Social Violence in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and area
(the Shiners' Wars)
beginning in the 1820's
June 6, 2008:
This is a new page and will contain some material regarding the Shiners' War in early
Bytown / Ottawa. This is a sensitive subject -- Bytown was a typical frontier town with
a mix of young, single, male labourers from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Recreational fighting was common at the time. The fighting often became feuding because of
the varying ethnic and religious backgrounds of the population.
January 19, 2012:
Source of text below: Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, by Kerby Miller, page 60
My ancestors, who were all in this area in the 1800's, are composed of Irish Catholics,
Irish Protestants, Scotch Presbyterians, Anglicans from England and French Canadians.
Their experiences are probably typical of many of the early families in the Ottawa area.
"And loud and fierce the clamor rose
And words soon lost themselves in blows
The very stones began to speak
And skulls, of course, began to break
And black thorns and maple sticks
Played such fantastic ugly tricks
That soon the well-thronged battle plain
Was strewn with bodies of the slain
The "Kilt" who fell to rise again
Without the doctor's mystic aid
And plunge once more into the raid
Stones flew in showers
The windows shook
Around that famous donnybrook
While Tipperary's battle yell
Did loudly o'er the conflict swell
And many a Celt with accent racy
Roared for a SLAVIN or a CASEY
And fierce the struggle raged around
Where the seven Slavins stood their ground
Seven brothers back to back they stood
Like heroes tho their streaming blood
Told bravely how they turned at bay
Against hundreds in that savage fray
O'erpowered at last they did retreat
Face to the foe, still in defeat
Defiant as they moved along
Pursued by the relentless throng
They reached their home, shut fast the door
And stood within upon the floor
Ready to meet the coming foe
Who in their vengeance were not slow
Stones showered from the assailing crew
In pieces every window flew
Then, with a loud and savage yell
They rushed to storm the citadel!
A gun barrel through a broken pane
Made the invaders pause again
A sharp axe sticking through another
Their thirst for slaughter seemed to smother.
A battle council then took place
And very soon there was no trace
Of conflict or of bloody fray
Round where the Slavins stood at bay!
Thus ended Bytown's first old Fair
A donnybrook most rich and rare
This annal of the olden time
Was not premeditated crime
It sprung from what sprung quite a part
Of every genuine Irish heart
A sort of Faugh a Ballagh way
That sticks to Irishmen today."
Source: Lett's Bytown
One Byrne, One Slavin
About five years ago I was going through some microfilm reels in the basement of the
library at Carleton University. The work was called Dark Druidical Groves; the Lumber Community and the
Commercial Frontier in British North America, to 1854., 1968, by Michael S. Cross,
University of Toronto.
This thesis had some interesting material regarding social violence in the Ottawa Valley.
A phrase caught my attention: "One Byrne received a cracked skull at the hands of One Slavin".
This event occurred in the late 1820's in Bytown. At the time, I just put this down as a
couple of young Irish lads who were passing time on a Saturday night in a rough frontier town.
Now, in 1831, my Great Great Grandfather, let's just call him "One Byrne", was married at
Notre Dame Cathedral on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa. His best man was none other than "One Slavin".
This is an example of the tenor of the young members of the Bytown society. The men were
quick to fight but also very quick to shake hands and move on. At least among their own social
Peter Aylen, "King of the Shiners" was a major player in the lumbering industry in the 1830's.
He was able to organize the Irish labourers, unemployed for the most part when Rideau
Canal construction came to an end in 1832, into a gang. He hired many of them to work in
his lumber camps and they competed for jobs with the French Canadian workers. The drawing
below shows Joe Montferrand battling a gang of Shiners.
More to come ...
A good article which describes this era in our history is
The Shiners' War: Social Violence in the Ottawa Valley in the 1830's, article by
Michael Cross, in Canadian Historical Review (1973). (see excerpt below, dated December 12, 2012).
Source of Drawing below: Where Rivers Meet: An Illustrated History of Ottawa, page 49
June 25, 2008:
The following appears on the inside back flap of Carleton Saga, by Harry and Olive Walker
It captures the flavour of life in frontier Bytown.
Coming soon: The Ballyghiblin Riots of 1824.
Historic Plaque at Carleton Place, Ontario
July 16, 2008:
1833.—Street fair held to celebrate the opening of canal. On this
occasion there was a fight between the Canalers (original
Shiners, who were afterwards joined by the Shanty men)
and the farmers from Carleton. The fight like the fair
was a " street," and " free " to all, and yet both sides
said it wasn't fair. Colonel By, being present, said:
"This is the last 'exhibition' to be held in my time," and
so it was, as the next one was not held until in the so's.
Miss Catherine Coombs, now Mrs. Tracey, of 221
Stewart Street, born this year. She is the oldest woman,
living in Ottawa, who was born here.
Source: The Hub and the Spokes, written by Anson Gard in 1904, page 46.
September 13, 2008:
Much has been written of the Shiners' riots in Ottawa. By the mid-'30s, these roving gangs
of shantymen -- led by a man named Peter Aylen -- virtually controlled Lowertown. When
Aylen was arrested once, the Shiners stormed the Ottawa lockstation (on the Rideau Canal) and set fire to a
steamer. Their leader was promptly released.
It was only after Aylen tried to murder a prominent Uppertown lawyer that paid constables
were finally brought to town and the gang brought under control. Aylen had to flee, although
he didn't go far. He simply crossed the river, built a fine stone house and founded the
city of Aylmer.
Many historians have concluded the brawls were caused primarily by religious and cultural
hatred between the Irish and the French -- the Irish going by the name of Shiners, which
seemed to suit them, for reasons that cannot easily be articulated.
But this ignores a far simpler explanation. That every raftsman in 19th-century Ottawa was
in a hurry to get downriver, and a rival raftsman always stood in his way.
As for the Shiners, and their part in every riot (or so it seemed), why they may simply
have felt more entitled than most, because on their rafts they carried oak staves.
Which made them a better breed of raftsmen. Or so the Shiner argument went.
So it may have been wood, not religion, that caused all the drag-down, blood-in-the-mud
fights in Ottawa.
Ron Corbett in an article in the Ottawa Sun, dated August 24, 2008.
March 15, 2010:
December 12, 2012:
Source of text below: The Shiners' War: Social Violence in the Ottawa Valley in the 1830's, article by
Michael Cross, in Canadian Historical Review (1973), page 1.
Keywords for search engine: Dow, Nicholas Sparks, Braddish Billings, Shiners.
E-mail Al Lewis
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