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PUTNAM, WILLIAM, businessman, militia officer, and Patriot; b. c. 1794 in Pennsylvania, eldest son of Seth Putnam; m. Eleanor Dygart, and they had seven children; d. 4 Dec. 1838 in Windsor, Upper Canada.

About 1795 Seth Putnam, who had sided with the rebels in the American revolution, settled in Upper Canada, just east of present-day London. His wife and eldest son, William, followed him in 1797. In several ways young William proved to be a loyal, successful colonist, fighting in the War of 1812, building a saw- and grist-mill, and later establishing a distillery and running a tavern. He acquired substantial properties, some of which he farmed. In fact, he was a pillar of his community: he held township office, twice acted as foreman of the London District’s grand jury, rose to the rank of captain and was appointed adjutant in the local militia, and became grand master of a masonic lodge.

Despite his successes, William harboured grievances against the government. He felt that his father had never been adequately paid for extensive road work he had undertaken and that he himself had been given less land than he deserved for his war services. He must also have been upset by the government’s refusal to sell him a lot he had mistakenly occupied, on which he had cleared 25 acres. Perhaps such grievances helped incline him to the reform side of politics. Certainly, he was there by 1837 when the agitation preceding the rebellion was at its height. That fall the reformers of Dorchester Township named him a delegate to the grand provincial convention planned by William Lyon Mackenzie*. In early December he chaired a meeting in Delaware Township to establish a political union. On 8 December, after the outbreak of the rebellion, he attended a gathering in London where reformers discussed what their reaction to it should be. Essentially, they decided to do nothing. On the 16th, when all knew that the rebellion had been crushed, he and others met in Delaware and decided to importune the local Indians not to take up arms against the reformers.

Soon, Putnam was arrested for his activities and taken to London. The magistrates there heard incriminating, but only circumstantial, evidence against him, including his own foolish denial that he had attended the London meeting of 8 December. They refused his request for bail. The grand jury later indicted him on a charge of treason for his participation in an alleged conspiracy hatched at London. He was released on 2 May. Unfortunately, he could not return to his farm; while he was in jail, its buildings had been burnt to the ground, reputedly by “a political incendiary.”

A personal friend, Mahlon Burwell, apparently warned Putnam he was to be rearrested. He fled to Detroit where he joined the Patriots, Upper Canadian refugees and their American allies who were bent on “revolutionizing” the Canadas. In late June he was back in the province. The details of what ensued are uncertain, but, clearly, he shot and killed a Captain William Kerry (Cary), who was apparently trying to arrest him, in Dawn Township, close to the St Clair frontier. He fled again to Detroit, where his family joined him in exile.

By the end of November Putnam, now a “general” with the Patriots, was helping plan an invasion of Upper Canada. Having mustered fewer than 200 men, the leader of the proposed expedition, General L. V. Bierce, wished to abort it, but Putnam insisted that it proceed. On the early morning of 4 December he and others led a small force across the Detroit River to Windsor. The Patriots set fire to the local militia barracks, killing some militiamen and capturing others. Then they burnt the steamer Thames and killed and mutilated surgeon John James Hume. The Patriot leaders divided their men into two main groups and, as militiamen under Colonel John Prince* rushed in from Sandwich (Windsor), Putnam placed his force in an orchard. His men, under heavy fire, soon broke and ran. Putnam, who had vainly tried to stem their flight, fled in turn, only to be shot down. The raid, and Putnam’s life, was at an end Putnam paid a heavy price for his part in the troubles of 1837–38. Many who knew him well regretted his fate. For example, John Talbot*, former editor of the St Thomas Liberal, who had fled the province in December 1837 to escape arrest, deplored Putnam’s part in the Windsor raid, but wrote, “I am sorry for poor Putnam – he was honest and sincere.” On balance, Putnam deserved pity. He had not plotted rebellion in December 1837 but had been jailed nevertheless. This and other persecutions, real or imagined, drove him to his doom at Windsor.

Colin Read

PAC, RG 5, A1: esp. 85600–1, 106669–86, 106820, 112787–96; B36, 1–2. Jedediah Hunt, An adventure on a frozen lake: a tale of the Canadian rebellion of 1837 (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1853), 4–7, 28. Robert Marsh, Seven years of my life, or narrative of a Patriot exile; who together with eighty-two American citizens were illegally tried for rebellion in Upper Canada in 1838, and transported to Van Diemans Land . . . (Buffalo, N.Y., 1848), 20–25. Rebellion of 1837 (Read and Stagg). Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots. Read, Rising in western U.C. J. M. Gray, “The life and death of `General’ William Putnam,” OH, 46 (1954): 3–20. “The Windsor raid of 4 Dec., 1838,” Putnam Leaflets (Danvers, Mass.), 3 (1899), no.2: 41–65. [This useful piece largely consists of a manuscript about Putnam prepared by his son Warner Herkimer.   c.r.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Colin Read, “PUTNAM, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/putnam_william_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/putnam_william_7E.html
Author of Article: Colin Read
Title of Article: PUTNAM, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: July 25, 2014