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SWITZER, MARTIN, farmer, blacksmith, and rebel; b. 9 Jan. 1778 on Newpark Farm, parish of Kilcooly, County Tipperary (Republic of Ireland), sixth child of John Switzer and his second wife, Anne Ryan; m. 22 Feb. 1803 Mary Maurice, and they had three daughters and four sons; d. 26 Feb. 1852 in St Charles, Ill.

Martin Switzer and his family sailed from Dublin for Boston on the Atlantic in July 1804; the passenger list described him as a 28-year-old labourer, five feet ten inches tall, and of fair complexion. The family first settled in Maine but in 1808 moved to New Jersey where Martin plied his trade as a blacksmith. Anti-British sentiment after the War of 1812 caused the family to decide to join a group of Irish immigrants, similarly disenchanted with the republic, in moving to Upper Canada. On 21 April 1819 the leaders petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland for land, and on 18 September Switzer was granted the western half of lot 11, concession 5 west, near Streetsville (Mississauga). As well as clearing his land and farming, Switzer operated a blacksmith shop. He also became a leader in agitating for local improvements; in 1832, and again in 1835, his name headed petitions to the House of Assembly requesting money for roads. When he complained to officials in York (Toronto) that settlers received virtually no services in return for tax money raised, he was told that such talk was seditious.

In politics Switzer supported the reformers. During the 1834 election, William Lyon Mackenzie*, running in the riding of 2nd York, which included Streetsville, was a guest in the Switzer home at the time of polling. Two years later Mackenzie again contested the riding. On nomination day a line of Orangemen blocked the reform leader’s passage to prevent him from filing his nomination papers. Switzer, the muscular smith, shouldered a way through with the diminutive radical leader following in his wake. Switzer’s friendship with Mackenzie and this incident earned him the enmity of his tory neighbours.

In 1837, as the news of the insurrection in Toronto spread, Switzer, fearing for his safety, left home at four in the morning of 7 December heading towards the Niagara border and American soil. A meeting at the inn of Caleb Hopkins* in Nelson (Burlington) with Charles Morrison Durand, who expressed the opinion that Mackenzie had more than 4,000 men and had probably captured Toronto, caused Switzer to change his direction and purpose. He decided to ride to an American Quaker community in Yarmouth Township (where in previous weeks men had demonstrated militancy at political rallies by carrying weapons) to foment an armed uprising in support of the Toronto rebels. He arrived in the village of Sparta on Saturday evening, 9 December, and found the climate suitable for rebellion. In the next few days he addressed two public meetings, urging the young men to join Charles Duncombe*’s patriots at Scotland. Claiming that Toronto might well be in Mackenzie’s hands and that there would be little or no fighting, he added that local men must march to show solidarity and to secure the rebellion. He warned that the tories might turn the Indians loose on defenceless settlers, and invited his audience to “lay his head on a block and cut it off” if they thought he had deceived them.

At noon on 12 December the “Spartan Rangers,” 56 strong, marched off under Captain David Anderson and Lieutenant Joshua Gwillen Doan*. The company included several Quakers, in addition to Doan, who thus chose to disregard the peaceful principles of their faith. That night the rangers stayed in Richmond (Bayham) and two Yarmouth men rode in to warn that a company of loyalist horse from St Thomas might be in pursuit. By an early departure they also narrowly missed interception on the Talbot Road by militiamen who had marched all night from Port Burwell. The company reached Dr Duncombe’s encampment on 13 December, some time after Switzer and shortly before the doctor learned of Mackenzie’s defeat six days earlier and ordered a retreat. Most of the Spartans were captured crossing the Big Otter Creek near Richmond and 23 were charged with high treason. One youthful prisoner declared that had it not been for “Old Switzer . . . no man would have started from Yarmouth.”

In the mean time, Switzer returned home under cover of night to find that vigilantes had partially destroyed his house and had driven off livestock. He fled again, this time for three weeks, and then remained hidden at home until April, when the hangings of Samuel Lount* and Peter Matthews* in Toronto frightened him into fleeing to the United States. There he bought a farm in Illinois.

In mid August, when Switzer surfaced to sell his farm at Streetsville, Colonel William Chisholm ordered him arrested for treason. Taken to the Toronto jail, Switzer sought the advice of George Ridout* on how best to extricate himself from the treason charge. Disregarding Ridout’s advice to stand trial, on 5 September Switzer addressed to Sir George Arthur a plea for clemency with an accompanying narrative intended to suggest a political refugee who, on reaching Yarmouth, had been more of an observer than a fomenter of rebellion. The attorney general, Christopher Alexander Hagerman*, recommended banishment. The Executive Council, although convinced that the prisoner had been guilty of treasonable actions, felt pressured by the inclination of Lord Durham [Lambton*] towards clemency in political cases. Switzer was pardoned on condition that he provide surety of $4,000 to keep the peace for three years, and was released from jail on 28 September.

Mary Switzer had already left on the long trek to Illinois with three wagons and a herd of dairy cattle. This herd provided the basis for what was to become a prosperous dairy and cheese business. In exile Switzer wrote on 7 Dec. 1838 to his friend Mackenzie: “We begun the Sport in Canada. We made a bad beginning but I look for a good ending and that before long.”

Bruce Peel

AO, MS 516, Martin Switzer to W. L. Mackenzie, 7 Dec. 1838, 4 Nov. 1839, 19 Feb. 1840. PAC, RG 1, E3, 84: 206–12; RG 5, A1: 98959–106686, 113188–93; B36, 1–2. Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots. Read, Rising in western U.C.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Bruce Peel, “SWITZER, MARTIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/switzer_martin_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/switzer_martin_8E.html
Author of Article:   Bruce Peel
Title of Article:   SWITZER, MARTIN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   September 27, 2023