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The Stories of the Counties of Ontario

"Father of Nations! Help of the feeble hand!
Strength of the strong I to whom the nations kneel!
Stay and destroyer, at whose just command
Earth’s kingdoms tremble and her empires reel!
Who dost the low uplift, the small make great,
And dost abase the ignorantly proud:
Of our scant people mould a mighty State!”

Charles G. D. Roberts.

A VERY interesting county is Essex! It is one of Simcoe’s original nineteen counties, and its boundaries, fixed to a great extent by Nature, have seen comparatively little change. It is, in fact, a peninsula, more than three parts surrounded by the waters of Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie, and, like many another district, it owes its historical importance to its geographical position. As is the cane with Frontenac. and Lincoln Counties, Essex already had a history before the district became a county of Upper Canada.

Early in the eighteenth century it was the scene of a Jesuit mission to the Hurons, and hundreds were baptized. Some twenty years later the French Governor of Canada decided on planting a colony along both banks of the Detroit River, and within the next half-dozen years many families were settled at this then far western outpost of civilisation. In 1752 was born the first white child in the future county, Jean Dufour by name.

Though over-level to appear picturesque in the eyes of the lovers of hills and heights, this fertile region is at least beautiful in its rich productiveness, and within a decade the industrious French settlers had turned a strip of the luxuriant wilderness into cultivated fields and fruitful orchards. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton, commanding at Detroit in 1761, was much impressed with the general air of prosperity. Every farmer, he said, had his yoke of oxen for ploughing, his calash for summer, and his cariole for winter, driving, whilst everywhere were to be seen blossoming shrubs and fine fruit-trees. In fact

“Many a thrifty Mission pear
Yet o’erlooks the blue St. Clair,
Like a veteran faithful warden;
On their branches gnarled and olden,
Still each year the blossoms dance,
Scent and bloom of sunny France.”

But Nature was not so subdued that she had nothing to bestow spontaneously. It was but a step from the trim farms to woods rich in game and berries; indeed, in a few hours a farmer “with gun or line'’ could “furnish food for several families.”

A hundred and fifty years ago a village of Ottawa Indians was situated a little above where Walkerville now stands, and when after the cession of Canada to England the red men rose in revolt, Pontiac assembled his forces at this village for an attack on Detroit. Peach Island, a little higher up the river and on the other side of the international boundary line, was the home of the great chief, but a few years later it was sold to an English officer for three rolls of tobacco, half a dozen pounds of vermilion and eight barrels of rum!

The town of Detroit, in 1763, contained about a hundred houses, surrounded by a palisade and defended by a small garrison. As a rule, Indians were chary of attacking a fortified place; but Pontiac, though in many respects a thorough savage, was a warrior of a different type from most of the dusky braves, and for months he struggled to gain possession of Detroit by stratagem, open assault;, or siege. While other trading posts fell, Detroit held out till winter drove the Indians from the field; but in the spring of 1764, Pontiac again gathered his warriors to the attack. Again he was foiled, and three or four years afterwards he was murdered in a drunken quarrel.

In 1788 an English-speaking settlement in the district was begun by immigrants from Pennsylvania and others of the American States. Four years later it received its present designation; and names borrowed from the English “country of the East Saxons” were freely bestowed on townships and town-sites. Malden, Colchester, Sandwich, Gosfield, and Mersea are good old Essex names, but the appellation bestowed on the lonely township of Petee Island recalls the fact that the French were first in possession of the county. Pointe Pelee, jutting sharply into the surges of Lake Erie, was so called by the early voyagers because it seemed to have been denuded or “peeled” of trees. Once, when Charlevoix was journeying westward, he was detained for some hours on this point, and learned that bears were so numerous in the neighbourhood that during the previous winter "four hundred of them were killed upon Pointe Pelee alone.” This is a digression, however.

Not long after the coming of the first English-speaking people there was an election in Essex County, concerning which some amusing details were given by Miss Jean W. Barr in a recent number of The Globe. She had been fortunate enough to come across a letter written before the contest by the successful candidate, David William Smith, Surveyor-General of Upper Canada, and afterwards a baronet. Writing to a friend in Detroit, John Askin, who afterwards settled on the Essex side of the river, Smith begged his help in conveying voters


to the hustings and in arranging for liberal supplies of beer and rum, without which nothing could be accomplished in those days. In the event of success, he planned to celebrate his triumph with a public dinner, a dance “for the ladies,” a generous distribution of strong drink and white ribbon favours, an enormous bonfire and the hoisting near it of a large red flag, emblazoned with the word “Essex” in big letters of blue tape.

