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The American Civil War and Fenian Raids: The Committee of Safety and its Secretary I. P. Willson - Page Banner

The Committee of Safety was created at the time of the Fenian invasion of the Niagara Peninsula in June 1866. It was comprised of local citizens concerned with defending against the invasion as, at the time, there were no militia or Frontier Police stationed at Welland or Port Colborne.

The Committee held its first meeting in Welland, Ontario on the afternoon of June 1, 1866, and continued in session until the morning of June 2. Members of the committee were T. W. Hooker, John Helluns, A. G. Hill, E. R. Dewhurst, L. D. Raymond and I. P. Willson.

T. W. Hooker and I. P. (Isaac Pemberton) Willson were appointed Chairman and Secretary respectively.

Summary of minutes:

The meeting was called because of an immediate threat by Fenians who had crossed into Canada from New York State earlier on June 1, 1866.

The first decisions of the Committee demonstrated that they were taking the threat very seriously:

  • “Moved by I. P. Willson Esq. and seconded by John Hellems that this committee remain in permanent session until the danger appears to have passed. Carried unanimously."
  • “Moved by J. Helluns Esq., seconded by E. R. Dewhurst that scouts be sent out in every direction to obtain information. Carried.
Page 1 of the minutes
Committee of Safety Minutes, 1866
Reference Code: F 4416
Archives of Ontario

The Sheriff, Mr. Hobson, arrived and reported that while staying at a friend’s the previous night (June 1), he had been awoken by the friend at 4 am with the report that the Fenians had landed in two boats pulled by a tug. The information had been brought by an officer at Fort Erie. More people arrived with information that the Fenians were 1000 strong, and that the boats had gone back for more. The Fenians burned a bridge, took some prisoners, and took control of Fort Erie.

The minutes provide a blow-by-blow account interspersed with reports of the scouts. The minutes report information on movements of Fenians, Canadian militia, and regulars as well as detailed information on the dispatch and posting of Committee of Safety scouts and patrols to various locations.

For example:

  • at 3:20 a.m. “A train has just passed up with soldiers to Port Colborne from St. Catharines.”
  • “B. Diffin [?] scout to Point Abino returned…The Fenians have all left Fort Erie. They are at the Newbury [?] farm 2½ miles below Fort Erie…They took 40 or 50 head of horses…”

The minutes end with the information that the Volunteers had taken possession of Fort Erie from the Fenians.

Committee of Safety Welland, Ontario - Detailed Minutes, 1-2 June 1866

The Committee of Safety minutes consist of four parts. The images below appear in this order:

  • Folder cover
  • Minutes, pages 1 to 6
  • Lists of patrol guards, pages 7 to 9. Page 8 lists the patrol guards according to the times they were sent out and reported back.
  • Page 10 is a communication of thanks from the Grahamsville Volunteer Infantry Company to the "Ladies of the Committee" -- Isabel Hoover, Ella Hooker, Mary Ann Cafferty and Candace Pattison -- and the town of Welland for their kindness and especially for the presentation of a flag to the Company.
Committee of Safety Minutes, 1866
Reference Code: F 4416
Archives of Ontario

I. P. (Isaac Pemberton) Willson

The appointed secretary of the Committee was Isaac Pemberton Willson (1829-1905). Willson was born in Welland County of a Loyalist Quaker family, and served as a clerk of the County Court of the County of Welland.

Willson’s great -grandparents moved from Scarborough, England to New Jersey in 1682 as part of William Penn's Quaker migration. A branch of the family left the United States around 1800, settling in Pelham Township in the Niagara Peninsula.

For a family loyal to the British crown, Willson could trace his lineage directly or through marriage to John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony as well as to American Revolutionary War patriots, John Shotwell III and Elijah Pound. The Willson family can also trace family connections to four American presidents – John Quincy Adams, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

Willson died in Welland County in 1905. The Archives has other records relating to him (e.g. his death registration and will).