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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

"Shall we not thro’ good and ill
Cleave to one another still?
Britain’s myriad voices call:
‘Sons, he welded, one and all,
Into one imperia' whole,
One with Britain, heart and soul!
One life, one flag, one fleet, one Throne!’
Britons, hold your own!”


THE early history of Elgin County is dominated by the striking personality of Colonel Talbot, founder of the Talbot Settlement.

Since Upper Canada became a province, this county has changed name and boundaries more than once. Its eastern townships of South Dorchester, Mala hide, and Bayham were originally part of Norfolk County. The remaining four townships, three of which bear names borrowed from the English shire of Suffolk, were included in a county named Suffolk. When this disappeared from the map these townships became part of Middlesex, but some sixty years ago the new county of Elgin, with its present limits, was set apart and named after the staunch Governor-General of “Rebellion Losses Bill” fame.

In the township of Southwold, between the Talbot and Kettle Creeks, there are mounds, known as the “Old Fort," from the neighbourhood of which Indian arrowheads, pottery, and charred maize have been unearthed, which are believed to indicate the site of an ancient stronghold of the Neutral Indians, and on old French maps the district was marked as the “Iroquois Beaver Ground.” Charlevoix, a French traveller, visited the country in 1731, and was enchanted with its beauty. He gave a glowing description of it as “the finest forest in the world,” whilst the clear sky, the charming climate, the waters, “bright as the finest fountain,” on which his boat was floating, made him think that, if such conditions could continue, he “would be tempted to travel all his life.” A later observer, the Government surveyor, Peter M'Niff, was not so well pleased. He objected strongly to the high white and yellow sandbanks along the lake-front, and the townships were accordingly first laid out ;.long the Thames River.

Charlevoix’s description is said to have greatly impressed young Thomas Talbot who, however, himself visited the country in his early manhood, when he was acting as private secretary to the energetic Governor Simcoe.

Born at Malahide, near Dublin, in 1771, he belonged to an ancient Norman family. Receiving a commission in the army as ensign before he was twelve years old, he was appointed at sixteen aide to his relative, the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. A fellow-aide was Arthur Wellesley, the future conqueror of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Talbot attained the rank of Colonel at the early age of twenty-five, and a brilliant career seemed to lie before him. He saw active service in Holland and at Gibraltar; but his thoughts turned back to the peaceful shores of blue Lake Erie, and, to the astonishment of his friends, he resolved, while scarcely past thirty, “to bury himself” in the Canadian wilderness. But indeed Talbot was very much alive and full of ambition, though he dreamed not of military glory, but of planting a strong colony in Canada under the flag he loved.

He desired first to settle in the township of Yarmouth; but the Canada Company and the Baby family had been before him, and a large grant was not there available.

When, therefore, partly through the good offices of the royal Dukes of Kent and Cumberland, he obtained a grant of 5000 acres (an amount which had been given to many other officers) it was for lands in Dunwich Township. Afterwards he obtained additional grants.

It was on May 21, 1803, that he landed at a spot which has always since been called Port Talbot, though there is not even a village there. With his own hands he chopped down the first tree, and for years afterwards the anniversary was kept in the settlement as a holiday. From that date on, for half a century, till, as an old man over eighty, he was carried to his grave in the little village clmrch3'ard of Tyrcounell, he was one of the best-known men in Upper Canada. Sometimes he fell into conflict with the Provincial Government at York, but, having interest with the authorities at home and being ready at any time to make a voyage to England to set forth his case in person, he succeeded in maintaining a very independent position in his settlement; and, upon the whole, in spite of some eccentricities, he managed so well that, while the settlement of ether districts was slow, colonists “flocked” to his lands.

For one thing, owing, perhaps, to his training as a military man, Colonel Talbot was impressed with the strategic value of roads. One of the conditions attached to the free grants of fifty acres which he offered to settlers, with the right to purchase an additional hundred and fifty at $3 an acre, was the opening within three years of half the road in front of each farm. The other conditions were the building of a small house and the clearing and sowing of ten acres of land. The result of the road-making provision was that the settlement became noted for its good roads, especially for that named the, Talbot Road.

Talbot gave the choicest positions to actual settlers, relegating Crown and Clergy reserves to the rear; but he had a somewhat remarkable way of keeping a record of his land transactions. He had at Port Talbot a map on which he marked in pencil the names of the settlers. If they failed to fulfil the stipulated conditions within the allotted three years, he simply erased their names. When the conditions were fulfilled he gave the settler a certificate, which, on payment of certain fees at York, enabled him to obtain a patent from the Government. But, between lack of ready money and their absolute confidence in Talbot’s integrity, the settlers were often dilatory in completing the business, and at one time over 5000 deeds were waiting at York to lie taken out by Talbot’s .settlers. Having sometimes to deal with rough fellows, he conducted his business through a window with a sliding pane in it, and was attended by a faithful servant named Jeffrey Hunter. On one occasion he is said to have concluded an unsatisfactory interview’ with the curt command, “Jeffrey, set on the dogs!”

Talbot’s grist-mills and sawmills were burned, as were many others, during the War of 1812. He commanded the militia of the London and Western districts at that time.

In the early years of the settlement the nearest store was that at Long Point, sixty miles away, and in 1807 the price asked for broadcloth was $20 a yard; for printed cotton, $1; for brass buttons, a York shilling each; for a paper of pins, 50 cents; for tobacco, $1 a pound; for a single nutmeg, 25 cents, and for a bushel of salt, $12. In many instances the settlers had to carry home their purchases on their backs. During the War an enterprising peddler took a horse-load of salt into the Talbot Settlement, and sold it at the rate of $8 for fourteen pounds. In a few years, however, stores were opened at St. Thomas and elsewhere.

When Mrs. Jameson visited Talbot in 1837, the Colonel told her that he had settled some 50,000 people on 650,000 acres of land, of which 98,700 acres were cleared. Nowadays over eighty per cent, of the land in this good farming county (which, however, only represents a part of the Talbot Settlement) is cleared.

In the summer of 1846 an agitation began for the separation of the district from Middlesex, and on the morning of August 27 a band from St. Thomas (named, it is said, from Talbot’s Christian name) paraded the neighbouring villages with flags flying. At noon the band returned to St. Thomas, doubtless with some recruits for the public meeting, which passed resolutions in favour of separation. One of the townsmen, Benjamin Drake, offered sites for a court-house, a jail, and a marketplace, if St. Thomas should become a county town; but it was not till the autumn of 1853 that the separation was actually accomplished.

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