John Graves Simcoe's Plan for Settlement
The earliest settlers in what was to become Oxford County entered the area as part of a colonization scheme that was the brainchild of Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe was appointed to his short-lived position in 1792 and immediately began to formulate elaborate, ambitious plans for the development of the trackless wilderness with which he had been presented.
A number of United Empire Loyalists had entered Upper Canada ten years or more prior the date of Simcoe's appointment, but they had, understandably, been attracted to lakefront properties, notably in the Long Point and Elgin areas. The backwoods remained unsettled. The Governor's scheme to promote settlement was a system of proprietor townships based upon a controversial system in effect in Lower Canada. Suitable companies of associates would be granted extensive tracts of land on condition that a certain number of settlers be established on the land within a set time period. A significant notion here is "suitability".
The establishment of a proper colonial outpost of Empire depended upon the cultivation of a respectable "society". It was, of course, to be hoped that settlers would be decent, hardworking, and loyal to King and Empire, but "society" was seen as something completely apart from, and above, he common herd. Simcoe's proprietorships were intended to lay the foundations for a new world aristocracy, or at the least, a gentry, to guide and mold the new land in the image of the old. Counties were required to maintain a militia. The militia was commanded by the Lieutenant of the County. It was the Lieutenant's right and duty to determine who was fit to be appointed as officers of the militia, magistrates, justices of the peace, and Captains of the Townships. Perhaps the very model of a proper Lieutenant of the County was Colonel Talbot of Elgin, whose settlement was commendably loyal and respectful.
Oxford-on-the-Thames (modern day Ingersoll) was allocated, in March 1793, to the Reverend Gideon Bostwick, his leading associate being a miller and businessman from western Massachusetts named Thomas Ingersoll. Ingersoll established himself as an innkeeper at Queenston on the Niagara River, an important commercial centre at the time, from whence he could promote his township in the wilderness. But the course of development did not run smoothly.
There was a great deal of confusion and conflict over tenure and fees and forms of title. Settlement proceeded very slowly, in spite of relaxed restrictions upon the type of settler to be accepted. By 1796, when General Simcoe resigned his position and left the province, his proposed capital at the forks of the Thames was nothing but a name on a few newer maps and the "Governor's Road" was a term of derision applied to a barely blazed trail that was rapidly disappearing into the bush. Ingersoll and his fellow township proprietors had met with such limited success in attracting settlers to their lands that in 1797 their proprietorships were rescinded.
In his final, unsuccessful, plea for the continuance of his proprietorship, Thomas Ingersoll listed the names and locations of 38 heads of households established in Oxford. Perhaps this was not a huge number of settlers but it is unlikely that any degree of success would have been sufficient to preserve the proprietorships which were unpopular with the new government. Ingersoll lost his township and was granted 1,200 acres instead of the 24,000 acres which he had expected. In spite of his disappointment, Ingersoll had by this point invested far too much (including the clearing of a large section of the Detroit Path, an Indian trail that led from Ancaster to Detroit, at his own expense) to give up and walk away. He, and his son Charles, remained as leaders of the growing community.
The District of London
Legislation passed in 1798 redefined the boundaries of three counties, Oxford, Middlesex, and Norfolk to form the new District of London. A District had its own Court of Quarter Sessions which was established in the Courthouse in Vittoria near the Loyalist settlements along Lake Erie. At this time there were 1,200 people in the District, only 200 of whom were resident in Oxford. The lands that would eventually become the Nissouris were still designated as Indian lands. Modest growth slowed even further after 1800 as the government sold large tracts of land to speculators, such as Robert Hamilton of Niagara who owned 6,000 acres in Oxford in addition to many other holdings. These absentee businessmen were content to simply wait until their holdings increased in value due to the efforts of other. Extensive lands were also set aside as school and clergyreserves. Blandford township was entirely locked up inthis way. As a result of these machinations, whereby landwas simply held in expectation of future profit, large areas of Upper Canada remained dormant for decades. Nissouri's designation as Indian Land actually kept it, largely, out of the hands of the speculators.
