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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“The memory of the Red Man,
How can it pass away,
While his names of music linger
On each mount and stream and bay?”


SURELY Halton County has its share of the "wild names” of which the poet sings, for, of its four townships, two bear the Indian appellations of Esquesing and Nassagaweya. The other two, set apart in 1806, a few months after Nelson’s death and victory off Cape Trafalgar, were named in honour of the hero and "his last sea-fight.” Moreover, in Trafalgar Township, a little, old fishing village Culls to mind a foreign title bestowed on Nelson by the Neapolitan Government before he was created an English Peer. In 1799 he was made Duke of Bronte, receiving with the title the market-town of Bronte, in the Val di Demona, in Sicily, his territory and an income of £3750 a year. Thirty-five or forty years ago, the Canadian Bronte was more important than now; and from it were shipped annually about 80,000 bushels of grain.

As first constituted in 1816, Halton was an immense county, comprising several townships of the present Wentworth County, and much of Wellington and Waterloo. Now it is a very small one, and it has no large town within its borders, for neither Oakville (a name of note in connection with the culture of strawberries) nor Milton, the county seat, named after the poet, has as many as three thousand people. In 1824 Oakville was represented by one log-cabin, and it was in 1822 that the first settlers came to Milton at a time when “roads were rather imaginary than real.” But perhaps better than large towns are the many pleasant villages and fruitful farms which make little Halton a prosperous county, though, in common with other rural districts of Ontario, its population has rather fallen off than increased within the last half-century. Originally Halton County had been included in York, and had formed part of the Mississauga Indian Reserve.

A few years before his death the great Mohawk, Brant, received a Royal grant of what is now Burlington, once called Wellington Square. Just at the head of Burlington Beach the Chief erected a large two-storey house, which is still standing, though much altered. It was built of red cedar brought from the Thousand Isles. He furnished it in English style. There he spent his closing years, and there, on November 24, 1807, he died at the age of sixty-four. His body was taken for burial to the Mohawk Reserve on the Grand River, and his wife, Catherine, who preferred the Indian mode of life, returned to dwell amongst her own people. But in later years, after fighting bravely in the war of 1812, her youngest son, John, whom his mother (having the right to do so by the custom of her people) had appointed Chief, came back to the Brant-House at Burlington with his youngest sister, Elizabeth.

An English traveller, Hall, says that, except for wearing moccasins, the young man dressed in European style, whilst some other travellers (Buchanan, the British Consul at New York, and his two daughters) having an introduction to “a Miss Brant,” were astonished at first to discover that she was “an Indian Princess,” and then to find that her manners differed little from those of any other well-bred lady. These people, arriving very early in the morning and seeing no one about, entered the house, and had time to note the “pier and chimney glasses” in the parlour, “the fashionable chairs,” and the guitar, that suggested a fashionable accomplishment, before their hostess, “a charming, noble-looking Indian girl,” came to greet them. She was clad all in black silk, from her stockings to her tunic and short skirt, and her head was covered with a silk net, which, however, allowed her hair to fall in loose tresses on her shoulders. She talked easily and composedly till a squaw, wearing "a man’s hat,” began to make preparations for a substantial breakfast of tea and coffee, hot rolls, eggs, ham, and broiled chickens. The guests were surprised to see no Indian weapons in the hall, but the young Chief explained that his English guests, of whom he had had many, had begged from him all of such things that he had once possessed. In 1832 John Brant died of cholera, but his sister, who had married a grandson of Sir William Johnson and Molly Brant, named Kerr, lived with her husband and children at the Brant House. Like her father, she translated portions of the Scriptures into Mohawk for the benefit of her own people.

Meanwhile white immigrants were coming into the country, and in a book on “The Canadas,” compiled from papers furnished by John Galt, there is to be found some interesting information as to the state of things in Halton County about 1830, in letters written home by an English day labourer. This man, Thomas Hunt, had settled in Nelson, about nine miles from the lake, and with his two brothers had bought two hundred acres of land at 12s. 6d. an acre, to be paid in instalments.

