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Northern Journal, Lowville, N. Y., July 14, 1842

From the N. Y. ________(?)

TWO YEARS IN VAN DIEMAN’S LAND

___(?) The account I am about to give of the sufferings and hardships of a number of brave men who were transported to Van Dieman’s Land for the part they took in the political troubles of Canada in the 1837 and ‘38, is not offered to the public with the view to excite angry feelings between the people of Britain and this country, whose vast energies may be far better directed for their own welfare and that of the human race, than in raging war against each other long bloody desolating wars, engendering bitter feelings, destroying or maiming thousands of the population, delaying the beneficial influences of education and useful industry, and seldom accomplishing the immediate objects in view so judiciously, (though at an infinitely greater cost) as the patient exercise of just remonstrance, friendly communication and able and honest agency by good men would have done. My desire is to interest the benevolent true-hearted, and kind people of America and Britain, and through them their respective governments, for the liberation and restoration to their friends, families, and homes of my truly unfortunate companions who yet remain in captivity on Van Dieman’s Land; and as I am the first of the Canadian or American prisoners taken at Prescott, Windsor, or Short Hills, who has been enabled by the blessings of a kind Providence to escape from the terrors of that far distant prison-house. I earnestly entreat the editors of newspapers of all parties, to lay the statement I am enabled to make before their respective subscribers and readers.

In a brief notice of my arrival to this city your contemporary describes me as a native of New York. This is a mistake. I was born in Kilmarnock, in Scotland, and emigrated in infancy to this city with my father and his family, joined my uncle, Mr. James Reid (formerly land stewart to Col. Wynn, near Sligo,) at the Gore of Toronto, in my 17th year, and continued an inhabitant of Upper Canada until the troubles four years ago, in which I took an active and decided part against Sir Francis Head, the agent of the British government.

I was then in my 23rd year, and little disposed to quarrel about forms of government---but I had witnessed an accumulation of real oppression and acts of injustice which I could see no other way to get rid of---remonstrances to the legislature, or by it to the British power in the colony of England had long proved unavailing; disputation succeeded desperation (?) to London, with no success. The English government acknowledged our complaints, and said that they had sent Sir Francis Head to redress them, and he proved a more corrupt and partial ruler than any of his predecessors --- Lower Canada was still worse ___? than us, and as I had voted for the resolution to make common cause with her, I kept my word, our interest being the same.

I was taken prisoner at Short Hills, carried before Sir George Arthur, and promised a full and free pardon if I would tell all I knew of the conduct of Wm. Masson ?, Wm. Ketchum, and the Messrs. Mackintosh of Toronto, whom he said he suspected, but lacked evidence to convict. I declined freedom on these terms, was tried before Judge Jones at Niagara, in August, 1838, with fifteen others, sentenced to be executed, but afterwards ordered to Van Dieman’s Land.

In November of that year, I sailed from Quebec for England, with John G. Parker and twenty-two others, and on the 22d of September, 1839, was placed on board the Canton, a British Convict ship, with Miller of Chautauqua, and two others, and carried to Hobart Town, where we arrived on the 16th of January, 1840, the distance from our homes being, as I am informed, 18,000 miles.

The American prisoners taken at Windsor and Prescott reached Van Dieman’s Land a month after us, on the Buffalo. The Lower Canada prisoners were taken thence to Sydney, in Australia, whence their treatment, as I learn, was better than ours.

The interesting part of my narrative begins here. Very few letters from relatives or friends have been allowed to reach them. I believe I am acquainted with all the political prisoners; and except one or two letters from Mrs. Waite to her husband, and one from Mahlon Burwell, a loyalist member of the Canadian Parliament to his nephew, Mr. Turrill (possibly John Burwell Tyrell - suggested by researcher Louisa, of Twp. Bayham somewhere in Ontario). I know of no letters received on the Island by any prisoner during the two years I was there. It was the wish of our jailers that we should forget our distant homes, and be forgotten here.

Letter in the Albany Journal, from Alvin B. Sweet, and in the Norwich Journal, from Elizur Stevens, are no doubt genuine---but no prisoner would dare to tell his sufferings in a letter, or if he did, the authorities would detain it and punish him.

Besides the above two, I have been shown in this city a letter published in the Ohio Statesman, signed by Mitchell (?) Monroe, of Toledo, Wood county, Ohio. The facts stated by him are correct, but, I remember no such person on the island, and believe that the letter is from a prisoner whose real name is suppressed for fear of consequences and presume that it was conveyed to America recently by some New England whaling ship.

Upon our arrival we were sent into the interior to work upon the great road leading across the island from Hobartstown to Laurencetown, and remained together for sixteen months, on what is termed Convict Stations.