Ten years after this Askin built a log-house overlooking the river, just above the site of Walkerville. That “brilliant and unfortunate foster-son of Essex,” Major John Richardson, author of The War of 1812, and of Wacousta, was one of his grandsons. Richardson fought in the war of which he wrote, was captured at Moraviantown in 1813, and his name is associated not only with Askin’s house, “Strabane,” but with Sandwich and Amherstburg.

Until 1796, when it was given up to the United States, Detroit was the chief town of the Western District of Upper Canada. When it passed under "the Stars and Stripes” many soldiers and settlers removed to Amherstburg or Sandwich, and the erection of Fort Amherstburg, or Malden, as it was afterwards called, was immediately begun.

In 1812 General Hull, with 2500 men, invaded Essex. The General established himself in “Colonel Baby’s big brick house” at Sandwich, from which he issued his bombastic proclamation to the people of Canada. But he had to deal with one whose motto was: “Deeds, not words.” Brock inspired the successful attack of the British on Mackinaw, and many another valiant deed of which I have no space to tell, bat happily he was not Canada's only hero in that perilous time.

Hull had designs on Amherstburg, but British regulars and Essex militiamen proved lions in the path, and ere Brock, with a small force, hastening in open bateaux along the surf-beaten shore of Lake Erie, arrived at Amherstburg (where he had a memorable interview with Tecumseh), Hull had recrossed the river to Detroit. In his turn, Brock made his headquarters in Charles Baby’s house; then he crossed the Detroit, with his little army of 750 regulars, militiamen and voyageurs, and his 600 Indian allies, to terrorise Hull, who had double the number of men behind his fortifications, into the surrender of himself, his army, his military stores, and the whole territory of Michigan.

A few months later Proctor brought to Sandwich an American General and 500 men, captured at the river Raisin, but Essex was to witness other scenes less flattering to our country’s pride. In September, 1813, Captain Barclay sailed from Amherstburg with a little armament to meet defeat at the hands of the American commander, Perry; and a few days later Proctor, who was certainly in a perilous position, abandoned Detroit and Amherstburg to the enemy, and retreated up the Thames, leaving an open way for Harrison and his Americans to follow.

The story of the battle of Moraviantown, where Tecumseh fell, belongs to another county and has been told already. For nearly two years the invaders occupied Amherstburg, rebuilding the fort which Proctor had demolished on his flight. Within a decade these new works had fallen into decay, and Fort Malden, the third stronghold on the site, was not begun till after 1837.

The year 1838 was an exciting one in Essex County, and the garrison of Fort Malden, assisted as occasion required by Essex militiamen, was kept busy repelling the attacks of marauders who gathered within the boundaries of the United States with the intention of overturning the Canadian Government. They called themselves “Patriots,” and amongst them were some honest enthusiasts for liberty, but a number of them were ruffians and desperadoes, hoping to profit by disturbing the peace of our country.

In January “General” Sutherland led a "Patriot Army” to attempt the capture of Amherstburg, but his mob of followers was defeated and their schooner, the Ann, was captured. Six weeks later another band of “Patriots’’ took possession of “Fighting Island” (as it has since been called) in the Detroit River half-way between Windsor and Amherstburg. But soldiers from the garrison were hurried to the scene in the night, and the next morning the invaders were dislodged. In March they landed on Pelee Island, and early in December made a final attempt on Windsor.

Led by one named Bierce, the intruders crossed from the end of Belle Isle in the steamer Champlain, and burnt a blockhouse. But on the site of the present City Hall of Windsor they were met by Colonel John Prince of Sandwich, with a loyal force, which, after a hot fight, defeated and dispersed the foe.

In any sketch of Essex County, Prince deserves more than a passing mention, for for some years he was credited with being “the most popular man in the Western District." Having practised as a barrister at Gloucester, in England, he came out to Canada in 1834, attracted apparently by the hope of good sport and of a free, congenial life. He brought with him his wife, three sons, five servants, and “a box of golden guineas so heavy two men were required to lift it.” Prince set up two of his servants on a farm close to Sandwich, and when the pair tired of country life and opened an hotel in Sandwich, their master himself removed to the “Park Farm.” He enlarged the old house, which still stands and has recently been acquired for a clubhouse by the “new golf and country club” of Sandwich.

Prince spent his money freely in beautifying his grounds, bringing out pheasants, peacocks, and swans, and stocking his farm with thoroughbred cattle and his woods with deer and game. He was always ready, moreover, to lend to his more needy friends, and exercised hospitality in a most lavish fashion. He was a good speaker, and when elected to the Assembly acquitted himself so much to the satisfaction of his constituents that on his return to Sandwich the people on more than one occasion took the horses out of his carriage and dragged him home in triumph.

