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Mr. & Mrs. Smyth - A Spy Story Linked to our Capital Area






















IN a previously written blog (How a Stone, leads to Three Roks, and Three Roks leads ... to a Spy), I told the story behind the earliest-known settler burial ground of the National Capital Area, containing the grave of George Smyth. In it, I promised to tell the story of the members of his family who were spies for the British Crown during the War of Independence, when British subjects rose up and decided to take on what was arguably the most formidable army in the world at that time.


A capital choice

ONE of the best-known claims about how Ottawa became the Capital is that it was chosen because it was more defendable than Kingston and York (Toronto), which had both been temporary capitals of the Province of Canada. The history we have all been told is that those two cities were too close to the American border; both were attacked in the War of 1812, York was even burned to the ground! So, Ottawa was chosen in case the Americans ever decided that they wanted a second kick at the can(ada).

We are told the decision to build the Rideau Canal was made for the same reason. The St. Lawrence was just too vulnerable a shipping lane and an inland route was needed.

The process was actually more complicated than that but it can be easily understood how the defense of the future capital became THE only reason given in popular history to describe how Ottawa became the capital of the country.


Brief interlude for some further Curious Capital History that sort of proves that the choice of Ottawa was not just a late personal choice made by Queen Victoria. This quote is from the book Six Months in America by Godfrey T. Vigne, written in 1832, 26 years before the choice was made [1] :

"Philemon Wright, one of the best farmers in Canada, foresaw that at no very distant period, it (Bytown) must become a place of importance ... and he (Philemon) now predicts, with great appearance of truth, that Bytown will become the capital of the country: a glance at the map will show the justice of his reasoning."


Those three elements - The War of Independence, the Rideau Canal, and the Capitals' Curious History - all come together in this tale of:

How a plot goeth before the Fall(s), and the Falls goeth ... to a family of Spies.


A family of spies

CONTRARY to the narrative that we are used to hearing every 4th of July, the sons and daughters of the Revolution were not all-in as steadfast rebels ready to shape a new Republic according to a divinely ordained plan.

Like all revolutions, there were rebels who certainly had a cause they endorsed, but taking up arms against the Crown was a daunting venture for many. Nonetheless, as history tells us, once the revolution began, American patriots stepped up and stepped in to support the cause. No doubt much of that support came in the form of sheer brute force as young men joined the armed militia but older men and women were enlisted as well by the Rebel leaders to form intelligence networks that were key in securing the ultimate victory. Nothing exemplifies this better than the ride of Paul Revere, where a man on horseback with a lamp in hand signaled the enemy troop movements at a key moment before the key battles of Lexington & Concord.

From the beginning, Gen. George Washington began building America's first intelligence community: a spy network of military strategists who combined their talents with average colonials using secret codes and invisible ink for intelligence communications.

But thousands in the thirteen colonies remained loyal British subjects who wanted nothing to do with the uprising. The British, who were well-versed in developing intelligence against France during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and dozens of other military ventures throughout the world, quickly engaged loyalists to form an intelligence-gathering network of their own to quell the insurrection.

Enter Mr. & Mrs. Smyth of the Province of New York who, together with their two sons and Smyth's brother, share a story unlike any other in the history of the British secret service - a story of a family of spies that issued coded reports signed with code names, that endured multiple imprisonments and managed multiple escapes, and that led a spy agency for a burgeoning nation.

Province of New York, you say? A little background:

The colony of New Netherland was established by the Dutch West India Company in 1624 and grew to encompass all of present-day New York City and parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Much of this land was taken over and reassigned by the British crown in 1664, leaving only the territory of the modern State of New York, including the valleys of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, and future Vermont. The territory of western New York - then called the Province of New York - was disputed with the indigenous Iroquois Confederacy, and also disputed between the English and the French from their northern colonial province of New France. The province remained an important military and economic link to Canada throughout its history. [2]

That last sentence gives you an idea of what motivated the Smyths to join the British secret service.