Through the unwearied exertions of my eminent countryman, Mr. Joseph Hume, M. P., who spared neither time nor money to effect our liberation and promote our comfort, and in consequence of pressing letters from him to Mr. Lawrence,

a member of the Counsel, we were for the three first months preserved from associating with thieves, robbers, murderers, burglars and the scum of the jails of England, but after that were generally housed (?) with felons, pardoned for reprieved felons being our overseers.

We were heavily ironed in most cases, an ironed band around each leg, joined by an iron chain, and employed in digging trenches, breaking stones, sawing blocks for pavements, and dragging stone and timber like cattle, for we had neither horses or oxen. At the Lovely Bend (?) Station every four of us had a hand cart, and our task was to haul a load of flintstone, nearly a cubic yard, a mile through rain and sleet, and _ ?__ fourteen times a day. Thus we had fourteen miles, and the cart to drag back the other fourteen, being twenty miles a day, I having fourteen lbs. of chains on, while our fare was mostly two pounds of coarse brown bread, with a pint of water gruel (to) breakfast and another (to) supper, and about three quarters of a pound of meat and half a pound of vegetables for dinner. At night after eleven hours of severe toil, we were locked up in miserable huts, and as it is rainy in winter we were often dripping wet, but never allowed to go near a fire.

One shirt at once was the royal allowance, and we had Saturday afternoon and a little soap allowed to us, on which to wash and mend our wretched garments. When we took off our shirts on Saturdays we had to go without them until they dried on Sundays. Although in the prime of life, accustomed to farm work and strong --?-- I have often been weary almost to fainting, and never once in those two tedious years did I go to bed otherwise than hungry. During a passage of four months, on my return to a free land, I fared very differently in the American whaler, the seaman of which so generously rescued me.

The punishments to which we were subjected were cruel, and the more so because inflicted by pardoned Irish Felons, released for the purpose, on account of their known harshness and unfeeling character.

Nearly all the American prisoners have been confined in solitary cells, and fed for weeks on bread and water there---many of them nearly a dozen of times. The treadmill is also used as a persuader.

Not a few have been in the chain gangs---some are now at Port Arthur, in the coal mines; but the triangles, ever before our eyes, was the object of our greatest horror.

With the exception of the venerable Chauncey Sheldon, now 76 years of age, who commanded a troop of horse under General Van Rensselaer, in the last war on the frontier, I scarcely remember one American or Canadian who has not been flogged by felons, from two dozen of lashes with the cat-o'-nine tails, up to six dozen. The triangles accompany the party in work and are made of three long pieces of wood set up and meeting together at the top; a ring is run through any two of these pieces near the top---a strap is run through the ring and tied round each wrist of the sufferer, whose arms are thus extended at their full stretch, as in case of crucifixion, his legs are then firmly fastened to a cross-bar near the ground.

The freeman of the new world stripped stark naked, except his pantaloons, is then exposed to the lash of the felon of the old. The flagellator is ordered by the police officer to give two, four, or six dozen of strokes of the heavy whip, as the case may seem to him to require, on the sufferer’s naked back, who is then unloosened from his degrading posture and then is ordered instantly to his work whatever it may be.

O, how ardently and earnestly some of our pure-hearted patriots prayed that the God of their fathers in his good time and way would deliver them from their degradation, even if it were by an early death on that far distant shore! The prayers of some were heard, and others are fast following them to the tomb. The prayers of some were heard, and others are fast following them to the tomb. A number are far gone in consumption, and according to the best information I could procure, direct and indirect, more than half the political prisoners, though fine stout men when they left these shores, are now ruptured and otherwise injured, caused by hard work, lifting heavy stones, and hauling heavy loads in wet weather, over the soft clay. Even Elizur Stevens of Lebanon, Madison county, N. Y., a well built, stout man, of fine appearance, six feet high, and but twenty-seven years old, is already ruptured, and Daniel Heustis, one of the heaviest and stoutest men in Watertown, though in health, is a walking skeleton.

I was twice tied to the triangles and flogged. First, for finding fault with our wretched food, and next time for hitting a blow at a felon-overseer, who, in the mere wantonness of power had thrown me violently over a heap of stones.

John Augustus Swansburgh, of Jefferson county was six or seven times stripped and flogged for, being as they said, saucy.

Hiram Sharp, of Salina, was flagellated because he would not touch his cap to the superintendent, an English transported felon, and say “sir” to him when he spoke. But even after being flogged unmercifully he would not touch his cap to him.