But the “Patriot” incursion brought a cloud over his popularity; for, as he himself reported (after stating that twenty-one “of the brigands and pirates " had been killed in the fight), four of their number were “brought in at the close of the argument, all of whom 1 ordered shot, and it was done accordingly.” For this high-handed proceeding of condemning men to death on his own responsibility) without even a form of trial, Prince was naturally much criticised. The affair was discussed in the Imperial Parliament, but the “Iron Duke” spoke in the Colonels favour, saying that an armed mob entering a country and marching against unprotected citizens deserved to be dealt with severely. Many of Prince's former admirers turned against him, however, whilst his enemies in Detroit put on his head a price of a thousand dollars. Prince retorted by advertising in the Detroit newspapers that he had placed "man-traps and spring-guns ” in the woods surrounding his house. The warning appears to have been effective. At any rate the redoubtable Colonel lived to a good old age, though, being appointed Judge of Algoma District, he left Essex years before his death.

During the Fenian alarms of 1866 Essex volunteers prepared to repel attack, but on that occasion their valour was not put to the proof. In fact, so far as this county is concerned, we have now done with warfare, but we have by no means exhausted the interesting associations connected with its old buildings and long-settled localities.

For instance, in the neighbourhood of Amherstburg, there is an Indian burying-ground about two hundred years old. The town is on the boundary-line between the townships of Malden and Anderdon, which latter was known as “The Indian Reserve” till about forty years since, though Sir Francis Head had induced the red men to resign two-thirds of their lands as long ago as 1837. Amherstburg itself has been said to be, in some respects, "very British; in others, very French.” Its narrow streets, however, bear English names.

“Strabane,” the “Park Farm,” and the Baby House at Sandwich have been referred to already; but there is one episode, so far unmentioned, in connection with the last-named dwelling, which it would be a shame to pass over in silence. In the year 1830 a runaway negro from the States contrived to cross the river and to fly for refuge to the historic house. His master was hot upon his track, and, following him to his asylum, demanded that the poor wretch should be given up. But he reckoned without his host. Charles Baby recognised no property right in human flesh and blood, and the Southerner was forced to retreat discomfited from British soil, leaving his former slave a free man at last.

In more recent years the oppressed negroes seeking liberty found many a helper m Kent and Essex counties. In fact, Windsor has a street which possesses the distinction of having been settled, for a mile, on both sides, by escaped slaves.

About 1830 people of three counties used to come to Sandwich to cast their votes for their representative in the Assembly, and in that year was published in the little town the first newspaper of Essex, called The Sandwich Emigrant. A quarter of a century later the county court-house was being built at Sandwich by Alexander Mackenzie, the master builder, who lived to become Premier of the Dominion, and whose statue on Parliament Hill at Ottawa is adorned with emblems of the craft by which in his younger days the statesman earned his bread. The distinction of being the chief town of Essex has, however, passed to Windsor" which was incorporated as a town in 1858, and now is a flourishing city of nearly 18,000 people. In early days it was known simply as “The Ferry,” from the fact that it was the point of departure for the big canoes which carried passengers backwards and forwards to Detroit for the modest charge of 25 cents the round trip. Later, the canoes were succeeded by a horse-boat, destined to give way in its turn to the great boats propelled by steam, which not only cross the river, but ply from port to port of the Great Lakes.

On the confines of Windsor there stands—or stood till very recently—an ancient Hudson Bay Company’s building, erected in the eighteenth century. It was called “Moy House” by its builder, Angus M'Intosh, son of the “Lady of Moy" who on one occasion harboured “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” and took the field in person for the luckless Stuart, riding at the head of 300 fighting men of the clan, with a man’s bonnet on her head and a brace of pistols at her saddle-bag. Angus, it is said, went into voluntary exile on account of the disinherited Prince; yet later was so good a liegeman to King George that he crossed from Detroit to Essex in 1796, and did valiant service, with his sons, in the War of 1812.

But Essex is not only interesting historically. To-day it is one of the most populous counties of Ontario. Corn and tobacco, grapes and peaches flourish remarkably in its mild climate and fertile soil. Nor is it surprising that such sun-loving crops come to rare perfection when one realises that Essex is several degrees nearer the equator than any part of Great Britain. Pelee Island, some miles to the south-west of Point Pelee, or rather its little neighbour, Middle Island, is the most southerly point in the Dominion; and due east of the Pelee Island vineyards lie the famous old cities of Saragossa and Valladolid and the orange groves of Barcelona."

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