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Special Message

April 05, 1838

To the House of Representatives of the United States:

I herewith transmit to the House of Representatives a report from the Secretary of State, with accompanying papers, in answer to their resolution of the 21st ultimo.



Washington , April 4, 1838.


The Secretary of State, to whom has been referred the resolution of the House of Representatives of the 21st ultimo, requesting the President, "if not incompatible with the public interests, to communicate to that House any information possessed by him respecting the capture and destruction of the steamboat Caroline at Schlosser during the night of the 29th December last, and the murder of citizens of the United States on board, and all the particulars thereof not heretofore communicated, and especially to inform the House whether said capture was authorized, commanded, or sanctioned or has been avowed by the British authorities or officers, or any of them, and also what steps have been taken by him to obtain satisfaction from the Government of Great Britain on account of said outrage, and to communicate to the House all correspondence or communications relative thereto which have passed between the Government of the United States and Great Britain, or any of the public authorities of either," has the honor to lay before the President the accompanying documents, which contain all the information in the possession of this Department relative to the subject of the resolution; and to state, moreover, that instructions have been transmitted to the minister of the United States in London to make a full representation to Her Britannic Majesty's Government of the facts connected with this lamentable occurrence, to remonstrate against the unwarrantable course pursued on the occasion by the British troops from Canada, and to express the expectation of this Government that such redress as the nature of the case obviously requires will be promptly given.

Respectfully submitted.


Mr. Forsyth to Mr. Fox.


Washington, January 5, 1838.

Henry S. Fox, Esq., etc.

SIR: By the direction of the President of the United States, I have the honor to communicate to you a copy of the evidence furnished to this Department of an extraordinary outrage committed from Her Britannic Majesty's Province of Upper Canada on the persons and property of citizens of the United States within the jurisdiction of the State of New York. The destruction of the property and the assassination of citizens of the United States on the soil of New York at the moment when. as is well known to you, the President was anxiously endeavoring to allay the excitement and earnestly seeking to prevent any unfortunate occurrence on the frontier of Canada have produced upon his mind the most painful emotions of surprise and regret. It will necessarily form the subject of a demand for redress upon Her Majesty's Government. This communication is made to you under the expectation that through your instrumentality an early explanation may be obtained from the authorities of Upper Canada of all the circumstances of the transaction, and that by your advice to those authorities such decisive precautions may be used as will render the perpetration of similar acts hereafter impossible. Not doubting the disposition of the government of Upper Canada to do its duty in punishing the aggressors and preventing future outrage, the President nevertheless has deemed it necessary to order a sufficient force on the frontier to repel any attempt of a like character and to make known to you that if it should occur he can not be answerable for the effects of the indignation of the neighboring people of the United States.

I avail myself of this occasion, etc.


Mr. Forsyth to Mr. Fox.


Washington , January 19, 1838.

HENRY S. Fox, Esq., etc.

SIR: With reference to my note of the 5th instant, communicating to you evidence of an extraordinary outrage committed from Her Britannic Majesty's Province of Upper Canada on the persons and property of certain citizens of the United States at Schlosser, within the jurisdiction of the State of New York, on the night of the 29th ultimo, I have now the honor to transmit to you the copy of a letter* recently received from the attorney of the United States for the northern district of New York, dated the 8th of the current month, with transcripts of sundry depositions* which accompanied it, containing additional information in regard to that most disastrous occurrence. A letter from Mr. George W. Pratt of the 10th of January, with inclosures relating to the same subject, is also sent.

I avail myself of this occasion to renew to you the assurance of my distinguished consideration.


ROCHESTER, January 10, 1838.


SIR: Colonel McNab, having avowed that the steamboat Caroline was destroyed by his orders, justifies himself by the plea, sustained by affidavits, that hostilities were commenced from the American shore.

I inclose you the affidavits* of four respectable citizens of Rochester, who were present at the time, who contradict the assertions of Colonel McNab.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,


* Omitted.

Mr. Fox to Mr. Forsyrth.

WASHINGTON, February 6, 1838.


