Captain Meyers - Ottawa Citizen

from The Ottawa Citizen  - July 23, 2006
by Tony Atherton

A legend's silver lining: John Walden Meyers was a Loyalist spy, Belleville founder and a true Canadian pioneer, but rumour still swirls around his brush with a fabled silver mine in Bon Echo provincial park

PART 2 OF AN occasional series: They're on duty all year long, nearly 1,200 mute sentries standing watch over Ontario's past. We're more likely to notice them at this time of year, however, on a Sunday drive along backroads and byways, or during an evening stroll through a park. It's been 50 years since the first of these embossed metal plaques, surmounted by the provincial coat of arms, were planted along roadsides, or affixed to walls and rocks, to preserve the memory of the people and events that shaped Ontario. In an occasional summer series, the Citizen celebrates half a century of heritage preservation with a closer look at some fascinating stories only hinted at by several provincial plaques in eastern Ontario.
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On Sunday, Aug. 6, if the weather is fine, you can expect joggers on the pathways along the handsomely reclaimed waterfront of the Moira River, the broad, swift stream that neatly divides this old Ontario city. On the west bank of the river, near where Station and Front streets meet, there's a patch of lawn in front of an ivy-covered stone building, a stolid relic from city's earliest days. It's a good place to cool down after a mid-summer run.

An Ontario heritage plaque erected in front of the building makes a handy leaning post for runners stretching their quads. On the Civic Holiday weekend, some of the stretchers might idly skim the inscription -- something about John W. Meyers, a German who fought on the Loyalist side in the American Revolution, working behind enemy lines in New York and then moved north to build a grist mill on this site.

The truncated biography is as thorough as can be expected in six sentences, but not likely to galvanize Sunday joggers.

On that same day, about 300 kilometres to the southwest, across Lake Ontario and over the Adirondack Mountains, just west of the Hudson River in New York's state capital, Albany, crowds of tourists will watch open-mouthed as one episode in the colourful life of Capt. John Walden Meyers receives far more compelling treatment.

An actor playing Meyers will be cast as the villain in a dramatic recreation of what might be deemed the first terrorist attack on the newly minted U.S.A. Months in the making, the performance will bring to life the night -- 225 years ago almost to the day -- that a band of men led by a buck-skinned bogeyman known and feared by American patriots as Hans Waltimeyer stormed the mansion of U.S. general Philip Schuyler in a daring attempt to snatch one of the highest-ranking soldiers of the Continental Army from the very bosom of his family.
It was an act "akin to terrorism," says Michelle Mavigliano, interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion National Historic Park in Albany where the recreation will take place in the very home in which the attack occurred. The guerrilla strike was meant to "demoralize the rebel cause," says Ms. Mavigliano. "Loyalists were saying, for all intents and purposes, we can get you anywhere you are."

The attempt failed (Schuyler had heard rumours of a plot and posted extra guards in his home), and the rebels were not demoralized. But the misadventure did nothing to diminish the reputation of Hans Waltimeyer, the elusive loyalist spy so notorious in upper New York that patriot mothers would tuck their children into bed with admonishments to behave or "Capt. Waltimeyer will come and eat you."

Or so the legend goes. Legend always gathers around larger-than-life figures, and Hans Waltimeyer, a New York-born tenant farmer of German descent who would anglicize his name to reflect his loyalty to the British crown, was nothing if not outsized. A blunt man who did not submit easily to authority, he walked 10,000 kilometres through the primal forests of New England and Quebec between 1777 and 1783 in the undercover service of Frederick Haldimand, the British general who was named governor of Quebec early in the conflict. Haldimand styled him "a most active and zealous partisan."

Infiltrating enemy lines, Meyers carried messages, collected intelligence and recruited fellow New Yorkers to the Loyalist cause. Using a network of safe houses and caves, he kept one step ahead of pursuers, for whom his capture had become an all-consuming quest.
Schuyler Mansion interpreter Ms. Mavigliano can't verify tales of Meyers as bedtime threat for unruly pioneer children, but she knows from the minutes of the Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies (the political enforcement arm of the revolution) that he had a fearsome reputation. "He was well-renowned. People were, in a way, frightened by him because he was so successful," she says.
So Ms. Mavigliano is only half-joking when she says her dramatic recreation will characterize Meyers "as the devil incarnate." He will not, however, be a giant with a shock of flaming red hair, the description cherished by generations of United Empire Loyalists. Nor will he be wearing moccasins fashioned into points at both ends so his pursuers, upon finding his footprints, couldn't tell whether he was coming or going. That's more uncorroborated lore. There will be no tomahawks tossed at fleeing Schuyler children during the recreation, despite a long-standing legend (illustrated in 19th-century children's picture books) that a gouge in the Schuyler house banister was caused by such an incident. No proof, says Ms. Mavigliano.

