De Watteville’s Regiment

Belt plate of de Watteville's Regiment with the battle honour

Belt plate of de Watteville’s Regiment with the battle honour “Maida.” Image courtesy of the Niagara Falls Museums. (click image to go to source)

Occasionally I tend to obsess over the Kingston garrison. This time the object of my fascination is de Watteville’s Regiment, a very interesting bunch of people that refutes the popular image of Upper Canada as being settled exclusively by ex-Americans and (generally speaking) other Anglo-Saxons. But let’s start at the beginning – who was de Watteville and why is his regiment worth talking about?

Louis de Watteville, sometimes referred to by his germanicized name Abraham Ludwig Karl von Wattenwyl, was born in Bern, Switzerland in 1776. During the Napoleonic Wars, he first fought with the Swiss army, then with a Swiss corps of the Austrian army which was subsequently taken over by Great Britain upon Austria’s peace with France in 1801. The re-organization of the corps was named de Watteville’s Regiment, actually after Louis’ uncle Frédéric, its colonel – but Louis was made lieutenant-colonel and spent the next dozen years fighting in the Mediterranean. In 1812 he was made colonel of the regiment.

As de Watteville’s biography states,

Although it [the regiment] was a Swiss unit in the service of Britain, it was largely made up of Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians, with a handful of Greeks and Frenchmen. Roughly a fifth of its strength, including nearly all the officers, was Swiss.

In 1813, the entire party consisted of 41 officers, 1414 men, 8 servants, 45 wives, and 38 children, who after spending two years in Cádiz, Spain, were ordered to proceed to Canada where the Americans were making a nuisance of themselves. (That must have been a rough transition in terms of climate, and basically everything else. Luckily they arrived in Canada in June. Still, from Cádiz to Kingston…) Upon arriving in town on 29 June 1813, de Watteville met and befriended Sir George Prevost, who on top of being commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America and governor general, was also part Swiss! Early that July, de Watteville became commandant of the Kingston garrison, and was promoted to major-general, which meant he had to give up personal command of the regiment.

He then spent a pretty boring summer in Kingston, waiting for instructions and falling ill at one point. However, that fall he learned he was posted to command troops in the Montreal district, and he left town, leaving his regiment behind. I’ve tried to find information on them at this point, but there is apparently only one extant edition of the Kingston Gazette available for the years 1813-1814. So, moving ahead – in October 1814 de Watteville (who had been off fighting in the meantime) learned his wife and children had arrived in Quebec from Switzerland to be with him. A few months later, he learned the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, meaning the War of 1812 was over.

De Watteville actually stayed in Upper Canada after the war, first commanding troops at Fort George, and then in July 1815 moving back to Kingston with his family (maybe he liked it here?). He was appointed commander-in-chief of the troops in Upper Canada, but decided to retire instead. He left Kingston a year later and returned to Switzerland.

What had his regiment been doing all this time? (August 12, 2015 update: A fellow Twitterer has informed me the regiment fought in the Battle of Fort Oswego [1814] and the Siege of Fort Erie [1814]. They must have arrived in Kingston in 1813, left for a time to fight, and then returned to Kingston as a garrison after the war. Yay for social media.) I can find only two newspaper clippings about them either during or after the war. The first is rather sad:

27 April 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

27 April 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

The second, however, is interesting because it shows what happened to some of those mercenary Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Greeks, Frenchmen, and Swiss after they were disbanded:

1 June 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

1 June 1816 edition of the Kingston Gazette. (click image to go to source)

They populated the Upper Canada countryside! Well, some of them did anyway – I believe it was common for discharged soldiers at this time, especially those not English-born, to give up and go home due to lack of farming experience and the language barrier. But a few must have remained, and though they were a minority in Upper Canada, they would have provided some interesting multicultural neighbours. This 1814 muster roll shows the great variety in ethnicities in de Watteville’s Regiment: being Italian, I’m particularly interested in the Italian-sounding names: Gartano Lucente, Gioanni Piereni, Carlo Persetti, Placido Dellaqua, Anton Ricci. Many, however, look as if they might have been Frenchified, e.g. Jean Glocowitz or François Wischnofsky.

I think it’s important to remember history like this – even though this is a small example – because it shows how easy it is for Canadian history to be whitewashed and declared boring or conventional. But as I have explored before (here and here and here), Canada was home to diverse sets of people even in its early days, and it’s a lot of fun to discover them in your own neighbourhood.


