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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Not drooping like poor fugitives they came
In exodus to our Canadian wild,
But full of heart and hope, with heads erect
And fearless eyes victorious in defeat.”

William Kirby.

THE stories of the neighbouring counties of Glengarry, Stormont, and Dundas, almost inextricably interwoven, must be taken as supplementing one another. Stormont, possessing at Cornwall (now a flourishing town of some 6600 inhabitants) a Court House and Jail, ranks as the senior county of the three, which together have only twelve townships.

The pioneers of Stormont were Loyalists, many of whom had served in Sir John Johnson’s “Royal Regiment, of New York.” Having been farmers before they took up arms, they were better fitted for life in the wooded wilderness than most of the officers and soldiers of the regular army, though some settlers of this class also “made good.” About one-third of the first settles were Highlanders, one-third Germans, and the remaining third were English, Irish, and Lowland Scotch.

In some cases the holders of land grants disposed of them for very trifling amounts. One allotment of two hundred acres changed hands, according to tradition, for a gallon of rum. It is perhaps still more curious that persons who were toiling with might and main to make their farms, neglected for years to obtain a legal title to them. The first land patent issued in the three counties bore the date of 1793, and the first for a lot in Cornwall 1803, respectively ten and twenty years after the great Loyalist immigration. Perhaps the hard toil necessary to clear a little space on which they might build up the tiny log-house and sow a little corn for the support of their families distracted the minds of the pioneers from thoughts of legal formalities. At first the settlers of Stormont had neither oxen nor horses, so they loyally helped each other with the heavier tasks, and little by little tamed the wilderness to their will. If ever sturdy grit and common sense and ability to make the best of resources all in the rough were desirable, these qualities were needed by the pioneers. In his little book, entitled Lunenburg: or the Old Eastern District, Judge Pringle has brought together many an interesting fact which throws light on the lives led by our Canadian “Pilgrim Fathers.” In every district the erection of a grist-mill was an event of an importance difficult for us to realise in these days of railways and steamboats. When they were built those first grist-mills freed our great-grandfathers from the toil of carrying huge sacks of grain on their backs for many a day’s journey or set our great-grandmothers at liberty from the exhausting labour of grinding meal for their households in a hand mid. On account of “the shoving of the ice,” Cornwall could not have a watermill, but two windmills were soon erected, one of which, after helping to supply the settlement with flour for many a long year, was turned into a blockhouse.

In the pioneer days Cornwall was the headquarters of the officials who distributed rations and other supplies to the Loyalists. Soon it became a centre for general business, with a store or two, a smithy, and a tavern, and about 1794 a Court House and Jail were erected.

This was a time of severe old-fashioned punishments and of rough and ready justice. In default of regular stocks, it is said that a culprit’s feet were sometimes fastened between two rails of a justice’s fence, or that by way of “hard labour” an offender was set to hoe the magistrate’s corn or potatoes. For petty larceny offenders were made to stand in the pillory, to receive “thirty-nine lashes on the bare back,” or (in the case of a woman in the year 1800) to be whipped till the blood came.

Like the famous Fleet and Marshalsea prisons in London, Cornwall jail did duty as a debtors’ prison. An Act, passed in 1805, requiring the creditor to pay an insolvent debtor five shillings a week for his support in prison may, however, have done something to discourage the practice of imprisoning persons for debt. In 1822 debtors were allowed, if their friends would give bail, to go outside the jail, keeping within certain specified limits. But if they accepted this privilege they could no longer claim support from their creditors. In Cornwall the limits were marked by white posts. Originally the Courts of Quarter Sessions, besides having jurisdiction in criminal cases, attended to many matters now under the control of the municipalities, such as the making of roads and bridges.

During the War of 1812 (of which there will be more to say in connection with Dundas County), the courthouse and jail at Cornwall were used as barracks. In November 1813, when almost all the men were absent with the militia, American troops occupied the town. They helped themselves to goods from the stores, and a woman who had buried her stock of preserved fruit in a garden bed was unlucky enough to have it discovered by a Yankee prodding about with an iron ramrod; but on the whole, “the enemy’’ scarcely wrought more mischief than was done at times by the riotous parties of British seamen who used to stop at Cornwall on their way to man the warships of the lakes. It is told that one night some of these fellows, probably the worse for drink, capturing what they took for a calf, killed, cooked, and ate it, to discover in the morning, from the animal’s hoofs, that they had supped on a colt! Twenty years later, when the great cut was being made for the Cornwall Canal to overcome the Long Sault Rapids, the army of rough navvies, a thousand strong, became a positive terror to the country people having business in town. Finally, after a trifling dispute a man was killed. For this one of the navvies was hanged, and afterwards the rest were less unruly.

It was in the autumn of 1834 (a notable year in the history of Cornwall) that Chief Justice Robinson cut the first sod of the canal, which was eight years in the making. In the same year, Cornwall (which had before been assessed with the township and received such small grants for roads that its streets were almost impassable with mud) was incorporated. Almost immediately the town began to provide sidewalks of flagstones, but, till cured of the dangerous habit by heavy fines, the country-folk coming into town on horseback insisted on riding along them.

In 1834 Cornwall first sent its own member to the Assembly. As everywhere in early days, elections caused vast excitement, and not a little disorder. It is said that in the first or second election held in Stormont the number of votes cast exceeded that of the whole population. At that date every man having a freehold in land was entitled to vote, so some ingenious persons, intercepting the boatmen on the river, provided them with deeds for lands in the county, and marched them to the poll. One candidate had the forethought to provide printed forms of deeds, whilst on the other side they had to be laboriously written out by hand ; consequently, the former captured five or six times as many votes as the latter. In Glengarry and Stormont the candidate’s piper played his adherents to the poll.

At funerals the bagpipes "whustled mony a braw lad to his grave.” At one time the music for fashionable parties in Cornwall was supplied by a one-legged negro fiddler, who played six or seven tunes by ear, not very well when sober, and execrably when drunk. A few years later, there were three pianos in the town, and once in the neighbourhood, spindle-legged and rather “wiry in tone,” but highly prized.

In 1803, the future Bishop Strachan opened the school famed as “The Cornwall Grammar School.” In 1808 he built a schoolhouse, which, when he left for York four years later, he conveyed to trustees for a District School. About 1824 the Anglican Church, painted white, with a tin-covered spire, was one of the most imposing buildings in the place. The Roman Catholics of Cornwall were then regarded as belonging to the parish of St. Andrews, which, by the way, was long the home of the notable explorer Simon Fraser.

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