Kingston, Ontario – The Coming Of The Loyalsts

A quarter of a century of silent summers had passed over the ruined Fort Frontenac, when, in the early spring of 1783, the blue waters of the St. Lawrence again bore a small exploring party to Cataraqui, with the purpose, not of building a fort, but of founding a new and peaceful settlement. The intervening years had brought about changes which could hardly have been foreseen in 1758. Britain reigned supreme, indeed, over what had been New France ; but her thirteen colonies to the southward had renounced her sway, fought out their independence, and were now known as the United States of America. We must be content to accept the verdict of impartial history that this unfortunate dénouement was due to “faults on both sides,” and we need not now revive the memory of “old unhappy things and battles long ago !” Yet we can hardly refer to the coining of the Loyalists without remarking that the revolutionary party made no greater mistake—in days when the conflict of feeling and opinion was sharp and bitter—than in the rigour with which they treated their fellow countrymen who maintained their allegiance to the British flag, and the animosity with which they drove out many of their best citizens from a republic constituted in the sacred name of freedom !

As loyal subjects of the British Empire, we can never cease to honour the high-minded men and women who left their pleasant homes and fertile farms, and, in many cases, their all, rather than sacrifice the principles in which they believed. Like Abraham of old, they went out into the wilderness—scarcely knowing whither—to become, like him, the founders of a nation ; and it is generally of such material that the best foundations of a nation are built. Their long and weary journeyings over the snow-clad wilderness that separated them from their “promised land,” or by the still longer and more circuitous route of sea and river, recall the spirit and faith of the Israelites of old, a faith justified by its ultimate reward. Amid all the noble traditions to which Canada is heir, that of the genuine U. E. Loyalists is one of the noblest and should be one of the most imperishable.

The little flotilla that now appeared in the midst of the lonely wilderness had no external pomp or circumstance, no martial music or uniforms glittering in the sunshine. A few bateaux carried a number of weather-beaten men in travel-worn garments, weary with their tedious voyage from Sorel. They were husbands and fathers, the pioneers of a band of refugees, led by Captain Michael Grass, the founders of the town and township of Kingston. The circumstances under which they came are so interesting, and so typical of many similar cases, that they may be glanced at somewhat in detail: Captain Grass, who had owned a farm some thirty miles from New York, had once been, for a short time, a British prisoner of war with the French at Fort Frontenac. Refusing to accept a Captain’s commission in the republican service when the revolutionary war began, he was obliged to leave his farm and place himself and his family under British protection in New York. At the close of the war, the British General in command (Sir Guy Carleton, afterwards Lord Dorchester), much perplexed as to the disposition of the numerous Loyalists there, sent for Captain Grass to obtain information regarding the country about Cataraqui. Finding the report favourable, he asked whether his informant would undertake to conduct to the place as many Loyalist emigrants as might be willing to accompany him. Agreeing to do this, after three days’ consideration, Captain Grass received his commission as captain of a band of Loyalist emigrants, and notices were at once posted, inviting all who desired to go to enroll their names. A goodly company of men, women and children were soon ready for the enterprise, and in the King’s ships, under escort of a man-of-war, they set out by sea. The little fleet of seven vessels was nearly wrecked by the way, and they got no farther than Sorel that season, being obliged to live there during the winter in temporary wooden huts, which in such circumstances must have been dreary enough.

And now the men of the party had come to survey their promised land, and with them, we have reason to believe, came Deputy Surveyor Collins, despatched by Surveyor-General Holland, to accompany the -emigrants. As they surveyed the fair landscape about them, as Frontenac had done more than a century before, “no building,” says Captain Grass, “was to be seen save the bark-thatched wigwam of the savage or the newly erected tent of the hardy Loyalist,” for the ruined walls of Fort Frontenac and its still standing tower would be hardly distinguishable in the distance. Captain Grass was satisfied, however, and in language whose tone recalls the spirit of the “men of the Mayflower,” he tells us :—”I pointed out to them the site of their future metropolis, and gained for persecuted principles a sanctuary, for myself a home.”

According to the account given by the grandson of Captain Grass, the exploring party landed at the mouth of the Little Cataraqui Creek, three miles west of Fort Frontenac, and proceeded westward as far as Collins’ Bay. On the farther side of the bay Captain Grass attempted to drive a stake into the soil, probably to begin a survey, but finding rocky ground, he remarked that he had come too far to settle on a rock, and returning to the east side of the bay, took possession of the township of Kingston. The prospective settlers had to exercise patience, however, while awaiting the tedious process of surveying and numbering the townships, which was not completed till the following year. Meantime the whole party returned to Sorel for the winter, to bring their wives, families and household goods to Cataraqui in the following spring. A few Loyalist emigrants had previously settled in the vicinity of the Bay of Quinte, and other companies of refugees soon arrived on a similar errand. We are told that the Governor paid the place a visit and enjoyed a ride along the lake shore on a fine day, expressing much satisfaction with “the fine country” which he saw around him. In allocating the newly surveyed townships, the Governor gave to Captain Grass the first choice for himself and his band. As has been said, he had at once chosen the first township, that of Kingston ; Sir John Johnston, having the next choice, took the township of Ernesttown ; Colonel Rogers the third, that of Fredericksburgh ; Major Vanalstine the fourth, Adolphustown; while Colonel Macdonell with his company took the fifth, that of Marysburgh. In token of characteristic loyalty to the throne, the last four townships were all named in honour of the children of George the Third.

