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Historical Sketch of the County of Norfolk
prefatory note. -- The literary portion of this work is not the production of a single author. The historical sketches of the County, Townships and Villages, have been written by Jas. J. Wadsworth, M. A. of Simcoe, most of the personal notices by Mr. John Wesley Ryerson of Vittoria. In a few instances the personal notices has been written by the subjects of them, or have been contributed by their friends. It should also be borne in mind that the personal notices have, in accordance with the usual practice, been confined to those who have supported the work by ordering views or portraits, or otherwise aiding us in our enterprise. -- page, cole & co. 

Eighty years ago, that which is now known as the County of Norfolk was but a small and unimportant portion of the Western District. The Surveyor-General described the West District as follows, in the year 1796:

"It is bounded southly by Lake Erie, easterly by a meridian passing through the easterly extremity of Long Point, and comprehends all the lands north westerly of these boundaries not included within the bounds of the Hudson Bay Company or the territory of the United States; the boundary which divides it from Louisiana is not well known after reaching the sources of the Mississippi. "

It will be remembered that the term Louisiana included a much larger territory at that time than it does now. 

The Court Houses and Goals for the Western District were required by Statute to be built at Detroit. Previous to the treaty of 1794, which came into effect 1796, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers formed the boundary line of Canada. By the British Act of Parliament, 31 Geo. III. , cap. 31, the Governor, John Graves Simcoe, was empowered to divide Upper Canada, which was then constitutes a distinct province, into as many counties as he might think fit; and accordingly the County of Norfolk and eighteen others were duly described and bounded. But Norfolk has lost much of the territory it then included. In the proclamation of the Governor, the County was thus described: "On the north and east by the County of Lincoln and the River La Tranche [Thames); on the south by Lake Erie until it meet the Barbue; thence by a line running north sixteen degrees west until it intersects the Thames; up the said river until it meets the north west boundary of the County of York. "This included the Townships of Burford, Oxford upon the Thames Norwich and Dereham. 

In 1798 another change was effected. It was enacted "That the Counties of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex, with as much of this Province as lies westward of the Home District and the District of Niagara, to the southward of Lake Huron, and between them and a line drawn due north from where the eastermost limit of Oxford intersects the River Thames, till it arrives at Lake Huron, do constitute the London District. "

It was while these regulations were being prepared and brought into operation -- that is, during the last ten years of last century -- that Norfolk was first settled. Previous to this time its soil had probably never been trodden by the foot of the white man; certainly no white settlers had made their homes in it. 

It is somewhat surprising that the western part of Canada remained so long in its primitive condition -- the home and hunting ground of the red man. The sovereignty of France had been emblematically proclaimed in the year 1534, when Jacques Cartier, animated by religious and patriotic fervor, erected at Gaspe a wooden cross thirty feet in height, emblazoned with the fleur de lis of his native country. Champlain, in 1615, has ascended the River Ottawa, visited Lake Nipissing, sailed over the broad blue waters of the Mer Douce, as Lake Huron was called, and crossing Lake Simcoe, had regained the St. Lawrence by following the waters of the Trent. So too, Marquette, La Salle, Chaumont and other adventurous spirits had boldly navigated the magnificent chain of lakes and rivers which led them ultimately to the sources of the Mississippi.  Doubtless the white sails of their tiny vessels were occasionally seen by the Indians. From the bluffs of our southern shore their progress westward along Lake Erie may have been descried [sic] with much astonishment by aboriginal warriors, whose bones have moldered [sic] for over two centuries. Yet there is no proof that Norfolk was ever settled by Europeans previous to 1785 or 1790. True, there are mysterious plains in some parts of the country, as on the shore near Houghton Center, where the forest seems to have been cut down long before the present century, and where a large number of fragments of pottery have been picked up of such a kind as to indicate, in the judgment of some persons, that Europeans had made a settlement there. Nor is it improbable that white men occasionally became enamored with the free roving life of the noblest of the nomad races, and spent their lives as trappers and hunters in those western wilds. 

