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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“In the rough old times,
In the tough old limes,
Of twenty years agone,
There was nae a clock in the settlement
To tell how the time went on;
But we kenned very well when the day began,
And we kenned very well when was o’er,
And our dinner-bell was the gude-wife's shout,
When the sun reached the nick in the door.-’

David Martin.

WHEN, in 1669, La Salle and his party, including the adventurous priests Dollier de Casson and Gallinee, found their wa}’ to “ the head ” of Lake Ontario, the spot was much frequented by wild animals and Indian hunters, and many Indian relics and traces of villages have been discovered in the vicinity. Doer, bears, and wolves were perhaps attracted not only by the pure, abundant waters, but by the numerous “ saltlicks” on the side of the mountain. There, too, rattlesnakes found congenial luiking places, and Father Gallinee records that when the intrepid explorer of the Mississippi was seized at this place with a fever, some of his party declared that it was due “to the sight of three large rattlesnakes which he had encountered on his way while ascending a rocky eminence.”

Somewhat over a century later, when the settlement of the district had fairly begun, rattlesnakes were still extraordinarily plentiful, and Mr. J. H. Smith, the historian of Wentworth County, tells how each returning spring the pioneers united “to organise hunting parties to destroy these dangerous neighbours. . . . On the projecting ledges on sunny days they might be seen gathered together in heaps varying in height from one to two feet, and here they lay basking in the sunshine. It was at these times that the hunting parties visited the mountain side, and with muskets loaded with slugs or coarse shot fired into these piles and destroyed them by hundreds.”

Who was the first permanent settler at “the head of the lake” is uncertain. About 1785 two Loyalists, Charles Depew and his brother-in-law, George Stewart, roasted along the lake shore in search of homes, and, dragging their canoe across Burlington Beach, landed on what was afterwards known as the Depew Farm. No survey having been made, they marked their names on flattened stakes and drove them into the ground, to show other home-seekers that there was a claim on the land.

On a tombstone in Christ Church Cathedral, the honour of being "the first settler at the head of the lake” is claimed for a trader, Richard Beasley. This man was the first owner of what is now Dundurn Park, and it is said that Simcoe planned for a town on the heights, but that Beasley set so high a value on his rights in the land that the settlement began its existence south and east of the intended spot.

Robert Land was another very early settler at the “head of the lake,” and his story reads like a romance. When the revolutionary war broke out he was living on the banks of the Delaware. Of a daring and adventurous temper, he came out boldly on the side of the King, and was often employed to carry important despatches. One night, however, he was shot at and wounded, but managed to creep into a thicket to conceal himself till he was able to continue his journey. Reaching home, he found his house in ashes, his wife and children gone. Believing that they had been murdered by the Indians, he made his perilous way to Niagara, and later took up land under the mountain beyond Stony Creek. Here for seven years he lived, “a solitary" but one day when he returned home to his cabin he saw, in the dim light that struggled through the “wolf-skin” window of his cabin, a weary, travel worn woman and two grown-up young men. It was the wife and boys whom he had mourned so long as dead; they, on the other hand, believed that he had been slain. In far New Brunswick the wife had been toiling for her sons till they reached manhood, when hope of bettering their fortunes drew them westward. Reaching Niagara, they heard the strange news that a settler bearing the lost man’s name was living alone in the woods fifty miles away, and at once set out on foot to verify the rumour. At last, “a happier Evangeline,” Mrs. Laud ended her toilsome pilgrimage in a glad reunion with her husband for many years.

In 1787 two brothers from Pennsylvania, Abraham. and Isaac Horning, built a cabin near Burlington Bay, planting near it some garden seeds given them by their mother. A year later two sisters and another brother, with his family, set out in a home-built boat to join them. Before the weary journey of eight weeks was ended the boat was driven ashore and dashed to pieces. Leaving the rest of the party at Niagara, the sisters and brother followed the trail to the head of the lake, where they soon came on a little log hut in the midst of blooming flowers, and one of the sisters said: “We are at the end of our journey. I know it by these flowers.”

An early settler at Waterdown was Colonel Brown, called by the Indians "the White Man of the Mountain.” He made a somewhat unusual disposal of his four-hundred-acre farm at his death, leaving it to his granddaughter and “her heirs female.” At first the mails to the more westerly settlements passed through Waterdown, but from the time when the stage line between Toronto and Hamilton was started until 1840 the village was left out in the cold, and had no post office at all.

Another Wentworth village, Ancaster, is an older centre of population than either Hamilton or Dundas. It had a school as early as 1796, and letters for the future Hamilton were sometimes addressed, “Burlington, near Ancaster.” Dundas was once known as “Coot’s Paradise,” and, according to tradition at least, its three first permanent settlers bore the oddly-related names of “Hatt, Hare, and Head.” In its infancy Dundas had the distinction of possessing a log jail, which was used during the War of 1812. At that time, by the way, the southern part of Wentworth County was part of Lincoln, whilst its northern townships first belonged to York, and later to Halton County.