The plot that goeth before ... (The cast of characters)

DR. George Montague Smyth was a surgeon who emigrated from Ireland in 1770 to the Province of New York with his wife, a woman whose name may have been Rebecca but (adding to this delicious story of intrigue) the fact is that she is only ever known by her initials R. J. or possibly R.I. By all accounts, George was a superb doctor whose skills were in great demand in New York City. George and Rebecca had two sons Terence and Thomas.

Five years later George moved just south of Lake George to Fort Edward, to join his brother Patrick, and George was soon appointed Member for Fort Edward in the Provincial Congress of New York in 1775.

Philip Schuyler (1733 - 1804), General in the American Revolution and a US Senator from New York.

Patrick Smyth was a lawyer who migrated to America in 1757, settling first at Albany in the Province of New York, where he was named an assistant judge of the Court of common pleas. In 1772 he moved to Fort Edward where he operated a tavern and was the town postmaster. He lived in a grand home known as the Old Fort House [3] and acquired several parcels of land, some of which he bought from a prominent Yankee judge named Philip Schuyler. Schuyler would later become a Member of the Continental Congress and a General in the Continental army.

Sir John Johnson, 2nd Baronet of New York, 1741 – 1830

Sir John Johnson, the 2nd Baronet of New York, was a Loyalist leader during the War of Independence.

On January 20, 1776, Sir John Johnson would have his first encounter with Gen. Schuyler, when Johnson and 300 Loyalist supporters were disarmed by the superior forces of Gen Schuyler - a force of 3,000. Afterward, Schuyler paroled Johnson, a decision that would come back to haunt him later.

Hearing in May 1776 of another force being sent to arrest him, Johnson decided to flee with his family, his tenants, and Iroquois supporters to Montreal. Johnson and his followers formed the core of the British military regiment known as the King's Royal Regiment of New York, which had substantial action against the New York colonials under his command throughout the war. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1782.

Maj.-Gen. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne 1766

Early in 1777, the commander of British and Loyalist forces sent to quell the rebellion in New York was Major-General John Burgoyne, a man better-known at that time as Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne because he had a taste for carousing in London high society while wearing stylish uniforms that incurred sizable amounts of debt.

Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester (1724 – 1808)

Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of the Province of Quebec (which at that time included today's Ontario) from 1768 to 1778, created the spy networks made up of army regulars before the war. At first, the colonials were recruited as guides, but they were soon used to spy and they did so at great risk. Because they did not wear a uniform, spying could earn them a noose!


Sir Frederick Haldimand, 1718 – 1791

From 1778 to 1786, Sir Frederick Haldimand replaced Sir Guy as Governor of the Province of Quebec and he asked Justus Sherwood, a man who had once fought with Rebel hero Ethan Allen but was now a Loyalist, to lead his New England spy network. Sherwood would run spy networks into New York and throughout New England.


The plot that goeth during ...

THE intrigue begins in 1777 when Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne plans to lead a campaign to Saratoga in command of a British force that would hopefully split away New England and end the rebellion. He and his British Regulars moved into the Province of New York and quickly set up his headquarters in Patrick Smyth's Old Fort House in Fort Edward.

From Patrick Smyth's tavern, two years before, Gen. Philip Schuyler had planned the largely unsuccessful invasion of Quebec with the infamous Gen. Benedict Arnold. By the Spring of 1777, when Burgoyne arrived in Fort Edward, Schuyler had evacuated further south to prepare to defend against Burgoyne's Saratoga Campaign.

Sir John Johnson, meanwhile used his extensive network of Loyalists to recruit George and Patrick Smyth as spies to inform him of the rebels' movements. An interesting report from this time survives, one that was written by George Smyth entitled “a true description of the situation of Ticonderoga (Fort Ticonderoga) with an exact account of its fortifications and the number of forces therein.” The report was signed with his code name Hudibras.[5] George's choice for his code name shows that he had a real sense of humour - not to mention a unique erudition.

All was set for a clash that would echo through the lives of all these men until their dying days.

Gen. Burgoyne and his troops moved south into New York and the plan was for his force to be joined by the British Regulars stationed in New York City but Burgoyne moved too slowly.