The townships being thus appropriated to the various bands of immigrants, the green slopes that rose so gently from the water and the fair shore of the Bay of Quinte (or Kente, its Indian name), were soon dotted with the encampments of families engaged in selecting their future homes, while the forest solitudes once more echoed human voices and human toil. The great trees came down under the short, heavy axes supplied to the settlers—not the fittest for the purpose—and the primitive log cabins were begun, which for years must serve for a dwelling—a great contrast to the comfortable homesteads they had left, as well as to the commodious houses occupied by their descendants. In order to lighten as far as possible the severe toil to which many of the settlers were unaccustomed, they frequently combined forces, each helping the rest and being helped in his turn. The animated scene presented when a band of stalwart pioneers were hard at work felling the great trees, trimming off the boughs, squaring the trunks, piling up the refuse logs for burning, or fitting together those intended for the settler’s home, seems to have suggested the appellation of “bee,” which has clung to such gatherings ever since.

The settler’s first cabin was necessarily most primitive in style and appointments, being generally built of the rough, round logs, notched together at the corners, and piled some seven or eight feet high, with spaces cut out for a door and small windows, the interstices being filled in with wooden chips and clay for mortar. The roof was composed of the bark of the elm or of some other tree, in overlapping layers, laid on a support of poles, and the chimney of round poles plastered over with mud. The floor was laid with split logs, flattened sufficiently to present a fairly even surface, and the ample hearth was laid with flat stones, while smaller ones, closely packed together, formed its back and sides. A blanket suspended from hooks frequently did duty as a door, until the settlers had the means of fashioning boards for the purpose.

This simple “log shanty” completed, it was soon furnished with home-made necessaries. The bedsteads were built into the cabin itself, poles being inserted securely between the logs of the walls, forming a shelf on which a comfortable bed could be laid. Such carpenters as could be found among the pioneers were turned to account, and benches and tables were made of split basswood. Shelves of the same material did duty for bureaus, washstands, etc. To the Loyalist yeoman, such a primitive abode, surrounded by a wilderness of “bush” or swamp, only to be cleared and tilled at • the cost of hard labour, might have seemed a sorry recompense for the sacrifices he had made. Yet here, with industrious habits and simple needs, he could at least live in peace under his time-honoured flag and in sympathy with like-minded neighbours. There were considerable differences of education and social standing among these, as well as in the private means they possessed, but most of the original pioneers belonged to the worthy yeoman class, with respectable education and Old World traditions; and all were united in their staunch loyalty to the British Empire, and in the honest desire that the colony they were forming should be worthy of its high prestige.

It was doubtless in expression of this loyalty that, in naming both the first township and the first town, the fine old Indian name of Cataraqui was exchanged for that of Kingstown, afterwards abbreviated to Kingston, though the Indian name still clings to the river as well as to a suburban village. It curiously happens that the traveller who enters Canada by the watery highway of the St. Lawrence, finds in the names of Quebec, Montreal and Kingston reminiscences of the three different races who have successively possessed the land.

When the township of Kingston was first occupied in 1784, Deputy Surveyor Collins was instructed by his superior to make proper reserves for the town and fort, and then proceed to lay out the township, six miles square. The prior claim of Captain Grass was acknowledged in having allotted to him the first lot adjoining the reserve for the town, on which a large part of the City of Kingston now stands ; but another of the esteemed founders of Kingston, the Rev. John Stuart, already on the spot, received the next lot, by number Lot Twenty-four, now one of the most desirable residential parts of the city (adjoining Barrie Street), which retained its original designation within the recollection of many old citizens of Kingston. When Collins had completed his survey and reported that the township contained twenty-five lots, he was induced by the officer in command to reduce Lot Twenty-five to one hundred acres, half the ordinary size, so that more room might be left for the projected town, a reduction responsible for some litigation when the lot, afterwards bought by Captain Murney, was found to contain only half the proper number of acres.

The first surveying being done mainly by means of “blazed” trees, and the lines marked by wooden posts liable to be displaced or washed away, the boundaries of property were often so inexact as to cause much dispute. So loosely and carelessly was the work often done that a later surveyor, in running new lines over a large part of the Province, is said to have found spare room for a whole township. The lots were usually twenty chains in width, though a few in the township of Kingston contained but nineteen, requiring greater depth to make up the right quantity of land. After the base line had been established, another was ,drawn parallel with it, at a distance of mile and a quarter, the intervening area being called a “Concession,” a name borrowed from the French system of land division, each concession being then divided into lots, the lines of which ran at right angles with the concession lines, at distances of a quarter of a mile. Along the shore of the lake and of the Bay of Quint& the irregular water-line involved a good deal of corresponding irregularity in the laying out of the lots.

