Location: North America
Surnames/tags: Fenian Canada Irish
Between 1866 and 1871, the Fenian raids of the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish Republican organization based in the United States, on British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada, were fought to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland. They divided Catholic Irish-Canadians, many of whom were torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the aims of the Fenians. The Protestant Irish were generally loyal to Britain and fought with the Orange Order against the Fenians. While the U.S. authorities arrested the men and confiscated their arms, there is speculation that some in the U.S. government had turned a blind eye to the preparations for the invasion, angered at actions that could have been construed as Canadian assistance to the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. There were five Fenian raids of note and all of them ended in failure.
- Campobello Island Raid (1866)
- Niagara Raid (Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie) (1866)
- Pigeon Hill Raid (1866)
- Battle of Eccles Hill / Missisquoi County Raid (1870)
- Battle of Trout River (1870)
- Pembina Raid (1871)
Agitation in Pacific Northwest (1870s and 1880s) The Fenian Brotherhood organized openly in the Pacific Northwest states during the 1870s and 1880s, agitating to invade British Columbia. Although no raids were ever launched, tensions were sufficient that Britain sent several large warships to the new railhead at Vancouver, British Columbia for the celebrations opening the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886.
Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the "battle that made Canada."
Support for the Fenian Brotherhood's invasion of Canada quickly disappeared and there was no real threat after the 1890s. Nevertheless, the raids had an important effect on all Canadians.
The Fenian raids caused an increased anti-American feeling in Canada and the Maritimes because of the U.S. government's perceived tolerance of the Fenians when they were meeting openly and preparing for the raids. The raids also aroused a martial spirit among Canadians by testing the militia's strength. Because of their poor performance, the militia took efforts to improve themselves. This was achieved without the huge cost of a real war. The greatest impact of the Fenian raids was in the developing a sense of Canadian nationalism and leading the provinces into a Confederation. This was seen as necessary for survival and self-defense; the raids showed Canadians that safety lay in unity and were an important factor in creating the modern nation-state of Canada.
Researching Family Members Involved in the Fenian Raids
- Fenian Raids Bounty Applications, 1866-1871. This database (Record Group 9. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario) consists of bounty applications for veterans. It is available online through Ancestry.
- Canada General Service Medal. Members of British and Canadian regiments that served during the Fenian Raids were awarded the Canada General Service Medal. Library and Archives Canada has a searchable database here. Enter your ancestor’s name. You don’t need to fill in the regiment or rank fields, but you do need to use the drop-down menu beside Event/Time Period to bring up Fenian Raids.
- The Hit-and-Miss Approach. Your ancestor lived in Ontario as a young man in the 1860s. Let’s say his name is Henry H. Spencer. Enter “Henry H. Spencer” in the search box at Our Ontario. Up comes a photo “Soldiers at Fenian Raid, 1866” with Henry in the front row.