She probably doesn't know anything at all about the final legend of John Walden Meyers' career, the one that is still told to visitors to Bon Echo Provincial Park, the tale of the lost silver cave that has fascinated treasure hunters for two centuries.

Given such rich folklore, one can't help thinking that if John Walden Meyers had chosen differently in the summer of 1777, if he had embraced the rebel cause as his brother and father did, and had served as a spy for the Continental Army, performing well enough to inspire the same kind of legend he engendered as a Loyalist spy, by today he would be a national folk hero. Look how the U.S. all but canonized Davy Crockett, the Tennessee congressman who had the bad luck to die at the Alamo, on much flimsier evidence of adventure.

Myth-making has never been a Canadian strong point, however. The first plaque erected in Belleville by the province to honour Meyers, back in 1959, glossed over his service with the Loyalist forces, and avoided the word "spy" altogether. Instead, it concentrated on his Belleville land purchases and mill operations. Sober industry trumped romance.

The new plaque, erected in 1992, is more intriguing, though still marked by a stuffy historian's reserve. It doesn't give the impression of a man who can inspire obsession. But John Walden Meyers can certainly do that. Just ask Jane Bennett Goddard, the 77-year-old Grafton author who spent more than half a century researching her massive, handsome, self-published biography of Meyers. Or Belleville filmmaker Doug Knutson, whose documentary account of Meyer's life, Damned Rascal, has been in production for 17 years, a labour of love he knows will never recoup its cost.

For Mrs. Goddard, the obsession started early, a passion inherited from her mother, Meyers' great-great-great granddaughter. By the age of seven, Mrs. Goddard had begun assisting her mother's assiduous research on their famous ancestor. She would tag along as her mother gathered family stories from elderly relatives, and helped sort papers.

The obsession followed her into adulthood when she began meshing family stories with mentions of Meyers in original documents from the era, including the papers of Frederick Haldimand, Philip Schuyler and other Revolutionary War figures.

Her massive book, 545 oversized pages with numerous historical plates, and original illustrations, tells of a 32-year-old farmer and father of seven in Albany County who, a year after the Declaration of Independence, found that the troublesome rebellion had arrived on his doorstep.

Meyers was not anxious to get involved in the conflict, but neutrality didn't seem to be an option. Convinced the British would quickly put down the revolution, he left his family and set off on foot for British-held Quebec to declare his loyalty to King George III who, after all, was of the German House of Hanover.

He had a commission in mind, and set about recruiting loyalists with the idea of creating his own company, but the British found the hardy, resourceful Meyers more useful as a courier and scout, and sent him on missions in the heart of enemy territory where he would pass as tradesman. He worked closely with Dr. George Smyth, the Loyalist spymaster in Albany, and garnered a reputation as a man who could evaporate in shadows.

He was a natural choice to lead the bold raid on Schuyler's home, but ineptitude among other raiding parties in the area tipped off the patriots to the possibility of an attack on Schuyler, who reinforced security at his estate. Despite the precaution, Meyers' band managed to break into the house and engage in a pitched battle with guards. The family fled upstairs with the raiders in hot pursuit. By then, Schuyler had managed to sound an alarm and help came from nearby Albany. Meyers' party took two hostages and retreated, miraculously evading capture and making the long trek back to Quebec without casualty.

The exploits of John Walden Meyers have inspired a novelized history by Mary Beacock Fryer (John Walden Meyers, Loyalist Spy), and two novels for young people by Peterborough children's author Connie Brummel Crook. Crook's books focus on how Meyers' decision affected his family; one book imagines their escape to Canada after Meyers had become a wanted man in New York (Flight!), and another is set in the backwoods community that would become Belleville (Meyers' Creek).