But practically the United Empire Loyalists and British emigrants, who came to America at the close of the struggle which severed the thirteen colonies from the British Empire, were the founders of Norfolk. The former class had sacrificed their homes, their wealth, and in many cases their lives in defence of British connection during the American Revolution. At its close they had been compelled to submit to harsh conditions o seek new asylums for their families. Large numbers of them settled in Nova Scotia. About 10,000 of them cam to Canada. A large colony of them settled the County of Prince Edward on the Bay of Quinte. They were valuable settlers. They knew how to live in America. They had proved their loyalty to the British Crown, and their undying love of British institutions. They were as a class pre-eminently distinguished by industry and honor. Their example of thrift, honesty, and unwavering loyalty has been of vast benefit to Canada. A large proportion of the early settlers of Norfolk belonged to the best families of this class. They held high positions in the army during the war of the Revolution, and in return for their distinguished services the British Government had granted them lands in this part of Upper Canada. After a few years sojourn in Nova Scotia or the Lower Province they removed their families to Norfolk. But this removal was a work of stupendous difficulty. There were no roads. The heaving bosom of our noble inland seas was the only highway. To it they trusted themselves and all that was dear to them. Their boats were fragile, and their knowledge of the course was exceedingly meagre. But their courage and skill were a match for their difficulties. Many were obliged to find their way through the devious trail of the Indian. Their scanty luggage was carried on the backs of oxen, or on their own shoulders. It is related that it was a common thing to carry the younger children in baskets, slung over the backs of cows, the babies being so distributed as to maintain a proper balance. But despite their trials they had much to encourage them. They were entering on a land which was fertile as that they had left. It was well stocked with game. Its brooks abounded in fish. But above all it was a land over which they would be able to raise the battle-stained banner beneath whose folds their fathers and brothers had fallen in disastrous war. Nor were the other settlers beset by trials and difficulties of a milder type. They were strangers in a strange land. They had no practical knowledge of the modes of farming which would give the best return on their labor. To enter upon an unbroken forest, chop, hew and "log," and finally sow the seed amid the blackened stumps, is a herculean task for any man, but especially for those accustomed to the advanced systems of farming which prevail in Britain. Beside these difficulties there was the absence of markets. At the time Norfolk was first settled, Newark (now Niagara) was the only important village west of the St. Lawrence. Toronto had not a single house until about 1794. Hamilton had no existence. The first house in Brantford was built in 1806. The counties to the east and west of Norfolk had not a single settler. Those brave men therefore who first hewed down the woods of Charlotteville and Walsingham, Woodhouse and Townsend, during the last ten years of the 18th century, deserve commemoration, and thee names of most of them will be found in the detailed accounts of the townships. 

The courts of the London District were held in the Township of Charlotteville until 1803, when they were removed to Turkey Point, an original government reservation, selected by Governor Simcoe for a town and garrison, and which was laid out at a town by order of the Governor. A log goal and frame court house were erected for the administration of justice. 

Thus the settlement continued to prosper. The growth was rapid and its population had increased to about 3000 when the war cloud of 1812 lowered upon the horizon. The appeal to the settlers to organize and resist invasion was responded to with alacrity. The Norfolk militia were on service from 1812 to 1815, and took part in most of the stirring scenes of those years. Happily, there was but little blood shed within the borders of the County, but at the taking of Detroit, the battles of Fort Erie, Lundy's Lane and Queenston Heights, the Norfolk soldiery did honor to the sires from whom they had sprung. 

Of the incidents of the war the most important (so far as Norfolk was concerned) was the engagement at Malcolm's Mills. General McArthur had invaded the Province from Detroit, and had proceeded as far as the Grand River, when his progress was checked by the troops from the east. He then turned southward and took up a position near Oakland. The Norfolk militia, under Col. Joseph Ryerson, were sent to attack him. The opposing forces met at the stream which flows through Oakland, the enemy having 1500 men and two brass field pieces. The enemy succeeded in sending a detachment down the river without our force observing it. The maneuver succeeded. Our men were attacked on both front and rear simultaneously, and by a force superior in numbers. Surprise produced a panic. Muskets and baggage were thrown away. The stampede was general. Officers and men ran for life, and most of them were successful. Several of the Norfolk militia, however, were killed and many wounded. Gray headed veterans of eighty and ninety refer to the escapade with a sad smile, and call it the Foot Race. It is difficult at this day to determine the amount of blame which should have rested upon the officers who directed the operations of our militia. That there were no proper outposts is admitted. It is most probable that our forces, while preparing for a bold attack, were suddenly thrown into confusion by the Napoleonic detour of their wily foe. The victorious army of McArthur improved their victory by following the road down to Waterford, and burning the mills there (Avery's). A detachment also came through Simcoe, plundering and ravaging. A party also attacked Port Ryerse and entered the houses of the Ryersons there, after destroying the mills. They demanded food, but offered no personal violence. A day or two after, the army were encamped a short distance north of Lynedock [sic], and having gathered what booty they could retreated by the Bostwick Road until they reached Talbot street, at the west of Middleton. They then entered Elgin, and continued their foraging operations on their homeward march to Detroit. 