As everyone knows, the early settlers had to do without, or to depend upon themselves for, numberless articles which we regard as necessaries, but perhaps it is from little concrete examples that we realise best what this general statement means. For instance, most present-day cooks would hardly like to have to make their own baking-soda from the “lye” of burnt corncobs, nor would our gay young girls or gallants, when dressing for some festive occasion, care to have to go to a neighbour’s before they could obtain a glimpse of themselves in a looking-glass. But an old settler of Wentworth Cnuuty remembered as one of the chief glories of the ancient frame house where he lived as a boy “a wonderful mirror of large size”— by actual measurement 12 by 20 inches! This "very expensive article,” costing six or seven dollars, “had been imported with great care, wrapped between two pillows with the glass downwards. That mirror was the pride of the household and the delight of the neighbourhood. Girls living in the vicinity made frequent pilgrimages to its shrine, and the wild Indians entertained great veneration for our house in consequence of this wonderful talisman, helping them to see themselves as others saw them. Stoics though they were, their grimaces were extremely ludicrous.”

It has been already mentioned that wild beasts were plentiful in Wentworth County. To capture the larger animals, the settler s dug deep pits, which they concealed by a kind of trap-door contrived to spring back to its horizontal position after the creature stepping upon it had slipped into the hole below. A story is told of an unscrupulous fellow who, running oft with a ham purloined from a neighbour, was caught in one of these traps. The fall did not greatly hurt him, but he was sorely troubled at the thought of being discovered in the morning with his stolen booty as evidence of his theft. He was destined to have something else to think of, however. Presently he was startled by a heavy thud, and a bear inued beside him at the bottom of the trap. Some time later a wolf came to share their captivity. After a while the man plucked up courage to offer them the ham in turn, partly to propitiate them, partly in the hope of getting rid of his plunder. In vain ! The cowed animals had lost both appetite and spirit, and when morning dawned they had touched neither this discreditable “Daniel” nor the ham. At last a small boy peeped into the trap, and, seeing the bear, cried: “So you are caught at last, my fine fellow!" "Yes, I am," replied the man, and the child ran home in terror to report that Bruin had answered him with a human voice. Immediately his father and brothers hurried to the trap, and, despatching the beasts, drew from his prison the now penitent thief.

Indirectly it was the War of 1812 that gave to the city ot Hamilton its name, for when the conflict began a young Queenston man, George Hamilton, who had wedded a Miss Jarvis of York, determined to move, with his young wife and infant son, to somewhat less exposed quarters. The little family consequently migrated to the head of the lake, where, some years later, Hamilton laid out upon his property streets which he named after members of his family—John, James, Catharine, Hannah, Maria, and Augusta. He also presented to the town bearing his name Court-House Square, the Wood Market, and Gore Park.

But in the attempt to escape the troubles of the time by removal from the Niagara frontier Hamilton reckoned without his host, for the tide of war soon swept northward and westward, surging into Wentworth County during the second year of the struggle. In the spring the Americans, on their way to attack York, destroyed the “King’s Head Inn,” or "Government House” as it was sometimes called, at the southern end of Burlington Beach, whither the Indians came annually by hundreds to receive the presents promised to them for the lands they had relinquished. A few days later the settlers, whose log cabins near the bay faintly indicated the spot which within a century was to be covered by the homes of some 90,000 people, may have seen the smoke of the conflagration which destroyed the little capital of Upper Canada. Then flying rumours of disaster on the Niagara frontier heralded the march of General Vincent, with the remnants of the British garrisons of Forts George, Erie, and Chippewa, to make a stand upon Burlington Heights. His troops, consisting in part of men of the 49th Regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles, and some companies of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, entrenched themselves on the ground where was to be built “Dundurn Castle.”

A few days afterwards, on the hot afternoon of June 5, an American force, led by Generals Chandler and Winder, arrived at Stony Creek. Thirsty, hungry, and tired, the troops “were ordered to sleep on their arms that night,” and cannon were placed in readiness to sweep the narrow, croaked road leading to the British camp on the Heights. Hearing of the approach of this force, which probably numbered from two to three thousand men, Vincent sent a party to reconnoitre, under Colonel John Harvey (later the Governor of several of the British Provinces in succession), and doubtless it was on this occasion that Lieutenant FitzGibbon (recently raised from the ranks and soon to share with Laura Secord the glory of the bloodless victory at Beaver Dams) penetrated into the enemy's camp, disguised as a settler, with a basket of butter on his arm. He soon sold his stock-in-trade, but not before he had attained a good knowledge of the disposition of the American troops. Vincent was short of ammunition and seriously outnumbered, and an attack upon his camp might have ended disastrously for the whole upper country; but, reversing the old adage, the General evidently thought valour “the better part” of prudence. Promptly he fell in with the suggestion of a night attack, and in a few moments the sleeping officers and men when aroused from their couches on the grass, and the whole camp was alive with preparations for the march.

