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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

“Down by the river our log hut stands,
Where father and mother dwelt;
And the old door-latch that was worn by our hands,
And the church where in prayer we knelt.”

Old Song.

IT has been quaintly said that the “dawn of civilisation" in Middlesex County first appeared in the township of Delaware, and here we also find a trace, but only a trace, of the pioneer Highlander of the county, Ronald M'Donald, who in 1798 obtained a patent of the land on which Delaware village stands, but soon after sold out to Dr. Oliver Tiffany. It was, however, twenty years later that there began the great Highland immigration, lasting (save for a short break) for something like thirty years, and giving almost every township a greater or less number of immigrants from the northern counties and western isles of Scotland.

These settlers were of a notably fine order, tall, strong, and sturdy in physique, and possessing solid mental qualifies, enlivened by the imaginative fire and poetry of the Celt. As to their moral qualities, honesty, earnestness, hospitality, and a strong sense of the unseen seem to belong to the type, and if, like other folk, they had their faults, these were often “the defects of their qualities." It is somewhat strange that these immigrants— most of them poor—should have set an unusually nigh value on education; but it was so, and the little log schoolhouses were amongst the earliest buildings in the new' settlements. Often the pupils could at first speak no language save Gaelic, but they speedily acquired English, and soon a surprisingly large number of teachers, ministers, and other professional men looked back to these little country schools as the scenes of their first triumphs in life and "book-learning.”

The majority of the Gaelic pointers of Middlesex were Presbyterians, and often they mei together for worship, to read “the Book” and sing their Gaelic versions of the Psalms, without waiting for the visit of missionary or minister. Until the Rebellion of 1837 and the gradual multiplication of newspapers, tlie Highlanders were slow to take an interest in politics.

Some notable men are connected with the early history of Middlesex. First and foremost must be mentioned Governor Simcoe, who from careful study of maps and accounts of the country had concluded that the forks of "La Tranche" which he named the Thames would be the best situation for the capital of Upper Canada.

In February, 1793, he undertook an arduous journey across the peninsula from Newark to Detroit to investigate the matter for himself. Taking five or six officers, a dozen soldiers, and twenty Indians as guides, the Governor travelled on foot most of the way, a journey of about 400 miles, but, as it was a “service of no danger” and likely to “afford him amusement,” his wife was “quite easy about it”; in fact, she thought the excursion would improve his health. On his departure “the Governor wore a fur cap, tippet and gloves and moccasins, but no greatcoat. His servant carried two blankets and linen. The other gentlemen carried their blankets in a pack on their backs.” The party was accompanied by a Newfoundland dog, Jack Sharp, which got into sad trouble with a porcupine, probably one of those which made a woodsman’s feast for the Governor and his suite, tasting u like pork.” At Detroit, "all his Majesty’s ships lying there” fired a salute on Simcoe’s departure. On a Sunday "his Excellency ordered prayers to be read in the woods . . . and forty people attended.”

"The Governor rose early on the march and walked till five o’clock. A party of the Indians went on an hour before”—I quote from Mrs. Simcoe’s recently published Diary—“to cut down wood for a fire and make huts of trees, which they cover with bark so dexterously that no rain can penetrate, and this they do very expeditiously.” When the Governor came to the spot the Indians bad fixed upon a spot to lodge for the night, and the provisions were cooked. “After supper the officers sang ‘God Save the King,’ and went to sleep with their feet close to an immense fire, which was kept up all night.” On the outward journey the party passed through the (future) townships of Delaware and Westminster, and, returning, spent a March day at the spot which Simcoe thought “eminently calculated for the metropolis of all Canada.” During the night it rained incessantly, and the travellers found that the hemlock boughs which served for beds had been wet when gathered, but such trifles did not chill the Governor’s enthusiasm for the situation.

He thought of naming the future city, in compliment to his Sovereign, “Georgina-on-the-Thames,” but ultimately pitched, instead, on the briefer, and already famous, name of London. Though circumstances forced him to make York his headquarters, he regarded the necessity as only temporary, but the Governor-General, Lord Dorchester, was of another mind, and Simcoe’s wishes were overruled. He had, however, had a town-site surveyed, and in consequence, while the land all around London was being taken up, the beautiful park-like spot where Simcoe had set apart for his city “remained in primeval beauty.” George Heriot, writing about 1807, mentioned that there were several “ rich settlements ” along the banks of the Thames, and that “new establishments” were “every week added to this as well as to other parts of the neighbouring country by the immigration of wealthy tanners from the United States.”

It is told also in some of the Ontario Historical Society papers that Governor Simcoe promised a grant of two thousand acres to a certain B. Allen, on condition that he should erect a grist-mill in Delaware. He began, accordingly, in 1799, to build a mill on Dingman’s Creek, but before it was finished “ had to go to jail for counterfeiting." About that time the post-office at Delaware was the only one between Newark and Detroit. Sir George Drummond established a military post at this village, and from it, on March 3, 1814, “a sortie of 240 men, under Captain Basden, was made against a United States post at Longwoods.” This was not captured, but soon afterwards the Americans retreated to Detroit.

About 1816 one John Applegarth began cultivating hemp on a ridge east of what is now Mount Pleasant Cemetery, but, being somewhat unsuccessful, soon went elsewhere, leaving his log cabin to squatters. There was as yet no bridge over the river, but a canoe ferry afforded some means of communication between the opposite banks. In 1817 Gourlay estimated that there were nearly 9000 settlers in the London district, of which the official centre was the inconsiderable hamlet of Vittoria. This was fifty miles, as the crow flies, from the forks of the Thames; and when the court-house there chanced to be burnt, the people of Middlesex began a vigorous agitation for the removal of “the headquarters of the district to a more convenient locality.”

The agitation was successful, and early in 1826 the Provincial Parliament authorised a second survey of London and appointed five commissioners to erect a court-house. Three of these were II011. Thomas Talbot (founder of the Talbot Settlement), Mahlon Burwell, after whom Port Burwell was named, and Charles Ingersoll, who gave his name to the town in Oxford County. Talbot, particularly, had much to dc with the settlement of London. The incoming people were required to pay the equivalent of $32 for the patent of each lot, and to erect some kind of a house, 24 feet by 18 feet in dimensions, upon it. A Scotch tailor, Peter MacGregor, built the first house in London, on King Street, where the Grand Central Hotel now stands. It was a mere shanty, but served as an hotel. When the courts were first held in London, MacGregor had to turn away many guests, who were obliged to go three miles further before they could obtain shelter.

The "first native-born Londoner,” Nathaniel Yerex, “saw the light of day in 1826.” By the following year thirty-three families, numbering, all told, 133 souls, had settled in the place. The first Court of Quarter Sessions was held 011 January 9, 1827, in a temporary building, afterwards used for a school; and one of the first trials was that of a murderer, who had slain a sheriff’s officer and, being found guilty, was hanged three days after sentence was pronounced. Thus, the beginnings of London, as it has been said, “centred in a tavern, a jail, and a post-office.” The latter was opened as soon as the work began of building the court-house, which was designed, on an imposing scale, in the Gothic style.

At first London grew slowly; and in 1845 a terrible fire destroyed no less than 150 of its buildings, causing a loss which, for so small a place, was enormous. Now the city covers some 4500 acres instead of its original 240 (of which, by the way, the estimated value is something like thirty million dollars), and the 133 people of its second year have now increased to over 46,000.

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