SIR: With reference to the letters which, by direction of the President, you addressed to me on the 5th and 19th ultimo, respecting the capture and destruction of the steamboat Caroline by a Canadian force on the American side of the Niagara River, within the jurisdiction of the State of New York, I have now the honor to communicate to you the copy of a letter upon that subject which I have received from Sir Francis Head, lieutenant-governor of the Province of Upper Canada, with divers reports and depositions annexed.

The piratical character of the steamboat Caroline and the necessity of self-defense and self-preservation under which Her Majesty's subjects acted in destroying that vessel would seem to be sufficiently established.

At the tune when the event happened the ordinary laws of the United States were not enforced within the frontier district of the State of New York. The authority of the law was overborne publicly by piratical violence. Through such violence Her Majesty's subjects in Upper Canada had already severely suffered, and they were threatened with still further injury and outrage. This extraordinary state of things appears naturally and necessarily to have impelled them to consult their own security by pursuing and destroying the vessel of their piratical enemy wheresoever they might find her.

I avail myself of this occasion to renew to you the assurance of my high respect and consideration.


TORONTO, UPPER CANADA, January 8, 1838.

His Excellency HENRY S. FOX,

Her Majesty' s Minister, Washington.

SIR: I have the honor to inclose you the copy of a special message sent by His Excellency Governor Marcy to the legislature of the State of New York, in relation to a matter on which your excellency will desire the earliest and most authentic information. The message only reached this place yesterday, and I lose no time in communicating with your excellency on the subject.

The governor of the State of New York complains of the cutting out and burning of the steamboat Caroline by order of Colonel McNab, commanding Her Majesty's forces at Chippewa, in the Province of Upper Canada, and of the destruction of the lives of some American citizens who were on board of the boat at the time she was attacked.

The act complained of was done under the following circumstances:

In Upper Canada, which contains a population of about 450,000 souls, the most perfect tranquillity prevailed up to the 4th day of December last, although in the adjoining Province of Lower Canada many of the French Canadian inhabitants had been in open rebellion against the Government for about a month preceding.

At no time since the treaty of peace with the United States in 1815 had Upper Canada been more undisturbed. The real causes of the insurrection in Lower Canada, namely, the national antipathy of the French inhabitants, did not in any degree apply in the upper Province, whose population, like the British and American inhabitants of Lower Canada, were wholly opposed to the revolt and anxious to render every service in their power in support of the Queen's authority.

It had been reported to the Government some time before the 4th of December that in a remote portion of the home district a number of persons occasionally met and drilled with arms under leaders known to be disaffected, but it was not believed by the Government that anything more could be intended than to make a show of threatened revolt in order to create a diversion in favor of the rebels in Lower Canada.

The feeling of loyalty throughout this Province was known to be so prevalent and decided that it was not thought unsafe to forbear, for the time at least, to take any notice of the proceedings of this party.

On the night of the 4th December the inhabitants of the city of Toronto were alarmed by the intelligence that about 500 persons armed with rifles were approaching the city; that they had murdered a gentleman of great respectability in the highway, and had made several persons prisoners. The inhabitants rushed immediately to arms; there were no soldiers in the Province and no militia had been called out. The home district, from which this party of armed men came, contains 60,000 inhabitants; the city of Toronto 10,000. In a few hours a respectable force, although undisciplined, was collected and armed in self-defense, and awaited the threatened attack. It seems now to admit of no doubt that if they had at once advanced against the insurgents they would have met with no formidable resistance, but it was thought more prudent to wait until a sufficient force should be collected to put the success of an attack beyond question. In the meantime people poured in from all quarters to oppose the insurgents, who obtained no increase of numbers, but, on the contrary, were deserted by many of their body in consequence of the acts of devastation and plunder into which their leader had forced them.

On the 7th of December an overwhelmingly force of militia went against them and dispersed them without losing a man, taking many prisoners, who were instantly by my order released and suffered to depart to their homes. The rest, with their leaders, fled; some have since surrendered themselves to justice; many have been taken, and some have escaped from the Province.

It was reported about this time that in the district of London a similar disposition to rise had been observed, and in consequence a militia force of about 400 men was sent into that district, where it was speedily joined by three times as many of the inhabitants of the district, who assembled voluntarily and came to their aid with the greatest alacrity.

