Every week, I share an excerpt from my Great Aunt’s book, As the Story is Told: A History of Morpeth and Community, which was printed in 1986. Note, this is a historical text and I don’t necessarily agree with all of the authours’ views or turns of phrase. This week’s chapter is about the settlement of Howard Township along the Talbot Trail.
Early History of the Area
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the southern part of Howard Township, including the present site of the village of Morpeth, was an unbroken wilderness over which roamed a few bands of Indians. A great forest of tall stately trees of oak, walnut, whitewood, beech, maple, ash and elm, matted together with trailing vines, covered the land. Wandering about in these woods were to be found bears, wolves, deer, foxes, wild turkeys and many other kinds of small game.
This area has been described as a tract of debatable land, it had no roads and was but barely accessible by a few Indian trails, along which venturesome people made the journey from one settlement to the other. A few pioneers had already established themselves on the lake front further west and settlements along the Thames River had become numerous, while on land in Howard between the river and Lake Erie, the bush land still prevailed.
The first break in this forest land for white residents was in about 1809 when John Craford settled in Howard Township, east of Rondeau, at the mouth of what is known as Patterson’s Creek. This was terminus of the old Indian trail from Chatham to the lake and for some time had been the camping ground for travellers rounding the Pointe. At an early date William Hands had laid claims to lots south f Talbot Road in this same area. Hands, however, seems to have been more of a land speculator than a pioneer.
By the fall of 1811 Craford had a log house built and a cleared field planted with corn and buckwheat. He continued to reside amid the solitude of the mighty forest until after the outbreak of the Anglo-American War of 1812. During these years Craford believed he was living in Harwich Township and it was not until he applied for his patent to the land in 1816 that he realized he was actually living on Lot 100 in Howard Township.
At about that time, two brothers, Joseph and Edward Hackney, had left their holding at Rondeau and settled on Lot 88 near Morpeth, on the Lake shore. Here they later built the first mill south of the Thames in Kent County. The Hackneys were Englishmen and supposedly confirmed bachelors. As the story goes, one day Ed chanced to visit a neighbouring house where an infant girl was asleep in a cradle. The mother remarked that she would like to have a new broom, whereupon Ed volunteered to swap a broom for a child when it should have grown to womanhood. The woman jokingly accepted and Ed delivered the broom. Years later he reappeared to successfully solicit the fulfilment of the bargain. This unusual marriage was considered to have been a happy one.
In 1817 the first general influx of settlement along Talbot Street occurred in the furtherance of the governmental plans, which Colonel Talbot as general land agent, was sent out to superintend. A survey map “Talbot Road through the Township of Howard, York, May 8, 1818” indicates that by that year there were only two lots in Howard Township along the Talbot Trail that were still not located, in addition to most of the irregular lake shore lots in the western part of Howard.
The Talbot story all began with a retirement gift. In 1803, a thirty-two year old British army officer sold his commission and retired to Upper Canada to collect the customary land grants given to field officers. It was the tidy sum of several thousand acres.
Young Colonel Talbot immediately set out to develop the area and attract settlers to work the land. His arrangement with the government was that for each settler he placed on fifty of his five thousand acres, he would receive an additional two hundred acres. Talbot was a man with great initiative and had even greater things in mind. Through some manipulation of the agreement he accumulated even more property and became known as the “Lake Erie Baron.”
From accounts of Talbot’s dealing with those who applied for land it appears that he had rather unusual business habits, with arrogance and kindliness being oddly mingled. The story is told that, because of some rough treatment received from one of his applicants, a stalwart Scottish Highlander, he decided to change his method of doing business. Prior to this encounter, he had transacted his deals, in his curtly manner, from a room in his log house. After that he worked through an open window and if any trouble around he would immediately slam down the shutters and if necessary have his manservant call on the dogs.
Since settlement, unfortunately for Talbot, was slow he decided to further his plans by having a road built. A survey of the area had already been started and as early as 1812 they had reached Lot 91 in Howard. Due to the outbreak of the war, work was interrupted. It has been told that Survey Burwell’s instruments and stores fell prey to an American filibuster. The survey was however, resumed in 1815 and was completed on nearly to the Raleigh line in the same year.
Talbot was very shrewd and required that his settlers clear and open half the roadway in front of their lot, in addition to developing and building on their own land. If this part of a settler’s bargain was not fulfilled he would not hesitate to erase the owner’s name which had been just pencilled in on his map, and transfer the partially cleared land to some one else.
A draft agreement for the construction of this road, which old settlers say was completed by the father of Richard Green, Howard, as recorded in the Kent Annual Almanac of 1884, is in part as follows:
“Make or cause to be made a road one rod wide, all trees of one foot and under to be cut even with the surface, and all fallen trees removed, all bridges to be built of sound logs fifteen feet wide, all causeways to be made with logs or facines [bundles of branches or logs] fifteen feet wide, with a ditch at each end and covered with earth.”
By the end of the 1820s, Colonel Talbot’s corduroy highway stretched nearly three hundred miles. It was the best road of its length in the province – a road which now stretches from Windsor to Fort Erie and known today as the Talbot Trail. As you travel along this highway (No. 3) look for the distinctive brown and white trail signs at the side of the road. Colonel Talbot’s double-headed axe marks the route for modern-day travellers.
By 1837 almost fifty thousand people called The Talbot Settlement home. It was a remarkable achievement, particularly so for a rather eccentric patriarch who seldom ventured out of his home in Port Talbot.
Colonel Talbot died on Feb. 6, 1853 at the age of eighty-two. Since he was a life-long bachelor he bequeathed his entire estate to his servants. This bequest did not include the Talbot Settlement which he had earlier been forced to turn over to the provincial government.
An interesting description of the southern-most part of Howard, whose settlement owes much of colonel Talbot, is recorded in the Dominion Canada Atlas of 1881.
“Howard is quite densely settled by a peculiarly thrifty and enterprising class of farmers whose labour has rendered Howard one of the most attractive townships in appearance to be found in western Ontario. Especially has the feature of attractiveness, both natural and artificial been highly developed in the vicinity of Talbot Street and Lake Shore, where a succession of handsome and even elegant farmsteads form a picture of rural beauty rarely surpassed in the agricultural sections of Canada.”
Noteworthy also are a few comments from a paper read by Mrs. David Wilson at a 1932 Morpeth Women’s Institute Meeting. She reminded us of the great work of these early pioneers and the struggles they endured. Mr. And Mrs. David Wilson’s home was the house where Mrs. W. G. Thompson today resides. When it was built by the Wilsons, it was one of the most impressive and spacious homes in the area. In those days, it was a social centre for happenings in the Trinity community. It remains today, as the Wilsons would have wished it, an elegant home with spacious lawns and beautiful trees.
This paper was printed in the Ridgetown Dominion at that time and is in part as follows:
“This Dominion of ours has until the last few years been a land of pioneers. Men and women struggled to make a new home in a new country. There is nobility, heroism and sacrifice in such a struggle, which has resulted in material achievement to later generations, bringing plenty and easier ways.
It has been truthfully said that a people who have no pride or veneration for their past have little confidence or hope for the future.
We look back with pride to our pioneers of Morpeth and surrounding country. They had courage to face toil, loneliness and hardships to carve a new home out of the wilderness and establish a new civilization.”