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  • The Shiners' War:Social Violence in the Ottawa Valley in the 1830s
  • Michael S. Cross

By late may of 1835, unrest in Bytown had reached unprecedented proportions. All winter the people of the town, the entrepôt of the Ottawa timber trade, had been bracing themselves, awaiting the annual visitation, the annual affliction, of the raftsmen who came each spring from high up the Valley to roister and riot in the streets of Bytown. Like the freshets in the streams, the raftsmen and social disorder arrived each April and May. But never before had their coming brought such organized violence as it did in 1835. For the Irish timberers now had a leader, and a purpose. Peter Aylen, run-away sailor, timber king, ambitious schemer, had set himself at the head of the Irish masses, had moulded them into a powerful weapon. He had given them a purpose: to drive the French Canadians off the river and thus guarantee jobs and high wages in the timber camps to the Irish.

Confident in their numbers, Aylen and his followers swaggered the streets of Bytown, brawling and drinking on the sidewalks, savagely beating anyone who dared challenge them. The town suffered under this reign of terror for weeks. The Irish mob, glorying in the name of the Shiners, seemed in complete control. But this was a stratified society; there was a class line beyond which even the Shiners went at their peril. While French-Canadian labourers were being abused, the gentry of the community shook their heads in disgust and grumbled about the Irish misbehaviour. When a respectable lawyer, Daniel McMartin of Perth, was assaulted by Peter Aylen, however, the forces of social order sprang into action. Aylen was promptly arrested.

The rule of the gentility in the town, and the aspirations of the Shiners, had come into direct conflict.1 In 1835 the forces of order and disorder were in fine balance. The authorities were able to hold Aylen by incarcerating him in the sturdy garrison cells and then sending him overland, under heavy guard, to the district jail at Perth. However, in Bytown itself the furious raftsmen were in almost complete control. They paraded the streets, screaming threats at the [End Page s364] magistrates, boasting they would burn down Chitty's Hotel, where the injured lawyer McMartin was in residence. Only the reading of the Riot Act and the calling-out of the garrison prevented the destruction of the hotel. Thwarted in their search for revenge on McMartin, the Irish turned to thoughts of rescuing Peter Aylen. From one unkempt raftsman to another, the rumour spread that their leader was to be sent to Perth by boat, along the Rideau Canal. Operating on this erroneous assumption, several hundred Shiners swarmed aboard a steamer anchored at Bytown. Furious at their failure to find Aylen, they smashed the interior of the boat and beat several crewmen who had attempted to resist them.2

The arrest of Aylen was only a temporary check. He was soon out of jail, and the disorder went on. G.W. Baker, a Bytown magistrate, wrote to the government on 15 June, offering his resignation in light of the futility of attempting to check the Shiners with the feeble forces available to the magistrates. In his despair, Baker effectively summed up the crisis in Bytown: "I cannot Sir describe to you the situation of the town. If I could, you would deem it incredible and it is becoming daily worse … No Person whatever can move by day without insult, or at night without risk of life–thus whole families of unoffending people are obliged to abandon the Town, and nothing except a Military Patrol will succeed in arresting the evil, and dissipating the general alarm … I have not moved without Arms since the 14th May …"3

The origins of the Shiner movement are obscure, as is its pattern of organization. Even the source of the name is difficult to determine. The Shiners were Irish immigrants who, for the most part, worked in timber camps and river drives. The name has variously been described as a corruption of the French "chêneur," or cutter of oak; as a self...


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