It was discovered that about 300 persons under Dr. Duncombe, an American by birth, were assembled with arms, but before the militia could reach them they dispersed themselves and fled. Of these by far the greater came in immediately and submitted themselves to the Government, declaring that they had been misled and deceived, and praying for forgiveness.

In about a week perfect tranquillity was restored, and from that moment not a man has been seen in arms against the Government in any part of the Province, with the exception of the hostile aggression upon Navy Island, which I shall presently notice; nor has there been the slightest resistance offered to the execution of legal process in a single instance.

After the dispersion of the armed insurgents near Toronto Mr. McKenzie, their leader, escaped in disguise to the Niagara River and crossed over to Buffalo. Reports had been spread there and elsewhere along the American frontier that Toronto had been burnt and that the rebels were completely successful, but the falsehood of these absurd rumors was well known before McKenzie arrived on the American side. It was known also that the ridiculous attempt of 400 men to revolutionize a country containing nearly half a million inhabitants had been put down by the people instantly and decidedly without the loss of a man.

Nevertheless, a number of American citizens in Buffalo and other towns on the frontier of the State of New York enlisted as soldiers, with the avowed object of invading Canada and establishing a provisional government. Public meetings were held to forward this design of invading a country with which the United States were at peace. Volunteers were called for, and arms, ammunition, and provisions were supplied by contributions openly made. All this was in direct and flagrant violation of the express laws of the United States, as well as of the law of nations.

The civil authority of Buffalo offered some slight shew of resistance to the movement, being urged to interpose by many of the most respectable citizens. But no real impediment was offered, and on the 13th of December some hundreds of the citizens of the State of New York, as an armed body under the command of a Mr. Van Rensselaer, an American citizen, openly invaded and took possession of Navy Island, a part of Upper Canada, situate in the Niagara River.

Not believing that such an outrage would really be committed, no force whatever was assembled at the time to counteract this hostile movement.

In a very short time this lawless band obtained from some of the arsenals of the State of New York (clandestinely, as it is said) several pieces of artillery and other arms, which in broad daylight were openly transported to Navy Island without resistance from the American authorities. The people of Buffalo and the adjacent country continued to supply them with stores of various kinds, and additional men enlisted in their ranks.

In a few days their force was variously stated from 500 to 1,500, of whom a small proportion were rebels who had fled from Upper Canada. They began to intrench themselves, and threatened that they would in a short time make a landing on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

To prevent this and to keep them in check a body of militia was hastily collected and stationed on the frontier, under the command of Colonel Cameron, assistant adjutant-general of militia, who was succeeded in this command by Colonel McNab, the speaker of the house of assembly, an officer whose humanity and discretion, as well as his activity, have been proved by his conduct in putting down the insurrection in the London district and have been acknowledged in warm terms of gratitude by the misguided persons who had surrendered themselves into his hands. He received orders to act on the defensive only, and to be careful not to do any act which the American Government could justly complain of as a breach of neutrality.

An official statement of the unfriendly proceedings at Buffalo was without delay (on the 13th December) made by me to his excellency the governor of the State of New York, to which no answer has been received. And after this open invasion of our territory, and when it became evident that nothing was effected at Buffalo for preventing the violation of neutrality, a special messenger was sent to your excellency at Washington to urge your interposition in the matter. Sufficient time has not yet elapsed to admit of his return. Soon after his departure this band of outlaws on Navy Island, acting in defiance of the laws and Government of both countries, opened a fire from several pieces of ordnance upon the Canadian shore, which in this part is thickly settled, the distance from the island being about 600 yards and within sight of the populous village of Chippewa. They put several balls (6-pound shot) through a house in which a party of militiamen were quartered and which is the dwelling house of Captain Usher, a respectable inhabitant. They killed a horse on which a man at the time was riding, but happily did no further mischief, though they fired also repeatedly with cannon and musketry upon our boats.