Despite provoking such later-day melodramas, Meyers remains largely unknown, even in the city he helped to found. When filmmaker Knutson set up his camera on Meyers' Pier in the Bay of Quinte in the late 1980s, and asked visitors at the Belleville landmark whom the pier was named after, the question drew wild surmises or blank stares.

Mr. Knutson has always be interested in history; for his final year of film studies at Queen's University, he recreated on film the life of a pioneer girl during the first year of homesteading. During his research for the film, he says, he kept running across the name of John Walden Meyers. When he launched his own film company in 1989, he decided a documentary account of Meyers' life would be an interesting project to complement the corporate videos that would be his bread and butter.

He interviewed authors Bennett and Fryer, along with Belleville historians, and filmed at sites related to the Meyers family around the Bay of Quinte, Quebec and northern New York. He found relevant archival images, and shot footage of revolutionary war re-enactments. Former CBC Man Alive host Roy Bonisteel was engaged to host to film.

Halfway through the project, Mr. Knutson went looking for a TV broadcaster to help with expenses. He now realizes he was being naive. "Since then I've discovered that if you want to make a documentary, you get all the funding, and all the support in place first, or you come to them with a finished product, but you never go to them in the middle of it."

Still he soldiered on, filming when he could scrape together funds, working on post-production when he could spare time. It was a story that should be shared, he figured.

Mr. Knutson's film, now in the final stages of editing, spends much of its time bringing to life Meyers' days as a spy, but doesn't ignore his role in the the founding of Belleville. After the war, Meyers had hoped to settle his family in what is now Quebec's Eastern Townships, but the British didn't like the idea of the Loyalists, so recently part of the American colonies, forming communities so near to the border of an independent and still ambitious U.S.A. They were offered land in the relative wilderness west of the Ottawa River.

Meyers took his family to a large plot of land in the Bay of Quinte (or Bay Kenty, as it was then often called), covering much of what is now the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton. Eventually, he built the first brick home in Upper Canada there. Since there was no stream on the property capable of powering a grist mill, much needed by the loyalist homesteaders, he bought land to the east which included a river of a size that could be dammed. The river soon became know as Meyers' Creek, as did the community that arose around Meyers' burgeoning industrial complex: a sawmill, a fulling mill, a blacksmith's shop, a distillery and an inn. It would be renamed Belleville in 1816.

By then, Meyers' independent nature and general bullishness had put him at odds with some of his neighbours. His indifference to the War of 1812, his unwillingness to surrender supplies to the military except at going rates, his efforts to hide a sleigh that might have been requisitioned by the local militia, would bring jealous charges of treason against the loyalist hero of the Revolutionary War. The government, keenly aware of the irony, declined to act on the charges.

John Walden Meyers died Nov. 22, 1821 at the age of 76. Family history says that he died of a fever contracted a few days earlier while loading goods on a barge in a driving sleet. But there is another tale of Walden's demise. It is his last and, in some ways, his most intriguing legend.

The story goes that when Meyers noticed local native using silver to barter for goods, he convinced two of them to show him the source of the ore. In late fall, they canoed up the Moira River to Loon Lake and led Meyers overland to what is now a popular provincial park, Bon Echo.

Park officials say that Meyers may have been the first non-native to see Mazinaw Lake, whose cliffs and pictographs have become park symbols.

On such a cliff, according to legend, Meyers was shown a hidden underground passage lined with silver. He filled his pockets and started upon the return voyage with his Indian guides. But the natives had second thoughts about revealing the secret of the cave and pushed the old man overboard. Despite being weighed down by silver nuggets, he managed to make it to shore. As the temperature, fell, he began the long, painful journey toward home, where he would succumb to the effects of his exposure -- though not, the story goes, before leaving a map to the cave.

There have been other stories since, of descendants coming into sudden wealth, presumably after visits to the cave. Others have tried to find the cave over the decades. The legend has become part of Bon Echo's lore, and there is a hamlet south of the park, Myer's Cave, that takes its name (with a slightly different spelling of the family name) from the tales.

You won't find any reference to the mythic lost silver mine on the plaque dedicated to John Walden Meyers on the banks of the Moira River in Belleville, nor on the memorial commissioned by his descendants in a local church. But, two centuries after Meyers' death, and despite a Canadian penchant for obscuring the most interesting stories of the country's past, the legend lingers on, as tenacious as the real-life Canadian pioneer who spawned it.