shareholders for the required amount for erection of rink, and to make all necessary arrangements to proceed with the work immediately after the first meeting of stockholders.
The Club was alarmingly vague in their descriptions of the proposed sites: Which ‘town plot’ under consideration was not specified, Spring Hill is a slope of land at the end of a street that has been renamed, and The Queen’s Royal Grounds was then home to a hotel of the same name that was later demolished. It is no wonder that tracing the locations of where winter sports were played in NOTL is so difficult to pinpoint. In reality, it seems possible that all of these sites were used in some way for different winter games.
Imported to Niagara from the Milloys of Oban Scotland, Curling was an assertion of Scottish heritage. Lacking only in bagpipes, kilts and cabers, the Curling Club held their annual meeting on St. Andrew’s Day –a Scottish national holiday- and their largely Scottish membership elected club offices for the following year. Reverend E. Stewart-Jones of St. Mark’s was elected president, with Mr. McDougall as vice President.
The usual business was conducted and other members were elected. For the 1886 year, the president was Reverend E. Stewart-Jones of St. Mark’s Church; Vice President, Mr D. B. Macdougall; Secretary-treasurer: Mr. R. Wilkinson; Committee of Management, Col. Thompson, Capt Milloy and J. Carnochan. Aside from the election of officers, there was no mention of the rink construction or raising of funds. This unfortunate omission in the minute book makes it harder to pinpoint where the club’s next meeting was held. The minute book simply states that the second meeting occurred “In the office of the Curling and Skating Co’s New Rink”, on February 2nd at 2:30PM.
One month later, (March 4th, 1886) the Niagara Herald reported, “We understand a syndacite is formed for the purpose of erecting a large rink on the cor. Of King and Johnson St’s.”, wishing success to the enterprise, the syndicate was successful in their endeavor, renting out land from the town on the “pound yard” (Lot No. 105). This was where stray animals were placed if they had been found running loose. Their owners could reclaim the lost chattel for a fee. This piece of land is also where fall fairs were held since it was a wide open area.
The rink that was built here was called the “Ice Palace” and it was Niagara’s first four-plex arena. It had removable barricades that accommodated curling as well as hockey. Curling was the priority, having been the favourite sport of mayors and councillors and other prominent citizens.
The Formation of the Southern Ontario Hockey Association (SOHA)
The newspaper called it “a most enthusiastic meeting”. It was Saturday night in Hamilton after all, and delegates from three Ontario towns; Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Paris gathered inside the St. Nicholas Hotel on James Street. It was December 17th, 1894 and the representatives assembled to discuss the formation of a hockey league with the host city.
The formation of this league, as mentioned, had its origins in the Ontario Hockey Association. St. Catharines had been participating in the OHA the year before, and was forced to play its games in Hamilton, as the OHA rule declared that all games were to be played under a covered rink. This may have caused St. Catharines, its longtime rival Niagara Falls, Paris and Hamilton to start their own league.
With the election of the officers and committee, The Southern Ontario Hockey Association formed. The league’s inaugural season began under the leadership of Hamilton’s William Wyndham, who was elected league president.
On February 15th, 1897, The SOHA’s Executive Committee met at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Hamilton. They decided to disqualify three players (Notman, Hodgetts and Vanzandt) of the St. Catharines Y.M.C.A club “for having played with the St. Catharines Junior Owls in a championship game against the Niagara Juniors.”
This left the Niagara seniors champions of the southern disctrict and the Niagara’s and Niagara Falls juniors rioted for the championship of the Niagara district.
The Hamilton Victoria’s Junior team protested against Paris’ “Shorty” Munro, claiming that he was a senior yet he played with the juniors. As a result, Hamilton was awarded a victory, leaving Hamilton and Paris tied for the championship of the district.
If St. Catharines failed to provide a satisfactory explanation to why
It was nearly over. My time in London was wrapping up and my search for an internship began. The program: M.A. Public History, at The University of Western Ontario.
I sent an email to the Royal Ontario Museum, hoping to experience one of Canada’s great cultural institutions. No bites.
Two weeks later, I decided to cast off once again. I sent another introductory email. This time, just days later, my phone rang.
“Hi Nick, This is Arni Brownstone from the Royal Ontario Museum” I stood up and put my coffee cup down. We had a brief discussion which ended when Arni said, “I look forward to working with you”.
I was in. My second email seemed to have done the trick. Persistence paid off. In preparation, I looked into all of Arni’s published works to familiarize myself with his field of expertise.
Moving to Toronto, I stayed with James, a good buddy of mine who lived near the CN Tower. My work began: an unpaid internship in an expensive Canadian city. A new adventure.
Arni is an expert in the painted buffalo hides or “robes” of the indigenous peoples of the Plains, especially the Blackfoot. Since the 1970’s, he has been analyzing and recording the remaining known examples, consulting with indigenous community leaders to add to a body of knowledge about these remarkable artifacts.
There is continuity in many of these highly stylized robe paintings. Motifs repeat and evolve over time, varying by artist and tribal affiliation. Arni has reproduced many of the robe paintings by studying them in person, and tracing their outlines on large cellophane sheets. He tried to faithfully follow the brush strokes of the original artist and in doing so, reveals new details about these objects.
Painted robes were a way for warriors to display their prowess, and to account for their bravest deeds. This is why they are also called “War exploit robes”.
And so Arni and I sat in his office for three months, turning his decades of research into a digital document. By the end of my time with him, we had transferred all of the material he had collected in a large filing cabinet -each painted robe organized into a file with associated research material- into a computer. Arni hopes to be able to produce a survey book containing all of the known examples in existence.
It was one of the most unique educational experiences of my life, working closely with a ROM curator. I am even more grateful to have become Arni’s friend as a result of our work together.
Broke out of the gaol of this county, on the night of Monday the 4th instant, a certain Isaac Sweezy, about thirty years of age, five feet eight or nine inches high, sandy complexion, and had a scar of a bullet or swan shot in one of his temples…
Richard Johnson, Sheriff of Morris County. Morris Town (New Jersey), Sept. 19, 1780.
Isaac Swayze had a colourful past. A loyalist exile who established himself in Canada after the American Revolution, he claimed to have been a secret agent for the British. We know that he was despised by his former neighbours in New Jersey, but biographical accounts haven’t dug much deeper into his activity during the Revolution, or the extent of the nefarious accusations levelled against him. The impression we are left with in Canadian biographies is that Isaac Swayze was a relatively unremarkable, low-level politician in a sparsely populated Canadian province at the beginning of the 1800’s.
But the truth about Isaac Swayze’s past is astonishing.
Historians seem to have relied on the same collections of documents to reach their conclusions about Swayze’s contributions to Canadian history (mostly those which were available in Canada). Arriving in the 1780’s, Swayze claimed to be a Loyalist secret agent, and “Pilot to the New York Army” (for the British) during the American Revolution. Awarded land in Niagara, Isaac was elected to political office in the first ever parliament of Upper Canada under John Graves Simcoe. He served his community and his country on and off until his death in 1828, but there is evidence that he played a secretive role in a much larger, more compelling drama.
Until now, only parts of his story have been told. We are now able to conduct a more thorough biographical investigation into his past. Rumours of his misdeeds followed him his entire life, and the following article will attempt to reconstruct those events. To confirm, or deny the accuracy of the claims.
I have discovered new material about his life in American archives and libraries, (in particular: the Library of Congress, the New Jersey State Archives) as well as colonial era newspapers and other sources. Many of these previously undiscovered sources (or at least unconnected to Swayze’s biographical narrative) shed light on the accusations that haunted Isaac Swayze.
Historians have missed crucial documentary evidence for a number of reasons. First: there are well over a dozen different spelling variations for his name (Swayze, Sweezy, Sweezey, Sweze, Swayzee, Swayse, Swaysee, Sweezie, Swayzy, Sweasy, Swisey, etc.).