Instead of waiting, the British Regulars from New York City moved south to capture Philadelphia. Burgoyne was left to fight his battles near Saratoga but was soon overwhelmed by American forces. He was forced to surrender his entire army of 6,200 men on 17 October 1777. [4] Needless to say that after his recall to London, Burgoyne's military career was over, leaving him free to become Gentleman Johnny once more - sans the spiffy uniforms.

The two Smyth brothers had barely hidden their dislike of rebels and were long suspected of being loyalists, so when Schuyler's troops returned to Fort Edward, the two brothers were thrown into prison in Albany.

Before long, they were released and forced to report to a board that was ominously called the "Board of Commissioners for the Detection and Defeating of Conspiracies." The indomitable Smyths, however, continued to spy, were captured a second time, and spent the next three months in a rebel jail.

Upon their second liberation - this time by escape - the brothers returned to their work of secret service and we can imagine that they must have been under the constant surveillance of the rebels.


The plot thickens ...

GEORGE'S sons, Terence and Thomas, actively participated in the secret spying activities with their father and uncle, as did their mother. Between prison stays, George practiced as a surgeon in a rebel military hospital while, unknown to the enemy, his spy family worked diligently.

The mysterious Rebecca - codename R.J. - ran George's dispatches for him using her own sons as messengers, with Terence adopting the codename Young Hudibras.

Discovering that charges were coming his way, Hudibras (George) vanished one day but Young Hudibras (Terence) was captured and imprisoned for months in Albany. The elder Hudibras was captured but managed to escape while his captors slept. He was spirited away to Point au Fer on Lake Champlain by another spy, Matthew Howard. From there, he traveled to Fort St. Johns, now St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, arriving exhausted and in poor health.

After a period of recovery, George went to Quebec City and met with Governor Haldimand. The governor immediately recruited George to be deputy to Justus Sherwood, the new spy chief. Together they were responsible for recruiting spies, capturing enemy spies, negotiating prisoner exchanges, and plotting to kidnap important American Rebels, although few of those plots ever succeeded.

One failed kidnap attempt in early May 1881 makes for a great read but is far too long and intricate in detail to relate here. The escapade begins with a plot hatched by George Smyth, who brought the plan to Sir John Johnson, who proposed it to Gov. Haldimand. The approved plan was to kidnap none other than retired American General Philip Schuyler. Was this revenge for Schuyler clapping George in irons in 1777 and imprisoned Sir John? I'm guessing ... yes!

Were it not for the people injured and maimed, what happens in that attempt can easily substitute for an episode of the Keystone Cops. (for the full account, click here). Many of the key figures in this account figure prominently in that story.

George was involved in other equally unsuccessful plots - codenamed The Haldimand Affair - that involved trying to convince Ira & Ethan Allen to get Vermont to join Canada as a British province. Soon after, George settled into a quieter life in Canada.

From George Smyth's claim for losses made after the war as a Loyalist to the Crown (Montreal, Nov. 8, 1787), it can be seen that he had led a good life in Fort Edward. The property and belongings that he lost as a result of Gen. Burgoyne's misadventures are listed: His home on one and a half acres of property that he valued at £400, New York City currency (the report marks its worth at £290, Halifax currency); his home at Albany, where he had moved in 1777 (George claims he paid £1200 NY currency for it but the report says it was worth £700); his furniture; a house organ; his medical instruments and medicine; two barrels of spirits, and listed as well, quite surprisingly, is "a negro man kept at Albany".

In the claim, the following statement appears: "He says that he dared not apply for certificates or receipts from the British General as he was a suspected person and it would have cost him his life."

Patrick Smyth, on the other hand, had been released on parole in January of 1779 and came to Canada with his wife Rosamund McDavitt and their family after the British forces left New York in 1783. He enjoyed the military allowance of a Captain till his death, and in 1787 he received a grant of 700 acres for himself and 400 acres for his family on the Ottawa River.

Dr. George Smyth died on Sept.1, 1788 in Richelieu, Rouville, Quebec. Sons Terence and Thomas settled in Elizabethtown, the site of modern-day Brockville on the St. Lawrence River.


