A Brief History of the Founding of Perth
and Neighbouring Townships
(This history is drawn in part from "A Pioneer History of the County of Lanark", by Jean S. McGill, and ‘Pioneer Sketches in the District of Bathurst’, by Andrew Haydon.)
This is the story of the founding of the Town of Perth and neighbouring townships, in 1816, and of the hardships faced by the early founders who volunteered to pioneer an unsettled wilderness in British North America, in an era just recovering from a major war.
Early authors describe in detail the British policies and economic conditions that brought about this huge migration to Canada. The movement resulted from two problems. The first was a post-war depression in Britain: ‘The industrial revolution of the century previous had continued to displace tradesmen and craftsmen throughout the British Isles (note: hence some of the emigrants had been weavers in Scotland). Now, with the end of the War of 1812-14, Great Britain was overrun with discharged soldiers also seeking employment. Something had to be done quickly, and emigration to North America seemed a solution
The second problem was a perceived need to establish more, loyal residents in the colony, inland from the St. Lawrence ‘front’, as a second line of defence against any future threat from the United States.
As a result, in early 1815, the decision was made to encourage the settlement of the backwoods behind the St. Lawrence Valley – resulting in publication of the ‘Bathurst Proclamation’ in Edinburgh, of February 22, 1815. The government offered 100 acres of land to each immigrating family (and to male children over twenty-one years), with six to eight months of rations, some equipment (see later) and other aid as required. Provision was also made for the services of ministers and teachers.
The initial target was to bring 2,000 adult immigrants (plus children) from Scotland. However, the requirement of a cash deposit (to prevent freeloaders looking for passage to the United States) made the offer difficult to take up for many people. (The fee was originally £16 for males over 16 years and two guineas for wives – children were free. Later, the head of family fee was reduced to £10, following departure problems with tardy boats – and provisions.)
By May 24th, only 474 had signed up - including 108 men, 90 women, and 276 children, but 690 finally sailed, according to ship list records. More than 120 remained behind in Scotland, possibly disheartened by the problems in organisation. A press gang also seized seven of the men – the battle of Waterloo not being far off.
From the start, there were problems with the transportation. The ships, due to depart in April from Greenock on the west coast, turned up two months late, in mid-June. Emigrants waiting at the designated Glasgow assembly point soon ran out of scant savings for food and lodging, and government assistance was slow in arriving.
Finally, with a scheduled embarkation from Glasgow of June 24, the families were transported downstream, on a schooner towed by a steamboat, to the four ships waiting at Greenock – the Atlas, Dorothy, Baltic Merchant and Eliza. Unfortunately, all four had been troop ships in the recent war, and whole families found themselves living in the same conditions as the not-too-well treated 1812 soldiers. While provisions were apparently acceptable, weather and cramped quarters made the trip difficult. A number of children died around that time from whooping cough.
The 62 day crossing by the Atlas was typical – with all four boats arriving in Quebec City in September and early October. The emigrants rested for several days in Quebec City and Three Rivers, and then proceeded upriver. As winter was now approaching, it was too late to proceed to the Rideau – but no effective preparations had been made to receive them elsewhere (going on to the Rideau would have been even worse, as there was no settlement there until the following spring).
About 300 of the group were sent to Cornwall and lodged in "poor conditions with provisions from the military storehouse". A number of families over-wintered at Fort Wellington (Prescott), in a warehouse on Buckleys Wharf. Sixty families are said to have proceeded to Brockville, where thirty were accommodated in barracks or rented adjoining huts, or at neighbouring farm homes where some secured employment. Some unmarried men – numbering over 800 according to a report by Quarter-master Beckwith - went to Kingston, where they were employed by the Engineer's Dept. on the King's Works.
Late in the fall of 1815, a group of the Brockville arrivals trekked north of the Rideau to look over their land. When they returned, 25 of the members sent a petition to the Lt. Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Gore, requesting that they be provided land instead in the Bay of Quinte, along Lake Ontario (which was refused).
