19th Century, People

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.

Sources

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.

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18th Century, 19th Century, Buildings, Historic Sites, Surrounding Areas

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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19th Century, Culture, Miscellaneous

A Waterloo Benefit and “The Nun of Canada”

Short posts again for the next few weeks, however the course I’m taking finishes at the end of July so I should have some more time to blog after that.

And speaking of my course (online first-year Canadian history), I have two tidbits to share with you here that I included in a recent assignment I did. Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of school projects I’ve done in the past year or two have skewed towards local history, a bias which is hard to shake because… I really like researching local history. Anyway, we had to do a little project on a topic of our choice, and I did “Cultural Life in Early British North America” because it’s a time period that interests me, and a subject that interests me.

I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, but bear with me: speaking historically, I’ve always had a curiosity about Canada’s upper echelon of society, partially because it seems like we never really had one – not in the way other countries do, anyway. (When is the last time you heard the phrase, “Canadian socialite”? Exactly.) Certainly Canada has had its big important families, but we don’t care very much about how they lived, I don’t think. Maybe this isn’t exactly a huge loss, and of course the trend in scholarship is to focus on previously under-appreciated groups, such as women, minorities and the working class. But I found that thinking about Canada’s élite helped me place the young country in a more global context. By learning a bit about Canada’s connections to the international culture, fashions, news, and events that would have been enjoyed mostly by those in the upper classes, I got a greater appreciation for Canada’s place in the world. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that a lot of Canadian history paints the country as rather an isolated backwater (which, to be fair, in some senses it was) without acknowledging that many people had wider connections and remained up-to-date with contemporary cultural life. This is getting long-winded, but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at.

On that note, you may be interested to learn that in 1816 the Kingston garrison’s theatre club put on a benefit for the families of casualties from the Battle of Waterloo – the bicentennial of which, as you may know, was about three weeks ago.

unit8waterloo

(click image to go to source)

I’m not 100% sure which regiment(s) were in Kingston at this time*, but the performance produced a sum of £100 that was sent to the Waterloo Fund in London. It’s strange seeing something like Waterloo being talked about as a current event, and although this performance wasn’t exactly high culture, it does show that scrappy little Kingston was connected to world events through its garrison. I would be interested to know how much the cost of admission would be today, and who would have been able to afford to go to the theatre society’s performances regularly.

*I believe De Watteville’s Regiment was here in 1816; they were an interesting pan-European bunch and I’ll have to research them sometime.

Next, I’ve mentioned this in the past, but did you know that the first novel by a Canadian-born writer to be published in Canada was published in Kingston?

Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing, McGill University (click image to go to source)

Julia Catherine Beckwith (married name Hart) was born in New Brunswick to a French-Canadian mother and English-Canadian father, and was just seventeen when she wrote the manuscript for St. Ursula’s Convent, or the Nun of Canada. However, it wasn’t published until eleven years later when she was living in Kingston. Apparently it’s rather a melodramatic and convoluted story, and it wasn’t reprinted again until 1991, but it’s clearly a milestone in Canadian publishing history, and women’s history as well.

So that’s it for now – I’ll be back again in a few weeks, hopefully with a post about the soon-to-be demolished Film House at Queen’s. (The Film House is actually two houses. You’ll see.)

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18th Century, 19th Century, Buildings, Historic Sites

Local Historic Sites: A Kingston Church Sampler

At Sydenham Street United. (my photo)

At Sydenham Street United. (my photo)

June 20 was Doors Open Kingston, when various organizations and historic sites let people in their doors to look around for free. (The event is held across Ontario at different times – click here to find out when it’s happening elsewhere.) Since a lot of churches were taking part this year, I decided it would be fun to visit each of them and post about it here. Sadly though, I was too late to visit two of them – St. Andrew’s Presbyterian and St. Paul’s Anglican – which is kind of frustrating because they’re very interesting churches with a lot of history. I’ll have to get back to them later this summer, but I did manage to get to three this past Saturday: Chalmers United, Sydenham Street United, and St. George’s Anglican Cathedral.