The Falls goeth to the family

AS I wrote earlier, the War of Independence and the War that followed in 1812, made it clear to British and Canadians alike that the American ambitions to appropriate British territory would not stop soon, thus creating the need for the Rideau Canal as a new and more easily defended shipping route. The canal project made the Rideau waterway a coveted place for development.

So, from Elizabethtown, Terence and Thomas Smyth, along with a relative who had married into the Smyth family, William Merrick, all snagged the best spots on the Rideau to build mills: Terence in Burritt's Rapids, William in what would become Merrickville and Thomas, just south of William's mill. Thomas would eventually lose control of his claim in the 1820s but the place where he built his mill would forever bear his name (albeit misspelled); officially named Smiths Falls in 1883.


The plot that goeth after ...

THOMAS Smyth's young son George, named for his illustrious grandfather, was born in 1788 in Elizabethtown and grew up in Smiths Falls. As a young man, seeking his own living, he began working on the Rideau River in the lucrative timber industry. It wasn't long before his work would lead to his drowning death at Three Rocks Rapid (Hog's Back) in 1809.

At the burial plot where he rests in Notre-Dame Cemetery in Hull, lies the stone that brings this chapter, of the Capital's Curious History full circle; a story about Rebels, Spies and the Capital's oldest settler burying ground.

George Smyth's headstone in Notre-Dame Cemetery in Hull, qc

[1] Vigne (Esq.), Godfrey T., Lincoln's Inn Barrister at Law; Six Months in America - Vol II; pg. 192; Whittaker, Treacher & Co., Maria Lane, London; 1832


[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Province_of_New_York

ALSO https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-amsterdam-becomes-new-york

Old Fort House, Fort Edward, NY

[3] Patrick Smyth's home, The Old Fort House, is now owned by the Fort Edward Historical Association and operated as a local history museum. It is the oldest house in Washington Co., built from the timbers of Old Fort Edward. (click here for more info)


[4] General Burgoyne's surrender, says historian Edmund Morgan, "was a great turning point of the war, because it won for Americans the foreign assistance which was the last element needed for victory." (Morgan, Edmund S.; The Birth of the Republic 1763-1789; 1956). He and his officers returned to England; the enlisted men became prisoners of war. Burgoyne came under sharp criticism when he returned to London, and never held another active command.


[5] Hudibras is an English mock-heroic narrative poem from the 17th century written by Samuel Butler. Published in the aftermath of the English Civil War, it is a scathing satire of Puritanism and the Parliamentarian cause from a Royalist perspective.

The work is a satirical polemic upon Roundheads, Puritans, Presbyterians, and many of the other factions involved in the English Civil War. The work was begun, according to the title page, during the civil war and published in three parts in 1663, 1664, and 1678, with the first edition encompassing all three parts in 1684. The Mercurius Aulicus (an early newspaper of the time) reported an unauthorised edition of the first part was already in print in early 1662.

Published only four years after Charles II had been restored to the throne and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell being completely over, the poem found an appreciative audience. The satire is not balanced as Butler was fiercely royalist and only the parliamentarian side is singled out for ridicule. Butler also uses the work to parody some of the dreadful poetry of the time.

The epic tells the story of Sir Hudibras, a knight errant who is described dramatically and with laudatory praise that is so thickly applied as to be absurd, revealing the conceited and arrogant person visible beneath. He is praised for his knowledge of logic, despite appearing stupid throughout, but it is his religious fervour, which is mainly attacked:

For his Religion, it was fit To match his Learning and his Wit: 'Twas Presbyterian true blew; For he was of that stubborn Crew Of Errant Saints, whom all men grant To be the true Church Militant: Such as do build their Faith upon The holy text of Pike and Gun; Decide all Controversies by Infallible Artillery; And prove their Doctrine Orthodox By Apostolic Blows and Knocks; Call Fire and Sword and Desolation, A godly-thorough-Reformation, Which always must be carry'd on, And still be doing, never done: As if Religion were intended For nothing else but to be mended. — First Part, Canto I, lines 189-206

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudibras



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