DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

SUTHERLAND, THOMAS JEFFERSON, Patriot filibuster and author; b. c. 1801 in Plymouth, N.Y.; m. Laura —; d. 7 Sept. 1852 at Iowa and Sac Mission (near present-day Highland, Kans).

Thomas Jefferson Sutherland, who had been trained as a printer, enlisted in the United States Marines at Philadelphia on 5 Dec. 1821. Discharged with the rank of sergeant on 15 Feb. 1830, he returned to the newspaper trade. Over the next two years he published or edited, in various towns in western New York, several short-lived newspapers, most of which espoused the anti-masonic movement then sweeping that region. His subsequent career is obscure: in 1832, while still engaged in journalism, he was “reading law” and, according to the New-York Daily Tribune, later emerged as “a lawyer of low standing” in Erie County, N.Y.

In late 1837, after news of the rebellion in Lower Canada had reached Buffalo, N.Y., sympathizers with the Canadian cause organized meetings to enlist volunteers for an “Independent Canadian Service.” Sutherland spoke at one such meeting on 5 December, asking those assembled, “Shall we withhold our sympathies and as individuals our assistance?” Immediately afterwards he left for Toronto, probably with the letter which, according to James Latimer, a journeyman printer employed by William Lyon Mackenzie*, was read by Mackenzie on 6 December to the rebels assembled at Montgomery’s Tavern. Written by the secretary of the Buffalo meeting of the 5th, this letter stated that 200 men were coming to their assistance. Although Sutherland later denied having had “any manner of intercourse” with Mackenzie before the latter reached Buffalo, he claimed to have left Toronto commissioned to raise a force to assist the rebellion and after returning to Buffalo he started to enlist volunteers. It was probably about this time that he began claiming that he had participated in South American wars of liberation under Simón Bolívar and had run a military school.

Sutherland next called on Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, who had already heard of the defeat of the rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern. Sutherland presented him with a letter of introduction from John W. Taylor, a prominent New York politician, and informed him of what he and other supporters in Buffalo of the Canadian cause had already accomplished. Sutherland urged him to take over the command of the Patriot army since, as a son of a hero in the War of 1812, he could give their undertaking “the proper tone.” On 12 December Sutherland, John Rolph*, and Mackenzie, who had arrived in Buffalo the previous day, went together and received Van Rensselaer’s consent to take command of the Patriot force once it was assembled on Canadian soil. Sutherland claimed that it was he and “some others,” rather than Mackenzie, who decided to take the Patriot force to Navy Island, on Canadian soil, where Van Rensselaer could take command. Before the force moved off on the 15th, Sutherland had annoyed his supporters in Buffalo, who were relieved to hear of the Navy Island plan, by his “lawless course,” open recruiting, and theft of arms from city hall. Sutherland, however, did not accompany Van Rensselaer and Mackenzie to the island but arrived later.

Van Rensselaer subsequently sent Sutherland to Detroit to aid the Patriots along the western border and to organize a diversion there. On New Year’s Day 1838, while en route, he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, before a large “Canada meeting,” which adopted resolutions of sympathy with the “interest of liberty in every country” and of alarm over the Upper Canadian government’s use of “blood-thirsty savages” against “our unoffending brethren adjacent to the Canadian frontier.” On the same day Sutherland issued a proclamation, which he signed as brigadier-general of the Patriot army and which offered volunteers 300 acres of land and $100 in silver before 1 May. As a result 100 men enlisted and left for Detroit under his command.

The officers of the Patriot Army of the North West, under the command of General Henry S. Handy, were not disposed to recognize the authority Sutherland had received from Van Rensselaer. In the end it was agreed that Sutherland should command an expedition to occupy Bois Blanc Island in the Detroit River and to capture Fort Malden, at Amherstburg, Upper Canada. From Bois Blanc, on 9–10 January, he issued proclamations asking the citizens of Upper Canada to join the Patriot forces and free the land “from Tyranny” and promising them “all the blessings of freedom.” When the Patriots’ schooner, commanded by Edward Alexander Theller, ran aground off Amherstburg on the 9th and was captured by Canadian militiamen, Sutherland did not attempt a rescue but, despite the entreaties of his men, ordered them to retreat to American territory. As a result they voted to have Handy replace him as commander. He was accused of cowardice by Theller for his conduct on Bois Blanc Island. On the other hand, E. D. Bradley, a Patriot colonel, held both Sutherland and Theller responsible for the fiasco.

On 13 January Sutherland was arrested at Detroit for violating American neutrality laws but was found not guilty. He appeared before the court, according to historian Robert B. Ross, as a man “of large stature, weighing about 220 pounds, with dark hair and complexion, and was a very fine specimen of the genus homo. He was dressed in a blue blanket coat, under which he wore a Kentucky hunting shirt with two tawdry epaulettes on his shoulders.” An articulate spokesman for the Patriot cause, he was nevertheless a vain and indecisive figure who, like many Patriot leaders, inspired only mistrust and jealousy.