About 10.30 on a night when black darkness was varied by fitful flashes of lightning the little army, seven or eight hundred strong, noiselessly took its way down the lonely road eastward, to arrive a little before two o’clock the next morning in sight of the first American sentry, on guard near the old Methodist church of Stony Creek. The building was full of slumbering soldiers, but by some means, it is said, the British had obtained the American countersign. At any rate, they passed the sentries and got to the centre of the invaders’ camp before they were discovered. Then, breaking their long silence with wild yells, they burst with fixed bayonets upon the astonished enemy. The two American Generals, who had been spending the night at Gage’s farmhouse (which still stands), were made prisoners; so were a number of their men, but five hundred who had been posted in the lane flew madly to the hill, leaving their blankets, knapsacks, and some of their arms behind.” Soon recovering from their confusion, however, the Americans fired a volley from the hill. At times the opposing forces were strangely mixed in the hand-to-hand fight, and prisoners were taken on both sides, but before daybreak the British leader, Harvey, fearful lest the enemy should discover the smallness of his force, drew off his men. After this check the Americans decided to make no further attempt 6n Vincent's camp.

Several months later the broken remains of Proctor’s army, on its way to join Vincent’s force, straggled through Ancaster, to the great alarm of the villagers, who imagined that the victorious Americans were in hot pursuit; but after Stony Creek, Wentwoith Country was not destined to furnish another battleground for the opposing armies.

Occasionally during the War the settlers suffered a good deal from their friends; at least there are traditions of British officers “pressing” men and teams for military service and of Indians taking down the fence around some settler’s wheatfield to turn in their horses. In 1813, it is told, two thousand Indians gathered to a great feast on Dundas flats, for which the}’ had prepared by killing the neighbouring farmers’ sheep and pigs.

It was soon after the return of peace, in 1816, that Wentworth became a separate county. Its first county buildings were a combined court-house and jail of logs. The walls of the lower storey, for the detention of criminals, were four logs thick ; those of the second, the debtors’ prison, three logs thick; and those of the court-room above only two logs thick. This was superseded in 1828 by a stone building.

Did space permit much might be told of the social conditions of the early years. For instance, in that whisky-drinking period, it is surely worthy of record that in 1832 a Water down mail, Griffin, succeeded (with the usual neighbourly help) in erecting a sawmill in half the ordinary time—without whisky! It was evidently an unpopular proceeding, however, for when he tried to arrange a barn-raising on the same conditions he had to send to the Indian mission on the Credit before he could obtain men. Later he started a kind of aristocratic temperance society, in which, while ardent spirits were tabooed, those who could afford might still indulge in wine, but in 1833 the pledge was broadened to include abstinence from all intoxicating liquors.

In 1832 Hamilton had a population of 800, which, despite the terrible ravages of cholera in that year and in 1834, had increased by 1837 to some 3500. But the Rebellion brought things to a standstill. Building almost ceased, the poor mechanics of the towns suffered sadly, and tradesmen became eager to obtain labourer’s work at 75 cents a day. A more pleasing event of the year was the opening of the Desjardins Canal, four miles in length ; but not long after the construction of the railway between Toronto and Hamilton, the breaking of a bridge across the canal resulted in a shocking railway accident, which caused the death of seventy persons.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century many of the immigrants had to undergo experiences not less trying than those of their precursors, the Loyalists. In May, 1832, a party of Scottish emigrants set out for Hamilton. The ocean voyage to Quebec consumed seven and a half weeks, and it took three weeks more to complete the journey -n a Durham boat, which made such slow progress that its passengers, strolling along the shore, could keep pace with it. The miseries of the journey were sorely increased by the fact that the little company had the dread cholera for a travelling companion. One of their number, John Glasgow, fifty-seven years later, told the story in one of the "Wentworth Historical Society" publications, and, strange to say, one of the great difficulties of the immigrants was to obtain water. They had been warned against drinking from the river, and the settlers on its banks chained the “swing-hoists” of their wells, lest cholera-infected immigrants should be tempted to linger in their neighbourhood.

Several of the voyagers died upon the way. Sometimes it was impossible to land the corpse for several hours; sometimes it was left nailed up in a rough coffin, in some outhouse on the shore, for the authorities to dispose of as they could. At last the weary travellers reached Hamilton, the first object in the town that struck their attention being the glittering spire of the old Court House. But there was no welcome for them, and the first night they had to make their beds on the wharf. Within a few hours of their landing a young husband and wife both passed away, and the townsfolk dared not take them in. At last George Hamilton came to the rescue, proposing to build them a shelter at the edge of the woods. There they stayed till the cold weather came, ultimately moving out of the village to bush farms in East Flamboro’, where they created their log houses about Christmas—some three miles from a road!

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