Nissouri was partially surveyed in 1811 but work was delayed by the War of 1812 and not resumed until 1819- 20 when the survey was completed by Shubal Park, the Deputy Surveyor of Ontario. The newly surveyed township extended thirteen and a half miles north to south, from the Perth Line to the Governor's Road, and eleven and thirteen sixteenths miles west to east from London Township to Zorra. Nissouri Township was first assessed, separately from Oxford County, in 1821, and the first land grants were made, to 38 veterans of the War of 1812. Settlement now advanced apace.
Mr. R.W. Sawtell, of Woodstock, writes: "Many believe the 'nigh Zorra' statement of origin, but Mr. Brown says he knows that is not correct. He says it is an Indian name, probably meaning gurgling or struggling waters, as there is, or was, a place in the river which would warrant such a name The first public reference made to the township is in Act 2nd, Geo. IV., ch. 3 (1821). Previous to that it was assessed with Zorra and the two Oxfords. Nissouri was surveyed by Shubael Park, in 1820. Mr. Cameron, born in East Nissouri in 1828, says that, when a boy, he tried to find out, from his father and others, the origins of the name, but did not succeed."
The first Ratepayers' meeting in the township took place, at the home of James Howard on the fourth concession, in January 1822 and led to debate and protest of the very first tax assessment in the township. The debate was not resolved until Squire Ingersoll (Charles, son of Thomas) offered to pay all of the taxes himself in exchange for a set quantity of ash from each settler. No doubt it was action such as this that contributed to the Squire's great personal popularity and his election to the Assembly in 1824. Oxford had been first allowed an Assemblyman in 1820. Counties with a population greater than 4,000 were allowed two Assemblymen. By 1824 Oxford's population had increased by 70 percent to a carefully counted total of 4,005 and Charles Ingersoll joined Thomas Horner in the Legislature. Thomas Horner, of Horner's Mill had been appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Oxford in 1806 but nevertheless nursed sympathy for the Americanrebels. Ingersoll aligned himself with Talbot and the Loyalists.
The rapidly growing populations of Oxford and Middlesex were already beginning to swing influence in the District inland away from the lakefront when the Courthouse in Vittoria burned down in 1825. New sites were considered in Dorchester and St. Thomas, but the decision to build the new District of London Courthouse at the forks of the Thames, Governor Simcoe's choice of thirty years earlier, shifted traffic and commerce north to Squire Ingersoll's road (Highway 2). By mid-1828 the stage coach was running along this route from Ancaster to Detroit in three days. The Squire's Oxford Village (not yet renamed for him) prospered as traffic increased and more settlers arrived to make claim to the open lands in the Nissouris and Zorras.
To encourage settlement, the Crown gave any British Citizen land free of charge if he or she fulfilled certain settlement duties: the settler was obliged to clear 5 acres of land for each 100 he wished to claim, open a road in front of his lot, and build a log house of certain dimensions. If these stipulations were completed within 18 months, the Crown issued a patent to the settler, indicating that the ownership of the land had passed from the Crown to the individual. The people already settled in the area were very willing to show vacant land near them to strangers as they had a strong desire to acquire new neighbours. One guide for immigrants suggested the “the chief subjects to be considered in making the selection are the goodness of the land, its dryness, the existence of a spring for water, its vicinity to a road, a mill, a running stream, and a market. It is very seldom that a lot possessing all of these advantages can be obtained. In all events, [the newcomer] should not choose barren or swampy land whatever favourable circumstances may characterize its situation. Good roads, markets, a large neigbourhood, and mills will make their appearance almost anywhere in the course of time, but a piece of poor wet ground will never produce enough to render them of any value to its possessor.
