Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2022

The Amazing Life and Times of Chauncey Sheldon

Keeper of Michigan’s Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse 1853 – 1857

By David G. Chardavoyne


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Michigan’s Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse appears ...
Photo by: Cindy Freeman

Editor’s Note: David G. Chardavoyne is an author, attorney, and professor of law who lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan. While doing research for another book in the Michigan State Archives in 2005, he came across this information about this previously unknown segment of the life of lighthouse keeper Chauncey Sheldon.

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The current Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse, shown ...

Chauncey Sheldon served as the keeper of the Pointe Aux Barques [Pwant Oh Barks] Lighthouse on Lake Huron in Huron County Michigan from June 24, 1853 until September 26, 1857. He lived an ordinary, dull life up until December of 1838 when he was 52 years old. His life for the next eight years was an extraordinary adventure that took him, albeit against his will, to places around the world. After his eventual return to Michigan in 1846, he regained his ordinary, dull life until an old comrade-in-arms appointed him to the keeper position at Pointe Aux Barques.

Chauncey Sheldon was born in Rupert, Bennington County, Vermont, on January 10, 1786. He was the seventh of ten children of John and Sibbel (Spears) Sheldon. He grew to be over six feet tall and became a skilled and prosperous farmer. In 1806, Chauncey married Lucy Whiting of Suffield, Connecticut. Chauncey and Lucy had nine children. Sometime between 1810 and 1820, they joined Lucy’s family and thousands of other New Englanders in moving to the frontier of western New York, settling on farmland in what is now Wyoming County, New York.

Soon after Lucy died in 1832, Chauncey joined his children, and by that time grandchildren, in the next great wave of New England emigrants. This time, they were bound “west to far Michigan,” again establishing farms in Utica Township, Macomb County. By 1838, Chauncey was now a widower, a Mason, and “a man respected in his neighborhood for his many good qualities.” Neighbors warned however, “He has been in the habit of becoming intoxicated.” It was likely that habit was what resulted in Chauncey’s involvement in a bloody fiasco – a privately-funded invasion of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, by about 165 farmers and merchants under the command of a lawyer from Akron, Ohio. These self-styled “Patriot Hunters” intended nothing less than overthrowing the British government of Canada and replacing it with a republic.

On December 4, 1838, Chauncey arrived in Detroit with a wagonload of wheat to sell. It was a cold day, and he naturally gravitated to one of Detroit’s many saloons. It was there he met some of the Patriot Hunters who were awaiting word from their leader, attorney Lucius Verus Bierce, to begin their adventure. Whether because of drink, or because he yearned for adventure, Chauncey agreed to join in the invasion of Canada. On the night of December 4, 1838, the Patriot Hunters, having evaded U. S. Army patrols, boarded the Champlain, a steamboat docked in Detroit, which they managed to maneuver through the ice floes and upriver to a point on the Canadian side of the Detroit River opposite Belle Isle (then called Hog Island).

After being ferried ashore in a rowboat (remarkably without anyone falling into the river), the men formed ranks in the frigid, black night and marched to Windsor, then a mere village. There, they surprised a sleeping platoon of local militia, burned their barracks, shot two militia men who tried to escape, and captured several others. Some of the Patriots set fire to a Canadian steamboat; others shot an escaped slave, then a free citizen of Canada, who refused to help them. After milling about for a time, the Patriots heard of the approach of more militia. About sixty of the Patriots formed ranks again in an orchard. About dawn, they were caught in a cross-fire between two companies of red-coated militia. After exchanging several volleys, the Patriots fled into the woods, leaving behind about twenty of their number dead or dying on the frozen ground.

At that moment of victory, the Canadian commander, Colonel John Prince, a rich landowner, seemed to have lost his nerve. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Patriots, he ordered his men to return to their base at Sandwich, after first ordering the execution of one of the captured Patriots. The rest of the Patriots heard the firing in the orchard and began a general and hasty retreat upriver. In the confusion, the Patriots wounded and then killed a British Army doctor, who, armed with only a ceremonial sword, had galloped up to them, mistaking them for Canadians.

When the retreating men reached the point where they had disembarked, they discovered that the Champlain had returned to Detroit. Several of the Patriot officers jumped into canoes and paddled to Belle Isle, leaving their men to shift for themselves. An hour or so after the battle in the orchard, British regulars stationed at Fort Malden, with a posse of local Indians, stormed through Windsor and upriver, capturing fifty-two of the Patriots trying to escape through the woods and swamps. Among the captives was Chauncey Sheldon.

The fifty-two men captured were charged with being Patriot Hunters. Five were executed on the spot by the orders of Colonel Price, while others were taken to London, Ontario, where they were tried for treason and piracy by a military court. All but one of the men were convicted and sentenced to death. Six of them were hanged and thirteen were deported back to the U.S. A few were pardoned for giving evidence against their fellow Patriots. Eighteen, including Chauncey Sheldon, were ordered to be transported to Van Dieman’s Land, now known as Tasmania, where the British government maintained a penal colony.