“We are in a good country for poor folks,” he wrote, “we have plenty of good fire and grog.” Then he gives some of the current prices—wheat, 4s. per bushel; Indian corn, 2s. 6d.; oats, 2s.; potatoes, 1s. 3d,; rum, 10d. per quart; good whisky, 7½d.; brandy, 9d.; tea, 3s 6d. per lb. Beef and mutton were then 2d. per lb., fat geese only 1s. 6d. each, and good apples per bushel. “We make our own sugar, our own soap and candles, and bake good, light bread,” he says. “We shall never want for water or timber. We have several adjoining houses, chiefly English people. We can raise up a good house in a little while at little expense. ... It is called the healthiest place in Upper Canada. . . They that think to work may do well. But,” he adds, "if our fathers and mothers were here, they should never be obliged to do a hard day’s work, for we would keep them without work if they were not able.”

Six months later Hunt wrote again to tell his friends at home that the house was built, and that they hoped "to get a plough of oxen this summer and a cow or two.” Part of the time in those first years he and his brothers “had to work out sometimes,” getting three pounds the month and living with their masters. But they looked forward to being able soon to work “all the time on their own farm.” And one hopes that the rosy dreams of these simple folks were realised, and that they did not fall victims to too cheap and too plentiful "grog” in any form.

In 1837 William Lyon Mackenzie had some very trying experiences in Halton County. About three o’clock in the afternoon of the day after the fight at Montgomery’s Tavern, the rebel leader, with a lad of about nineteen, Allan Wilcox, as his sole companion, reached Streetsville, on the Credit, and went to ask for some bread and cheese at the house of a miller bearing the auspicious name of Comfort. The good wife pressed the fugitives to stay for dinner, and then the miller sent his man with a wagon to help them on their way westward. Mackenzie had heard at the mills that parties of men were out searching for them and he saw “bills duly posted” offering the reward of a thousand pounds for his apprehension, but, though it was still broad daylight when they left Comfort’s house, no one tried to stop them. The roads were rough and frozen, and it was hard travelling. At length they discovered that they were being hotly pursued by mounted men, and, hearing when they approached the Sixteen Mile Creek (at the mouth of which is Oakville), that a party was guarding the bridge, they jumped from the wagon. To put their pursuers on the wrong track Mackenzie asked a labourer the way to Esquesing, then turned with his companion into a patch of woods, near the deep ravine, at the bottom of which runs the creek, then swollen with heavy rains. Regarding Trafalgar as "a hotbed of Orangeism,” and a district where he could “hope for no friendship or favour,” Mackenzie felt that his one chance of escape was to cross the stream and press on westward. Wilcox insisted on sharing his fate, so stripping and holding their clothes in bundles above their heads, they plunged up to their necks into the turbid stream, thick with cakes of ice, which beat and buffeted against them. It was a bitter December night, and the icy water chilled them through and through, so that when they gained the other side the frozen bank seemed almost warm to their feet.

An hour and a half later they reached a house, where they were fed and warmed and given a place to rest in, while the sons and daughters of the Nelson farmer kept a silent watch outside in the cold. But the fugitives dared not rest long, for they had to make the most of the hours of darkness. About eleven o'clock they crossed Dundas Street, and at midnight passed over what they supposed was the Twelve Mile Creek (Bronte’s little river) on the trunk of a fallen tree. About four in the wintry morning they reached the house of another friendly farmer at Wellington Square, and, hearing that M'Nab’s men were scouring the country in all directions, Mackenzie parted from his young friend and hid in a pea-stack, from which, like Charles II in his oak tree, he had the pleasure of watching the Sheriff and his men searching for him. The rest of his adventures (and they were many) do not belong to the story of Halton County. Mackenzie safely reached the United States, and one cannot help thinking (with him) that it is something to be proud of that no Canadian was base enough to try to sell him for Head’s thousand pounds.

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