In my research, I also considered the use of the 18th Century “long S”, which resembles a lower case “f”. This yielded even more documentary evidence, searching databases for variants of “Ifaac Swafe”.
A modern look into Swayze’s life also benefits from more material being digitized. Additionally, Swayze himself may have preferred to keep some of his activities secret. If he shared war stories with his neighbours in the Niagara area, they don’t seem to have been written down (though at least one seems to persist at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Angel Inn). Moreover, since competent, well written biographies were already available, it appeared as if the research on the subject had been exhausted. This turned out not to be the case.
We know that he fought, and distinguished himself as a British secret agent in the American Revolution. Pursued by the American Patriots, he was captured (repeatedly) and escaped. He joined other Tories (including James Moody and the Doans and Sinclair gang in Pennsylvania) in sabotage against the American war effort. He committed horse theft, armed robbery and other sinister crimes. His brothers were murdered by American troops, and his marriage was split up, possibly because of his exile to Canada. After his exile to Canada, his father was found with his throat slashed by a scythe, his death deemed a suicide. During the War of 1812, he defended his new home against American invasion. He captained an artillery battalion along the Niagara River and is said to have driven the carriage that conveyed General Brock’s corpse from Queenston to Fort George.
This biographical investigation began when I stumbled across a curious detail that caught my eye years ago. I recall having read that Isaac Swayze pioneered a variety of apple, known today as the Swayze Pomme Gris. According to Wikipedia, he carried the saplings on his back while making his overland journey to Canada.
I hypothesized that there may still be traces of this heritage fruit in Niagara. So, I began to research Isaac Swayze’s land ownership records to pinpoint the location. This research afforded a long overdue second look at Isaac’s legacy, enabling a reconstruction of the life story of this British spy and colonial warrior who spent his life in service of Great Britain -and in unending conflict with the Americans. As a result, we are able to better understand the links between the American Revolution, the populating of Ontario that followed, and the continuity between the American Revolution and The War of 1812.
The historical narratives so far, make no mention of the fact that Isaac Swayze was known -by name- to America’s founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson called him a “horse thief” (The Swayze’s were also ancestors of President Nixon). They also leave out most of his cunning exploits as a Loyalist spy during the Revolutionary War, and miss his political intrigues in the years that followed, leading directly to war a second time in 1812.
In the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, his work as a political leader in Canada is well recorded, but other than the sensational stories that seem to originate in family histories, very little verifiable information about his early life is known. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography is not alone in missing the critical role Isaac played during the America Revolution. On Wikipedia, he is recognized as “The pioneering nurseryman of Ontario”, which appears to be an understatement, even if it were true.
William Kingsford’s “The History of Canada: Canada Under British Rule” mentions him only in passing regarding Swayze’s public criticism of Robert Gourlay. Kingsford accuses Swayze of perjury, calling him “a man with a bad reputation… No one has ever said a word in his defence. After this episode in his life he disappears from notice”.
What explains the lack of recognition towards Isaac’s fight against America? Was this a fact so well-known among his contemporaries that it did not bear repeating, and thus is lost to us now?
Isaac Swayze -like many other Loyalists- held the firm belief that they could restore British authority to the 13 American colonies. In his early days, he marauded throughout America, conducting covert operations against George Washington’s Army. Swayze and his comrades harassed patriot militias and disappeared into the forests, mountains and caves of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They delivered secret intelligence to British commanders, broke fellow Tories out of jail and took up arms alongside indigenous warriors at several Revolutionary War battles. Swayze was even captured and sentenced to death, but astonishingly escaped: His wife visited him and they exchanged clothes, enabling Isaac to disappear undetected.
Moving to Canada, Swayze continued his subterfuge against America. Revenge was on his mind for the deaths of his two brothers, the tearing apart of his family and the loss of his home country to American revolutionaries. His actions -in part- ensured that America and Great Britain would be at each other’s throats again.
The Revolutionary War never ended for Isaac Swayze. America remained an existential threat, and Isaac was not content remaining on the defensive. By 1812, Isaac Swayze’s wish was granted. Retribution was at hand. Isaac did not miss his opportunity and distinguished himself in battle against the Americans alongside General Brock.
In the town of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) his legacy has faded. But was the burning of the town in 1813 an act of revenge against Isaac Swayze? And why does Niagara’s historic Angel Inn claim to be haunted by the ghost of a Captain Swayze?
“In the American Revolution, as with most other wars, the winners write the history. As such, we have the term “loyalist” for those colonists who remained loyal to the crown, while the winners claimed the term “patriots.”
To give an idea how loyalists were regarded during the era, one definition I found said a loyalist was “a thing whose head is in England and its body in America and its neck ought to be stretched.” In keeping with the winners’ history theme, the plight of loyalists has been given short shrift over the years, and it is their fate is to be regarded as having been on the “wrong side of history.” Indeed, most suffered greatly for what they believed, and most were ordinary colonists doing what they thought was right.”
~Richard J. Werther, Historian
On America’s revolutionary war battlefields, sides may have been clearly defined, but more difficult to determine was the allegiance and level of commitment of the average citizen.
Forced upon the people of the 13 colonies was a binary choice, even though a wide ideological spectrum existed. “Patriots” favouring separation from Great Britain, and “Loyalists” who disagreed. America was dividing, polarizing. Declarations were demanded, oaths sworn. Neighbours were distrusted and suspicions abounded.
Tensions were high as each side attempted to consolidate control in their communities. Minor skirmishes, theft, vandalism and violence -even murder- were commonplace in small rural villages and established colonial towns.
The conflict ended in 1783, but hostility persisted between the victorious Patriots and the exiled-to-Canada Loyalists. Tight knit colonial communities were torn apart by the fissure. Aside from the heavy casualties of war, families had divided. Loyalists were expelled from the United States, their lands and property confiscated. Some, like the Swayze’s bore shame for the “traitorous” activities of their family members.
Did they disown their Loyalist cousins? Could their neighbours ever trust these families again?
Licking their wounds, some Tories -like Swayze- became prominent citizens and elected officials in Canada. Their minds weren’t changed after the war and support for the monarch was not surgically excised from North America. In many cases, the Revolution made things worse. Exiled Tories sought retribution, preparing the continent for yet another violent eruption. The belief that America might return to the British was widely held (and given comic treatment by King George III’s character in the musical Hamilton, stating confidently, “You’ll be Back”).
Rebuilding the Swayze Family
It became clear that Isaac Swayze deserved recognition for having played a lead role in the dramatic (and repeated) clash of nations and ideologies in North America. Born into a divided America, Isaac made his choice – he had his reasons. But for his vigorous dedication to the cause, he would suffer dearly. The tragic events that consumed Isaac’s life committed him to a lifetime of personal and political conflict. The American Revolution tore the Swayze family apart. So complete was the devastation that piecing together details of Isaac’s childhood is incredibly complicated.
Isaac grew up Roxbury, in the western part of New Jersey, near the Delaware river. Today, this area retains the family name in the Swayze Mill Park natural reserve and the Swayze family cemetery.
In 1910, Benjamin Franklin Swaysey attempted to reconstruct the family history, publishing “The Geneaology of the Swaysey Family”. A valiant effort, but the book makes several errors in regards to Isaac’s line of the family. This account has been considered authoritative and has perpetuated erroneous genealogical information. It remains a very good place to begin researching this line of the family. In particular, it contains information unattainable elsewhere: family bibles and faded headstone inscriptions. My attempt to reconstruct the family unit leans more heavily on primary documents and contemporary sources, using the genealogical account for verification or historical context.
