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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“A breath from the tropics broke Winter’s spell
With an alien rain which froze as it fell,
And ere the Orient blushed with morn
A beautiful crystal forest was born.”

Barry Stratow

NORTHUMBERLAND County, named after the English shire, was one of the original nineteen counties set apart by Simcoe in 1792. With Hastings, it sent one member to the first Parliament of Upper Canada. In 1798 it became part of the Home District, but by an Act passed at the beginning of the year 18CO it was provided that, as soon as the two counties of Northumberland and Durham attained to a population of one thousand souls and had no less than six townships holding town meetings, the new District of Newcastle was to be formed. According to the “Historical Atlas” of the two counties (which were long united), the Newcastle District was set apart in 1802, and for a time the magistrates were empowered to decide where the courts should be held. This was found inconvenient., and in 1805 they were authorised to erect a jail and court-house in either Haldimand or Hamilton Township.

Indirectly, the cutting off of the Newcastle from the Home District led to a tragedy. This is the story. An Indian, who in 1804 murdered a trader at Oshawa Creek, betrayed himself when drunk and was captured on Toronto Island, but his counsel objected to his being tried at York, because the crime was said to nave been committed within the boundaries of the new Newcastle District. On account of this technicality the court and prisoner embarked upon the Speedy on their fatal voyage down the lake, and the ingenious lawyer paid with his life for his legal quibble.

For years after that there was no suitable accommodation in Northumberland for a court. At length buildings were begun on the site of the present county town, but questions were raised as to the right of the magistrates to erect them, and a quarter of a century after the foundering of the Speedy the matter was carried to the Court of King’s Bench. Finally, in 1831, an Act was passed giving legal sanction to the proceedings of the magistrates and indemnifying them for their illegal expenditure on the jail and court-house, then in course of erection.

The county seat has borne a bewildering number of names. At first it was called Amherst, in honour of the General who was Wolfe’s superior officer. Next it was called Hamilton} to correspond with the township in which it was situated, and finally it was baptized Cobourg, by which name it has been designated for the last sixty or seventy years. As if these changes were insufficient, it was at one time known locally as Buckville, after an early settler, Elijah Buck, who deserves remembrance as the maker of the first wagon ever put together in Hamilton Township. As a mere nickname, moreover, the struggling little hamlet, destined to develop into the clean and prosperous town of Cobourg, was once unkindly called “Hardscrabble,” in reference to the supposedly overwhelming difficulties of those who undertook to make a living in it. The village was situated unpromisingly in the midst of a cedar swamp, and consisted for long of little more than a main street, so cruel to the wretched animals forced to drag a load along it, that it was described as “a founderous morass.”

The earliest surveys in Northumberland were made in 1791 by Augustus Jones, a man of Welsh extraction, who took an Indian bride, variously described as the daughter of “a noted Mohawk warrior” and an Ojibway chief, and thus became father to “the famous Wesleyan Indian missionary,” Peter Jones, who was brought up, till the age of fourteen, in the customs and superstitions of his red mother. He rejoiced in a many-syllabled Indian name, translated as “Sacred Waving Feathers.”

The county had many Irish pioneers, a smaller number of Scotch and English ones, and some Americans, coming chiefly, perhaps, from Vermont. James Keeler, the first settler in Colborne (Cramah6 township), was a Vermont man. He arrived in 1789, and was so well pleased with the country that, four years latei, he brought in forty other settlers. Keeler gave free sites for churches and a public square to Colborne and built mills. A notable pioneer of Murray Township was Asa Weller, who kept a tavern at the Carrying Place, and used to convey travellers up the Lake Shore by means of a “sled"’ and a yoke of oxen. Another Weller, William (doubtless of the same family), was proprietor of a more ambitious “stage,” and became the first Mayor of Cobourg after its incorporation as a town.

Early in the War of 1812 Robert Wilkins (also of Murray) raised a company of volunteers, but soon resigned his captaincy to take charge of the commissariat department of the district, and he made the Carrying Place his headquarters. Being a roan of decision, though conciliatory in manner, he usually succeeded in obtaining supplies, without having recourse to “the half-martial law” of the time, in spite of the somewhat general disposition to stick out for fancy prices.

Notwithstanding the hardships they had to endure, many of tlio pioneers were long-lived folk, and two Northumberland men, Gibson and Lawson, were amongst the last of the veterans of 1812 to draw the" $20 pensions. Gibson could recall a time when it was no uncommon thing to see five or six bears together, eating beech-nuts, and Lawson used to tell how, when “drafted” in 1812 for military service both by land and water, and, preferring to do duty on the lake bateaux, he had swum three miles to escape impressment by the land force.

Upon the first survey of Seymour (about 1819), a number of half-pay officers took up land, and Campbell-ford (now a flourishing town of about 3000 inhabitants) was founded and named by Major Campbell of Cobourg. The incorporated village of Hastings, 011 the Trent (down which, season after season, tor several generations, logs have swirled with the current from the woods of Victoria and Peterboro’ counties), is half in the last-named county and half in Percy Township of Northumberland. Part of the neighbouring township of Alnwick is taken up by an Indian reserve, bordering on Rice Lake, which still affords good fishing.

About 1827 a young Methodist preacher, whose name —Egerton Ryerson—was to become a household word in Upper Canada, began to pay occasional visits to these Indians. Probably he was the more readily interested in them because he had already lived some time with the Indians on the Credit, giving them instructions in various useful arts as well as in the Gospel. In Northumberland he had, however, little time to devote to the red men, for he was in charge of the whole Cobourg circuit, then extending from Brighton to Bowmanville. His sermons were often composed on horseback, but he was soon recalled from Cobourg to edit The Christian Guardian at York.

Through the Upper Canada Academy, however; the young minister was again to become connected with Cobourg. The building erected for this famous school was “classic in architecture and imposing in appearance." The workmanship was so good that after more than “seventy years the Government of Ontario find it still a substantial, valuable building.” But the cost of the building and its furnishings ran up to £9000, more than double the amount collected up to 1834 by a thorough canvass of the Methodists and their friends. To go on with the work, the trustees had to pledge their personal credit for a large sum, and, feeling that something more must be done, they appointed Egerton Ryerson their agent to go to England to solicit funds and petition the Imperial Government for a Royal charter. The task was difficult, but it was accomplished.

Mr. Ryerson returned with a considerable sum of money for the building fund, and “with the first Royal charter ever granted by the Imperial Government for an educational institution outside of an established church.” Owing largely to Ryerson’s exertions, the Academy was opened on June 18, 1836. Five years later it was granted university powers under the name of “Victoria College,” and Mr. Ryerson became its first President, holding office until, in the autumn of 1844, he took up his great work of improving the common schools of the Province. As for the university, which he had done so much to establish—it ultimately entered into federation with the University of Toronto, and half a century after the inauguration of its first President it removed to its new and beautiful home in Queen’s Park, Toronto, to the regret, it may be said, of not a few who had spent their happy undergraduate years in the old Victoria College at Cobourg.

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