Today, the American Eagle Gold Fifty-Dollar Coin remembers the demise of the steam-boat Caroline in the early morning hours of December 30, 1837.
It happened on the Niagara river just above the falls.
In his book, the Falls of Niagara, published in 1839, S. De Veaux included an account of that fateful event:
The Expedition to Navy Island, and Steam-Boat Caroline.
“Night’s blessed spell hath now
Lulled every sound of earth in slumber deep.
The sad heart hath awhile forgot its woe—
The weary frame its toil; but such sweet sleep
Brings not its balm to soothe this fevered brain and brow.”
About the middle of the month of December, 1837, twenty-eight men, principally Canadians, with Rensselaer Van Rensselaer and William Lyon Mackenzie, went on Navy Island. They called to them the patriots of Canada, and all others the friends of that cause.
In the space of three weeks, between three and four hundred responded to the call: some from the United States, and some from Canada. They brought with them arms and provisions.
They stayed on the island for one month, and then, at their own choice, left it, and not in fear of their opponents.
Opposite to them, were assembled five thousand men, consisting of British regulars, incorporated militia, and a body of Indians and Negroes. Batteries were erected, and balls and shells were, at intervals, cast upon the island.
The islanders were incessantly in a state of danger and alarm ; yet they would, at times, provokingly return the fire, still they remained unattacked.
For a month, a raw, undisciplined band of men, in the severity of winter, with no shelter but such as they then constructed, and miserably clad, set at defiance and laughed at the overwhelming force, which lay so near to them, that they frequently conversed together.
Let justice be done to them; and, however by contending parties they may be differently esteemed, there must be awarded to them the praise of being as enduring and as brave a set of fellows as ever assembled together.
They left the island because the United States would not countenance them, and in accordance with the wishes of American citizens, who interposed to effect their dispersion.
An expression of one of the leaders, before leaving, was — “I fear not my enemies, but my friends.”
There is an occurrence, connected with the Navy Island affair, painful to relate.
The steam-boat Caroline came from Buffalo, on the 29th of December, it was said, to ply as a ferry-boat between Schlosser and Navy Island. It passed, that day, forth and back several times, and before sun-down was brought to at the wharf, at Schlosser, and moored for the night.
At that place, there was but one house, and that a tavern. The warlike movements between the patriots and British, had drawn to the frontier, through motives of curiosity, a great number of persons.
The tavern was crowded — lodgings could not be obtained — and several persons, observing the steam-boat, sought for accommodations on board, and were received.
In the middle of the night, the watch, for a watch on board steam-boats is usually kept, saw something advancing on the water.
He hailed, but before he could give the alarm, a body of armed men rushed on board, shot at the sentinel, and all they met, crying — “Cut them down!” “Give no quarters!”
No arms were on board of the boat; no attack was expected; and no resistance was made. Some got on shore uninjured; others were severely cut and dangerously wounded.
One man was shot dead on the wharf, and twelve were missing, either killed, or burnt and sunk with the boat.
They towed the boat out in the river, and set it on fire; the flames burst forth; it drifted slowly, and its blaze shone far and wide over the water and adjacent shores.
On the Canada side, at a distance above Chippewa, was burning a large light, as a signal to those engaged in the expedition. In a short time, an astounding shout came booming over the water: it was for the success and return of those who had performed this deed. The beacon was extinguished.
The Caroline still moved on, and cast its lurid light far and wide, clothing the scene in gloom and horror; and just below the point of Iris Island, suddenly disappeared.
Many of the wrecked and charred remains were, the next morning, floating in the current and eddies below the Falls.
In justice to both sides, it should be stated, that the accounts of the different parties connected with the destruction of the Caroline, differ entirely from each other, as to the character of the vessel, the resistance made by the persons on board, the number killed, and in various other particulars.
These the author leaves to be settled by the politicians of the two nations. The account which he has adopted, is the one first impressed upon the American public: if it is not correct, he does not hold himself responsible for it.
The American Eagle Gold Fifty-Dollar Coin shows with a map of the Niagara River between Canada and New York, circa 1839, with Navy Island just above and to the left of Grand Island.