Hiram Loup, of Jefferson county, because he grumbled or refused to work one cold morning, rather frosty, he having no shoes, was flogged at the triangles; as was Stephen Wright, son to a Methodist minister, there, because when sick the Doctor refused to exempt him, and the overseer ordered him to wheel a heavy loaded barrow up a plank, which he failed in doing from weakness. A stout felon then wheeled up the barrow, young Wright got his six dozen on the naked back, and was sent to stone breaking.

Lynus W. Miller, a fine youth from Chautauqua county, was fed 14 days on brown bread and cold water in a solitary cell, because he absolutely refused to do work assigned him on a Sunday. He offered to work harder, if possible, any other day, but assured his employer that his education and principles alike forbade him from performing unnecessary labor on the christian Sabbath.

Owen W. Smith, formerly agent to Smith & Merrick, of Oswego, was flogged at the triangles, because he had not loaded our hand carts heavily enough with stones.

Elijah Woodman, formerly of Maine, a magistrate and member of the legislature, more recently of Upper Canada, where he had a large property, has been cruelly flogged several times; and has at various periods been confined in a solitary cell, and fed on bread and water. This fine old man has kept a journal on the whole proceedings of the British government, giving its cruelties and crimes in detail, with the dates and names. And his offense was a refusal to give it up to Sir John Franklin, the Governor. He wrote on slips of paper, but where he put those strips the cell and the whip failed to disclose.

The free immigrant settlers and not a few of the editors were our firm friends---not so the convicts. I am not a Free Mason, but many of us were satisfied that it was a real benefit to us that some of our number belonged to that society. In what way I may not now state.

Matthew (sic) Whiting, a salt manufacturer, Liverpool near Syracuse, brother-in-law to Chauncey Sheldon, was one day tied to the triangles, and most severely bastinadoed, for a very trivial offense. It was a humiliating sight to see an old man of good name and fame, with, I believe, a large family, 18,000 miles off, thus disgraced and suffering. Many of the young prisoners would gladly have taken his place, but had we spoken a word, our turn would have come next, without mitigating his sufferings.

Alvin Sweet mentions the death of Lysander Curtis, in Jefferson county, but he does not tell how he came by his death. The particulars are these:

Curtis was sent to the convicts’ hospital for a high fever, where the doctor told him he was shamming sickness, but that that should not serve his turn, and he sent him back to the station to hard labor, pulling at the hand carts. Poor Curtis implored the overseers in the most pitious accents, to let him lie on the bare ground, as work he could not. But the overseers insisted, and when Curtis could stand no longer, he lay down by the road side, was carried at night to our miserable prison and locked up. Next morning he was taken back to the hospital, where he expired in great agony in a few hours.

Wm. Nottage, from Lorain county, Ohio, when injured severely by the accidental blasting of a rock was carried at once into the infected hospital, typhus or some other deadly fever being then raging, and although cured of his wound, he there caught the epidemic, which carried him off. Had they been humane enough to carry him to another hospital or place, his recovery was certain.

John Thomas, merchant of Ogdensburg or Madrid, who had his toes and the half of one of his feet cut off, was carried into the same hospital, but survived.

I was educated in the Presbyterian persuasion, in the Church of Scotland, but there were none of its preachers near us. No one are allowed but those of the Church of England. Mr. Beasley, a humane and kind hearted Methodist preacher, came from a distance to exhort several times, but the established minister got jealous of his popularity, and he was turned off, much to our regret. For such as Mr. Beasley there is much need.

Van Dieman's Land is one of the wickedest, most profane, immoral and degraded places on earth. I will endeavor to conclude my statement of the facts in another letter, but as I have alluded to some as being consumptive, I may here name R. Marsh, brother of the Rev. John Marsh, Methodist preacher, formerly of Chippewa, Alvin B. Sweet, of Winfield, Herkimer county, Moses Dutcher of Brownville, Aaron Dresser of Alexandria, Leonard Delano of Watertown, Andrew Leeper of Antwerp, and Daniel Liscombe of Chaumont, all of whom are wasting under that disease.

It is probable that this letter will be copied on the frontiers. Let me earnestly advise all who may read it not to do so for purposes of retaliation, but to discountenance all frontier movements and endeavor to influence the government of the United States in the matter. In one of his letters, a copy of which I have seen, Mr. Stevenson, late American Minister in London, wrote from thence, "I see no probability of relief, except through the intervention of our government. You had better therefore address the authorities at Washington on the subject."

My heart's desire is to bring back the captives; and frontier troubles, while they will effect no good object, may be made a pretext for continuing the dreadful tortures of which I have begun to give you a faithful recital.

I remain, Sir, the grateful
Servant of your countrymen,
My courageous deliverers,
JAMES GEMMELL.
New York, June 25, 1842.

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