Penetanguishene Bay

The Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828

The story of the transfer of the British garrison from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828 and the migration of voyageurs connected with the post has never been told in print. In the following notes Mr. Osborne has endeavored to gather this story from the lips of the few survivors who migrated at that time. Descendants of French-Canadians largely predominated in this movement, but we also get glimpses of what a strange and heterogeneous people once gathered around Mackinaw and Drummond Island, especially about the time of the coalition of the two fur companies in 1821. The migrant voyageurs settled principally near Penetanguishene, in the township of Tiny, Simcoe County. Offshoots of the band settled at Old Fort Ste. Marie, at Fesserton and Coldwater, and another south of Lake Simcoe, near Pefferlaw, York County. These notes will form a useful supplement to Joseph Taase’s “Les Canadiens de l’Ouest.”

Penetanguishene Bay
View from “The Establishment,” on the hill near Wallace’s Inn, looking toward the head of the bay, and the recently-cleared land on the west side of the harbor. Sketched by G. R. Dartnell, Esq., surgeon of the 1st Royal Regiment, Penetanguishene, Oct. 12th, 1836.

The British military post at Michilimackinac was transferred to the United States in 1796 by mutual agreement, and the forces stationed there retired to St. Joseph Island, where a fort and blockhouse were erected. From this latter post, at a subsequent period, issued that famous volunteer contingent of one hundred and sixty Canadian voyageurs, accompanied by a few (30) British regulars with two field pieces, under Captain Roberts, 1 who effected the recapture of Mackinaw for the British.

This occurred on the 16th of July, 1812, the first year of the war. In a subsequent attack by the Americans to recover the post the Canadian voyageurs gallantly assisted in its defense. Mackinaw was again restored to the United States according to treaty stipulations in 1815, when the British garrison found refuge on Drummond Island, in proximity to the former post of St. Joseph. The Canadian voyageurs still preferring to follow the fortunes of the British flag, with one or two exceptions, removed with the forces to Drummond Island. On the completion of the treaty surveys, Drummond Island proved to be in United States territory. Thereupon the British forces, under Lieut. Carson, commanding a detachment of the 68th Regiment, withdrew to the naval station at Penetanguishene, which event occurred on the 4th of November, 1828. 2

Mr. Keating was fort adjutant at the island; John Smith, 3 commissariat issuer; Sergeant Santlaw Rawson, barrack master, and William Solomon, Indian interpreter to the Government. It fell to the lot of Sergeant Rawson to haul down the British flag. After performing this somewhat disagreeable duty, he remembers Lieut. Carson handing over the keys to the U. S. officers, when they shook hands all round in the most cordial manner. Sergeant Rawson accompanied the troops to Penetanguishene, and afterwards moved to Oro township, where he died in 1843 at the age of ninety-six. (These personal reminiscences were gathered from his son, William Rawson, who was born on Drummond Island, and who died recently in Coldwater at an advanced age.)

The Government employed the brig Wellington and a schooner named Hackett (Alice), commanded by the owner, Capt. Hackett, for the purpose of conveying the troops, military stores and Indian supplies to the new post. The schooner, with its cargo, was wrecked on Fitzwilliam (Horse) Island, in Lake Huron, on its way down, but the brig reached its destination in safety.

The voyageurs on the island, some seventy-five families, soon followed the garrison, moving to the neighborhood of the new post at Penetanguishene, the majority during the same and following years. In the wise provision of a paternal Government they were granted, in lieu of their abandoned homes, liberal allotments of lands on the borders of Penetanguishene Bay. Here they settled on twenty-acre and forty-acre lots, of which they became the original owners and patentees from the Crown in what are known as the Town and Ordnance Surveys.

These hardy voyageurs or half-breeds are the descendants of French-Canadians born principally in Quebec, many of whom were British soldiers, or came up with the North-West Company, and who married Indian women, their progeny also becoming British soldiers or attaches of the fur company in various capacities. Their fervent loyalty to the British Government is simple-hearted, genuine, unobtrusive and practical. Some of the original voyageurs belonged to the Voltigeurs and had seen active service. Some were the proud recipients of medals, still treasured by their descendants, and gained for bravery at Plattsburgh and on other historic battlefields, and some carried wounds received while gallantly upholding British supremacy. They were in the front of battle during the stirring scenes at Mackinaw, St Joseph Island, Sault Ste. Marie and other sanguinary points during the war of 1812-15. This is a testimony more eloquent than words to the loyalty and worth of the ancestors of the settlers around Penetanguishene.