Before I start, I have to say Kingston has had an extraordinary amount of churches. Just on Clergy Street there are St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Andrew’s, and Queen Street United (formerly Methodist, and now being turned into condos). There were also once two churches on Brock Street, Cooke’s Presbyterian and Brock Street Methodist; plus the Congregationalist church on Wellington, now a daycare; the Catholic Apostolic church on Queen Street, now Renaissance Event Venue; St. James’ Anglican on Union Street… the list goes on, literally. The 1893-94 Kingston directory needs nearly two full pages to list all the religious groups in Kingston and their activities. Obviously, religion was an essential part of life to many people, which is why churches are such meaningful places for local history. I’ll begin my post here with the first place I visited, Chalmers United Church.

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Historic Sites, Personal, Surrounding Areas

Local Historic Sites: Willowbank Cemetery

May 015

P.S. this is the first of my historic site visit posts. This one was done really on the fly, but I promise future ones will have more information and be generally better planned out. Stay tuned!

Last week while going to Gananoque to visit the kitties at the Humane Society, I had the opportunity to stop at Willowbank Cemetery. My reasons for doing this were twofold: one, I love exploring old cemeteries so much that if left to my own devices I’d probably stay in there for three and a half hours and forget to eat lunch; and two, one of my very favourite local history people, Joel Stone, is buried there.

My sister was slightly cranky and wanted to get home, so I had to act fast. Willowbank Cemetery is a sizeable place, and I had no idea where Joel Stone’s grave was located. I also wanted to look around a bit (and we had the perfect day for cemetery-exploring, cloudy with a slight drizzle). Luckily I had brought my camera along, so I snapped a few photos for you to look at…

(my photo)

(my photo)

Willowbank is kind of a picture-perfect cemetery. It’s situated in a gently hilly area and is full of mature trees, giving lots of opportunity for dramatic landscaping, made more so with a crumbling headstone or two. The grounds are overall well-maintained and it feels almost more like a nice park than a graveyard. The location also has an interesting history (especially relating to Kingston), as detailed in the plaque below:

(my photo)

(my photo)

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19th Century, Culture, People

“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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18th Century, 19th Century, Surrounding Areas

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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19th Century, Buildings

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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Uncategorized

My One-Year(ish) Anniversary

It took me literally a year and a half to figure out where this picture was taken, until I suddenly realized one day it's Barrie Street. From one of the many souvenir booklets of Kingston - I can't remember which one, but if/when I find it I'll add a link here.

It took me literally a year and a half to figure out where this picture was taken, until I suddenly realized one day it’s Barrie Street. From one of the many circa 1900 souvenir booklets of Kingston – I can’t remember which one, but if/when I find it I’ll add a link here.

I was going to do a post on the Prince Edward County town of Demorestville this week, but after a few long shifts at work and some procrastination I found myself behind schedule. Then I thought about doing a quickie post on the time W.B. Yeats gave a poetry reading at Queen’s, but there wasn’t much to talk about there (though I’ll probably do a short post on it one day). Then I remembered, hey, it’s my one-year(ish) anniversary of having this blog! And I had always planned to write something for this momentous occasion.

I started this blog because I had been reading tons of local history books and collecting images and information, and I wanted a place to sort everything out and, essentially, allow myself to remember what I had learned. I created it in late April 2014 but didn’t make my first post till May, which is why it’s a one-year(ish) anniversary. I haven’t tried to promote this blog very much – I’ve learned that local history is by definition a niche topic that people will either take or leave. It’s been my experience that when you tell people you’re interested in local history, the reaction is underwhelming (or nonexistent…), with typical reactions ranging from “Hmm” to “Oh” or simply changing the subject. That’s okay – not everyone can be a history nerd! – but while it can be disappointing, it’s also allowed me to focus and develop something I really enjoy doing without feeling the pressure of an immediate audience, if you know what I mean.

That said, I am very very grateful for the people who do read what I write and have told me they enjoy it and think I’m doing a good job. Thank you! I would also like to say that I’m always open to suggestions for topics to write about or ways I can improve. I have a few thoughts for going forward, like maybe museum/historic site reviews and one or two op-ed style articles I’d like to write. I’m also thinking of getting back on social media, but I’ve rather enjoyed a Twitter-free life recently so this is speculative.

However, I have to warn again: in addition to work I’m taking a post-degree course this summer from May-July, so posting here will probably be every two weeks instead of every week. But I’ll be around and I’ll try my best to post as often as I can.

Thank you again for supporting this blog throughout the past year!

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19th Century

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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