Canadian Past Grand Masters

James Fitzgibbon

Wm. S. Buell

Prince of Wales No. 100

There have been Canadian Grand Masters whose characters and careers may well be remembered with pride. Some of them were of humble birth and rose to the honourable position by merit alone. Of such was James Fitzgibbon. It is consistent to call him a Canadian, however, because, although not born in Canada, he lived here for 40 years, and he was made a Mason in Canada.

James Fitzgibbon was born in 1780 on his father's small estate on the banks of the River Shannon, in Limerick County, Ireland. There he lived, and when he was old enough, worked, for the first 17 years of his life. He received only a scanty education, and was brought up as a Roman Catholic. When a boy, however, he one day received a New Testament from a travelling peddler. Some time after, the parish priest found him under a hedge eagerly perusing this precious volume and promptly confiscated it.

When 17 years old Fitzgibbon enlisted in the 49th Regiment, which was then under the command of Colonel Issac Brock. Within a few months after he had enlisted the regiment went over the Holland and fought at the battle of Egmont-op-Zee. During this fight, Colonel Brock persisted in keeping in advance of his regiment, and as a result, perhaps, there received his first wounds. Fitzgibbon, in his anxiety to keep ahead of his commanding officer, and possibly to distinguish himself, got too far out in front, and was surrounded and captured. He was soon exchanged.

The 49th sailed for Canada in 1802. Shortly after arriving in this country, Fitzgibbon was made regimental sergeant major. Colonel Brock seems to have taken a great fancy to him, for in writing to one of his family about this time, Brock described Fitzgibbon as "one of nature's noblemen." He urged his sergeant major to study and qualify himself, telling him he intended to recommend him for a commission. "Here are my books," said Brock, "make good use of them." Fitzgibbon evidently did so, for in 1806, he was commissioned as an ensign, and later in the same year was promoted to a lieutenancy and was made adjutant of the regiment. Afterwards he used to say that the regimental orderly room was his grammar-school and the officers' mess was his university.

It is clear that Fitzgibbon became a Protestant before coming to Canada, for while in this country he always attended a Church of England. He was made a Mason in Lodge No. 40, in Quebec, in 1803.

The 49th Regiment played a conspicuous part in the War of 1812-15. By this time Brock had become a major-general, and he was in command of the British forces in Canada when the war commenced. The 49th fought so fiercely at the battle of Queenston Heights, in October, 1812, after Brock, their beloved former commanding officer, had been killed, that they were nicknamed the "Green Tigers". They were exceedingly effective also at the battles of Stoney Creek and Chrysler's Farm.

In 1813, Fitzgibbon, still a lieutenant and adjutant, was given command of 50 scouts, and they proved to be most annoying to the American invaders. For his company of scouts Fitzgibbon selected most of the Irishmen of the Regiment, although many of them were men whose names had figured in the regimental records as notoriously troublesome characters. Scouting seemed to be the sort of service that suited them, and they made themselves heavily felt by the Americans all along the Canadian side of the Niagara River. As the result of their activity, all the American posts on the Canadian side above the Falls were called in and Fort Erie was abandoned. Apparently these Irishmen, finding themselves under the immediate command of one of their own countrymen, who spoke the Irish vernacular, were ready to follow their leader, if necessary even to that unknown region where tradition says a snowball is the least effective of weapons.

Toward the end of June the American commander determined to do away with this annoying force, and he detailed a party of 600 men under the command of Colonel Boerstler, with instructions to capture or destroy Fitzgibbon and his scouts.

It seems that Fitzgibbon, at this time, had his headquarters at the home of a settler named De Cou, near Thorold. Co-operating with him was a party of Indians, one of the most promising of whom was a son of Thayendanega (Chief Joseph Brant). Boerstler started out with his force at midnight, taking care to keep his movements secret. He camped the next night near the home of James Secord, who was a sergeant in the Lincoln Militia, of United Empire Loyalist descent, and a member of Masonic Lodge No. 12, of Stamford (now South Niagara Falls). Secord was at home, laid up, recovering from wounds. He overheard enough from some of the American officers to gather their plan for the capture of his brother Mason, Fitzgibbon, and as he himself was unable to move, his wife, Laura Secord, determined to warn Fitzgibbon. Accordingly, at early dawn, with a milk pail in her hand, under the pretence of attending to her cows, she started out, managed to pass the line of American sentries, tramped 20 miles through the woods to avoid the main roads, and arrived at the encampment of the Indians who were working with Fitzgibbon. Although she was wearied and although frightened by the Indians, she finally reached Fitzgibbon at sundown, telling him of the proposed movements of Colonel Boerstler and his column. Fitzgibbon at once sent word to Colonel De Haren, who had a considerable force several miles away.

The next morning, as Boerstler advanced towards Beaver Dams he had to pass through a narrow road, a mere path in the woods, with ravines and gullies at intervals. When his force had entered into a deep gully he found that he was attacked by Indians on both sides, and that ahead of him were some of Fitzgibbon's men. Then Fitzgibbon, with more of his men, appeared upon his rear, and sent in an emissary under a flag of truce, in the name of Colonel De Haren (who was still miles away). It was suggested that, as the Americans were completely surrounded (which was true, although the surrounding force was exceedingly thin), they should surrender. They asked time to consider, but they re-opened fire. This was so vigourously replied to, that, after consultation with his officers, Boerstler surrendered. De Haren and his force had not yet arrived, and Fitzgibbon was in a quandary how to make effective the surrender of ten times his numbers. So he entered upon an elaborate discussion of the terms of surrender, and continue to parley until finally, to his great relief, De Haren reached the scene. This, in brief, is the story of the fight at Beaver Dams.

During the parleying, Fitzgibbon discovered that Colonel Boerstler and his next in command were Masons, and he managed to accord them exceptional privileges, as prisoners, under trying circumstances, by confining them to the house of a member of the Craft.

Fitzgibbon gained his captaincy and many compliments as the result of the affair, but he was most pleased by the fact that his Mother Lodge in Quebec spread upon its minutes a resolution of congratulation, a copy of which was sent to him. He retired from the army on the conclusion of the War, and was made a colonel of the Canadian Militia. During the Rebellion of 1836 he became Adjutant-General and did exceptionally good work.

Shortly after the affair at Beaver Dams, Fitzgibbon applied for and obtained short leave and hurried off to Adolphustown, in the Bay of Quinte District, where there was a young maiden to whom he had been paying homage, and was exceedingly good to look at, it seems. Her name was Mary Haley, and his suit prospered, for they were married by an Anglican rector on August 14th, 1814. Although his wife was a Roman Catholic, their four sons were brought up as Protestants, and all became members of the Craft. They were educated at Upper Canada College and were all great favourites with the people of Toronto.

In 1822 Colonel Fitzgibbon was appointed Deputy Provincial Grand Master for Upper Canada by the Grand Lodge of England, and this office he filled until 1825. While he was not an expert in Craft work or procedure, he performed the duties of his office well. He withdrew from this office upon being appointed Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. In 1841 he was made Clerk of the Legislative Council.

In 1849 Colonel Fitzgibbon retired his position as Clerk of the Legislative Council and was granted a pension. He then went to England to live, and in 1850 he was made a Knight of Windsor "lower foundation." He died in Windsor Castle on 10th December, 1863.

Colonel Fitzgibbon was a tall, active, muscular man, standing over six feet. He walked with the easy, buoyant, yet erect bearing of a man who had been well drilled in arms and athletics. Few ever merited or received deeper regard than Colonel James Fitzgibbon, "one of nature's noblemen."

Reprinted from The Square, Jan. 1924.