In fact, you might say that Willcocks was Canada’s Benedict Arnold. Arnold was the American general who had sold his soul to the British during America’s fight for independence during the Revolutionary War almost thirty years prior to 1812. Irishman Joseph Willcocks was a whole different story, a man of changeable loyalties who left both sides—Canadian and American—wondering how committed he really was to either cause because he seemed to have a love-hate relationship with both countries.
Willcocks was born in Palmerstown, Ireland in 1773 and at 27 sailed the Atlantic to live in York, Upper Canada (now Toronto, Ontario). He became a clerk at cushy various government jobs that he had been handed, thanks to kin members: businessman William Willcocks and Receiver General Peter Russell, both distant cousins. Some of Joseph’s positions were a receiver and payer of fees in the Surveyor General’s Office, registrar of the probate court, and sheriff of the Home District, an expanse that encompassed Simcoe and York counties. Incidentally, as sheriff, he was removed from office for obnoxious behavior in 1807.
Politically minded, he was an 18th century Whig. The elitist group known as Whigs believed in free trade and parliament over absolute monarchy. They also received financial support from wealthy merchants and strong industrial interests. Willcocks was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada in 1807, 1808 and 1812, representing York, as well as 1st Lincoln and Haldimand regions. On one occasion he was jailed for contempt of the House. In 1807, when he moved to Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), he founded the opposition newspaper Upper Canada Guardian; or Freeman’s Journal. Yes, both names were used with a semi-colon in between.
Through his rebellious paper, he viciously attacked the British government on a regular basis in his four-page, 11-by-17-inch publication combating subjects such as oppressive land laws and fees, and misuse of power on many occasions. In short, he promoted liberty, justice, and a future republic in Upper Canada much like the Republic of Ireland of which he had left. Willcocks also claimed to be the only person in Canada who dared to speak the truth. Many people thought he was being swayed by disgruntled American and Irishmen living in Upper Canada. Willcocks published his small but influential spread from July 24, 1807 to June 1812 before selling it to for $1,600. During those turbulent five years, he was jailed twice for libel.
By 1812, while war loomed with the United States, military commander of Upper Canada Major General Isaac Brock sought the help of Willcocks in securing the Six Nations natives--inside Willcocks’ constituencies--as Brit allies. That accomplished, and much appreciated by Brock, Willcocks then fought alongside Brock and his men consisting of British and Canadian soldiers, Canadian militia and native warriors at Queenston Heights that October when the Americans had invaded Upper Canada’s south. Brock was killed in action and the British incorporated martial law, which Willcocks--true to his nature--had always opposed, going back to when it had been first suggested in the Legislative Assembly at the beginning of hostilities.
On May 27, 1813, the Americans with 5,000 troops attacked Niagara near Newark, capturing adjacent Fort George and chasing the Canadian-British troops as far back as Burlington Heights at the base of present-day Hamilton. Two months later, Willcocks decided to sail across the Niagara River on his own and offered his services to the Americans at Fort Niagara. He may not have been that pro-American, however. He merely thought they would win the conflict. Not only had Willcocks “turn-coated,” he had committed a treasonous act because he was still being a member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly.
Within a few weeks, Willcocks had recruited and took command of about 120 men soon to be called the Company of Canadian Volunteers--mostly American immigrants and some pro-American Canadians living in Niagara. Two of his officers were prominent elected officials: Abraham Markle and Benajah Mallory. Reminiscent of American Civil War Confederate guerilla leaders “Bloody Bill” Anderson and William Quantrill fifty years later, the newly-appointed Major Willcocks led his crew in foraging, scouting, and a reign of terror by burning pro-Brit farms--property belonging to people he had known, including many political enemies, friends and neighbors. Willcocks took several hostages, throwing them into prison south of the border. Then that December, Willcocks, now a lieutenant colonel, went too far.
Following crucial defeats at the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams in June, the badly beaten Americans gradually retreated to Fort George which they eventually abandoned on December 10. Nearby was the town of Newark, where Willcocks had lived and printed his controversial newspaper for six years. Following orders from the American officer in charge at the fort and upon Willcocks’ urging, Brigadier General George McClure, the Americans forcibly removed the Newark townspeople, mostly women, children, and elderly from their homes into a bitter-cold snow storm with only the clothes on their backs, about 400 civilians in all. Then Willcocks and his raiders, along with the other retreating Americans burned approximately 150 houses to the ground, leaving only three houses, forcing the locals to find what shelter they could in the nearby woods, amid two- and three-foot snowdrifts.
In one situation, Willcocks ordered two of his men to remove a sickly woman, bed and all, and deposit her in the snow. Earlier that year, Willcocks had sent her husband, William Dickson, stateside as a prisoner. Now Willcocks wanted to destroy the Dickson property, too. While the two Canadian Volunteers wrapped the woman and took her out the door, Willcocks personally torched the two-story house along with all the contents. Once the fiery, dirty deed was done to their liking throughout the town, the band of Americans proceeded to advance across the Niagara River, with the Company of Canadian Volunteers bringing up the rear within sight of the British troops led by Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond.
Hot on the heels of the Americans, the British were enraged at the sight of the smoldering ruins of Newark as they approached from the south. They took on the retreating Canadian Volunteers, killing two and capturing several soldiers, while Willcocks and the others got away. In retaliation, Drummond and his men sailed across the river within a few days, captured Fort Niagara with a surprise attack, and in the next few weeks torched several towns and villages, including Lewiston, Black Rock and Buffalo on the American side, and occupied the shores of the river until war’s end. No building along the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie was safe.
How many Newark civilians died during December 1813 was undocumented. Undoubtedly, many froze to death. The shocking events of that day made headlines in many newspapers in England. Shortly after his order to burn the town, McClure was relieved of his command and dismissed from the US Army, while Joseph Willcocks now had a price on his head.
British vengeance didn’t stop with the burning of Newark. Once Napoleon’s army was defeated in April 1814, the British now turned their attention to the all-out war effort in America by sending thousands of troops across the Atlantic. When they invaded Washington in August, the Brits left the White House (known then as the President’s House), the Capitol Building, and many other government structures in flames and smoke, in direct response to the unwarranted destruction at Newark. Luckily for the Americans, hours after the attack on Washington, a wicked thunderstorm--quite possibly a hurricane--raced through the city and put the flames out.
In 1814, 19 captured people were charged with high treason and others not in Canadian custody were also marked following the Ancaster Bloody Assize Trials of 1814, in Ancaster, Upper Canada. As a result, eight of Willcocks’ comrades were hanged and seven others banished. Willcocks met his own violent end that September succumbing to a gunshot would during the Siege of Fort Erie--the last skirmish between the British and American forces on the Niagara front.
Due to potential retaliation or even death once the Treaty of Ghent was signed in early 1815 to end the War of 1812, the surviving members of the Company of Canadian Volunteers settled in the United States where it was much safer for them. Two of these had been mentioned earlier: Benejah Mallory, who had subsequently taken over the Canadian Volunteers upon Willcocks’ death, and Abraham Markle.
Today, Joseph Willcocks is buried in an unmarked grave in Buffalo, with neither side ever considering honoring the notorious rebel of questionable loyalties. And who says Canadian history is boring?