Sir John A. Macdonald's Schooldays in Adolphustown a Century Ago
An Important Period in the Life of One Who Has Made His Mark Deep in Canada's Vigorous History
On Saturday, June 6th, flowers will be placed on the grave of Sir John A Macdonald, at Cataraqui cemetery, near Kingston to commemorate the 34th anniversary of his death soon after the strenuous campaign of the general elections of 1891.
Sir John was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 11th, 1815. His father, Hugh, who emigrated to Canada with his family, moved from Kingston up the Bay of Quinte in 1823, and settled on Hay Bay, in Adolphustown. Just a century ago, therefore, John A. was a school boy in that historic U.E. Loyalist settlement, learning valuable lessons in self control.
There was a store already at the village at the front, so Hugh Macdonald chose a location at the rear, on the south shore of Hay Bay. He obtained a small frame house near the shore on the farm of Paul Huff, one of the original U.E. Loyalist settlers of 1784. Here the Macdonald family dwelt with one small room devoted to the stock of a general store.
The Paul Huff farm was the second place of importance in the settlement when the Macdonalds first lived there. In 1792 the Methodists had built a frame church on the opposite side of a little cove from where stood the Macdonald home. Here crowds gathered on the Sabbath, including all denominations, and a sprinkling of Indians.
The Macdonalds, of course, were devout Presbyterians, but John A. always in later years liked to tell about his habit of walking over to the Methodist Church every Sunday to worship, led by his beloved mother and of listening to wonderful sermons while seated by her side. He always declared those to have been his happiest boyhood days, when he and his sisters walked every day to and fro to the village school.
These polite, refined children were a great acquisition to that rural school. The tall, black-haired, long-nosed Macdonald lad was not only full of tricks and jokes, but studious and clever. Rough discipline of the school yard proved wholesome, however, and John A. learned the salutary lesson in those early days amongst a lot of good-natured, but strong-willed, sons of a virile people that he must control himself in order to win their respect and to become a leader.
Hugh Macdonald did not succeed in business any better there than in Kingston, and after a few years' trial moved his family across the Bay of Quinte to Stone Mills, at the foot of the Lake-on-the-Mountain, in the County of Prince Edward. That afforded John A. the opportunity to return to friends in Kingston, where he had the privileges of the Grammar School till 1830, when at the age of 15 years he became articled to his father's friend, George MacKenzie, and began earning his living in the latter's law office. Six years later, in 1836, John A. was called to the bar, in the same year that Abraham Lincoln, his senior by six years, was admitted at Springfield, Illinois.
During his apprenticeship John A. looked after a branch law office in Napanee for his chief, and later one in Picton for his uncle, MacPherson, who had lost his health. Becoming a full-fledged lawyer, John A. opened an office in Kingston, and soon, in association with Sir Oliver Mowat, had a clientele extending westerly to Napanee, Adolphustown and Picton. In the meantime the family returned from Stone Mills to Kingston, where the father soon after died. One sister married Professor Williamson, of Queen's, while John A. married Miss Isabella Clark in 1843, and at once established his own home. The living issue from that marriage is Sir Hugh John Macdonald, of Winnipeg, ex-Premier of Manitoba, and now nearing the octogenarian borderhood.
All Sir John Macdonald's biographers refer to the family life in Adolphustown only to point out their wanderings and failure to obtain a foothold. None of them, apparently, have been sufficiently impressed with the importance of those three or four years of John A.'s early school days amongst the hardy U.E. Loyalists of Adolphustown. He there heard the Loyalist grandfathers and grandmothers tell their vivid tales of standing firm for Great Britain in the midst of cruelties, sufferings and sorrows for years, until they safely reached Canada. He lived over again with them the hardships and struggles they experienced in pioneering in the forests along the Bay of Quinte. He heard of their glorious defence of their country during the War of 1812-14, and saw the old guns and swords hanging on the walls.
Those experiences and friendships and examples of true loyalty entered deep into the mind and soul of this awakened Scotch lad. He determined then and there to be true to those Loyalist people. In due time John A. entered political life and always maintained the respect and loyal support of that great constituency bordering on the Bay of Quinte, the centre of which to Sir John Macdonald to his dying day, was that favored spot, still guarded by the old Methodist Church, where he spent his happiest boyhood days.
The house has long since gone, but the stone foundation and massive Lombardy poplars of the half-acre plot still mark that place which some day may be adorned with some suitable memorial.