We have been several times asked to write something in regard to the early history of the most southern township in this county - Amherst Island - but have found the facts in regard to it more difficult of access than of almost any other section. Mrs. Charlotte E. Leigh, of Toronto, prepared some time ago, an elaborate paper in regard to it, which was read before an historical society in that city. The author has very kindly given us the reading of it. She is a daughter of the late Rev. M. Rothwell, at one time the Church of England rector there, and several of her early years were spent on the Island. From that source, from Parkman's splendid history, from Dr. Canniff's history, and from well prepared papers in Meacham's atlas of these counties, and also from a somewhat similar paper in Tackabury's Dominion atlas, much information is derivable, but not much in regard to the histories of the early U.E. Loyalist families who may have settled there.
The Island does not appear to have been open for settlement by the early Loyalist families so much as the other townships of the county on their arrival in Canada a hundred and sixteen years ago. Indeed it does not appear to have been numbered at all among the townships that Surveyor-General Holland was instructed to survey for settlement by the Refugees in 1783, nor have we seen any account of its early surveys by order of the government. There is evidence, however, that a number of prominent families were residents there before the commencement of this century, some of whom, at least, were of the U.E. Loyalists.
In the Rev. John Langhorn's register of marriages at St. John's Church, Bath, there are the names of a few marriages of parties from "Isle of Tanty" as he sometimes spelled it. Here are some of them, the names of whom indicated the families living there a hundred years or more ago;
Colin McKenzie and Mary Howard, April 15th, 1794.
William Eadus and Nancy McGuines, May 19th 1795.
Thomas Howard and Charlotte Richardson, February 14th 1797.
John O'Bryan and Catharine McDougall, October 18th 1798.
William McKenzie and Sarah Howard, September 19th 1803.
Wm. McGuinis and Margaret Howard, June 23rd 1809.
Duncan McKenzie and Elizabeth Church, February 28th, 1809.
In Langhorn's register of marriages at St. Paul's church, in Fredericksburgh, there occurs but one entry of a resident of the island. That was of John Richards, of Marysburgh, to Jane Howard, of Amherst island, January 26th 1795. It will be remembered that Mr. Langhorn required all the marriages to be solemnized in a church. There is no evidence we can see that he ever had service on the island at all. It is possible that some went to Kingston, to the Rev. John Stuart or his successor, to be married.
There does not appear to have been any record of baptisms from the island - these were in the church, too - before 1808.
Then came Hugh, son of Alexander and Jinny McMullen, February 7th 1808
William Church, son of Duncan and E. MacKenzie, July 7th 1811.
Jemima Margaret, daughter of Duncan and Elizabeth MacKenzie, April 25th, 1813.
Rev. R. McDowall, Presbyterian, did not come until 1800, and he does not appear to have had service on the Island either. In his marriage register occur but a few names. He spelled it sometimes "Isle of Tante," and sometimes Amherst Island.
His first record is of Edward Howard and Rosanna McMullen, December 22nd 1802.
Then follows: Oliver Crowes, Fredericksburgh and Mary Nester, isle of Tante, in March 1814.
Anthony Denee and Catharine Asselstine, September 16th 1816.
There are no registers of baptisms or burials of his at the Island, though there are long lists of the other township of the county.
LA SALLE, THE FIRST PROPRIETOR
La Salle, the great French explorer and pioneer, appears to have been the first white proprietor of the island. It may as well be stated here that he was the first white land proprietor in all Upper Canada. there is not space here to enter into the detail of any history of that great French adventurer. He was a native of Rouen, France. The family name was Rouen Robert Cavelier, but he is best known in history as La Salle, a name apparently derived from the family estate in France. He came to Canada, or New France, as it was then called, when a young man of 22 years, and spent all his long and active life in adventures and explorations in America, then an all but unknown and explored country. He was the first white man to discover the Ohio and Illinois river, and to trace the Mississippi to its mouth, in the Gulf of Mexico. He became a fast friend and business partner of Frontenac, who was at that time Governor of New France. Frontenac had previously, in July 1763, built a small wooden fort where the City of Kingston now stands, for the double purposes of catching the Indian fur trade from the west and of preventing the Iroquois and other hostile Indians from controlling the navigation of the St. Lawrence River. By mutual agreement La Salle was to obtain from Louis XIV, King of France, a grant of land covering the site of Fort Frontenac and ten miles of territory along the shore of the main land west, by 1¼ mile deep, also two islands with unpronounceable Indian names, now known as Amherst and Wolfe Islands, together with the small islets among and around them. This grant was made by the king on May 13th 1675. And thus was created the First French Seigniory in what is now the Province of Ontario, with la Salle the first Seignior.
La Salle was required, by the king's grant, to, at his own expense, erect and establish settlements, to reimburse Frontenac 10,000 liveries ($2,000), the amount expended on the fort, to maintain the fort and a number of soldiers, as many as at Montreal, to maintain 20 men for 9 years for cleaning and improving land; to have a church built, and keep a priest or friar to perform services and administer the sacraments, as soon as there were 100 settlers, and a number of other conditions. According to Parkman there were opportunities of making a profit of $6,500 a year out of the Indian fur trade there, and it is intimated that Frontenac, though Governor, was to have a private partnership. La Salle was full of adventure and large schemes, however. When he saw the great prairie countries along the valleys of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers he was greatly impressed with their richness and possibilities, and resolved to gain full advantages of them, and forestall the English, who were also pushing west from farther south. He soon left Fort Frontenac in charge of others and pushed on to his western adventures. Financially, these never were successful with him, but after, generations have reaped great advantages from his discoveries and business ventures. On the 18th of November, 1678, La Salle launched the first sailing vessel ever floated on the waters of Lake Ontario.