The best modern account that provides background information about Isaac’s upbringing and experience during the Revolution is Susan Burgess Shenstone’s book about the daring Loyalist operative James Moody. Her account is worth quoting at length:
“Spilling into Sussex County from Morris County [New Jersey] was the large extended Swayze family. They were almost a Loyalist unit in themselves. They were prosperous farmers, originally Quakers who had been expelled from Massachusetts in the seventeenth century to Long Island from where they had come to Morris a generation earlier. Some, like the ubiquitous Isaac, lived in Roxbury, Morris County, just across the border from James’ part of Sussex, and some, like the more sedate Joshua, were immediate neighbours of James. The Swayze’s did not join a provincial corps but acted as Loyalist agents outside the British lines. We hear of them bringing in intelligence to British headquarters, guiding refugees across upper New York, passing continental counterfeit money, and collecting – rustling?- horses for the British troops, being captured, breaking jail, some being killed, but most escaping. After the Revolution most of them settled in Upper Canada in the Niagara district. The Swayzy apple of Ontario was developed by the younger Israel. Throughout the war years, members of the family were continually helping James.”
[Note that Shenstone’s account refutes that it was Isaac who pioneered the Pomme Gris, crediting Israel Swayze – Isaac’s newphew- with its creation]
Sources even connect Isaac with the legendary Doan and Sinclair Outlaws of Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. A very likely claim, especially considering that the Swayze family’s ancestral home in New Jersey was just across the Delaware River from Buck’s County. The Doan Boys were similar in age to the Swayze’s and engaged in all the same activities: horse theft, robbery, even murder in service of the British during the Revolution. Hiding out in forests, hills and caves, the area of operations for these like minded loyalists would have been very familiar to Isaac. Joseph Jr. and Aaron Doan also fled to Canada after the war.
Isaac Swayze’s grandfather, Samuel Swayze (Judge Samuel Swayze), was born March 20th, 1688 in Southold, Suffolk County, Long Island. Seeking to escape persecution over their Quaker faith, Samuel’s ancestors left their original home in Salem, Massachusetts for Long Island, but found no compelling reason to remain there either. In 1737 they migrated again, to the western part of New Jersey, close to Pennsylvania. Samuel was 59 years old at this time, and settled in Roxbury. He eventually served as Justice of the Peace, conducting his civic obligations at the court house in Morristown. The Swayze family established itself in Morris county and expanded, branching out and gradually taking up land in adjacent counties.
Samuel died on May 10, 1759 at his home in Mendham, N.J. and was buried in the graveyard at the First Congregationalist Church of Chester.
Caleb Swayze (Sr.) – Isaac’s Father
We can infer from Samuel’s Last Will and Testament that his youngest son was Caleb, who received 152 ½ acres. The 1910 “Genealogy of the Swaysey Family”, reports that Caleb moved to Canada before the Revolutionary War. Strong evidence exists to dispute this claim. There was a Caleb Swayze who relocated to Canada, but this was many years after the Revolution, and this was Caleb Sr.’s great-grandson (and Isaac Swayze’s nephew).
Caleb (Sr.) was born in 1722 and at 15 years of age helped moved his family to New Jersey from Long Island. By the time he received his 152 ½ acre inheritance, Caleb had a family of his own. His first born son was also named Caleb, and his second: Isaac, was born in 1751.
The rest of Isaac’s siblings remain a mystery. The youngest appears to be Daniel, born in 1756. It is unclear who their mother was (when Caleb died, he left a widow named Elizabeth, but this could have been a second marriage. It is unknown if Elizabeth was the mother of Caleb Jr. and Isaac). Caleb appears to have also had several daughters and it is possible -but not proven- that he had another son named Benjamin.
Caleb Jr. and Isaac gained notoriety in contemporary American accounts as “villains from the time they were capable of distinguishing right from wrong”. Their father however, was remembered as an “honest farmer”. It is not clear, but likely given their Quaker background that eschewed violence, that the Swayze family was committed to the British cause, or at least favoured peaceable solutions instead of war. The degree to which Caleb Sr. approved of his boy’s agitation is unknown.
A Temporary Patriot?
In the spring of 1775, the Swayze family gathered for Isaac’s wedding to Bethia Luce (or Luse). Roxbury minister William Woodhull presided over the ceremony, but no contemporary record of it exists. In 1828 (53 years later – just after Isaac’s death), a note appears in a New Jersey marriage register accompanied by a statement from Minister Woodhull dating back to 1817 attesting to the fact that he wed Isaac and Bethia in the spring of 1775, admitting, “the exact time I do not now recollect”.
What explains this belated entry into the marriage register? Why did Minister Woodhull -in 1817- attest to their marriage, and what prompted this old message to be added into the official registry in 1828, after Minister Woodhull -and even Isaac Swayze- had both died? Maybe Bethia Luce was still living and had some reason to affirm her marriage?
Anticipating a happy new life with his bride, Isaac’s hopes were destroyed by events beyond his control. As Isaac and Bethia celebrated their peaceful union in New Jersey, violent conflict erupted at Concord and Lexington Massachusetts. The Revolutionary War began at the same time as their marriage.
Within months, America’s Continental Congress authorized the formation of the 1st and 2nd New Jersey Regiments. Recruitment began, and it is possible that Isaac signed up for service on the American side. “Pvt. Isaac Swisey” appears on a muster roll of the 2nd Regiment of New Jersey, with an enlistment date of November 6, 1776.
There seems to be no families named “Swisey” in the New Jersey area at this time. Even more unlikely is that there was one, also named Isaac, of military age. Furthermore, Isaac Swisey served in a company officered by Henry Luce, a relative of Isaac Swayze’s wife (Bethia Luce). There is -at the very least- reasonable suspicion that Isaac Swayze and Isaac Swisey are the same person.
Swisey is listed on the muster rolls “from Oct 31. 1775 to Jan 17, 1776”, a period of only 3 months.
Two days after Swayze leaves the regiment, the New Jersey troops engage in their first action. Their mission was to disarm Tories on Long Island, where they captured 500 weapons and four standards of colours. Long Island was also where the Swayze family originated. Maybe Isaac had signed up for the American service out of pressure from his in laws, abandoning his post once he learned of his regimental duties?
This tantalizing clue requires more investigation, it may cast doubt on Swayze’s initial commitment to the Loyalist cause. How could he explain his actions to his wife, whose family were committed to the American revolution? Were Isaac and Bethia caught up in a Shakespearean, Montague and Capulet affair of divided loyalties?
It was in April of 1777 that the infamous Loyalist agent James Moody recruited 73 of his neighbours to leave New Jersey and join the British forces stationed at Bergen, skirmishing with American militia en route. Upon their arrival, Moody’s men joined Lt. Col. Barton’s battalion in General Skinner’s brigade
It is possible that Isaac was among them, though the next we hear of Isaac Swayze is four months later when he was indicted for committing a felony. On August 1st, Isaac Swayze “feloniously did make an assault” upon Robert Culver Jr., breaking into his house on Schooley’s Mountain (near Hackettstown), assaulting him and stealing seven yards of blue cloth worth forty pounds.
Swayze was clearly marauding throughout the country by this time. Years later, Isaac admitted to joining the British Army in the year 1777 in his petitions to British Authorities in Upper Canada.
Susan Burgess-Shenstone argues convincingly that Isaac Swayze became a trusted confidant of James Moody. Their exploits behind enemy lines are of a remarkably similar character. Both were involved in jailbreaks to free Loyalist supporters, observed American troops, recruited supporters and intercepted military intelligence in New Jersey and beyond.
In the summer of 1778 Moody was recruiting in the Loyalist stronghold of Sussex County, New Jersey. He received orders to obtain intelligence from Colonel John Butler, commanding Butler’s Rangers at Fort Niagara.
A “trusty loyalist” was given the task of traversing the dangerous backcountry to Niagara and to report back. While Moody apparently sought to conceal the identity of this agent in his autobiography, Burgess-Shenstone believes that the ‘trusty loyalist’ was Isaac Swayze. In order to complete this covert operation, Swayze may have been familiar with the route, though it is unclear if Swayze had been to Fort Niagara before. Moody states that the loyalist selected had “fallen in with him between Niagara and Wyoming, and was with him at the reduction of the last mentioned fortress”. This indicates that -if Shenstone’s theory is correct- Swayze participated in the Battle of Wyoming on July 3rd 1778, an episode of almost unparalleled commotion and brutality.
