Not many Canadians know that when William Lyon Mackenzie launched his ill-fated revolt in Toronto in 1837, he was backed up by another Reform leader in Upper Canada West [now Southern Ontario] — an American-born doctor named Charles Duncombe, a popular physician who was well-respected for his forward looking views on health, education and responsible government. But when in December of 1837, Duncombe mustered a citizens army of hundreds of men in the vicinity of Brantford, intending to help Mackenzie in his armed uprising at Montgomery’s Tavern, he found himself on the wrong side of the law.
Acting on the false intelligence that Mackenzie had won and was in control of Toronto, Duncombe prepared for battle. When news of Mackenzie’s actual disaster finally got through [a week late], Duncombe disbanded his own forces without having fired a single shot. All the same, he was guilty of treason and would surely have been hung if caught. But with the help of his sister Huldah, his friend Charles Tilden, and a courageous boy named Richard Shenick, he escaped to safety across the border in Detroit, a journey he made disguised as a woman. They travelled by sleigh over the frozen roads and stopped overnight in Wardsville before crossing the ice at the Detroit River.
Others were less fortunate: they went to jail or even were executed. The remarkable story of how the 1837 Rebellion impacted Southern Ontario – in a battle for freedoms we now take for granted – was presented as a living history play in several Ontario communities this past summer, including Sparta ON on Saturday June 6 and Wardsville ON on Kin Day, Saturday June 20 2009.
By Marion Johnson, playwright