WAIT (Waite), BENJAMIN, businessman, schoolteacher, Patriot, author, and editor; b. 7 Sept. 1813 in Markham Township, Upper Canada; m. October 1836 Maria Smith (d. 1843), and they had three children, two of whom survived infancy; m. secondly 1845 Rebecca H. Sealey (d. 1894), and they had one son; d. 9 Nov. 1895 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Benjamin Wait’s father came to Upper Canada from Vermont in the early 19th century, settling first in Markham Township, where Benjamin was born, and then at Black Creek (Niagara Falls). In the early 1830s Benjamin opened a sawmill at York on the Grand River. His business affairs, however, went into decline. At some point he taught school in Willoughby Township and in 1837 he was evidently a clerk at Port Colborne, though he later described himself as a law student at that time. In any case, he was jailed for debt that year and, on being freed in the summer, fled Upper Canada, knowing other writs were outstanding against him.
In December 1837 Wait became involved in the rebellion in Upper Canada, first by trying to join the unsuccessful action of Charles Duncombe* in the London District and then by throwing in his lot with William Lyon Mackenzie* on Navy Island, where he served as a lieutenant in the Patriot forces. Wait may have been led to this action by financial misfortunes, his close association with well-known reformer Robert Randal*, the influence of his father-in-law (“a notorious Rebel”), or what he later described as his own “well known radical principles.” After leaving Navy Island, probably in January 1838, he continued in the Patriot service, later making the unlikely claim that he had been second in command at the battle on Pelee Island in March. In June he served as a major with a small group of Patriots who crossed into the Short Hills area of the Niagara District. On the night of the 20th, joined by some locals, the raiders attacked and captured a small contingent of Queen’s Lancers lodged in an inn at St Johns (St Johns West). Wait and Linus Wilson Miller* opposed the cries of Jacob R. Beamer* and Samuel Chandler* to hang the captive militiamen. The Patriots released them, and then scattered. Wait was taken on the 24th and examined, but he was uncooperative, convincing Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur* in the process that he was “bold and intelligent.” In August he was tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death.
Maria, who had encouraged her husband in the Short Hills venture, was successful later that month in having his sentence commuted to transportation for life, an outcome that helped poison relations between the new governor-in-chief, Lord Durham [Lambton*], who favoured the commutation, and Arthur, who did not. In November, Wait was sent to England with 23 other state prisoners (a number of his Short Hills comrades among them). There he wrote to Joseph Hume, John Arthur Roebuck*, Lord Brougham, and Lord Durham, protesting what he considered to be the illegal imprisonment of himself and the other state prisoners and the barbaric conditions in which they were kept. Under-Secretary of State Fox Maule warned Hume that Wait was “a cunning, designing fellow, and his associate convicts are his dupes.” Early in 1839 Wait and eight other state prisoners, including Samuel Chandler, were transported together to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), then being administered by Sir John Franklin*.
Maria laboured mightily to obtain Benjamin’s release, even travelling to London, but Wait secured his own freedom. In late 1841 or early 1842 he and Chandler escaped on an American whaler, and after several harrowing adventures reached the United States. In 1843 Wait published Letters from Van Dieman’s Land, which consisted of letters he had allegedly written to a friend over a 20-month period detailing the story of his transportation and of petitions Maria had written on his behalf. Maria, who had worked closely with him on the book, unfortunately died that May after giving birth to twins.
Wait remarried in 1845 and worked in Elmira, N.Y., for a number of years, evidently in the barrel-making business. He continued to take a deep interest in Canadian affairs, revelling in the progress of Canada towards “Democracy” but upset that his contribution, and that of his fellow Patriots, had not been sufficiently recognized. He moved to Michigan, living in Grand Rapids for more than 20 years, where he became involved in lumbering and founded, in 1873, the Northwestern Lumberman. Towards the end of his life he suffered several financial reverses and became dependent on the charity of former business associates. He found solace, though, in recounting tales of his adventures as a Patriot and a convict. At his death he was living in the Union Benevolent Home in Grand Rapids.
Benjamin Wait’s Letters from Van Dieman’s Land written during four years imprisonment for political offences committed in Upper Canada was published in 1843 in Buffalo, N. Y. The bulk of this work has been republished as The Wait letters, ed. Mary Brown (Erin, Ont., 1976).
AO, MS 516. NA, MG 24, A19; 126, 65; RG 5, A1, vols.196–203. Appletons’ cyclopædia (Wilson et. al.) vol.6. E. C. Guillet, The lives and times of the Patriots: an account of the rebellion in Upper Canada, 1837–1838, and the Patriot agitation in the United States, 1837–1842 (Toronto, 1938; repr. 1968). C. [F.] Read, “The Short Hills raid of June, 1838, and its aftermath,” OH, 68 (1976): 93–115. R. B. Ross, “The Patriot war,” Mich. Pioneer Coll. (Lansing), 21 (1892): 509–609.