Moody goes on to reveal that this trusted Loyalist agent remained with Butler afterward, staying at Fort Niagara through the winter. Many years later, while attempting to obtain land in Upper Canada, Isaac Swayze is found residing on a plot of land belonging to Col. Butler.
But a complication here is that Isaac Swayze pled guilty to “voluntarily, maliciously, advisedly and seditiously” going to Staten Island on July 5th, 1778 to join the enemy. Since the battle at Wyoming occurred on the 3rd, how could it be that Isaac travelled to join the enemy at Staten Island after the battle? Was he intercepted while acting as a messenger en route back to British Headquarters to report on the action at Wyoming? Or was he not present at all and his being charged with this crime so soon after the battle purely coincidental?
The outcome of this trial is unclear. Since he plead guilty, it is reasonable to assume that he was in U.S. custody in the summer of 1778.
1779 remains a mystery. It is possible that Isaac spent this year in prison until his 1780 escape, or that he managed to escape after he plead guilty to these charges and was captured again before 1780.
Either way, the story -as mentioned above- is that Isaac’s wife Bethia visited him at the Morristown Jail before his scheduled execution. He disguised himself by dressing in her clothes and escaped. A $5,000 reward was put out on him.
Isaac’s Older Brother
Caleb Swayze (Jr.), Isaac’s older brother, married Mary Trimmer on December 2, 1768. Caleb Jr. also ran afoul of the Americans at some point, and may have influenced his younger brother Isaac’s decision to commit to the Loyalist cause.
Caleb became increasingly daring, and was particularly active in February of 1780.
On the 17th, Caleb “with Force and Arms… did make an assault” on Jonathan Lidle of Roxberry. “Then and there did beat, and ill treat and other wrongs to the said Jonathan then and there, against the peace of this state the government and dignity of the same”.
Five days later, Caleb Jr. eyed another victim.
On the 22nd, 1780 Caleb committed an assault “with Force and Arms at Roxberry… upon one Ludlum Solomon… did beat, would and ill treat so that of his life it was greatly despaired.” These events appear to have influenced a $200 bounty to be placed upon Caleb.
One morning in September of 1782, a resident of Bottle Hill (now in Madison N.J.) spotted two armed men passing near the Great Swamp. It was immediately reported to Captain Benjamin Carter that the witness believed one was the wanted man Caleb Swayze. Carter took 10 troops to observe the house of Isaac Badgley, a Loyalist known to be friendly with the Swayze’s.
Observing from their concealment Mrs. Badgley carrying food into the swamp, the Patriots surrounded the area. Closing in on the fugitives, Caleb Swayze and John Parr were caught completely by surprise.
Attempting to flee, Caleb was shot and died instantly. John Parr was captured alive and confined in the nearby Morristown jail, where he was also held on the suspicion of having robbed Mr. Stewart’s farm in nearby Hackettstown. (Source: Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, John Warner Barber, Henry Howe, p.377-378)
This source seems to be referring to a high profile robbery committed at “Union Farm” near Lebanon, N.J. at the residence of Colonel Charles Stewart, George Washington’s former Commissary-General of Issues. This event is recorded in Elizabeth Ellen’s landmark historical work “The Eminent and Heroic Women of America”. Ellet reveals that she interviewed Martha Wilson, Colonel Stewart’s daughter, who was present during the robbery.
Remarkably, Martha Wilson identifies both Caleb and Isaac Swayze as the “bandit Tories”, and “ring-leaders” of the crime.
As she recalled it, 20-30 men approached Colonel Stewart’s farmhouse at dusk, their faces painted with charcoal. “Surround the house!” someone shouted. They were hoping to capture -or kill- Col. Stewart. He wasn’t home. A young relative of Col. Stewart demanded to know “who the devil” the bandits were, he was immediately struck across the head with a sword, leaving a bloody gash.
Mrs. Wilson intervened, offering to give the men whatever they wanted in order to stop further violence. For the next few hours, the men plundered the property. One particularly noteworthy prize was an exquisite pair of pistols gifted to Col. Stewart by Baron Von Steuben.
The published account reports the year of the robbery as June of 1783. It seems that Mrs. Wilson was either mistaken about the year it occurred, or there was a publishing/transcription error, that resulted in the recorded date being printed as 1783. The robbery occurred in 1782, while Caleb was still alive.
Charles Stewart himself appealed to the public after the event, confirming the date:
“On Sunday the twenty fourth June, 1782, about 10 o’clock in the evening, the dwelling house of the subscriber, at Union Farm in Hunterdon county, New Jersey, was surrounded by a party of about eighteen armed men, some of whom were painted and otherwise disguised; they confined the family, most of whom were females, and plundered the desks, trunks, closets and chests, and carried off, amongst other things, the following, viz. One hundred sheets of Rhode Island state money, each sheet containing fifty dollars, all of which were dated 18th March, 1780, signed by T Rumreill and A. Comstock, countersigned or endorsed by Jno. Arnold, and the words “interest paid one year” wrote on the body of each bill; there is reason to believe that all those bills are in number between one thousand nine hundred and fifty, and therefore the subscriber hopes if any money of this description be tendered by any suspicious persons, proper notice will be taken of the money, and persons possessed of it, and of them who may offer six plain tablespoons almost new, and a soup ladle marked S.S. in cypher, and six table spoons marked M.S. six tea spoons marked M.S. in cypher, six ditto marked S.S. In cypher, and six table spoons marked M.S. in cypher, six ditto marked R.W. and a pair of bow tea-tongs, a near silver watch that runs on a diamond, with a triple case, and makers name Pet. Ploughman, London, an elegant pair of pistols, steel barrels, silver mounted; marked on the crown piece E.D. three or four pair of silver shoe buckles, one of them very large, and of open work, a neat cutteau de chase, silver mounted, and ivory hilt, a pair of very heavy and large spurs, a parcel of New Jersey and Pennsylvania state money, and about fifty dollars in gold and silver, besides a new beaver hat, a number of silk stockings, &.c. &c.
I will pay one Hundred Guineas as a reward for securing the money and goods, and bringing this gang of villains to justice, and for any part of the property such proportion of the above as shall fully satisfy the captors. Charles Stewart.”
The New Jersey Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey) July 10, 1782.
Furthermore, the 1782 report of Caleb Jr.’s death (and John Parr’s capture) also mentions the robbery of the Stewart’s home and it seems that Caleb’s children attested to their father’s death having occurred in 1782 in their petition to Upper Canadian authorities for land.
In spite of this minor inaccuracy, a clue to Isaac’s migration to Canada is found in Mrs. Wilson’s recollection. She relates that the Swayze’s eventually made their way to New York City, where they used their loot to purchase a vessel to Nova Scotia. This was a common route for Loyalist migrants to Canada, as British Headquarters was still in New York. James Moody, mentioned earlier, also ended up taking this route from NYC to Nova Scotia.
Cross referencing with other sources, we learn that Isaac was -at the same time that he was robbing Col. Stewart’s- being paid by the British Army.
He appears on pay lists in the Guy Carleton Papers (under numerous spellings). On July 15, 1782 Isaac was being paid for services done to assist the British army. On August 24th, he received pay for the period from June 25th to August 24 under “pay for extra guides to army and other persons for services done”. Was one of the “services done” the robbing of Col. Stewart’s?
In the Carleton papers, Isaac’s profession is listed as “Messenger” and his regiment is “G.P.” (Could this mean something akin to General Population?).