After publicly resigning his commission in the Patriot army about 5 February, Sutherland left Detroit for Ohio but was captured on 4 March on the ice at the mouth of the Detroit River by Lieutenant-Colonel John Prince*. Taken to Toronto, Sutherland was interviewed by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head*, after which, convinced that he would be executed, he attempted suicide by slitting veins in his arms and feet. He was tried for treason at a court martial under Samuel Peters Jarvis and sentenced in April to be transported to one of the Australian colonies for life. It was questionable, however, whether, as law required, he had been taken within Canadian territory and in arms and whether his trial had been properly conducted (parts of his indictment were not proven and the court was not composed correctly). In Toronto it was believed that after his capture he had made some disclosures which revealed that the plans of the Upper Canadian rebels had rested wholly on American aid. Revelations were made, but not by Sutherland. His aide, a son of Chief Justice Ambrose Spencer of New York, had been captured with him and it was he who gave Lieutenant Governor Head information on the understanding that he would be pardoned.

While imprisoned at Quebec awaiting transportation, Sutherland appealed to Lord Durham [Lambton*] for pardons for himself and nine others, including Theller and William Wallin Dodge, on the ground that they were American citizens who had been misled. Sutherland’s wife sent Durham a copy of his pamphlet, The trial of General ThJSutherland, which he had managed to get published in Buffalo and which demonstrated his knowledge of international law. In August 1838 the imperial government, because of the irregularities in his trial, directed that he be set free upon giving security that he would not re-enter British territory. He was unable to find sureties. Finally he was sent to Cornwall, Upper Canada, in May 1839 and released.

Returning to New York State, Sutherland resumed his Patriot associations and that fall was reportedly involved at Detroit and at Lewiston, N.Y., with such filibusters as Donald M’Leod* and Benjamin Lett. Patriot activity subsequently declined on both sides of the border but, perhaps to keep interest in the cause alive, Sutherland produced a number of pamphlets relating to the rebellion. His Canvass of the proceedings on the trial of William Lyon Mackenzie (1840) minimizes Mackenzie’s importance at Navy Island. Loose leaves, from the port folio of a late Patriot prisoner in Canada (1839–40) is a particularly flimsy account in which he devotes a good deal of space to his poetry and self-portrayal as a shrewd lawyer and a dignified prisoner respected by his jailers. In contrast, Theller later claimed that Sutherland’s whining and whimpering while in prison, his “bad conduct and attempts to quarrel with every one in the room, his lying, his vanity, and assumption of importance, as well as his playing the spy upon us . . . made the men all despise him.” Between 1840 and 1845 Sutherland, in other pamphlets, in several letters to editors, and at public meetings in western New York, argued strenuously for the release of the Patriots imprisoned in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia) for their part in the rebellion. As well, in 1841, he launched a newspaper in Buffalo in order to bring that cause before a larger audience.

In 1846, evidently with Whig support, he clashed publicly in New York City with Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson over the formation of a regiment to fight in California against Mexico. Sutherland’s whereabouts for the next five years are unknown. In 1851 he appeared in the river towns of the American midwest, “a mysterious looking individual, who travelled with a carpet-sack slung across his shoulders,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine later recorded, “and who paid his way wherever he went by ‘phrenological’ lectures and examinations.” During these tours and in newspaper articles, he zealously boosted the exploration and settlement of the Nebraska territory. Although he could criticize the Mormons for their treatment of the Indians there, he “held that the Indians had no right to keep such fine lands,” as Putnam’s also noted, and he advocated reform of the laws on land grants and sales. An avid admirer of such revolutionary heroes as Lord Byron and Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth, Sutherland proposed to establish in Nebraska a “Military agricultural school” to train officers for “a republican army in a revolutionary struggle in Europe.”

On 7 Sept. 1852, while moving farther west to settle, he died of typhus fever at Iowa and Sac Mission. He was survived by a young girl, Viola, whom he had adopted during a lecture tour on the Mississippi River. “In his trunk,” recalled Samuel M. Irvin, the Presbyterian minister in charge of the mission, “was found a large quantity of manuscript, made up of biography, history and poetry, much of it seemingly prepared for the press; but nothing was found to throw any light on his ancestry or personal history.” Indeed, by the time of his death, Sutherland had achieved much success in shrouding or reshaping his career back as far as his days in the Patriot army. Thus, in his obituary in the Sentinel of Savannah, Mo., he was portrayed as a “somewhat noted” though eccentric and controversial figure, “a fine schollar, lawyer and politician,” and “one of the leading spirits in the Canadian rebellion.”

