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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“What constitutes a state? . . .
Men who their duties know,
But know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain—
These constitute a state.”

W. Jones.

TWO hundred and forty years ago, the spot where the city of Kingston now stands was a wilderness, but its site at the mouth of the Cataraqui was much frequented by the Indians. It was, indeed, such a strategic position that the vigorous governor of Canada, Count de Frontenac, determined to erect a stronghold there. Accordingly in the summer of 1673 he sent word to the Indians of the district to meet him at Cataraqui, and thither, attended by a multitude of the gay and gallant gentlemen of his little court, with his impressive flotilla of canoes and gorgeously painted boats, he came— the embodiment of undaunted courage and imperious will. At his word, as if by magic, rose the first Fort Frontenac, and the Indians, awed by his good-humoured contempt and delighted with his lavish gifts, seemed in Very deed to become the “children” he called them.

Two years later the wooden fort was rebuilt of stone by the valiant but luckless explorer, La Salle, who had received a royal grant of lands at that place. It continued to be an important French post till the year preceding Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham, when, by a “masterly stroke,” Colonel Bradstreet captured and demolished Fort Frontenac. But it was another war—that of the American Revolution—that gave the first impetus to settlement in Ontario (or Upper Canada). In 1783, Haldimand, then Governor of Canada, desiring to make preparation for the influx of Loyalists, which was indeed already beginning, ordered the survey of lands on the Bay of Quinte. This, it is believed, was the first survey made within the boundaries of Ontario. About the same time the first mill was built at Cataraqui.

The following year was marked by a greater event, to which the others had led up. In June 1784 there came up the river in open boats a party of Loyalists, led by one Captain Michael Grass, who took up lands in the township of Kingston, and thus laid the foundations of “the first effective settlement" in Upper Canada. But it was still counted part of Quebec, and the newcomers did not like having to submit to French laws. At last, in 1791, after a vast amount of debate and heart-burning, the Constitutional Act became law, by which Upper Canada was separated from the Lower Province and was put under English law, and Colonel Simcoe was appointed the first Governor of Upper Canada. He threw himself with enthusiasm into plans for organising the new province, but was unable to reach Upper Canada till half of the year 1792 was over.

It was almost nine years since the building of Ontario's first mill; and the little settlement of Kingston numbered about fifty houses on the summer Sunday when the new Governor’s big bateau was seen entering the harbour.

It was greeted by a salute from the guns of the garrison; and, thus warned, the population of the village hurried to the wharf to see Governor Simcoe and his “lady” come ashore—the first a trim, soldierly-looking man in the prime of life; the other a bright-faced little woman, some years his junior.

With a kind of prophetic appropriateness the day of this arrival of the first Governor of Upper Canada in its first settlement happened to be July 1, the day which the future generations of Canadians were to celebrate as the birthday of the “Dominion.” Though it was a very small crowd that gathered to welcome the representative of the British Sovereign, the event was an important one in the history of Canada, for it marked the granting to the stalwart Loyalists of some beginnings of the British liberty they loved (in spite of all their maligners said of them), and the gift was like a tiny seed which contained the germ of a mighty forest tree.

No doubt Simcoe saw some familiar faces in the crowd, for he had served through the Revolutionary War, and had for several years commanded the Loyalist corps called the “Queen’s Rangers.” He understood the dispossessed and defeated, but not beaten, adherents of the British Crown, and with all his force lie meant to do what he could to make the conditions of their new life tolerable, and to lay solid foundations for a new British State in America.

He was, perhaps, a less picturesque figure than that of the old French Governor whose name he bestowed on the county, and his coming with his young wife and little children made a far less imposing spectacle than Frontenac's arrival with his hundred or more war canoes. But the age had gone by when the magnificent woods and waters of our Province were merely a setting for the exploits of bush-rangers and Indian lighters. A new era was dawning, and henceforth Upper Canada was to be a land of homes and settled folk.

