The Rideau warriors Theodore De Pencier: in 1791 German Aristocrat Theodore De Pencier braved the Upper Canadian wilderness to conduct the first land survey along the Rideau. The Hessian mercenary died impoverished, hopeless and indigent in a Canadian military asylum.
De Pencier's final days in Canada had been spent in despair. He felt a sense of rejection by British military commanders after the American Revolutionary War, despite his participation in key battles such as Bennington and Saratoga. Although he received an honourable discharge in 1778, he lodged grievances that set him on the dark, inward path of self-destruction that ended with his suicide in 1824. Before he died, he disparagingly wrote of the "humiliation which his adopted county (Canada) had heaped on (him)."
At the time of his death, the 74-year-old captain was known as the 'Hermit of Sorel' in the notorious and dingy Royal Seigneury, an asylum for invalid Loyalists in Lower Canada to which he had been committed. It was an end unworthy of the German aristocrat-turned-mercenary who fought bravely in Vermont and New York and survived post war incarceration in an American prisoner of war camp. Despite his troubled twilight years, he left an important legacy: opening Upper Canada's Rideau corridor to settlement and facilitating the eventual construction of Colonel John By's Rideau Canal 30 years later.
De Pencier arrived in Quebec from Germany in 1776 and took the discomforts of North American life in stride. He had previously known little hardship as the adopted stepson of a Swedish baron whose family had received its peerage in Stockholm from King Carl XII.
His birth father, a French captain named Martigny, showed signs of the mental anguish that was later to haunt De Pencier. According to his diary, Martigny was % Saxon by birth," a Grenadier officer who authored a book "concerning the Science of Artillery" and a deeply troubled man who killed himself by cutting his own throat in a fit of rage.
Martigny's widow caught the eye of a major general in Germany's Duke of Brunswick's Grenadiers, George Henry De Pencier, whom she married, and with whom she and the young Theodore settled into an affluent life on the Baltic coast of Germany. Members of the patrician De Pencier family had leveraged their Swedish peerage into substantial wealth as Hanseatic traders; the couple easily afforded a private education for their son Theodore.
Decades later, De Pencier wrote dryly of his birth father's suicide and glowingly of the bravery and generosity of his adoptive father saying he owed everything to him. "[He] gave me the best education Brunswick could furnish, under private masters," he wrote. Theodore became a superb horseman and studied astronomy, engineering, and military artillery strategy and tactics while mastering French, German and English. So thorough was his military training that he was taught dancing to better develop his fencing footwork.
At age 14 De Pencier volunteered as a cadet and learned to ride in his father's ducal stables. His extraordinary horsemanship by age 16 enabled him to become standard bearer for his military unit. By that time he had "trained in all the possible acquirement that can distinguish an officer." He received his first commission the next year and in 1771, at age 21, was promoted to lieutenant.
At that time the German and English aristocracy had a tradition of strategic intermarriage; accordingly, when King George III needed additional troops to fight the rebellious American colonies, he turned to his extended family in the German electorates of Hesse and Brunswick, over which he was sovereign.
Each German prince and duke had his own military regiments which, when not urgently needed at home--or when the treasury was depleted--were often hired out as mercenaries. One royal family member of note was the future King Frederick the Great of Prussia, Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Hesse-Cassel. He offered his troops and those of his brother-in-law, the elderly Duke of Brunswick, to George III. Since Theodore De Pencier was assigned to Prince Frederick's regiment as part the Hessian cavalry of General Baron Friedrich von Riedesel, the young officer was destined to see action in the North American theatre of war.
In June of 1776 he and 4,000 Hessian 'mercenaries,' many of whom had not left Hesse-Cassel willingly, arrived in Quebec. The German aristocrats were known cynically among their troops as menschen-verkaufer (or 'man-sellers'), to whom the British paid large sums of money to deliver quotas of officers and troops to the war effort. The princes often resorted to kidnapping beggars, criminals, and casual wanderers to meet their numbers; professional or otherwise, these soldiers were paid the tiny sum of eight shillings per day. Their German masters received additional compensation for soldiers killed in action. With three wounded soldiers counting as one dead, the troops were effectively more valuable dead than alive.