Lillian F. Gates

Thomas Jefferson Sutherland is the author of the following pamphlets: The trial of General ThJSutherland, late of the Patriot army, before a court martial convened at Toronto on the 13th day of March, A.D. 1838, by order of Sir Francis Bond Head, lieutenant governor of said province, K.C.B. &c. &c. &c., on a charge of having, as a citizen of the United States, levied war in the province of Upper Canada against Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain, &c.; with his defence and other documents (Buffalo, N.Y., 1838); A canvass of the proceedings on the trial of William Lyon Mackenzie, for an alleged violation of the neutrality laws of the United States; with a report of the testimony – the charge of the presiding judge to the jury – the arguments of the United States attorney – and a petition to the president for his release (New York, 1840); Loose leaves, from the portfolio of a late Patriot prisoner in Canada (New York, 1840); Three political letters, addressed to DrWolfred Nelson, late of Lower Canada, now of Plattsburgh, N.Y. (New York, 1840); A letter to Her Majesty the British Queen, with letters to Lord Durham, Lord Glenelg and Sir George Arthur: to which is added an appendix embracing a report of the testimony taken on the trial of the writer by a court martial, at Toronto in Upper Canada (Albany, N.Y., 1841); and A letter to Lord Brougham, in behalf of the captive Patriots; to which is annexed a list of their names (New York, 1841).

Kansas State Hist. Soc., ms Dept. (Topeka), S. M. Irvin coll., S. M. Irvin, “Reminiscences of T. J. Sutherland.” National Arch. (Washington), RG 127, Enlisted men, Marine Corps. N.Y. Hist. Soc. (New York), J. W. Taylor papers, Sutherland to Taylor, 15 Feb., 19 April 1832. PAC, MG 24, A40, Foster to Colborne, 14, 20 March 1838; Arthur to Colborne, 5 April 1838; RG 1, E1, 57: 14; RG 5, A1: 103319–33, 105215–17, 106077–78, 106784–85, 108168–69, 108339–40, 108899–950, 109333–40, 109816–17, 111302–4, 111724–29, 112382–86, 112686–91, 113801–32, 115999–6006, 121300–6. Arthur papers (Sanderson). J. C. Dent, The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion; largely derived from original sources and documents (2v., Toronto, 1885), 2: 231. “Nebraska: a glimpse of it – a peep into its unwritten history – together with a few facts for the future historian,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine (New York), 3 (January–June 1854): 457–60. E. A. Theller, Canada in 1837–38 . . . (2v., Philadelphia and New York, 1841). Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, 6 Dec. 1837. Chronicle & Gazette, 17 March 1838. Daily Nonpareil (Cincinnati, Ohio), 5 March 1852. Frontier Guardian (Kanesville [Council Bluffs], Iowa), 27 Jan. 1851. Mackenzie’s Gazette (New York), 10 Nov. 1838. New-York Daily Tribune, 11, 19 Nov. 1844; 1 Jan. 1845; 7 Oct. 1852. Rochester Daily Advertiser (Rochester, N.Y.), 3 Feb. 1842. Sentinel (Savannah, Mo.), 25 Sept. 1852. Western Herald, and Farmers’ Magazine (Sandwich [Windsor, Ont.]), 1, 13 Jan., 18 March, 12 June 1838. “Calendar of state papers,” PAC Report, 1936: 591. “The Durham papers,” PAC Report, 1923: 259, 523. “State papers – U.C.,” PAC Report, 1943: 178; 1944: 9, 11, 21, 26–27. A. B. Corey, The crisis of 1830–1842 in Canadian-American relations (New Haven, Conn., and Toronto, 1941). L. F. [Cowdell] Gates, William Lyon Mackenzie: the post-rebellion years in the United States and Canada (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978). Guillet, Lives and times of Patriots. O. A. Kinchen, The rise and fall of the Patriot Hunters (New York, 1956). Lindsey, Life and times of Mackenzie, 2: 176. C. V. [Van Rensselaer] Bonney, A legacy of historical gleanings (2v., 2nd ed., Albany, 1875), 1: 65–66, 74–81. J. C. Malin, “Thomas Jefferson Sutherland, Nebraska boomer, 1851–1852,” Nebr. Hist. (Lincoln), 34 (1953): 181–214. W. R. Riddell, “A Patriot general,” Canadian Magazine, 44 (November 1914–April 1915): 32–36. R. B. Ross, “The Patriot war,” Mich. Pioneer Coll. (Lansing), 21 (1892): 517, 535, 540–41, 552, 580–82. Carl Wittke, “Ohioans and the Canadian-American crisis of 1837–38,” Ohio Archaeological and Hist. Quarterly (Columbus), 58 (1949): 26–37.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Lillian F. Gates, “SUTHERLAND, THOMAS JEFFERSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sutherland_thomas_jefferson_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/sutherland_thomas_jefferson_8E.html
Author of Article:   Lillian F. Gates
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 6, 2023