Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Gates (1816–1865)

This article was published:

William Gates (b.1816?), revolutionary and convict, was an American who took part in the 'Patriotic Movement' of 1837-38 aimed at freeing Upper and Lower Canada from British rule. He was one of a force of about 200 armed men who in November 1838 moved along the St Lawrence River to Prescott where, after some fighting, Gates and many others were captured. Most of them were charged with 'piratical invasion'.

In 1838 Colonel Sir George Arthur had been appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, and he was instructed to deal firmly with the rebels. The disturbances, which were intensified by the British government's order to unite the two provinces, were suppressed; most of the rebels fled to the United States, twenty-nine men were tried by court martial and executed and about 200, including Gates, sentenced to transportation for life. These included British Canadians, French Canadians and Americans. Twelve arrived in Van Diemen's Land in the Moffat in 1838, thirty in the Marquis of Hastings in 1839, seven in the Canton and 142 in the Buffalo in 1840. Because of the hostility between the men from Upper Canada and those from Lower Canada, the fifty-eight French Canadians in the Buffalo, including Francois Prieur, were sent on to Sydney in the same ship. Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin reported to Governor Sir George Gipps in February 1840 that the prisoners from Upper Canada 'reserved as Sir George Arthur says as a present for me' were principally Americans and mostly artisans and working men. He had put them to work on the roads and recommended to the Colonial Office that they should get tickets-of-leave after two years if well behaved. The rebels formed a separate gang and were placed on Tasman Peninsula apart from the ordinary run of prisoners.

In his Recollections of Life in Van Diemen's Land (Lockport, N.Y., 1850) Gates described how the 'Yankee rebels' attracted much interest, but were treated like slaves. 'We were bowed down with suffering. Our rations were poor and miserable and very frequently not more than half the alleged allowance. We complained to the magistrates and received no redress … but their Yankee spirits were unsubdued'. However, Robert Marsh in Seven Years of my Life, or a Narrative of a Patriotic Exile (1847) claimed that after being bullied by one of the overseers, he had complained to a magistrate and was given lighter work. Another man was sent to Port Arthur after going to Hobart Town to plan a rescue by American whalers and thereafter the Americans were moved to Green Ponds, then to Bridgewater and later to other places.

In February 1842 seventy of the rebels, including Gates, received tickets-of-leave and ceased wearing convict rig. Gates was employed as overseer at £8 a year by a settler in the Oatlands district. He then became a constable, hoping to catch bushrangers at £300 a head. In 1843 two fellow Americans, Aaron Dresser and Stephen Wright, helped to capture a bushranger and were put aboard a ship for London with orders that they be transferred to the first American ship they encountered that was homeward bound. Gates was granted a full pardon on 1 September 1845; that month he landed at Melbourne and there set about earning his fare to America, £80. In May 1848 he landed in New England.

Other fellow prisoners of Gates who wrote books about their experiences were Benjamin Wait, who described in Letters from Van Diemen's Land … (1843) how he and two others went to sea in a fishing boat, were picked up by a passenger ship and reached America; Daniel D. Heustis who published Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Captain Daniel D. Heustis (1847); Linus W. Miller who wrote Notes of an Exile in Van Diemen's Land (1846); and Samuel Snow who wrote The Exile's Return … (1846). Stephen Wright dictated to Caleb Lyon a Narrative and Recollections … During a Three Years' Captivity (1844).

Select Bibliography

  • correspondence file under Canadian political prisoners (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

'Gates, William (1816–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


New York, United States of America


1865 (aged ~ 49)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: life
Court: Ontario (Canada)


Left the colony: Yes