They continued daily to render their position more formidable, receiving constant supplies of men and warlike stores from the State of New York, which were chiefly embarked at a landing place on the American main shore, called Fort Schlosser, nearly opposite to Navy Island. This place was once, I believe, a military position, before the conquest of Canada from the French, but there is now neither fort nor village there, but merely a single house occupied as a tavern, and a wharf in front of it, to which boats and vessels are moored. The tavern had been during these lawless proceedings a rendezvous for the band (who can not be called by any name more appropriate than pirates), and was in fact openly and notoriously resorted to as their headquarters on the mainland, and is so to this time. On the 28th December positive information was given to Colonel McNab by persons from Buffalo that a small steamboat called the Caroline , of about 50 tons burthen, had been hired by the pirates, who called themselves "patriots," and was to be employed in carrying down cannon and other stores and in transporting men and anything else that might be required between Fort Schlosser and Navy Island.

He resolved if she came down and engaged in this service to take or destroy her. She did come down agreeably to the information he received. She transported a piece of artillery and other stores to the island, and made repeated passages during the day between the island and the main shore.

In the night he sent a party of militia in boats, with orders to take or destroy her. They proceeded to execute the order. They found the Caroline moored to the wharf opposite to the inn at Fort Schlosser. In the inn there was a guard of armed men to protect her--part of the pirate force, or acting in their support. On her deck there was an armed party and a sentinel, who demanded the countersign.

Thus identified as she was with the force which in defiance of the law of nations and every principle of natural justice had invaded Upper Canada and made war upon its unoffending inhabitants, she was boarded, and after a resistance in which some desperate wounds were inflicted upon the assailants she was carried. If any peaceable citizens of the United States perished in the conflict, it was-and is unknown to the captors, and it was and is equally unknown to them whether any such were there. Before this vessel was thus taken not a gun had been fired by the force under the orders of Colonel McNab, even upon this gang of pirates, much less upon any peaceable citizen of the United States. It must therefore have been a consciousness of the guilty service she was engaged in that led those who were employing her to think an armed guard necessary for her defense. Peaceable citizens of the United States were not likely to be found in a vessel so employed at such a place and in such a juncture, and if they were there their presence, especially unknown as it was to the captors, could not prevent, in law or reason, this necessary act of self-defense.

Fifteen days had elapsed since the invasion of Upper Canada by a force enlisted, armed, and equipped openly in the State of New York. The country where this outrage upon the law of nations was committed is populous. Buffalo also contains 15,000 inhabitants. The public authorities, it is true, gave no countenance to those flagrant acts, but it did not prevent them or in the slightest degree obstruct them further than by issuing proclamations, which were disregarded.

Perhaps they could not, but in either case the insult and injury to the inhabitants of Canada were the same and their right to defend themselves equally unquestionable.

No wanton injury was committed by the party who gallantly effected this service. They loosed the vessel from the wharf, and finding they could not tow her against the rapid current of the Niagara, they abandoned the effort to secure her, set her on fire, and let her drift down the stream.

The prisoners taken were a man who, it will be seen by the documents accompanying this dispatch, avowed himself to be a subject of Her Majesty, inhabiting Upper Canada, who had lately been traitorously in arms in that Province, and, having fled to the United States, was then on board for the purpose of going to the camp at Navy Island; and a boy, who, being born in Lower Canada, was probably residing in the United States, and who, being afraid to land from the boat in consequence of the firing kept up by the guard on the shore, was placed in one of the boats under Captain Drew and taken over to our side, from whence he was sent home the next day by the Falls ferry with money given him to bear his expenses.

I send with this letter, first, a copy of my first communication to His Excellency Governor Marcy,* to which no reply has reached me; second, the official reports, correspondence, and militia general order respecting the destruction of the Caroline , with other documents;* third, the correspondence between Commissary-General Arcularius, of the State of New York, respecting the artillery belonging to the government of the State of New York, which has been and is still used in making war upon this Province;* fourth, other correspondence arising out of the present state of things on the Niagara frontier; * fifth, the special message of Governor Marcy.*

* Omitted.

It will be seen from these documents that a high officer of the government of the State of New York has been sent by his excellency the governor for the express purpose of regaining possession of the artillery of that State which is now employed in hostile aggressions upon this portion of Her Majesty's dominions, and that, being aided and favored, as he acknowledges, by the most friendly cooperation which the commanding officer of Her Majesty's forces could give him, he has been successfully defied by this army of American citizens, and has abandoned the object of his mission in despair.

