November 06, 2013

High treason – Joseph Willcocks

Joseph Willcocks emigrated from Ireland in 1800 and when he arrived in Canada, he served as the sheriff of the Home District of Upper Canada from 1803-1807. In 1808, Willcocks began serving as a member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly. During his time in the legislature, he made a name for himself as a critic of British policies.

With the outbreak of war, Willcocks initially supported the British by helping to secure Iroquois support, recruiting men for the militia and even fighting at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Despite initially helping the British, Willcocks switched his allegiance when the Americans invaded the Niagara in May 1813. By July 1813 Joseph Willcocks, joined by Banajah Mallory and Abraham Markle who were both former members of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly, created the Canadian Volunteers. This group of militiamen served as scouts for the Americans and spoke to the loyalty of various citizens.

The most infamous act perpetrated by Willcocks and the Canadian Volunteers was their participating in the burning of Newark. On December 10, 1813, General McClure commanding American forces at Fort George ordered the destruction of Newark at the behest of Willcocks. Many inhabitants of Newark recalled the participation of the Canadian Volunteers during the burning.

For his actions, Willcocks was charged with high treason in absentia in the spring of 1814 during the Bloody Assize trials in Ancaster. Willcocks managed to escape the hangman’s noose, but he did not go on to live a prosperous life. In September 1814 during a skirmish around Fort Erie Willcocks was shot and killed. After his death, the Canadian Volunteers melted away as an influential force and they were disbanded in 1815 after their numbers fell and the US government denied further recruiting funds.

On November 7, you can head to the Niagara Historical Society Museum for “In the Grip of the Eagle.” The event combines dinner, period music and a light-hearted military tribunal to address those subjects who are resistant to American occupation. Click here for more details and don’t forget to mark your calendars for the Flames Across the Niagara event happening on December 6 and 7. Click here to find out more about that event.

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