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Montgomery’s Tavern: A Place to Rebel

This story was initially published in 2010

On December 8, 1837, the major offensive of the Upper Canada rebellion culminated in a brief and bloody skirmish at Montgomery’s Tavern located just north of York (now Toronto). Here a rebel force led by William Lyon Mackenzie, fighting for democratic reforms, came face to face with a detachment of militia loyal to the crown set on crushing their uprising.

Photograph of a drawing of William Lyon Mackenzie
© Ontario Archives - S2123 I0014670
In 1837, political power was concentrated in the hands of a small number of influential colonial elites known as the “Family Compact.” These men occupied their positions without election, had control over the economy and exercised their power largely to the benefit of their own interests. Through his publications Mackenzie vigorously denounced these practices. He sought a system of governance where all levels would be responsible to the people. But after years of conventional attempts at political reform he became convinced that armed rebellion was the only way to root out those in power.

On Friday December 1, Mackenzie wrote a “Declaration of Independence” and his supporters began to rally at Montgomery’s Tavern. The Tavern was an ideal meeting place, being but a straight march south on Yonge Street to City Hall. Roughly 800 poorly armed men heeded Mackenzie’s call to arms and at Montgomery’s the final preparations for rebellion were made.

On December 3, Alderman John Powell, on a patrol from the city, crossed paths with Mackenzie who was surveying his attack route. After a brief exchange of words Powell killed one rebel and escaped to warn the city. The rebels had lost the element of surprise.

 

Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
© W. P. Bull, From Brock to Currie (Toronto, 1935).

Two days later Mackenzie set off down Yonge Street at the head of his men. They came across an advanced guard of about 20 loyalists who opened fire. The first row of the rebel formation returned fire and quickly dropped so the second row could fire over them. In the dim light it was hard to see the enemy and many of the rebels mistakenly thought that the entire first row had been mowed down. In a panic they fled back to Montgomery’s. On December 8, roughly 1,500 well-armed and organized loyalist marched on the tavern. For the rebels there was little hope of victory. Many fled at the mere sight of artillery and in less than 30 minutes their defences were broken. In victory, Montgomery’s was set ablaze and, in defeat, Mackenzie bolted for the American border.

William Lyon Mackenzie was designated a person of national historical significance in 1949 and, as the headquarters of his rebellion, the location where Montgomery’s Tavern once stood was designated a national historic site in 1925. Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-1838, was also designated in 1937.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Lower and Upper Canadian Rebellions. For more information relating to the life of William Lyon Mackenzie or the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, please visit: Mackenzie: a man who embodied change, A King is Born!, A Responsible Government, Louis-Joseph Papineau: Quite a Character!, Blazing a Trail Through Upper Canada, and The Battle of Saint-Eustache, in the This Week in History archives.

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