The military posts became centers towards which they naturally gravitated, hence Drummond Island became the nucleus of voyageurs from Mackinaw and the numerous posts in the west. The removal of the British troops to Penetanguishene became the subject of official correspondence by Lord Dalhousie as early as 1822.

Several residents of Drummond Island appear to have taken time by the forelock. A Scotch trader named Gordon from Drummond Island made, in 1825, the first permanent settlement at Penetanguishene, on the east side of the harbor, just beyond Barracks Point, and called it the “Place of Penetangoushene.” It subsequently became known as Gordon’s Point. Rounding Pinery Point to the right of the incoming voyager is the “Place of the White Rolling Sand,” which gives to the picturesque bay within its romantic name. On the opposite shore is Gordon’s Point, to the left and almost straight ahead. Gordon’s first wife was a daughter of Mrs. Agnes Landry, a French-Ojibway woman, who was born on Drummond Island, and who accompanied the daughter’s family to their wilderness home. At a later date he formed the nucleus of the future town, building the first house, which still stands, and is occupied by his descendants, the Misses Gordon. His second wife was a daughter of Charles Langlade. Gordon died in 1852, aged 65 years.

Other voyageurs are known to have been at Penetanguishene as early as 1816, but only as transient traders. Mrs. Gordon and her mother, Widow Landry, whose remains now rest near the ruins of the old Gordon homestead, are therefore fairly entitled to rank as the pioneers of the voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene.

Their marriage customs were necessarily of the most primitive character, simply a mutual agreement, and, usually, one or two witnesses. A priest or missionary at those distant posts was a rare sight in the early days. Fidelity, however, was a marked characteristic among them, only two or three exceptions having been so far discovered in the history of this people, and they invariably took advantage of the first opportunity to have a proper marriage ceremony performed. This also explains the apparent anomaly of numerous couples, with large families, being married after their arrival at Penetanguishene, notably on the visit of Bishop McDonnell there in 1832.

Nameless graves are scattered here and there, showing the last resting-places of many of these pioneers. Seven are at Gordon’s Point, some of which are known. Six graves occupy a spot near the old cricket ground at St. Andrew’s Lake, only two of which are identified while the numbers that sleep on the hillside near the Ontario Reformatory are not known. Seven lie on the Gidley farm-four out of one family. Six are on the Mitchell homestead, two on the Copeland estate and one at the Tiny Cross-roads, besides many elsewhere, the records or memory of which are entirely lost. Mrs. Sicard’s remains were the first deposited in St. Anne’s churchyard (R. C.), where, and at Lafontaine most of the future interments were made.

Their descendants retain many of the characteristics of the early voyageurs, taking naturally to hunting, fishing, guiding tourists and campers and kindred adventure, though gradually drifting into other and more permanent occupations.

Six of the more interesting personal narratives are here presented almost, or as nearly as possible, in their own words, beginning with that of Lewis Solomon. An extensive list of Drummond Island voyageurs is provided at the end.

Narratives from the migration of voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828

  1. Narrative of Lewis Solomon
  2. Narrative of Michael Labatte
  3. Narrative of Rosette Larammee (Mrs. Boucher)
  4. Narrative of Jean Baptiste Sylvestre
  5. Narrative of Antoine Labatte
  6. Narrative of Angelique Langlade
  7. List of the Drummond Island Voyageurs

Osborne, Alexander Campbell. The Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island to Penetanguishene in 1828. Volume 3 of Papers and records. Ontario Historical Society. 1901.

  1. This hero of Mackinaw in 1812 was an uncle of Field-Marshall Roberts, who conducted the recent campaign in South Africa.[]
  2. Canadian Archives, 1898, p. 553.[]
  3. A Narrative from the lips of John Smith (recorded by Rev. George Hallen) may be found in Rev. Dr. Scadding’s “Toronto of Old” p. 504.[]

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