The following Spring, Isaac was arrested on Long Island by British Authorities who still controlled the area. He was confined in the New York City Jail known as “The Provost” on April 28, 1783. Also known as “The Old Martyr’s Prison” or “Debtor’s Prison”. This was once the oldest municipal building in New York City, having been built in 1756.
Isaac appears in a list of Prisoners at the Provost in June of 1783. Seeking to be released from the horrific conditions, he immediately wrote to British Headquarters. On June 5th, he reported his allegiance to the crown and his work as an intelligence agent for three separate British Generals (British Headquarters Papers, vol. 4, no. 7897). In his petition, Isaac was seeking a speedy trial, because he had a wife (Bethia) and father (Caleb Sr.), and reveals that two of his brothers were killed in the army: Caleb Jr. and (possibly) Benjamin.
We know that Caleb died at the hands of Captain Carter’s men in the Great Swamp. But we don’t know for certain who the other dead brother was.
A story told by Isaac later in his life provides some clues. Apparently Isaac and Caleb had a brother named Benjamin. Isaac appears to have related the story that during the war, Patriot militias were searching a barn after being tipped off that the infamous Isaac Swayze was hiding inside. Finding his brother Benjamin instead, they Americans killed him. Isaac was hiding under the floorboards below, the blood of his brother dripping down onto him until he could safely escape.
There are two fascinating things about this story as they relate to the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The first is that the Swayzy Geneaology reveals that Isaac recounted this story later in life (implying it was a story one would hear in the Niagara area, after Isaac established himself there), the other is the remarkable similarity the story bears to the ghost story of the Angel Inn.
The current form of The Angel Inn’s haunting by “Captain Swayze” begins during the American occupation of Niagara in 1813. American troops searching the cellar, bayoneted to death a man (sometimes called Colin Swayze) who was hiding inside. This version of the story is one that was propagated by former owners of the Angel Inn.
Modern investigations into the origins of the Angel Inn ghost story discount it as pure fiction, since it wasn’t standing in it’s current form when U.S. troops occupied Niagara, and no Swayze’s in the Niagara area can be proven to have died at the time.
But it is entirely reasonable to believe that the story is a sensationalization of the true story of Benjamin Swayze’s death. Later in his life, Isaac served in local government in Niagara. If he frequented the Angel Inn -which is possible- he may have shared his war stories. To ascribe the origin of the story about a Swayze being killed by Americans to the true story of a Swayze (of New Jersey) who experienced a similar fate is not farfetched. The story seems to have lived on after Isaac’s death, shared by bar patrons over the years, growing and transforming into a powerful local legend.
Isaac is Released
Isaac’s memorial letter seeking release from the Provost Prison in New York also reveals that he was wounded, a fact first revealed in the notice of his daring escape from jail years prior. He is described as having a bullet wound on his temple. No portraits are known to exist of Isaac Swayze, but there is also a description of him as “Swarthy and Scarfaced”.
On July 10, 1783 Isaac followed up with British Authorities(BHP, no. 8392). After he was acquitted by court martial, he was ordered to leave the British Garrison, but requested permission to stay until the next fleet for Nova Scotia.
Back in New Jersey however, on August 2nd, state authorities commanded Jacob Arnold, high Sheriff of Morris County to pursue Swayze (along with Nathan Horton and James O’Hara). “All severally indicted of felony and treason against the State, are now lurking, hiding, secreting and concealing themselves in divers places and haunts in this state.”
It appears that Isaac was already in Nova Scotia, and that his request to travel to Nova Scotia was granted. In March of 1784 Isaac’s attorney submitted a statement to the British Authorities appointed to assess services rendered by Loyalists. Isaac reports that he indeed had “removed to Nova Scotia” (Annapolis) and was now seeking a grant of land. In this statement, Isaac reveals:
“That he was opposed to the measures of the American Congress… That he joined the Royal Army in 1777 and rendered them every service in his power for the suppression of the Rebellion of the reestablishment of the British Government in America… That your memorialist has thereby lost his all and is reduced to much want, and distress by the unfortunate determination of the rebellion, he has been obliged to leave his native country, and has removed to Nova Scotia in full confidence that he will there have extended to him the benefit of the late Act of Parliament for the Relief of the American Loyalists, he prays that you will take his case into consideration in order that he may be enabled under your report to receive such aid and relief as his losses and services may be found to deserve. & also pray that further time may be allowed him to produce his Proofs in support of the above facts & of his schedule herewith presented. Isaac Swayze by his attorney Isaac Ogden. Newman Street No. 64, March 20, 1784”
In 1890, Benjamin Rand transcribed a land petition from Loyalists that he found in the Nova Scotia Archives. In the list of signatures is Isaac Swayze. Although the document is undated, Rand believed it was produced in 1782, which would be impossible given that Swayze was arrested (and released) in New York City in 1783 (The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record 1890., Pg. 180).
Therefore, the family history relating that Isaac carried Pomme Gris saplings on his back from New York to Niagara does not appear to be true. It is unlikely that he even brought them from New York to Nova Scotia, given that he was imprisoned immediately before. Perhaps he cultivated these apples after he had settled in Niagara. Burgess-Shenstone points out that it was actually Israel Swayze who first cultivated the Pomme Gris in his orchard near Thorold, Ontario. This scenario seems much more likely to be the case.
Isaac’s life after his relocation to Nova Scotia is mysterious. Although he eventually relocated to Niagara, it is unclear when exactly, or how this came to be. However, we know that Isaac returned to New Jersey, even though he was still wanted by American authorities.
On May 25th 1788, Sheriff Jacob Arnold arrested Swayze in Morristown and carried him to the county jail, “there to be kept until he should be delivered according to the laws and customs of the state of New Jersey”.
It seemed as though Isaac’s luck had run out. But on June 16th, Daniel Freeman Jr. “then being keeper of the said Gaol, and having the said Isaac Sweazy in the gaol aforesaid… unlawfully and negligently did permit to go out of the said gaol, and at large to escape where he would, in great obstruction of justice, to the evil example of all others in the like case offending, against the peace of this State, the Government and dignity of the same”.
Isaac had escaped jail yet again. His accomplice, Daniel Freeman would later be rewarded with land in Upper Canada. Did Isaac promise Daniel Freeman that he would award him with lands if he allowed him to break jail?
Although Isaac moved to Niagara, he was initially unable to obtain ownership of land there. In 1789, Levy Lewis, a travelling methodist minister publicly voiced doubts about Swayze’s character. Swayze rebutted the accusations in a petition requesting a grant of land of April 16, 1790.
Although it is unclear what Levi (sometimes spelled Levy) Lewis’ accusations were, Issac seems to have succeeded in defending himself as he was elected to Upper Canada’s first-ever Parliament in 1792, representing the 3rd riding of Lincoln County.
“A Most Suspicious Burglary”
In 1796, Isaac became Niagara’s tax collector. Controversy immediately followed. Late one evening (he claimed) three men broke into his home and committed “a most atrocious burglary, almost accompanied with murder”. It was about 11 o’clock, and the Swayze family had gone to sleep. The front door was violently removed from the hinges, and “a stout man drest [sic] in a blanket coat, with moccasins, his face blacked” rushed inside, assaulting Isaac before he could fully rise from his bed. During this struggle, two other men broke open a chest of drawers with an axe and stole three bags of money. They left, having not spoken a word. There were three women in the house at the time, but the men who normally stayed here “had that afternoon gone to the Mill, and did not get back until about one o’clock in the morning. The women sleeped up stairs in a room the door of which at the foot of the stairs passed from Mr. Swayzey’s room. They say that they were forcibly detained in this room or on the stair, by the door being shut or held fast against them. On their getting out, the men were gone.” No evidence was found by the authorities against any possible suspects. After failing to successfully obtain reimbursement for the stolen public money, Isaac backed down.
But by 1799, Isaac Swayze would involve himself in an even more incredible scandal, one with international implications threatening the shaky peace between the world’s foremost superpowers.