It can hardly fail also to be observed by your excellency that in the course of this negotiation between Mr. Van Rensselaer and the commissary-general of the State of New York this individual, Mr. Van Rensselaer, has not hesitated to place himself within the immediate jurisdiction of the government whose laws he had violated and in direct personal communication with the officer of that government, and has, nevertheless, been allowed to return unmolested to continue in command of American citizens engaged in open hostilities against Great Britain.

The exact position, then, of affairs on our frontier may be thus described:

An army of American citizens, joined to a very few traitors from Upper Canada, and under the command of a subject of the United States, has been raised and equipped in the State of New York against the laws of the United States and the treaties now subsisting, and are using artillery plundered from the arsenals of the State of New York in carrying on this piratical warfare against a friendly country.

The officers and Government of the United States and of the State of New York have attempted to arrest these proceedings and to control their citizens, but they have failed. Although this piratical assemblage are thus defying the civil authorities of both countries, Upper Canada alone is the object of their hostilities. The Government of the United States has failed to enforce its authority by any means, civil or military, and the single question (if it be a question) is whether Upper Canada was bound to refrain from necessary acts of self-defense against a people whom their own Government either could not or would not control.

In perusing the message of His Excellency Governor Marcy to the legislature of the State of New York your excellency will probably feel some degree of surprise that after three weeks' continued hostility carried on by the citizens of New York against the people of Upper Canada his excellency seems to have considered himself not called upon to make this aggression the subject of remark for any other purpose than to complain of a solitary act of self-defense on the part of Her Majesty's Province of Upper Canada, to which such unprovoked hostilities have unavoidably led.

I have the honor to be, sir, your excellency's most obedient, humble servant,


Mr. Forsyth to Mr. Fox.


Washington, February 13, 1838.

HENRY S. FOX, Esq., etc.

SIR: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the 6th instant, communicating a copy of a letter from Sir Francis Head, lieutenant-governor of the Province of Upper Canada, respecting the capture and destruction of the steamboat Caroline by a Canadian force on the American side of the Niagara River within the jurisdiction of the State of New York, together with the reports and depositions thereto annexed.

The statement of the facts which these papers present is at variance with the information communicated to this Government respecting that transaction; but it is not intended to enter at present upon an examination of the details of the case, as steps have been taken to obtain the fullest evidence that can be had of the particulars of the outrage, upon the receipt of which it will be made the subject of a formal complaint to the British Government for redress. Even admitting that the documents transmitted with your note contain a correct statement of the occurrence, they furnish no justification of the aggression committed upon the territory of the United States--an aggression which was the more unexpected as Sir Francis Head, in his speech at the opening of the parliament of Upper Canada, had expressed his confidence in the disposition of this Government to restrain its citizens from taking part in the conflict which was waging in that Province, and added that, having communicated with the governor of the State of New York and yourself, he was then waiting for replies.

It is not necessary to remind you that his expectations have been met by the adoption of measures on the part of the United States as prompt and vigorous as they have been successful in repressing every attempt of the inhabitants of the frontier States to interfere unlawfully in that contest. The most serious obstacle thrown in the way of those measures was the burning of the Caroline , which, while it was of no service to Her Britannic Majesty's cause in Canada, had the natural effect of increasing the excitement on the border, which this Government was endeavoring to allay.

I avail myself of this occasion to renew to you the assurance of my distinguished consideration.


BUFFALO, December 30, 1837.

His Excellency MARTIN VAN BUREN:

President of the United States.

SIR: Inclosed are copies of affidavits* which I have prepared in great haste, and which contain all that is material in relation to the gross and extraordinary transaction to which they relate. Our whole frontier is in commotion, and I fear it will be difficult to restrain our citizens from avenging by a resort to arms this flagrant invasion of our territory. Everything that can be done will be by the public authorities to prevent so injudicious a movement. The respective sheriffs of Erie and Niagara have taken the responsibility of calling out the militia to guard the frontier and prevent any further depredations.

I am, sir, with great consideration, your obedient servant,


District Attorney for Erie County, and Acting for the United States.


Martin van Buren, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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