A week later, on the following Sunday, Colonel Simcoe solemnly took the oath as Governor, in the tiny wooden church that then stood on the site now occupied by the offices of The British Whig'. In those early days, by the way, the music was led by a barrel-organ, and there are dim, misty traditions of the faded and out-of-date finery brought out by the assembled Loyalists to do honour to the great event. A few days afterwards a wilder scene occurred in the Governor’s honour, when a band of Mississauga Indians, in their war paint, danced before him to the music of their native drums and the chanting of a dismal tune, varied by fierce war-whoops. In Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, edited and published recently by Mr J. Ross Robertson, are many interesting details of the three weeks spent by the Governor and his family at Kingston.

She tells of pleasant wanderings in the woods, and of sailing “in a pretty boat . . . attended by music, to Garden Island.” She delighted in the new wild flowers she found and in the strange effect of fires amongst the trees, which at night seemed to turn the forest into “ an enchanted wood! ” and trees were then and there so much too plentiful that her pleasure in the picturesque scene of destruction was quite unmarred by disturbing thoughts of “conservation.” She is very outspoken, which adds zest and reality to her bits of description. For instance, when with her husband she visited the shipyards, which in coming years were to supply a great fleet of vessels to ply on the lakes, she mentions specially the extraordinarily “bad construction” of two new gunboats, adding that the Governor named the clumsy things “ the Bear and the Buffalo.”

Kingston would have been well pleased had Colonel Simcoe derided to make it his capital, but he thought the place indefensible and would not be persuaded. Half a century later, however, for a brief period Kingston was capital of the United Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. Real estate rose immensely in value, houses to rent grew scarce, but the dream of pre-eminence for the Limestone City soon faded. But we are getting on too fast. Amongst Frontenac County’s first things had been a school opened by Dr. Stewart, in 1786, and a few years later Hon. R. Cartwright employed a young Scot, who was to make bis mark on the educational institutions of the Province, to teach his four sons and several other lads. The teacher lived to be Bishop Strachan, and amongst the boys also was a bishop and two chief justices of the future. At a later date another lad, John A. Macdonald, destined to still wider fame, passed his school-days in Kingston. To this day the city has retained distinction in educational matters, for it is the seat of Queen's University and of the Royal Military College.

Long before, the establishment of the latter, however, Kingston, which was a garrison town and naval station for the gunboats of the lakes, served as a training-place where raw country lads were turned into soldiers.

One June day, a century ago, in 1812, there came word by private letter that the United States had declared war on England. Half an hour later the drums beat to arms, and couriers were despatched in hot haste through all the countryside to “warn out” the militia. In those days and for more than thirty years to come the streams and lakes of Frontenac County formed her highways (for the era of road-building did not begin till about 1840), but speedily the appalling news was carried to every little hamlet for miles round, and the sturdy woodsmen, young and old, came pouring into the town to defend it against the expected attack.

Once, in October 1813, a “Yankee fleet of 14 sail” appeared off the Upper Gap, and a shot was sent from the Old Windmill to tell the American commander that the sons of the Loyalists were ready for him. Indeed, as the hostile boats came on, troops marched along the shore, and the wood,! were fired to prevent their furnishing cover for the invaders, but no landing was made.

During the years of warfare, Kingston and the neighbourhood were kept in a ferment of excitement by the coming arid going of troops, the setting out of naval expeditions, the arrival in boats and bateaux from the Niagara frontier of prisoners of all ranks (from generals downwards), and, after the capture of York by the Americans, the coming of pitiful boat-loads of wounded in dire need of help and comfort.

In the “century of peace” which has passed since those sad days, the aspect of Frontenac County (as indeed of a great part of old Ontario) has been greatly changed. Not only roads, but railways and telegraph and telephone lines, make communication easy. The once-wooded country is studded with small towns and prosperous homesteads, and the much-frequented market of Kingston (which was supposed by some people in early days to be the centre of a country so unproductive that it could not be expected to supply the wants of a capital city) tells a tale of prosperity and industry. As for the city itself a pleasant air of restfulness and dignity seems to brood over its shady streets and old grey houses, while the picturesque bustle of its wharves and water-front keeps in mind the busy days when it was a naval station.

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