The Liston Affair: Swayze’s Revenge
Robert Liston became Great Britain’s Minister to the United States in 1796. His orders were to implement the Jay Treaty, which required working with the Americans on border agreements with Canada. He worked to improve relations with the Americans, dealing with the difficult problem of the impressment of sailors into the Navy: a major cause of The War of 1812. His wife, Henrietta, left an insightful journal (accessible online) of their experiences in America, including a description of their adventurous 1799 excursion to Niagara Falls. She records thoughtful observations the about architecture, people, services and food in Niagara. While she does not mention Isaac Swayze in her travels, she does mention that they stayed with a “respectable farmer” and his daughters near Niagara Falls.
Her description of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) is evocative: “On Monday the 19th we set out very early in the morning, finding the wind fair for the first time – & by eleven O’Clock we reached the Town of Niagara – passing by a tolerably well built Fortification & a Colonel’s Guard. On the South side of the Lake, immediately opposite to the British, is a Fortress lately given up to the Americans, it is a respectable old French building, situated on a Bank commanding the Lake. The Town of Niagara is small, but contains some well supplied Store Houses, & two or three good Taverns, at one of which we breakfasted, mostly upon some Fish caught by the Indians. After breakfast we hired a cart – the only Carriage the place afforded & filling it with clean straw we proceeded, 18 miles, through an interesting Country, the scenery wild & picturesque, to the Falls of Niagara, the great object & end of our journey. The Town of Niagara was full of Indians a number of whom had come to receive their annual presents from the British Government, &, on our way to the Falls, we fell in with many of them returning home
Three months prior to the Liston’s visit to Niagara, an arrest warrant was put out against Isaac Swayze in Philadelphia (on May 22nd) Swayze had -dangerously- returned to the States. He had been in Philadelphia meeting with Liston, and was entrusted with carrying top secret letters back to Peter Russel, government administrator of Upper Canada.
But Swayze was recognized. His infamy endangered his latest effort at espionage. “Some days afterward, the Sheriff… went in quest of the defendant [Swayze], who was then on his way to Niagara. His wagon and three horses were attached, but two of the horses have since been taken from the Sheriff by legal authority, as stolen Horses. In the mean time the defendant got off.” (Porcupine Works: Containing Various Writings and Selections Vol. 11-12, William Cobbett, p. 12).
In a hasty escape, Swayze left behind the letters, which were soon discovered. (Whether or not the Liston letters were intended to be intercepted as a way to increase tensions in America, they had this effect.
The Philadelphia newspaper “Aurora” obtained the letters and published them in July and August of 1799.
“Liston privately conceded that the letters would support Republican contentious that the diplomat sought “to produce a rupture between this Country and France, and to promote such an intimate union between the United States and Great Britain as must end in the total annihilation of American independence.” (Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Wendell Bird, p. 240)
The letters also revealed Britain’s intention to “stir up the Indians” and pledged assistance to defend Canada if needed. There was also evidence of the administration’s cooperation with Great Britain to provoke France by encouraging Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolt in Haiti.” (The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period, Donald Henderson Stewart, p. 269.)
President John Adams and his successor Thomas Jefferson both dealt with the fallout from this political flashpoint. Notes taken by Jefferson on January 2, 1800 reveal that he learned from Tench Coxe, former Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress, that two letters were captured on Swayze but there was a third letter entrusted to a man named Cribs that had not been seen until Robert Liston himself came forward with copies of all three letters. Liston caught wind of the fact that his correspondence had been discovered, and as Jefferson puts it: “thought it best to bring all his three letters and lay them before Pickering, Secy. of state.”
Liston blundered, tipping his hand by unnecessarily revealing a third letter. It was Swayze who had been caught, not Cribs. Only two incriminating letters had been found, but now Secretary Pickering (and others) had the opportunity to read a previously undiscovered letter.
Tench Coxe told Jefferson that he learned of the existence of this third letter by chance. He was speaking with Samuel Hodgdon, Commissary of Military stores for New Jersey, who asked Coxe which letter he thought most incriminating. “The second” Coxe replied. Hodgdon remarked that the third letter “was the most exceptionable. this struck Coxe who not betraying his ignorance of a 3d. lre, asked generally what part of that he alluded to. Hodgden said to that wherein he assured the Govr. of Canada that if the French invaded Canada, an army would be marched from these states to his assistance. after this it became known that it was Sweezy who was arrested & not Cribs; so that mr Liston had made an unnecessary disclosure of his 3d. letter to mr Pickering, who however keeps his secret for him.” (Thomas Jefferson, “notes from a conversation with Tench Coxe” available at founders online)
The public calamity caused by the matter provided some additional biographical details about Isaac’s life. One outlet describes that the Liston letters “were seized on a horse stealer of the name of Sweezy, in Buck’s County in this state. Sweezy had been one of the gang connected with the notorious Dones and Sinclair, the two former of whom were hanged in this state, and Sinclair after being acquitted in this state through an error in the indictment, was subsequently hanged in Jersey. Sweezy was outlawed, and fled to Nova Scotia and Canada, from the government of which latter colony he was sent to this city with dispatches, and on his return with the above documents, was pursued under the former outlawry he has escaped, but his character called for an examination of a parcel which he left behind, in which these documents were found, along with a great number of letters from certain old tories resident in this state, to others who took refuge from justice in Canada. The papers were forwarded by the magistrate into whose hands they had fallen, to an officer of this state government, by whom they were forwarded to the President of the United States. Such is the history of the detection of those papers. Upon their contents there is room and occasion for a wide and a serious train of reflections.” (The Telegraph and Daily Advertiser: Baltimore, Maryland. July 17, 1799 pg. 2).
It seems an unlikely coincidence that Mr and Mrs. Liston’s made their difficult excursion to Niagara -Swayze’s home- simply for vacation, so soon after this affair began. Was Liston visiting Swayze to discuss this serious matter, to get their story straight, or to admonish him for his role in it? Either way, Swayze was once again a courier -behind enemy lines- working for the British government as he did during the Revolutionary War. Swayze vs. Willcocks
In 1808, Isaac Swayze chaired a committee raised against Joseph Willcocks, a Niagara resident and newspaper editor. Willcocks had strong pro-American opinions, which Swayze recognized as a threat. It is possible that Swayze recognized Willcocks as an agent for the U.S., perhaps having a keen eye for men like himself. Their intense public rivalry could be best characterized as two men motivated to destroy each other
The 1808 committee resulted in Willcock’s imprisonment. Retaliating, Willcocks sought in 1810 to have Swayze charged with passing counterfeit banknotes.
It is unclear if Willcocks worked in any official capacity for the U.S. government. His actions during the War of 1812, raising a battalion of disaffected Canadians to join the American cause, imply strong and longstanding anti British sentiment, though he apparently assisted General Isaac Brock with strengthening the British alliance with the Six Nations.
A Grand Jury later indicted Willcocks for sedition and libel. Willcocks believed Swayze was behind the charges, having written a letter that was published in a local paper under an assumed name. Swayze and Willcocks had a very public argument in court in 1811, which was sensational enough to receive coverage in newspapers in the United States.
“The following article, from the (Niagara) Guardian, shews the temper of the Tories there, who fled for their crimes in our revolution. Isaac Swayze, who cuts so conspicuous a figure… belonged to a family of that name in Pennsylvania, or New Jersey, where their efforts in aid of the British cause rendered them notorious. The savage temper exhibited by Swayze in the affair related in the following article, affords a pretty fair specimen of the disposition of the whole gang of revolutionary tories. In fact, they allied themselves with the savages, in those times, in many a murderous exploit, and it was often difficult to determine which of the allied parties were the most savage of the two. It is certain however, that they both exceeded, if possible, there British and Hessian co-adjutors. Straws show which way the wind blows – and if Swayze’s threat means anything, war with us is expected in Canada. Let our government and our people be prepared for the worst.” (The Albany Register [Albany, N.Y.], October 15, 1811 pg. 2)
While Willcocks’ charges were read aloud at the Niagara Courthouse, Willcocks noticed that the Jury was composed of his enemies. “Among whom was Isaac Swayze, who had more than once solemnly declared to one of his confederates his determination to murder Mr. Willcocks”. Pointing this out in court, Willcocks mentioned that a few days before the Jury was summoned, a sitting juror (Swayze) said “That in case of a disturbance with the United States Willcocks would be the first man he would shoot”.