I mostly used the Dictionary of Canadian Biography page on Louis de Watteville for this post. There are also some interesting Wikipedia pages on de Watteville and the regiment.


Local Historic Sites: Old Hay Bay Church

Old Hay Bay Church. (my photo)

Old Hay Bay Church. (my photo)

I’ve been kind of beating you over the head with churches lately – my last historic site post was also about churches – but as you can see Old Hay Bay Church is something rather different. It was built on the south shore of Hay Bay, between Napanee and Adolphustown, in 1792 and stands as the oldest surviving Methodist meeting-house in Canada. To me, it looks like a piece of New England plunked into the Ontario countryside.

Reverend William Losee, an itinerant preacher from New York, came to Canada in 1790 and began converting people to Methodism, which rapidly gained as a religious movement. This meeting-house was built just two years later, and along with Fairfield House (1793) and Fairfield-Gutzeit House (1796) constitutes one of the very oldest structures in the area. (All three buildings are in the vicinity of Bath – Bath is a very lucky place!) Old Hay Bay Church also has one of the best signs I’ve seen in a long time posted in its entrance:

Yes. (my photo)

Yes. (my photo)

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“An 1890 Childhood”

The 1890s – when kids still had tea parties with their dogs. Attributed to James Ballantyne/Library and Archives Canada/PA-131941 (click image to go to source)

Before you ask, no those kids in the picture aren’t from Kingston or the child referred to in this post, they’re children who lived in Ottawa in the 1890s. But it’s a cute photo and has the right vibe for the text of this post, which is why I included it.

The title of this post is the original title of a piece composed by Daisy Chown for the 1973 book I Remember When: Stories of Kingston Folk. I believe members of Rideaucrest Home contributed stories for it, and a lot of them are really interesting, especially if, like me, you enjoy reading about the minutiae of daily life 100+ years ago. The Chown family was basically Kingston royalty, and there are still places around the city named for them (e.g. Chown Hall residence at Queen’s). Daisy Chown was born in 1881, and so was around ninety-two when she recounted her early life on what was originally called Gordon Street, now University Avenue. I’m copying it here word-for-word, except for a few typos which I’ve corrected. It’s a bit of a disjointed narrative, but I think that adds to the charm.

“I remember when we moved from Bagot Street to University Avenue, then called Gordon Street, in November 1887. The sidewalk was two planks wide, laid lengthwise. Later sidewalks were planks, maybe 5 feet wide, laid horizontally. Finally, there were cement walks.

“When I was teaching in Whitby Ontario Ladies College in the 20’s, one of my duties was to take as many as 100 girls walking – we called it a division. The sidewalks were of boards, and often a board came off where one could tumble and break an ankle. The front girls in the line said ‘board off’ to the ones behind them, and the word was passed back until it reached me at the end of the line.

“I started school at Gordon Street School which was on the corner where Ban Righ Hall now stands. It was a four room school which would be called a fire trap now, the staircase to the upper two rooms being in a shed-like addition at the back. The only entrance to the upstair front room was through the back room.

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Mysterious Demorestville

It’s very likely that if you don’t live in Prince Edward County (and/or are not obsessed with local history) you haven’t heard of Demorestville. It’s a little town – almost a ghost town – in the northwestern part of the County that hasn’t seen much excitement in, oh, a hundred and fifty years or so. But once upon a time, things were different. Demorestville was at one point one of the biggest towns in Upper Canada, rivalling Picton, Belleville, Toronto, and Kingston for size and primacy. Then, around the middle of the nineteenth century, it began to slowly but surely decline. Why did this happen?

As I’ve discovered, the answers are murky. The most clear-cut is that, harbourless and not on the railroad, the town simply declined as time went on. However, some cite other reasons: the death of Guillaume Demorest, the town’s founder, and a mysterious fire that apparently occurred around the turn of the twentieth century – though no records exist of it. Then, there’s the legacy you can see in the stretch of road snaking around the left side of the village, called Gomorrah Road…

Forgotten as it is today, Demorestville has one of the more interesting histories of Ontario’s tiny towns. Let’s dive into it.