Only a few of the officers in von Riedesel's Dragoons could match De Pencier's august pedigree. Born to the military and trained to the hilt, the young officer soon commanded a detachment of select Dragoons and found time to marry Marie Demerais, who gave birth the following year to his first son.
In the early summer of 1776, Sir Guy Carleton, the British governor and commander-in-chief in Quebec, tasked General John Burgoyne with driving the invading Americans out of the province and south into New York. Faced with Burgoyne's 6,000 British troops and von Riedesel's 4,000 German mercenaries, the weakened Americans retreated to Sorel (Fort William Henry) and then went further south on the Richelieu to Fort St. Jean. Nearly half of the 7,000 American men encamped there were incapacitated or diseased. They eventually made their way to the more secure Crown Point on Lake Champlain in New York.
Burgoyne spent the summer of 1776 building a fleet for his southern assault against the Americans. The fleet included the full-rigged ship HMS Inflexible--equipped with three huge masts and 30 cannons--as well as armed schooners and several gunboats manned by British seamen and German soldiers, including De Pencier. During the first two weeks of October the fleet sailed down the lake and engaged the Americans on several occasions. Despite the brave (but luckless) tactics employed on both land and water under the leadership of the infamous Benedict Arnold, the British prevailed.
The Americans under General Horatio Gates retreated once again, this time to the safety of formidable Fort Ticonderoga. The Hessians, much to the frustration of Baron Friedrich von Riedesel, were largely unprepared for pursuit. Historian Thomas Randall compared the "the south-moving procession of British infantry and German infantry and cavalry, batteries of artillery, ammunition wagons, supply wagons" to a travelling circus.
The Hessians seemed alien to their British counterparts. They often sang psalms on the march and caught and tamed wild animals as pets (including raccoons, bear cubs and on one occasion an eagle). The Baroness Riedesel and her entourage travelled by elegant caleche, while the Brunswick Dragoons, short on horses, had to march with their enormous cocked hats, thick coats, leather breeches, and jack boots rising above their knees. Captain De Pencier, as an officer, was fortunate enough to retain his mount.
He also avoided the fate of many Hessians: death under American fire by sharpshooters using the deadly accurate Pennsylvania flintlock, a rifle developed, ironically, by German settlers. The Americans were skilled marksmen accustomed to bringing down deer on the run or shooting native invaders during nighttime raids. Showing no mercy, they took down the Hessians, who marched shoulder-to-shoulder and returned fire more slowly. The German's rifles, though, were similar to another important American weapon, the Kentucky rifle, which could fire a ball or buckshot. The British did not duplicate this weaponry until the Napoleonic Wars.
With significant losses and failed maneuvers on both ends of the Mohawk Valley, Lake Ontario and the Hudson, Burgoyne surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga in the face of heavy Yankee artillery and more than 14,000 men mustered by Gates. The Hessians had recently suffered a major defeat at Bennington with 200 dead and many more imprisoned. De Pencier likely encountered frontier spies Roger Stevens and Stephen Burritt for the first time here at Bennington. Stevens, imprisoned with Burritt after the battle, became the first to settle the Rideau 15 years later, providing his homestead as a meeting place for De Pencier and his Rideau survey teams.
The intervening years for De Pencier began poorly. The Americans reneged on the terms of surrender; rather than sending the captive Europeans home, they sent the British troops to prison camps surrounding Boston, while De Pencier and the other Hessian captives were sent to camps in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Officers were put in cramped quarters, with as many as six to a room; Baron von Riedesel, his wife and children, initially suffered too, living in small, cold surroundings. All found their conditions improve as the British began paying outrageous American fees for the food and lodging of prisoners.