The judge responded that if Mr. Willcocks, “Would name the Juror that had said so: delicacy would prevent his sitting upon the Jury during the discussion of any matter related to him. Mr. Willcocks then stated that the statement was uttered by Isaac Swayze”. In response, Swayze immediately rose from his seat, “and addressed the court in these memorable, and never to be forgotten words: “My Lord, I did say so, and I say so now”. This declaration threw the whole court into the utmost astonishment, and impelled Mr. Willcocks to remark to the bench, “that as his Lordship had heard Swayze publicly declare his intention to commit a deliberate murder; in duty to himself he could not do less than call upon the Crown Officer to take notice of such a horrible declaration”. To which the Judge replied that “the expression was highly indecent; but unless Mr. Willcocks would swear that he was afraid of Mr. Swayze the Court could take no notice of it.” Mr. Willcocks declined, and the matter then ended by his giving security to plead to the indictment. Such is the perilous situation in which Mr. Willcocks is placed: threatened on the one hand with a packed Jury, and on the other with wilful and deliberate assassination. What the result may be, God alone can tell. But why a Grand Juror should be thus permitted to rise in his box, in the face of a whole Country, and officially declare to one of his Majesty’s Justices of the Court of King’s Bench then sitting upon the mercy seat of Justice, his determination to commit a wilful murder upon one of his Majesty’s Liege subjects, is a question of the highest importance and requires (on the part of the public) the minutest investigation”.
American newspapers covering the story relished in this indecent example of British justice, and we can see the origins of Joseph Willcock’s notorious conduct against British authority in cooperation with the Americans.
In July of 1813, Joseph Willcocks committed treason. Offering his services to the Americans while a sitting member of the Legislature of Upper Canada. He raised a battalion, The American Volunteers who plundered throughout the Niagara Region, exacting revenge against their former neighbours. It is widely held that Joseph Willcocks pressured the Americans to burn the town of Niagara in 1813, an act which denied shelter to the approaching British army. Willcocks was killed in battle in Fort Erie in 1815.
Isaac Swayze took on a leadership position in the defence of Canada during the War of 1812. He commanded the unit known as “His Majesty’s Royal Artillery drivers” until September of 1813, when he was called to attend Parliament sessions for both Lower Canada (Quebec), and Upper Canada at York (Toronto). In a statement made after the war, he described how the American Army continually harassed his regiment, firing at them from across the Niagara River as they moved along the road with their artillery.
On May 27th, 1813 a lot more than occasional harassment occurred. Under the command of Winfield Scott, the American forces attacked Niagara, forcing the British to make a hasty retreat. In a statement made shortly afterward, Isaac Swayze claimed that on June 10th, as a result of General Vincent’s rapid retreat, the Americans occupied his house and a wagon and horses were taken by order of Colonel Willcocks (Joseph Willcocks). The Americans had captured Niagara.
Held back at Beaverdams, the Americans were unable to move further inland. Forced to evacuate the Niagara peninsula on December 10, 1813 Joseph Willcocks lobbied successfully to American General McClure to burn down the town of Niagara.
Swayze reported the loss of his house and barn, while his neighbour, John McFarland’s house was reported as one of the very few to survive the destruction. Swayze wanted to retaliate by crossing the river to destroy the American frontier.
“No, Captain Swayze” remarked Sir George Prevost, “no retaliation shall take place while I am in command”. Despite the order, it was impossible to prevent such an act. When Fort Niagara was captured by the British on December 18th, the stage was set for the destruction of the American frontier on the Niagara River.
After the War, Swayze appears to have been established in the St. David’s area of Niagara. He, along with Timothy Street and Richard Cockrell, tried to establish a newspaper there, and Swayze resumed his activity in local politics. When Robert Gourlay, the reformer and critic of the colonial government arrived in Upper Canada, Swayze gained considerable attention in his efforts to refute Gourlay’s radical ideas. It is unclear where Swayze was residing at this time, since there is also evidence that Swayze occupied land in Queenston, as he advertised in the Niagara Spectator in February of 1817 that he had a 4 room house for sale on 11 acres of land.
Tracing Swayze’s Movement in Niagara
Remarkably, it seems that during his time as an elected MP, Swayze was squatting. The title to the land on which he lived belonged to Col. John Butler (with whom Swayze was familiar from his days as a secret agent for the British). His 1793 petition to the Upper Canadian land board states that he had: “Erected Brick works and other Buildings on a Piece of Ground near the outlet of the two miles run between the west boundary line of the Town of New Ark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and John Secord’s Farm on Lake Ontario, which piece he found to be vacant and had the same surveyed, which contains 16 acres… He would be glad if your excellency would give him a grant for the same or grant him such other relief”.
[Worth noting is that Isaac Swayze would later marry John Secord’s daughter, Sarah]
The Upper Canada Land Board finally agreed, on May 18, 1794 to grant Swayze’s request for the title to Lot 213 in the Town of Niagara, which he had taken up and occupied. Swayze argues that while Col. John Butler technically owned the lot, he still should be entitled to it.
Considering that these two men were acquainted as far back as the Revolutionary War, it is intriguing that Swayze made his way onto Butler’s property following his brief sojourn in Nova Scotia after his release from prison in New York. Was an agreement made between the two gentlemen? Did Butler authorize Swayze’s settlement, or otherwise accommodate Isaac as an act of fellowship?
Six months later, Swayze wrote to Governor Simcoe that he had also purchased the adjoining lot, number 214 from George Mayne, and was now seeking to transfer these lots to William Chewett, one of the deputy land surveyors.
Some time after, a large plot of land that included these lots lists David William Smith as the owner. Smith (and his wife) were active players in Upper Canadian politics and social life. As a close associate of Lt. Gov. Simcoe, and through his position as Deputy Land Surveyor, Smith acquired substantial landholdings throughout the province. However, Smith did not live on this plot of land, nor did he hold onto it for very long. After selling the land in 1809 to local elite James Crooks, this entire section of Niagara soon became known as Crookstown.
Swayze wasn’t left without land however, Smith granted him -in an undated assessment- 200 acres on Lots 20 and 27 in Niagara Township (just south of present-day McFarland house). Sometime after, Swayze also appears to have obtained the ownership of the adjoining lots 21 and 26. The evidence for this appears on the unusual “Shubel Weldon Papers Maps” of Niagara. These maps which show lot ownership in Niagara claims to be from “1784 or earlier”. These maps contain revisions to lot ownership, including names crossed out, and therefore must date from a later period than claimed.
Land registry records show that Lot 20 was granted to Isaac Swayze (from the Crown) on June 30, 1810.
Swayze’s original settlement location on Lot 213 (and later 214) eventually became part of the Chataqua grounds and are now developed. If there was truth to the claim that Isaac Swayze originated the Pomme Gris Apple in Niagara, they may have been grown on lots 20, 21, 26 and 27 in Niagara Township, given that Swayze seems to finally have settled here. Note: On Swayze’s Wikipedia page, the claim is made that he carried the trees on his back from New York to his home at Beaverdams (present-day Thorold). I have not been able to find any evidence that Swayze lived here (or even in St. David’s) immediately after leaving America. In fact, the evidence that Swayze had not received land is compelling and appears in his numerous petitions to government officials. Eventually, after shuffling around on various lots in Niagara, he seemed to have established a sizeable plot of land on the Niagara River (Lots 20,21, 26 and 27). Burgess-Shenstone’s statement that Israel Swayze cultivated the Pomme Gris is more likely, given that Israel -not Isaac- settled at Beaverdams.
