By Debra Downey, Senior Editor
Through the lives, births and deaths of seven generations of the Stevens family, nary a word was spoken. The family’s lips were tightly sealed; their “big dark secret” deeply buried.
There was no mention, not even a whisper, about one of their own, Aaron Stevens, who died a brutal, tragic and public death on July 20, 1814. Fifty-two-year-old Stevens and seven others were hanged, their heads displayed on spikes near today’s Dundurn Castle.
Like at least four generations of the family’s men before him, Stevens had worked for the British government’s Indian department. He served as a guide and interpreter to support his wife Maria and their burgeoning brood of 13 children — eight boys and five girls, two were twins.
Six weeks earlier, Stevens and 19 other men suspected of treason were collared by British soldiers and unceremoniously dumped and held in the basement of what is known today as the Ancaster Mill restaurant. The accused were eventually hauled into a makeshift courtroom at the Union Hotel and tried for high treason. On June 9, 1814, Aaron Stevens pleaded guilty to being a spy for the Americans. He was the only man to plead guilty among the eight who were convicted.
Determined to send a loud, unmistakable and unforgettable message about loyalty to the upstart settlers in Upper Canada, the British meted out the harsh punishment designed to send a shiver down the spine of anyone who might consider lending support to the enemy.
Sylvia Weaver, the wife of Stevens’ descendant Don, said when she first learned about her ancestor’s actions in 1814, she was puzzled. But on second thought, and after research into settlers lives at the time, maybe it wasn’t really so difficult to understand.
“I think Aaron was an intelligent man,” said Weaver. “Perhaps a man before his time, who wanted to live in a peaceful county within a democracy.”
Weaver, who retired five months ago from a career in nursing, said she has been a “pack rat” with a strong interest in history for almost all of her life. Late one night about 15 years ago while working on the genealogy of her husband’s family, she discovered the Stevens connection to Ancaster’s Bloody Assize.
Her curiosity piqued and somewhat bewildered by the traitor in her family, Weaver began her diligent and detailed research. The Weavers talked to their 98-year-old aunt whose mother’s surname was Stevens. The aunt was surprised; certainly not aware of treason in the family.
“Aaron Stevens was her great-great-great grandfather, and you would think this important bit of family history would have been passed down from generation to generation,” said Weaver. “All I ever heard about was the proud family lineages to the United Empire Loyalists.”
“An ancestor hung? Why would he be a traitor against the British?”
Weaver recognized war, the War of 1812 in particular, was cruel. Both the British and the Americans were guilty of heinous acts. Settlers’ families and family loyalties were probably tested and torn apart on both sides of the border.
Sylvia starting looking at King George III, a British ruler she has since labelled “a mad king.”
“For years King George III was imposing unfair taxes on the colonists in the U.S.A. He introduced the stamp act, sugar act, currency act, taxes on wine, sugar, molasses, coffee, all paper material and the quartering act which required colonists to provide food and lodging to the British troops,” said Weaver. “...Perhaps Aaron did not want to follow an insane monarchist in England and was favouring the new democratic government developing in the United States.”
After Aaron Stevens was hanged in 1814, the British confiscated the family’s home and possessions. But Stevens had friends among the small community of settlers. He was a man of good standing and Weaver’s research indicates neighbours re-purchased the property and returned it to Maria.
Probably ashamed, willing themselves to forget about the scandalous actions of their husband and father, Stevens’ death was a long-forgotten 200-year-old secret.
But Sylvia and Don Weaver, members of the seventh generation have stepped forward — extremely proud of their genealogy and family history, and eager to reveal their interesting story to this generation and others yet to come.
“We are not embarrassed, but very proud of Aaron.” said Weaver. “We feel he acted on what he strongly believed in. Aaron Stevens is part of our rich family history, and he is just as important as our United Empire Loyalist ancestors.”
• • •
Sylvia and Don Weaver are among roughly 90 descendants of those involved in Canada’s historic Bloody Assize who are expected to be on hand July 19–20 when Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum marks the event’s 200th anniversary.
On Sunday, July 20 at 6:30 p.m., an acknowledgment ceremony will honour the 19 men and their families whose lives were changed forever by the 1814 treason trials. A plaque observing the execution of the eight men on July 20, 1814, will be unveiled. It will later be installed on the grounds of Burlington Heights (Dundurn Castle) where they died a dreadful death.
For more information on the weekend events, click here.