As the pioneers in general possessed little money, they received from Government, in addition to their land grants, supplies of provisions for three years, consisting chiefly of flour, pork, some beef, and a little salt and butter; also some necessary implements, including an axe, hoe and spade, a plough, and one cow for each two families, while four families shared the use of a cross-cut and a whip-saw, and boats and portable milLs were provided at suitable points for their convenience. Each group of five families received a set of tools of the smaller sort, along with pick-axes and reaping hooks. The Loyalists were provided, also, with clothing sufficient to last for three years, or until they should be able to provide it for themselves. This consisted chiefly of shoes, Indian blankets for coats, and coarse cloth for trousers, so that the men were at least comfortably clad, though in a somewhat primitive fashion, while the women doubtless mended and darned, making their old clothes “look amaist as weel’s the new,” while they, doubtless, got their share of the show and blanketing for outer wraps.

It was not always possible, however, for the settler, in those first years of hard pioneer toil, to secure for himself and his family an adequate supply of the simplest necessaries of life. And notwithstanding the Government’s considerate provision for the first three years, including grain, peas and potatoes for seed, it was no easy matter for the new settlers, many of whom had to wait long before their lots were surveyed and allotted, to be prepared with a stock of provisions by the end of the third year. It is not surprising, therefore, that, owing to this and other causes, possibly including some faults of administration, there began in the fourth year, 1787, a season of great scarcity and consequent distress, which seems to have extended over nearly the whole of what was then known as Canada. Owing to the small extent of cleared ground, there was little wheat or other grain in stock, the mills so thoughtfully provided being almost useless. Fish and game were, of course, utilised as far as possible, though they had frequently to be eaten without salt, which was often lacking. The bull-frogs were caught and considered “sumptuous fare.” But the pinch of famine was severely felt throughout Kingston and other townships. Roots, beech-leaves, ground-nuts and other native plants were sought and eaten. Tea was made from sassafras and hemlock, and when the welcome spring brought up the sprouts of the young grain, the half-famished colonists boiled and ate it green, regardless of the future. Under such pressure much had to be sacrificed to present need, and a valuable cow or horse was sometimes sold for a few bushels of potatoes or fifty pounds of flour. The land itself was sometimes bartered for a supply of the necessaries of life, whole farms being in some cases sacrificed for a most inadequate price. However, happily, a bountiful season in 1789 relieved the temporary distress, the rich virgin soil producing repeated crops in the course of the summer. There seems to have been, in general, an abundance of game, fish and wild fruit,—rabbits, squirrels, quail, partridges and woodcock being plentiful in many localities, while we are told that the Bay of Quinte was covered with ducks, which could be procured from the Indians, and that fish could be had by fishing with a scoop, while large salmon were occasionally speared with a pitchfork. Sugar could be produced in abundance from the maple sap in spring, and with their farm products the settlers soon found themselves supplied with an abundant supply of wholesome food, hardly missing such luxuries as they were obliged to dispense with. The first beef killed in the district, accidentally slain by a falling tree, was long remembered by all who shared the treat.

Flax was successfully cultivated by the settlers, who spun and wove it into most durable table linen and wearing apparel, using small hand-looms for the weaving. Weddings occasionally enlivened the primitive monotony, and for this and other reasons the visits of the Rev. Robert McDowall, a Presbyterian missionary, and one of the earliest preachers in this vicinity, were warmly welcomed. The bride in those days generally spun and wove her wedding-dress, and a customary bridal portion is described by one of the first settlers as consisting of one hundred acres of land, one colt, four cows, a yoke of steers, twenty sheep, a good supply of home-made linen, and some home-made furniture, suitable for the new home. Carpets were neither known nor wanted for floors kept well scoured by the young housewife.

The incursions of wild animals, which still roamed the forest in large numbers, were long a source of danger and loss to the pioneers, who were scantily supplied with firearms. Bears and wolves, in particular, often came alarmingly near, and the latter howled dismally around the settlements on winter nights, not seldom carrying off salted provisions, poultry and even sheep and calves. Tragic tales still survive of human beings sacrificed to the ferocity of these hungry animals, and in 1793 it was found necessary to pass an Act, offering a premium of four dollars for every wolf ‘s head brought in, and two dollars for those of bears. Some forty years later, when wolves were growing scarce—the Act still remaining in force—it was said that a man living in Kingston began to breed them privately in order to secure the reward !

Amid the modern surroundings of a long-settled district of to-day, well-cleared fields, substantial farm houses, whizzing trains, electric cars and automobiles, it is difficult to realise that such primitive perils so recently existed. But the rude -experiences of the past must be recalled if we are to render any intelligent tribute of appreciation to the loyalty, courage and endurance of those who voluntarily sacrificed property, ease and comfort that they might continue to live under the flag they loved, and lay, broad and deep, the foundations of the Canada of today.

The Story Of Old Kingston:The Founding Of Fort FrontenacFort Frontenac Under The French RegimeThe Fall Of Fort FrontenacThe Coming Of The LoyalstsSettlement And Early DaysA Naval And Military Centre And First Seat Of Provincial GovernmentThe Cloud Of WarTo ArmsNaval Expeditions From KingstonAfter The WarRead More Articles About: The Story Of Old Kingston