De Pencier, by then a widower, returned to Europe in 1783 with most of the Hessian prisoners. He staid only long enough to receive his honourable discharge from Prince Frederick's regiment and obtain his British citizenship. He arrived back in Canada the next year but could not find employment despite letters of recommendation from Baron von Riedesel. Signs of his mental decline began to emerge at this time. He was described as 'haunting' government offices with a 'drooping spirit,' though he was buoyed temporarily by a grant of 20 pounds. He remarried and his second wife gave birth to a second son, Luke.
A Loyalist grant of 300 acres from General Haldimand proved to be unmanageable. De Pencier was neither a lumberman nor a farmer and lacked the necessary financial and physical resources to clear the land. He wrote that his hands were "accustomed only to the use of the sword and the training of horses, too weak to cut down trees and to sell them at a profit quickly and advantageously." Finally, tired of feeding his family on meager rations, he took up land surveying at the age of 35. His sound education in mathematics enabled him to apprentice using a borrowed theodolite in return for one shilling six pence per day. In 1789 he received his full commission as a surveyor.
His quarrels with the British authorities continued to consume him. He later complained to Governor General Sherbrooke that he had become a surveyor because he '(had) very little money nor protector,' despite the sacrifices he and his father had made in battle on behalf of the English. His memory was as long as his bitterness was deep: he even cited his father's wounding at the Battle of Bergen to reinforce the family's experience of injustice due to "English lofty mindedness."
De Pencier received instructions in 1791 to survey the first townships on the Rideau River in what was to become modern-day Ottawa. The Rideau front was absolute wilderness at the time, consisting of swamps, marshes, and beaver meadows. De Pencier and his crew built shanties--later used by pioneers--and constantly moved camp as they progressed slowly. Lack of drinking water, sudden forest fires, fierce thunderstorms, black flies and malaria-carrying mosquitoes contributed to injuries and sickness among his crew, many of whom deserted.
De Pencier had to deal with the tricky issue of Loyalist settlers who fled north following the war and built homesteads on the Rideau before it was legally surveyed. The first of these was Roger Stevens, Ottawa's original settler, who was obliged to relocate further down river. De Pencier's survey crews used Stevens' homestead as a meeting place as it housed the only whetstone in the area for sharpening axes.
De Pencier spent weeks recovering there after suffering an axe injury to his knee, which was cut to the bone and became seriously infected. In the autumn of 1791 his bad luck continued when he was attacked by thugs one evening in Montreal and suffered a serious head injury.
Depleted physically and financially, De Pencier continued his surveying while quarreling with the military authorities over his field expenses that were often challenged or ignored. When war with the Americans erupted in 1812, he did not volunteer for fear he might be refused. His son Luke did and was wounded in the right hand at the Battle of Chrysler's Farm and obliged to withdraw with a pension. Luke's wife Gertrude also showed the 'right stuff,' honouring the family by riding with the other military wives to witness the battle and treat the wounded and tend to the dead. In response, the elder De Pencier proudly gave the young couple land along the Rideau in Marlborough township which he had marked out for himself 15 years earlier.
Having retreated to the British barracks at Fort William Henry at Sorel, the elder De Pencier continued to write to military authorities criticizing their administration and surveys. The old officer, trained in the art of war by the German elite in order to procure a fortune through a military career, was reduced to living in deluded destitution in the fort's asylum. He took his own life, just as his birth father had done seven decades earlier.
Luke and Gertrude De Pencier farmed Theodore's land and raised ten children, many of whom, along with their descendants, found employment on the Rideau front. Some served as lockmasters on Colonel By's Rideau Canal, others as captains on the steamboats plying the canal from Bytown (later Ottawa) to the St. Lawrence. All did so by land first surveyed by the family patriarch, Captain Theodore De Pencier.
In commemoration of the Rideau Canal's 175th anniversary, this is the fifth in a series detailing the rich military history of those who settled the Rideau Corridor. Mark Jodoin is an Ottawa-based executive, writer and President of the Rideau Township Historical Society. Additional research for this article was provided by Rodeau historian Coral Lindsay.