The men sentenced to the penal colony were sent by boat to Quebec City, where they were joined by sixty Patriots caught in other raids, fifty-eight Canadian political prisoners, and 140 British soldiers and their families. All, plus the ship crew, were loaded onto the H.M.S. Buffalo, an aging frigate of the British Navy that had been converted to a transport ship. The Buffalo left Quebec on October 1, 1839, stopped in Rio de Janeiro to pick up supplies, then crossed the Atlantic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, then sailed south of Australia. The Buffalo arrived in Hobart, the capital of Van Dieman’s Land, on February 12, 1840. One of the Patriots had died on the voyage, and all suffered from sea-sickness, bad food, cockroaches, fleas, and lice.

In Van Dieman’s Land, the Patriots were used as unpaid laborers, working under whip-wielding overseers, to build and repair roads into the island’s interior. The work, living conditions, and discipline were all harsh, but Chauncey Sheldon, now 54 years of age, managed to survive in relatively good shape. In October of 1842, when he had been on the island for more than two years, he was given a “ticket of leave” that allowed him to find paid work. It also meant he had to find his own food and shelter. Were it not for the help of fellow Masons on the island, he might have starved.

In December of 1844, he and many of the other Patriots received a full pardon from Queen Victoria. The pardon did not, however, include a ticket back home. He and the others waited another two months before the captain of an American whaling ship, the Steiglitz, agreed to take them to Honolulu if they would work as ship’s crew.

The Steiglitz left Hobart on January 29, 1845, shortly after Chauncey’s fifty-ninth birthday. The ship cruised the South Pacific looking for whales, stopped at Roratura and Tahiti for provisions, and reached Honolulu on April 27, 1845, after almost a three-month trip. The Patriots were warmly welcomed by the local American population in Hawaii, but they found that at that season, there were not many ships leaving Hawaii for the United States.

Finally, in September of 1845, Captain Hugh Page of the American Navy sloop-of-war U.S.S. Levant, agreed to take Chauncey Sheldon to Mazatlan, Mexico. Captain Page had served in Michigan during the War of 1812. The Levant arrived in Mexico in November. From there Chauncey made his own way to Havana, Cuba, and then to New York on the barque Madura, arriving on February 4, 1846.

Chauncey Sheldon was soon back to his family in Macomb County, Michigan, a bit over seven years after he had set out to sell a load of wheat, and after he and the other Patriots had set out from Detroit into Canada. His children had by then gone on with their lives, and by 1850, he was living in a rooming house in Shelby Township, Macomb County, where he might have remained had not Franklin Pierce been elected President in 1852 with the support of another former Patriot Hunter, John Harmon, by now a prominent Detroit politician. President Pierce appointed Harmon to the position of Collector of Customs at Detroit, an office that included the power to appoint lighthouse keepers in the area.

When Harmon offered the Pointe Aux Barques position to Chauncey, with a pay rate of $350 per year, he readily accepted. He took up his duties on June 24, 1853, and served until September 26, 1857, well into the administration of President James Buchanan. Following his retirement from the keeper position, the Federal Census of 1860 found him living in Ray Township, Macomb County, Michigan. It is believed he passed there sometime in 1866.


Chauncey Sheldon’s service as the keeper was apparently satisfactory and honorable, yet Lighthouse Establishment records show that he was “removed” rather than resigning or retiring. Great Lakes lighthouse historian Ron Burkhard, who is the author of the The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse: A Comprehensive History Written by a Native Son, found the following references to Sheldon in National Archives lighthouse letterbooks and made the following conclusions.

The first letter notes that there was apparently some dispute between Sheldon and Amgrad Granger, the man who succeeded him.

A December 24, 1857, letter from Light-House Board Secretary Commander Thornton Jenkins (probably to 11th District Superintendent, Commander G.H. Scott) reads: “Sir, Your letter of the 18th instant with enclosed letter from the keeper of the Pt. Aux Barques Lt. House, is received. I have to report that you will say, in writing to the keeper, that he is responsible for all property belonging to the Government at the site of the Pt. Aux Barques Lt. house and that if the late keeper has left the property there against his wishes, he should give him written notice without delay to remove it, and have the letter delivered by a reliable witness and then if he does not remove them, take charge of the house if necessary and use it. The late keeper has no authority to use either the land or buildings at the Light House site.”

Chauncey Sheldon was either taking his time vacating the keeper’s house, or had left some of his possession there, but all this took place after his removal from the position so could not have been the cause of it. This matter was apparently amicably resolved as no further mention of it was found.

Another letter in Light-House Establishment files dated April 9, 1858 regarding agency expenses for the 1857 fiscal year, may hold the answer to Chauncey’s removal from the keeper position. The letter notes: “There is a claim of $8, of Chauncey Sheldon, late keeper of the Pt. Aux Barques Lighthouse, for board of laborers. Payment was refused, because the oil accounts of the claimant were not satisfactory.”

Chauncey was still the official keeper when the present Pointe Aux Barques lighthouse tower and keeper’s residence were being built in 1857, and had provided food to the workmen during that process. His claim was for reimbursement for the cost of doing that. The letter mentions that the records required by the system regarding the usage of oils, wicks, etc. were questionable. This could well have been the reason for his removal.

Whatever the actual situation of his service may have been, Chauncey Sheldon will certainly go down in lighthouse history as one of the most well-travelled keepers who ever held the job.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2022 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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