HENRI DE TONTI
After whom Amherst Island appears to have received its first French name, was for many years, the fast and faithful friend of La Salle. He was an Italian officer, a protege of the Prince de Conte, a leading and wealthy personage at that time, who sent him strongly recommended to la Salle. Tonti's father had been a governor in a province of Italy, and went to France because of political disturbances in his own country. It is said he was a noted financier and invented a form of life insurance which we still popularly call "the Tontine."
We do not see that Tonti ever settled on the Island to which his name was given, or that he had any special interest there. The naming appears to have been an honorary matter. Tonti himself was generally in La Salle's service along the Mississippi and other points of the great west. The accounts of his adventures, vicissitudes and thrilling experiences with savages and wild beasts there are one of the many illustrations of the adage that "Truth is stranger than fiction."
THE NAME CHANGED
We well remember when the older inhabitants always called that township "Isle Tanty," though its name was changed at an early time after this Province became a British possession to Amherst Island, in honor of one of the British generals, who earned for himself a distinguished place in the history of our nation. It has been before stated in these columns that, when Upper Canada was first constituted a separate province in 1791, the island was not then a part of this county for parliamentary representation purposes, but was associated with Wolfe and other adjacent islands and constituted Ontario county. In the proclamation of Lord Dorchester, as Governor General in 1788, in which the limits of the four districts of this province were then defined, no mention appears to have been made of the islands at all, though all the townships were made special mention of. Nor is the island mentioned in the report of the first surveys of the numbered townships on the bay, in 1783 and 1784.
SEVERAL CHANGES OF PROPRIETORS
We have so very little record available in regard to the early settlers of the land on the Island that not much can be said. According to a published paper now before us is the following: "It is said that the Mohawk Indians, who accompanied Sir John Johnson to this Province, claimed this and other lands, and they leased their right, if they had any, to Col. Crawford, who accompanied Sir John Johnson, and that Col. Crawford transferred his right to Sir John.
The land was patented to Sir John Johnson in consideration of the immense sacrifices he had made in the loss of the vast possessions of his father (Sir William Johnson, near Albany), in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere in New York State, during the time of the American Revolution, and of his loyalty and good service to his country. Since that time the island has passed from the Johnson family to the Earl of Mount Cashel (in Ireland) who held it for years, renting it to the occupants. It is now the property of Major Maxwell, County down, Ireland, and W.H. Moutray, Esq., is his representative. Mr. Moutray has been for years an active and much respected citizen of the island, taking a prominent part in nearly all its affairs. He is the Town clerk of the Municipality, and Secretary of the Agricultural Society, besides holing other important positions.
The soil of the island is excellent and very productive, and its location, both for marketing and shipping, is very good. For many years the great drawback to its progress was the fact that the land was nearly all held by one large estate, and the occupants were merely tenants and had not therefore, such inducements to build and improve their farms as they would have as proprietors. Though the rents were low and the leases for long terms, yet the most enterprising and well-to-do would keep moving elsewhere so as to purchase farms of their own. Of recent years, however, there have been changes in this respect, and now much of the land is owned by the occupants. Great improvements have been made on most of the farms and about most of the homes, since the writer first visited it.
Here are some facts and figures, culled from official sources, which will give our general readers some idea of the extent of population, resources and area of the "Tight Little Island" of this county:
According to the last report of the Ontario Bureau of Statistics now before us there are 14,652 acres of assessed land in the municipality; the total assessed value being $349,080; the rate of taxation for all purposes being 9 ½ mills on the dollar, which is among the lowest of any in the county, being only at the rate of $3.84 per head of the entire population. The population was 868 and is not, we believe, increasing, as all the land has been occupied and under cultivation for years. The quality and quantity of grain produced is about the average per acre of the province. Vegetables and fruit are not as largely cultivated as in many places, as the soil is of a clayey nature, and not so well adapted to these purposes.
At the late dominion election 192 ballots were cast, of which Mr. Wilson received 94, Dr. Leonard 100, and 2 were rejected. At the previous general election, in 1896, there were 157 ballots given out of a total of 246 on the voters' lists. Of these Mr. Wilson received 69, Mr. Switzer, 42, Mr. Stevens 46. These figures may give some indication of the effect of a "three-cornered fight" at that time, compared with a straight party issue, as in the last contest.
There are five churches now on the Island, and three resident ministers. Presbyterians have the largest and most substantial church, with the largest congregation; the Church of England has two, and the Methodists and Roman Catholics, one church each. All the churches have their resident ministers except the Roman Catholic.
SOME OLD LEGENDS
Here are a couple of stories that have long been current in regard to the transfer of the island property that have been often told and generally credited, but their authenticity seems doubtful.
Away back in the times of Sir William Johnson, of Albany, who was so popular and influential with the Indians, with whom he came so largely in contact, it is said that one of the leading chiefs, who had seen the splendid red uniform and gold lace and trimmings of Sir William, came to him one morning looking very grave and serious and said: "Me had great big dream last night. Me dream you gave me great red coat like yours." "Well," said Sir William, "if you dream all that, I suppose you must have it." And so a splendid uniform was procured and presented to the chief, who became the admired of all his companions.
It was not many weeks after, however, before Sir William went to the same chief, looking very grave and solemn. "I had a great big dream last night. I dreamed you gave me the island" (meaning Amherst Island). Now the serious turn came, but the chief rose to the occasion. He replied; "If you dream all that I suppose you must have it. But me no dream you again." And so the island was transferred to Sir William.
The other is that a wealthy lady in Ireland at one time owned the title to a large portion of the island. One night, while gambling with cards, she lost what else she had, and finally staked the island on the game, and lost. But who was the loser, or who the winner, or where and when that great game was played, we never heard.