Guillaume Demorest was born in 1769 in Duchess County, New York. He was from a French Huguenot family which had come to the Dutch colony of New Netherland via the Old World Netherlands, where they had originally fled to escape persecution. As a boy during the American Revolution he joined the commissary of the British army and later came to Canada in 1790. By 1794 he was in Sophiasburg (the township where Demorestville is located), and by 1800 he had built a grist mill on a stream flowing from nearby Fish Lake. As usually happened in Loyalist days, a community built up around the mill. (I have to add the description of Fish Lake from the 1878 historical atlas of Hastings and Prince Edward Counties: “Its name was derived from the immense quantities and superior quality of those species of the finny tribe which filled its waters in the early days of settlement.” The finny tribe, ha…)

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7 Kingston Buildings That Have Had Their Tops Lopped Off

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. At least I can’t.

There are a number of historic buildings in Kingston that are missing a little something: namely, their top storeys and towers. These buildings all looked normal to me until I saw photographs of them in their heyday, appearing somehow more complete than they do now. What was the difference? At some point their crowning glories – third floors, fancy roofs, or towers – were removed, changing the streetscape in a sometimes major way. Now I walk around like someone with an 120-year-old memory, wishing things still looked like they once did. Unfortunately, except for one instance, I don’t know why or when these buildings were altered. I assume in most cases (especially for roofs and towers) it was simply deterioration, and it was easier to remove rotting wood and shingles than trying to repair them. I have no doubt there are countless examples of this in other towns as well. Here are the ones I’ve found in Kingston, in no particular order:

Macdonald School, now used by Cogeco, corner of Colborne and Division 

(my photo)

(my photo)

Sorry, I don’t have a photo of this school before it was deprived of most of its attic space. However, I have seen a photo of it (during my volunteer gig at the Queen’s Archives, more on that later) and I can tell you it used to look a little more like this:

Garishly coloured postcard of KCVI, c. 1910. Vintage Kingston. (click image to go to source)

Garishly coloured postcard of KCVI, c. 1910. Vintage Kingston. (click image to go to source)

This is the original KCVI building, constructed in 1892 and destroyed some time prior to the 1970s (if anyone can tell me a more exact date that would be great). It has a typical turn-of-the-century school look with a big gabled roof similar to the one originally at Macdonald School.

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The 1847 Typhus Epidemic in Kingston

(my photo)

(my photo)

The waterfront at Macdonald Park, where (in better weather) people come to stroll, get their wedding photos taken, and host fitness classes, was once the last port of call for thousands of sick Irish emigrants fleeing the Great Famine, some 1400 of whom died in Kingston General Hospital, Hotel Dieu, and fever sheds set up along the shoreline. Although you read more often about the far greater numbers of emigrants who were quarantined at Grosse Isle, Quebec, receiving boatloads of seriously ill people strongly affected a small city like Kingston. It was a situation that to some extent divided the city, and even resulted in a lawsuit against Mayor Thomas Kirkpatrick and the Board of Health. The first emigrants arrived in Kingston in June 1847, and the worst of the problem was largely over by that October, which shows how intense the waves of immigration and disease were that summer. How did this tragic situation happen?

Hunger was certainly not without precedent in Ireland. Much of the rural population had been living on the bare minimum of food and shelter for decades before the Great Famine hit in 1845. As the poor lived almost entirely on potatoes, which were easy to grow and nutritious, when that summer’s crop was rapidly and unexpectedly hit by the parasitic fungus Phytophtora infestans, people lost their food and livelihoods. (The fungus was unknown at the time.) Next year’s crop was struck with blight as well, and the government’s short-sighted obsession with preserving the economy meant that they curtailed efforts, such as importing corn from the US and selling it cheaply, to relieve starvation. Make-work projects to give people jobs were pointless and often the site of riots. In 1846, the first deaths due to starvation were documented.

Those relatively unaffected (and with enough money) tried to escape the situation while they still could, and emigration to North America began to increase. Sadly, the ships that should have led to freedom were often old, heavily overcrowded, and stocked with poor food and water. In October 1846, the emigration superintendent at Grosse Isle noticed that the last few boatloads of emigrants had been particularly destitute and sick, and the pattern was continuing. Meanwhile back in Ireland, the famine had reached a critical level. Trying to escape starvation, emigrants were crowded into “coffin ships,” where close contact made them prone to “ship fever,” a potential combination of diseases, the worst of which was typhus.

