HISTORY: Promise wasn't for everyone

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

A good example of what a first shelter looked like for most early settlers in the county. A dirt floor and rudimentary fireplace inside where the wind would blow through the loose-fitted logs made for a drafty home. George White drew this place not far from his Oro Township home in Shanty Bay. You can see where the place gets its name.

A good example of what a first shelter looked like for most early settlers in the county. A dirt floor and rudimentary fireplace inside where the wind would blow through the loose-fitted logs made for a drafty home. George White drew this place not far from his Oro Township home in Shanty Bay. You can see where the place gets its name.

By 1826, many people were interested in taking advantage of the potential Canada offered, and there was a lot of vacant land - but how to get that land into the hands of the settlers?

Thomas Williams, who wrote extensively in the Barrie Examiner about settling Simcoe County, was an agent of the Canada Company which was created in Great Britain in 1826.

"At that time, or a little before, the Canada Company was formed in England, to whom the government sold a large tract of the finest forest land in North America of nearly two million acres; what was then called the Huron Tract, together with all of what was called the Crown Reserves one-seventh of the land in all the older surveyed townships throughout the entire province, and it was said for a very small consideration in money."

Settlers looking for information on which country to emigrate to (which in many cases was between Canada and the United States) and where in the country to emigrate relied, for Canadian land, on resources published and furnished by the Canada Company, so perhaps not the most independent source.

As Williams noted, the literature was written to appeal to a specific kind of person. Someone who would be comfortable and happy living in a country run by a king or queen with a sort of elected government. It wasn't like anyone could vote back then - and in order to ensure no republican-minded folk thought they could waltz in and change Canada into a messy experiment like what was going on south of the border, well ... perish the thought.

Williams wrote that carefully selected agents were appointed to "several areas of the province where any considerable quantities of unlocated lands remained. These agents opened offices, where settlers could obtain information and other aid to find and choose their location. The first agent north of Lake Simcoe was ... Colonel E. G. O'Brien of Shanty Bay, for the townships of Oro and South Orillia (Township). This was the year 1831, when many of the older families of Oro went upon their lands."

O'Brien was instrumental in many projects in the county, from setting up the militia to overseeing road building to the construction of churches and schools (he was one of the main forces behind the construction of Trinity United Church in Barrie on Collier Street, and the rammed earth church in Shanty Bay), and so did not stay with the land agency for long.

Wellesley Richey, who had done similar work in the Peterborough area, opened a land agent office on Kempenfelt Bay near where Hawkstone is today, in 1831. In 1832 he moved it closer to the vacant lands to the north and east, near Bass Lake, where he set up shop on the east shore, near where Coldwater Road or Highway 12 is today. This is when Williams, who was originally from Barrie but now lived in the Orillia area, started working for the Canada Company under Richey.

Richey earned the title "guide" by the settlers who came to this part of Simcoe County, which included northern Oro Township, all of Medonte and the two Orillia Townships.

The next year, demand for land to the west forced Richey and Williams to move their office to the Nottawasaga River and the boundary between Vespra and Essa Townships, to meet the demand in the newly opened and surveyed area of the county.

Barrie had been laid out by the government surveyor, William Hawkins, at the head of Kempenfelt Bay. Hawkins was also given the task of running a road from Barrie to the Nottawasaga River and laying out a second town site. This second site never became a town, according to Williams, but Ripon, the proposed community did appear on early maps. Angus sprang up nearby when the railroad ran from Allandale to Collingwood, but before the railroad, Hawkins ran another road from Ripon north to Georgian Bay.

Richey and Williams had to wait for the surveyed line for the road to be made into an actual road in order to get to the river. Part of the route followed the old Nine Mile Portage from Kempenfelt Bay in downtown Barrie northwest along Bayfield Street, Ross Street and Sunnidale Road, cutting off to head toward where Grenfel is today and then on to the Nottawasaga River in a southwest direction.

The land being sold now included the unsold country in Vespra, Essa and Tosorontio as well as the newly surveyed townships of Sunnidale and Nottawasaga.

According to Williams for the most part the settlers were easily divided into two groups: higher class former officers and enlisted men of the British army and Royal Navy and lower class folk who sought the opportunity to own land. While the former had more money to start, they also had more demanding tastes and soon ran out of money, Williams said. The latter were used to making due with less and often flourished when their richer neighbours either packed up and left or had to go to the governor to ask for financial and other aid.

"The army and navy men and their families were of good material, quite respectable generally, and would have been desirable settlers if they had brought with them a better knowledge of economy in living, and a determination to knuckle down to their changed condition. These people were, all of them, in some way enjoined to call upon the governor, and to them he dispensed large hospitality. Every mark of consideration and kindness was shown them by him. Their talk was full of it when they came to the agency, and none of them came to the agent without strong letters commending them to our utmost attention and care, and we always gave it to them. The agent not only fed them, but if he judged their tastes led that way, they were wined and brandied to their hearts content, and every aid given them to select their lands, a thing which they knew nothing of themselves."

Of the less well-off, "there were with these some who had been small farmers, farm labourers, and some mechanics. These paid their own way, and as to the others they had more or less means to begin with. That which I wanted to say just here was that this last class met no hospitality at headquarters besides what they paid for themselves, nor did they seek any. They brought no letters of introduction, and had given to them simply the aid needed to find their land and settle on it, which they did, and if they are not here today, after more than 50 years, their descendants are. The children of the first class mentioned are not so numerous, yet we have some of them with us, and filling good places, quite satisfied with society."

It's not a shock that the people who were best suited to hacking a homestead out of primeval bush would be self-reliant and have realistic expectations. Simcoe County's rugged landscape crushed as many early dreams as it helped fulfill.

But that's not to say if a settler failed in Simcoe County, they couldn't make a life in young Canada.

Williams offers this anecdote: "Some 13 years (ago) I met a gentleman on one of the Lake Huron steamers who was introduced to me as the Honourable John Northwood, of Chatham, Ont. I remarked to him, "I have a memory for names, Mr. Northwood, and I never met your name but once in my life, and I will tell you the circumstances. I held a position as assistant to a government agent, settling emigrants on lands in 1832 north of Lake Simcoe. There came to us, among many others, a person of your name (Joseph) Northwood, a very fine-looking, middle-aged man, I think from the West of Ireland. He had been a sergeant in the army, was a pensioner then, and was entitled to draw 200 acres of land. I was quite taken with the man, and thought him a very desirable settler, and after taking him to our best vacant land and asking him to choose so I could enter his name, he shook his head in great discouragement and said: The trees, the trees; I never saw the likes of them. Oh, the trees, the trees, if they had been stones I would know what to do with them."

"That was my father," said Mr. Northwood.

The man daunted by Simcoe County's forests eventually settled in southern Ontario where he became a millionaire and an early Canadian senator.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs, podcasts and can be reached at