Many of the new settlers arrived from south of the border and brought republican sympathies with them. Many more were Scottish victims of the highland clearances. They had been displaced from their subsistence level crofts so their landlords could run sheep and profit from the newly industrialized mills' demand for wool. These highlanders had little use for gentry of any kind. On the other hand there were representatives of several minorities, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, who had been treated badly by the American revolutionaries, and many loyal, ex-New Englanders whose properties had been confiscated and whose fathers or grandfathers had been tarred, feathered and ridden away from their homes on a rail by republicans. By the late 1820s the rift between republicans, or Reformers, and the Loyalists, or Tories, had become broad and bitter.
The early squatters from the United States tended toward republicanism rather than loyalty to the Crown, and Methodism of the strictest Episcopalian variety. Nissouri became notorious for opposition to state funding of religion, and for its temperance agitators. Indeed, the Episcopalian Methodists of Nissouri claimed to have formed the first temperance society in the province. Backwoods radicals were incited to further outrage and resentment in the early 1830s as several wealthy half-pay officers claimed land grants, giving them control of what would become the town site of Woodstock. Many squatters who had occupied and improved the land for more than ten years were bought off, or scared off, to make way for progress. The officers (Light, Van Sittart et al) immediately began to construct grandiose and gracious homes and estates, and quite noisily proclaimed The District of London Courthouse, now the Middlesex County Building. 4 People, Perseverance, Progress that it was their mission and purpose to bring much needed social and political leadership to an area that had gone badly astray.
The population of Oxford County doubled to about 12,500 in the five years before 1836. Most of these new arrivals came directly from England and might have supported the Tories, but did not yet hold a land patent which the returning officers now demanded as a qualification to vote. The election of 1836 gave Reformers Duncombe and Always a decisive victory in Oxford, but the rest of the District was swept by the Tories holding their majority amidst a great outcry of fraud and vote rigging.
Political differences amongst the settlers reached a climax in the rebellion of 1837. Robert Davis, aged 37, and an Irish resident of Nissouri Township, published a book, The Canadian Farmer's Travels in the United States of America, in which he remarked, at great length, upon the "arbitrary colonial policy practiced in Canada, and the Free and equal rights and happy effects of the liberal institutions and astonishing enterprise of the United States." He and his neighbours arrayed themselves on either side of the uprising, and mostly there was a great sound and fury, but there were certainly casualties on both sides, and many of the defeated rebels were imprisoned or exiled. After the rebellion had been quashed there was a "liberation" movement across the border and in January of 1838, on a foray across the Detroit River, Davis was killed, becoming something of a local martyr to the cause of Reform.
In early 1837 it had been decided to divide the London District. The officers at Woodstock were successful in their bid to have their own community declared the new District Town, and proceeded to take steps for the construction of a court house and gaol. Reformers in a county that held a Reform majority were shut out of these proceedings, causing ever greater tension. The project stalled as rebellion broke out and the economy faltered, but late in 1839 the Court House was complete and the new District of Brock was proclaimed. By this time, the triumphant Tories, led by the officers, had seized complete control of the county’s affairs, and scrambled to occupy all offices in the new District (the boundaries were identical with those of the County of Oxford).
The 1840s were marked by a seesaw battle between Reformers and Tories. In some ways this was a continuation of a process begun in the American Revolution. Oxford’s on-again, off-again member of the Legislature, Francis Hincks, eventually became the Prime Minister of Canada West, and the architect of a meeting of moderate Reformers and moderate Tories in the 1850s which led to a new style of politics that was economically, rather than socially, motivated. But by 1850 it was clear that the aristocratic ideal represented by the extreme Tories of Woodstock was swept away. The gentry were being replaced by businessmen.
In 1853, the first steam locomotive to pass through Nissouri puffed its way, at a steady 6 miles per hour, through Thamesford on the Great Western Railway Line. That train marked the end of the Pioneer Era. The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian Era had finally reached the backwoods and the few remaining lots of unoccupied land in the township were soon taken up and developed. The unbroken, ancient forest of Upper Canada had, within one lifetime, been replaced by prosperous croplands that supported a large family on almost every 100 acres.
Courtesy of East Nissouri Township: People, Perseverance, Progress