History of the Perth Military Settlement

(Source: Perth and District Historical Society website)

The ‘Perth Military Settlement’, was an 1815 concept that covered present-day Perth and the adjoining early townships of Bathurst, North Burgess, South Sherbrooke, Drummond, North Elmsley and Beckwith. This was one of three military settlements – the other two being in nearby Lanark and Richmond – that were conceived by the British Government in 1815 to deal with several serious problems arising coincidentally at the end of the 1812-14 war with the United States.

“The industrial revolution of the previous century had continued to displace tradesmen and craftsmen throughout the British Isles. Now, with the end of the War … Great Britain was overrun with discharged soldiers also seeking employment. Something had to be done quickly…’ At the same time, “the British Government had recognized that a loyal population must be established inland away from the St. Lawrence ‘front’ as a second line of defence in any future (American) threat.” (Jean S. McGill)

Opening the uncharted area north of the Rideau system offered a creative, if challenging, solution to both problems. In early 1815, the British Government commenced an emigration program that offered land and support, including transportation, to families from Scotland, joined by discharged soldiers, willing to take up a new life in this isolated part of Upper Canada.

By the ‘Bathurst Proclamation’ in Edinburgh, of February 22, 1815, the government offered 100 acres of land to each emigrating family (and to male children over twenty-one years), with six to eight months of rations, some equipment and other aid as required. Provision was also made for the services of ministers and teachers.

The initial target was to bring 2,000 adult immigrants (plus children) from Scotland. However, the requirement of a cash deposit (to prevent freeloaders looking for passage to the United States) made the offer difficult to take up for many people. (The fee was originally £16 for males over 16 years and two guineas for wives – children were free. Later, the head of family fee was reduced to £10, following departure problems with tardy boats – and provisions.)

By May 24th, only 474 had signed up – including 108 men, 90 women, and 276 children, but 690 finally sailed, according to ship list records. More than 120 remained behind in Scotland, possibly disheartened by the problems in organisation. A press gang also seized seven of the men – the battle of Waterloo not being far off.

The 62-day crossing was typical with all four boats arriving in Quebec City in September and early October. The emigrants rested for several days in Quebec City and Three Rivers, and then proceeded upriver. As winter was now approaching, it was too late to proceed to the Rideau – but no effective preparations had been made to receive them elsewhere (going on to the Rideau would have been even worse, as there was no settlement there until the following spring).

About 300 of the group were sent to Cornwall and lodged in “poor conditions with provisions from the military storehouse”. A number of families over-wintered at Fort Wellington (Prescott), in a warehouse on Buckleys Wharf. Sixty families are said to have proceeded to Brockville, where thirty were accommodated in barracks or rented adjoining huts, or at neighbouring farm homes where some secured employment. Some unmarried men, according to a report by Quarter-master Beckwith, went to Kingston, where they were employed by the Engineer’s Department on the King’s Works.

Beginning in March 1816, the immigrants travelled north to take up their properties south-west of the future Town of Perth. The trip was difficult as the road was little more than a blazed forest trail.

The first of the farm allocations to the new Scottish settlers were on a line which came to be known as the Scotch Line. This line was the border between the Townships of Bathurst and Burgess, and also touched on a small portion of North Elmsley Township, and  constituted the southern border of Perth town, . In March and April 1816, fourteen families received allocations and moved onto their property along the south side of the Scotch Line. One settler, Archibald Morrison, recorded that land clearing started around March 22. Later in the summer, properties on the north half of the Scotch Line in Bathurst Township were taken up.

The first months and, later, the winter of 1816-17 were a serious trial. It has been said that 1816 (and the summer of 1817) were amongst the coldest on record – and that 1816 was a “year without a summer”. It snowed in June, so little was gathered from any sown crops. It is said that help came from the natives, including how to make bark houses. Fortunately, the new arrivals were still on the agreed-to government support.

In June 1816, the military settlers for this area arrived (the previous summer had seen military settlements started in more easterly townships). The discharged soldiers for Perth came from the Glengarry Light Infantry in Kingston – who settled mainly in Drummond Township near Perth, and in Bathurst Township – and the Canadian Fencibles, in Montreal. The latter had a range of nationalities, including Germans, Poles, Belgians and Italians, from Major-General de Watteville’s Regiment. Land was granted according to the soldier’s rank – from 1200 acres for a Lieutenant-Colonel to 100 acres for a Private. Most of the army officers – all on half pay – located in Perth, according to McGill, where they established the first businesses, and took up appointments, including magistrates.

Within a few years, the British Government program brought in thousands of immigrant families from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and even Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Poland – and the once unpopulated area rang with the clearing of land and construction of houses and roads.