Another incident of the war was the affair at Finch's Mills, when an American force attempted a landing near Turkey Point, having come over the lake in three schooners. The force set fire to the mills at what is now called Cross & Fisher's Landing, and sailing up to Turkey Point attempted to land and burn the Court House there. The militia opposed them, and after a few shots had been exchanged, and an American officer killed, the enemy withdrew. 

A still more important event of the war was the affair near Nanticoke, although the scene lay just outside of the County. It seems that the Americans had many friends on this side of the line ready to aid them in their schemes, and longing for annexation. These people were regarded as traitors. Two men, Mallory and Wilcox, were their leaders. Col. Bostwick took a number of the Norfolk militia and attempted to arrest a number of these dissatisfied and traitorous men who had met at the house of one Peacock, near Nanticoke. It proved that the assembled rebels numbered about a hundred. In ignorance of the facts Col. Bostwick with three followers entered the house, having left his soldiers concealed in an adjacent grove, and demanded an unconditional surrender. The rebels thinking that a large force was near, threw down their arms. When they discovered that only three men were near, however, they seized their guns, and one of them fired his piece at the Colonel's head, the powder burning the scalp. The shot alarmed the rest of the militia, who immediately rushed to the rescue, and in a few minutes secured the surrender of the whole body of the rebels. Their leaders, eight in number, were taken to Ancaster, near Burlington Bay, and were all hanged upon one gallows at the same time. Col. Bostwick carried the mark of his wound to the grave, the skin being tatooed [sic] by the powder. 

After the close of the war the progress of the County was rapid. All the townships were settled by farmers in the front portions, and by lumbermen in the remote portions. About 1820 the courts removed from Turkey Point to Vittoria, which continued to be the District Town until 1826, when the District Offices were removed to London. Subsequently the County of Norfolk became the Talbot District, which included precisely the same territory as we have now, and Simcoe was made the District Town. The Act of 1849, which abolished Districts, gave the name Norfolk once more to this County, and it still retains it. By the same Act the present municipal system was introduced. In early times the County business had been regulated by the Quarter Sessions and subsequently (1841) Elective Councils were established, but the Governor-General had the power of dissolving them, and had also the power of appointing the Warden, Treasurer and Clerk. It was not until 1846 or 1849 that Councils could appoint their own Warden, and that Reeves and Deputy Reeves composed the County Council. 

There remains to be noticed the rebellion of 1837. In this County, as in others, there were strong partizans [sic] on both sides. Our militia turned out to meet Dr. Duncombe, and an engagement was expected at Scotland. Fortunately no battle took place in this county, and our soil has not yet been stained by civil bloodshed. Robt. Alway, M. P. for Oxford, was arrested near Simcoe by Ephraim Tisdale, Capt. Wm. Mercer Wilson and others, and brought to the town. A reward of 250 had been offered for his head by the Government. Mr. Tisdale divided this money equally among the nine who made the arrest. Mr. Alway was afterwards tried and condemned to death, but was allowed to leave the country. He died in Texas. The Norfolk militia also took part in the important movements of the forces during the two and a half years of the rebellion. They aided in the bombardment of Navy Island, which was kept up for six hours on two successive nights, with 28 cannon, 6-24-pounders. Although many of our men were wounded it is gratifying to know that few men were killed, and that the civil struggle which at one time seemed likely to prove very disastrous, passed by without serious mischief. 

From pages 54-55 of the Mika re-print of 1877 Illustrated Historical Atlas of Norfolk County
Copyright 1997-2012 John Cardiff and Norfolk Historical Society