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George and William Chaffey: from Kingston to Ontario

Statue of George Chaffey in Upland, CA. Creative Commons-licensed image from Wikipedia. (click image to go to source)

I have to say that I’m a fan of Southern California: a trip to Los Angeles that I planned and took with my brother in 2012 was probably the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in the past few years. We basically just hung around the beach getting horribly sunburned, listening to alternative LA bands from the 80s and taking public transit everywhere. (Just try telling anyone from LA you’re taking the bus, they’ll look at you like it’s a suicide mission.) There were a few mishaps but overall it was fun, and contrary to stereotype, the people were very nice.

Anyone who’s spent time looking at a map of Southern California will notice that there is a sprawling city called Ontario inland from Los Angeles. This city, as you might guess, was named after the province Ontario and was founded by George and William Benjamin Chaffey, who were born in Brockville and raised in Kingston. Personally I think it’s a little surprising that you never hear about the Chaffeys in the annals of Kingston history. Although they’re not really “Kingston history” per se, it’s fascinating that that people who had such an impact on the development of California (and Australia, and some of their present-day water problems) were from our neck of the woods.

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Photography’s Early Days

An 1856 daguerreotype of Mr. John Shiels of Kingston, taken by Henry K. Sheldon. Art Gallery of Ontario. (click image to go to source)

I’ve posted this daguerreotype on the blog before; you can read a short post I wrote about it here. I’m using it again because I think it may be the earliest photograph I’ve seen that was taken in Kingston (but I’m not sure). The photographers I’ll be talking about in this post are 10-15 years earlier than this, however, and I assume no one has any idea what’s happened to the pictures they took. It would be really interesting to find out what the earliest known photograph of Kingston is!

The following paragraphs have been copy-and-pasted from a short assignment I did recently for class, where we had to go through old Kingston newspapers online and find any and all references to photography between 1839-1845. The tone is a bit drier than usual because of this, and I don’t go into the usual amount of detail, but I’ve found that after I complete an assignment it gets marked “DONE” in my head and I find it hard to go back and delve into it again. Anyway, with that in mind, read on to learn (a very tiny bit) about photography’s early days in Kingston!

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The Regi Chorus

Me in Grade Twelve.

Me in Grade Twelve, apparently pointing to a drawing of myself…

Full disclosure: I went to high school at Regi, from September 2006 to June 2010. I had a relatively miserable time in high school but nevertheless thought Regi was a good place to be. Apparently the local history spark was in me even then, because in the front foyer they had class photos and memorabilia going as far back as the early 1900s, which I was always dying to look at. But I never saw anyone else doing it, and I was (okay… still am) paranoid and thought people would think I was weird for studying them intently. I shouldn’t have worried though, because I’m pretty sure everyone thought I was weird anyway.

Moving along to the point, I played clarinet in senior band, and while cleaning my room recently I found my sheet music for the Regi Chorus! This is a piece of music written before Regiopolis and Notre Dame were combined, that someone dug out one day and which the band sometimes plays at school events. I had fun playing it and will get to it in a minute, but first I’m going to go through a brief – but fun! – history of Regi, because it has signified a number of things over its long life and I didn’t know much about it myself up till now. Regi always seems slightly missing-in-action in Kingston histories (too Catholic?), despite the fact that it’s as old as the hills. There are lots and lots of dates in the next few paragraphs, but I hope it won’t be too dry.

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Cryptozoological Curiosities

Mermen, centaurs, weird dolphins, guys with wings on their legs: detail of Raphael's Triumph of Galatea (1512) (click image to go to source)

Weird sea creatures cavort in Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, 1512. (click image to go to source)

Arthur Britton Smith’s Kingston! Oh, Kingston! is a fun anthology which comprises a large number of mostly primary source accounts of Kingston. They range from the French occupation in the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, and are really fascinating to look through, not least because some of them are really quite strange. I think Britton Smith, despite the fact that he was a lawyer and RMC graduate, must have had a slight taste for the weird as he compiled this book, which is fine by me!

For example, his book includes two accounts of enormous aquatic animals that were apparently seen in Lake Ontario, as well as a story about a strange colourful bird, and some kind of fruit-bearing plant with poisonous roots. Most of the events aren’t strictly about Kingston, they simply took place in Ontario, but I’m including them anyway. If you have any ideas as to what these creatures could be, please let me know!

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