Meanwhile, the administration of the area was not in good shape. No arrangement had been made to acquire the land from the First Nations until February 1816 – and then the government simply advised the Chippewa and Mississauga tribes of their intention to pay. In all the government took possession of 300,000 acres, which would form the future townships of Bathurst, Drummond and Beckwith. The land surveying for these townships continued through 1816, and finally completed in 1817.
Beginning in March 1816, the immigrants travelled north to take up their properties south-west of the future Town of Perth. The trip was difficult as the road was little more than a blazed forest trail.
The first of the farm allocations to the new Scottish settlers were on a line which came to be known as the Scotch Line. This line, which constituted the southern border of Perth town, was the border between the Townships of Bathurst and Burgess, and also touched on a small portion of North Elmsley Township. In March and April 1816, fourteen families received allocations and moved onto their property along the south side of the Scotch Line. One settler, Archibald Morrison, recorded that land clearing started around March 22. Later in the summer, properties on the north half of the Scotch Line in Bathurst Township were taken up.
To each group of four families, the government issued a grind-stone and a cross-cut and whip-saw. Each family received an adze, hand-saw, drawing knife, shell auger, two gimlets, door lock and hinges, scythe and snath, (a long, wooden shaft to which the scythe blade is mounted – for mowing grain), asping-hook, two hoes, hay fork, skillet and camp kettle, and a blanket for each member of the family.
Clearing the land was a formidable task, between the poor equipment provided and the immigrants. lack of farm experience (many had been weavers). The British-supplied axes and some equipment were inadequate for felling the massive hardwoods. Better quality tools were eventually available from traders and the United Empire Loyalists, and the local Quartermaster finally ordered a quantity of these for the settlers.
In October 1816, Col. Myers, Deputy Quarter Master General in Perth, reported that the settlers totalled 840 men, 207 women and 458 children (plus 80 cattle), and asked that provisions be continued for them until June 1817, as there had not been sufficient time to clear land and plant crops in the current year.
The first months and, later, the winter of 1816-17 were a serious trial. It has been said that 1816 (and the summer of 1817) were amongst the coldest on record – and that 1816 was a “year without a summer”. It snowed in June, so little was gathered from any sown crops. It is said that help came from the natives, including how to make bark houses. Fortunately, the new arrivals were still on the agreed-to government support.
Gradually, the settlers built log houses, and, later, frame houses – for the better off, stone houses - as their situation improved and the Scottish masons arrived from constructing the nearby Rideau Canal. According to one source, most of the settlers received their land patents in 1820.
In the meantime, the development of the Town continued quickly, under the administration of Alexander McDonnell, the superintendent for the settlement of both civilians and military personnel, and Lt. Angus McDonnel, of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles. Staff included Joseph Daverne, clerk of the military depot (in the spring of 1817, he was placed in full charge of the Perth), Reuben Sherwood, chief field surveyor, and George Fowler, Deputy Assistant Quarter-Master General. The town layout was drawn in March 1816, and settlement commenced in mid-April. The first building was a storehouse, and early plans included a bridge across the Pike Creek (renamed the Tay River). By late 1816, there were 20 houses in town and 250 in the immediate area, housing some 1500 people.
In June 1816, the military settlers for this area arrived (the previous summer had seen military settlements started in more easterly townships). The discharged soldiers for Perth came from the Glengarry Light Infantry in Kingston - who settled mainly in Drummond Township near Perth, and in Bathurst Township - and the Canadian Fencibles, in Montreal. The latter had a range of nationalities, including Germans, Poles, Belgians and Italians, from Major-General de Watteville's Regiment. Land was granted according to the soldier's rank – from 1200 acres for a Lt.-Colonel to 100 acres for a Private. Most of the army officers – all on half pay - located in Perth, according to McGill, where they established the first businesses, and took up appointments, including magistrates.
Throughout 1816 and 1817, settlers continued to stream in from Scotland, Ireland, the United States and other areas.
The settlement's first resident minister, Presbyterian Rev. William Bell, arrived in the spring of 1817 – whose writings became one of the primary sources of information on early Perth – and their church built in 1818. A Methodist minister passed through Perth in 1818, establishing a following, and the Anglican minister, Rev. Michael Harris, arrived in October 1819 and stayed for 37 years. End.