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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Speculators once owned Nichol, Pilkington townships

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


This week’s column considers the earliest development and settlement in the Elora area in the first decades of the 19th century.

Many people are aware that Elora is on land once owned by the Six Nations Confederacy. In return for their assistance to the British during the American Revolution, the Six Nations received a tract of land, approximately 12 miles wide, along the Grand River.

The British government had originally intended the Six Nations to have a different block of land, but Chief Joseph Brant lobbied in favour of the superior agricultural land along the Grand.

The British had purchased this land as part of a much larger tract through a treaty with the Mississauga tribe. This had once been the territory of tribes generally classified as the Neutrals, and had been a disputed area after 1650. The Mississauga claim to the land was rather feeble, but it was as good as any other.

The tract given to the Six Nations was surveyed into blocks and townships. When the bordering land was later surveyed, the new townships had to be fitted against the Six Nations land. This accounts for the irregularity to township borders and roads in Wellington and Waterloo counties.

Nichol township, originally called Block 4, was the last of the Six Nations land, and the rest of the tract can be traced on a map: the townships of Pilkington, Woolwich, Waterloo, North and South Dumfries, and on down to the mouth of the river.

After clearing and settling on their farms in the Brantford area, the Six Nations had little need for the upper part of the tract, and began selling it through a government trustee. Their plan was to use the money to make improvements to the Grand River, allowing Brantford to be a port for Lake Erie shipping.

William Wallace, a businessman on the Niagara peninsula, bought Woolwich township in 1796, and three years later sold the eastern part to General Robert Pilkington. The general had been in Canada with the Royal engineers before receiving promotions to England.

The Pilkington Tract, as it was then known, was largely a speculative investment. In fairness to Pilkington, he did make some efforts at chopping two roads: the current Wellington Road 7 and the South River Road to Bridgeport. Pilkington eventually managed to persuade people to settle on his land, but he was reluctant to actually sell it. A handful of families were on the land legally by 1820, and there is evidence that a few squatters were present as well. Most of these original settlers stayed only a couple of years.

The Six Nations sold the present Nichol township to Thomas Clark, another of the active group of Niagara businessmen, in 1807. The land changed hands a couple of times over the next 25 years, with each purchaser viewing the land as a good speculative investment. By 1830, it did seem to be a good prospect. Active settlement by this time was occurring to the east, south and west of Nichol.

Active promoters eventually bought Nichol township: Captain William Gilkison the southwest half in 1832, and the remainder by the partnership of Adam Fergusson and James Webster, in 1834.

Captain Gilkison placed great value on the falls at the future site of Elora. He believed that the town he was planning for the site, and the surrounding agricultural land, would provide a comfortable legacy for his sons. In the long run, Elora and Nichol proved to be poor investments for the Gilkisons. They lacked the funds to develop the town properly, and most of the money they received for farms had to be spent on road improvements.

Thomas Clark had recognized the value of the future Elora site long before he sold the township. In 1817, he had hired Roswell Matthews, an American adventure seeker, to start a settlement near the falls. Relations between Clark and Matthews eventually broke down.

When Guelph was founded in 1827, Matthews, with his elder sons, abandoned the Elora site to work for the Canada Company as labourers. It was the first cash money they had seen in years.

A number of squatters had moved into Nichol by 1830. It is not known whether the owners of the land knew of their presence. Most held jobs in Guelph when work was available.

The Gilkison brothers sold most of the farm land in the 1830s, but the townsite at Elora did not do as well. A depression slowed the economy in the late 1830s. More serious was the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie. It failed in overthrowing the government, but it managed to give Upper Canada a reputation for political instability that discouraged investment for about five years.

The settlement of western Nichol township proceeded rather smoothly under the Gilkisons. Such was not the case with the Pilkington Tract. With General Pilkington in England, management of the tract was done by Canadian agents. Adam Crooks, of Flamborough, tried to encourage settlement in the early 1830s, but after 1834, when Pilkington died, lawyers called all the shots.

Among the high powered, oversharp Toronto lawyers handling the Pilkington estate were J.B. Robinson, J.H. Cameron and James Strachan, names known to most people familiar with Canadian history. Most purchasers had difficulty in securing deeds, and the lawyers in their periodic visits to Elora, offended the farmers with their manner and had difficulty collecting payments. Much of the problem rested in the fact that Pilkington had heavily mortgaged his assets. The Toronto lawyers were merely acting as agents for Edward Tylee, the Pilkington family solicitor.

The half of Pilkington northwest of the Grand River was not surveyed into farms until 1845. This land was taken up quickly, but the settlers had to wait for years to get clear titles. In 1861, Pilkington farmers began holding monthly meetings to pursue the question of deeds, and appointed a committee to act for them. Some became discouraged and abandoned their farms. As late as 1866, the Pilkington estate still had farms to sell in the township, and their Canadian agent continued to collect payments into the 1870s, 40 years after the general’s death.

Both Pilkington and Nichol proved to be bitter disappointments to their first owners and promoters. In both cases, development was held back because the owners lacked sufficient capital to make the improvements and investments necessary to support settlement.

Letters written at the time tell us how the speculation and ongoing legal problems hindered some of the early settlers. Sam Shepherd was an eager land buyer living in the Bon Accord settlement (near Portage, on Irvine Street and the Irvine River, just north of Elora). He was working for George Elmslie when he wrote to James Strachan, agent for the Pilkington estate, on Oct. 22, 1842.

“I wish to take up that lot of the Woolwich Lands belonging to the heirs of the late Gen. Pilkington which lies opposite to Nos. 12 & 13, Con. 11th Nichol, and I therefore request you will inform into what size of lots are to be surveyed, what is the price per acre, and whether you will make any allowance for cash...”

Like many settlers, Shepherd was working for a few years to save enough money to start on his own, and Elmslie, who had some money, spent his time as a businessman and teacher, hiring others to clear his farm. It appears that Shepherd did not wait until the Pilkington land was surveyed in 1845, and moved elsewhere.

James Flewelling, a squatter, moved onto Lot 3, Concession 5, of Nichol at an unknown date. The Gilkison brothers sold the farm in 1844 to Robert Wilson. This letter, from Jasper Gilkison, was written on Jan. 9, 1844. It offers Flewelling 25 pounds, or $100, for the improvements and buildings, if he does not want to buy the farm.

It reads in part, “I would therefore advise you coming to terms, and take what is offered to you, otherwise, it is probable, if you do not pay soon, you will certainly lose the lot altogether without receiving one farthing, this is my candid opinion.” Jasper’s game of hardball seems to have worked; Flewelling took the money and moved on.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 7, 1992.


Vol 51 Issue 26


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