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Unknown Stories of WNY: The Patriot Wars

New exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum highlights this little-known conflict that resulted in a steamship being set ablaze and sent over Niagara Falls.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — We know how volatile the relationship was between the United States and England in the early 1800s, and Western New York was the epicenter of much of it. 

In fact Navy Island almost became the home to an entirely new country.

While you no doubt know about the American Revolution and War of 1812, but Tony Greco of the Buffalo History Museum says there was another conflict at that time that put us in the global spotlight.

"The Patriot War of 1837, which is basically a series of insurrection undertaken by Canadian and Americans sympathetic to their cause, largely Irish who are looking to push British control out of Upper Canada," Greco said.

Upper Canada at the time was what we currently refer to as the Niagara Peninsula and Southern Ontario, in fact Niagara-on-the-Lake, known then as Newark, was at one time the capital of Upper Canada. The Patriot War is now part of the new exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum, named Continuum, to celebrate Erie County's bicentennial.

Greco says the highlight of the conflict and one of the most impressive pieces in the exhibit revolves around a steamship named the Caroline. 

"The British, claiming self-defense, crossed the Niagara River and cut Caroline's ropes sent her over the falls on fire," Greco said. "In the aftermath the only part of the ship that was recovered was the figurehead of a carved woman, which is now at the History Museum."

The Caroline was rumored to be transporting weapons and people to Navy Island. The leader of this insurrection, William Lyon Mackenzie, had kind of set up a government on Navy Island calling it the Republic of Canada. But Mackenzie and his troops were forced to retreat from the island, across the river and into the United States. Greco says it was at that point that the U.S. government stepped in. 

"Those people that were responsible for it were arrested and sentenced up to 18 months in prison for violating the neutrality that existed between the United States and Britain," Greco said. 

The Patriot rebellion failed, but set the stage for other events that ultimately led to Canada's independence.