Swayze’s new location placed him next to John McFarland, whose house is today as a historic site and museum on the Niagara River. If Isaac Swayze’s actions during the Revolutionary War weren’t proof enough that he was a combative -even aggressive- fellow, then surely the fact that he soon became entangled in yet another land dispute with his new neighbour should prove sufficient. In 1811, John McFarland appealed to local authorities for arbitration in a dispute with Swayze. For some reason, Swayze had encroached on McFarland’s property. Thomas Dickson and Thomas Clark, the arbitrators of the issue, ordered Isaac to “remove, take away, and clear off from the brick yard of the said John McFarland, as well as the goods and chattels and property of the said Isaac Swayze which may be there on as also all lumber or encumbrances which there on may have been placed and left by him or his servants”. John McFarland was ordered to pay Isaac Swayze 55 pounds, 1 shilling and 3 pence.
While residing in Canada, Isaac assisted with the migration of many “late loyalists”. Members of his immediate family were brought into Canada, receiving land throughout Southern Ontario. He also vouched for many others, helping to populate Upper Canada with American refugees.
By 1820, Swayze ended his involvement in politics, and settled down. He was active in the Presbyterian Church in Niagara, and a proprietor of the Niagara Library. In 1823, he advertised a house for rent: “1 mile below Queenston, on the bank of the Niagara River. The house is large and commodious with the convenience of a good dry cellar and fine garden, fruit trees and pasture land – 7 acres”. This is perhaps the same property he had posted for rent in 1817 (it was 11 acres at that time).
Just before his death, Isaac Swayze took out an ad in the Niagara Gleaner (March 17, 1827). His 230 acre farm “with an excellent orchard” was put up for rent. He died on February 11, 1828 at his home. His sons Francis and William were left lots 20 and 27 to be equally divided. In April of 1833, they sold the property to Reverend John Carroll.
This might be the reason why the former Swayze house, on Lot 20, became known colloquially as “The Priest’s House”. Perhaps because it was occupied by Rev. Carroll, who became somewhat well-known for his writings on Methodist and pioneer history.
At this time, it appears that the most likely location for Swayze’s original Pomme Gris orchard was in Niagara, on Lot 20 and 27 (and Lots 21 and 26, the adjacent lots he later owned).
Most of this area is being used to grow grapes, as this is a prime location in Niagara’s wine region, but perhaps there is still some evidence of the original fruit farm of the man who gave this apple it’s name.
A fine example of early Niagara craftsmanship that was built for one of Ontario’s oldest pubs. The Angel Inn dates back to 1789, when it was known as the Harmonious Coach House Inn. Governor John Graves Sicmoe, Thomas Moore, Prince Edward and others (I believe Christopher Walken during the filming of The Dead Zone), have been guests at this establishment. It was burned by the American military in 1813 and rebuilt by 1815.
Surrounding its hearth was a decorative wooden mantle, which in 1896, was included in the catalogue of the newly created Niagara Historical Society.
But over a hundred years passed. Collection documentation systems changed and opportunities for loss of provenance ensued.
I began to look into the mystery when I began my employment with the Niagara Historical Society in 2013. The above photograph showing a mantle is deduced to be the Angel Inn Mantel, as it is listed in order with all of the pieces displayed around it in the museum catalog.
Checking artifact storage, I came up empty handed. There were other mantels, and I could not determine which one was the original. I dug up all the information I could on the museums mantels and eliminated each one in our facility. It wasn’t there.
On a bit of a long shot, I texted one of my classmates from Brock University, who was working at Butler’s Barracks. I recalled that there were some artifacts that were apparently loaned to Parks Canada many years ago under a previous museum director, and the institutional history that keeps track of some of these artifacts had either been lost, or was in some way incomplete.
“Dave, you guys don’t have a wooden mantel in your museum do you?”
“We don’t have one in the collection” he replied, then stated, “We just have one above the fireplace, which is part of the building here.”
I sent him the photo above anyway.
“We have it.”
His response was immediately followed by several images of the wooden mantel at Butler’s Barracks:
I immediately strolled over to Sarah’s office and told her about my sleuthing. She suggested we take a drive over there to take a look.
When we arrived, Sarah inspected the mantel. It even had the nail holes in the exact same locations as the original display. Sarah looked into the fireplace, reached behind one of the sides and pulled out a Manila tag marked “NHM” (Niagara Historical Museum).
The mystery was solved and we confirmed the location of an original piece of the museum’s collection.
Looking at the 1895 Niagara-on-the-Lake tourist map on the wall at the Niagara Historical Society, I noticed near the waterfront a small area marked ‘Believer’s Pavilion’.
Having caught my attention, I began to ask Sarah and Amy if they knew what this was. Apparently it wasn’t something well-documented. I began to search for information about it and came up with nothing.
If I recall correctly, a research request sent to my email shortly after began to connect the dots. The individual was looking for more information on the Niagara Bible Society and I began to look into it.
Turns out that there were large gatherings in Niagara-on-the-Lake around this time, where people preached, interpreted and studied The Bible. I discovered that the Niagara Bible Society was also known as the Believer’s Society for Bible Study (or something along those lines). This altered my search terms in the museum’s database, and in the index of relevant books.
Soon I had uncovered some approximate dates for this society’s gathering’s in Niagara along with their location, at the Queen’s Royal Hotel, which was attached to the original Believer’s Pavilion in the same 1895 map. I was close.
Flipping through the pages of the extant Queen’s Royal ledger book, I encountered a page with scribbled handwriting tallying the materials required to construct a pavilion at the hotel that was being financed by the Believer’s Society and alas, we discovered another forgotten part of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s history.
On June 25, 2012 Sarah Ferguson’s article about the discovery was published in the Niagara Advance, along with my photo, and I felt like a local historical hero.
With the Memories of Niagara project successfully wrapped up and on-display, I was able to continue some volunteer work at the Niagara Historical Museum.
I really looked forward to my weekly shift, where I would catalogue material or interact with researchers by phone, email or in-person and provide assistance if possible.
Driving into NOTL was pleasant, and the relaxed atmosphere at the museum was a stark change from my previous work experiences. I loved it.
The interest people had in finding historical information was pretty steady. They contacted the museum wanting to find out more about their home, their family history, or general interest in military history, economics, community organizations etc. As I looked into each request, a snowball effect occurred. Looking for a specific document or photograph, my attention would be caught by unrelated material stored nearby. Anything I thought remotely useful or interesting I copied down, vowing to look more deeply into the subject if time allowed.
Slowly, I built a repertoire of historical information and became increasingly informed about the museum’s holdings.
Soon, I was being paid for my work, landing a job in the summer of 2012. This coincided with the War of 1812 Bicentennial, which meant I was kept very busy for the next few months.
Working under the direction of the talented Heather George, I assisted with the production of the oral history project Memories of Niagara. The idea came from the Niagara Historical Society’s curator, Sarah Maloney. Sarah wanted to record interviews with local residents and make them accessible to the public. Volunteers conducted interviews and transcribed audio. When I joined the project, I also did transcriptions and video/audio editing to make short clips of interview highlights.
It was a strange experience in a way, listening to and reading the stories of stranger’s lives. Even more so because I was not very familiar with Niagara-on-the-Lake. But this did not stop me from gaining an admiration for this small historic village. Each interview I worked on introduced me to a different character in a larger cast. As a result, my interest grew, as did my understanding of the area’s history.
When I signed up to volunteer, I assumed I would be working with artifacts, conducting research and writing. As it turned out, this was not the case, at least not yet. In fact, I found it rewarding to experience (and participate in) the community focused work being done by the staff at the Niagara Historical Society.