French Aristocracy in the Highlands of York
Thanks to previous farming experience gained in the American colonies, enough of Yonge Street's English-speaking pioneers and Markham'sGerman-speaking settlers overcame initial hardships to carve permanent places for themselves and their descendants in Richmond Hill's history. Unfortunately, a lack of such New World experience proved disastrous to a third group of early Richmond Hill residents - the de Puisaye settlers from France who settled farther north along Yonge Street.
In the closing years of the eighteenth century, this group of exiled French royalists began taking up Crown land grants along both sides of Yonge Street from present-day Elgin Mills Road north to Stouffville Road. Twenty-two lots of two hundred acres (about eighty hectares) each - lots 51 to 62 on the west side of the street and lots 52 to 61 on the east side - were granted. The community would be called Windham, after William Windham, the British secretary of war who had supported this organized colonization effort, although the settlement was more commonly referred to as Puisaye Town, after its colourful and eccentric leader, the Comte de Puisaye.
Joseph-Geneviève, Comte de Puisaye, was born in Mortagne-au-Perche, France, in March 1755, the fourth son of a minor French noble family. Upper Canadians often called him "The French General," despite his mediocre military career. A supporter of moderate reform at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, de Puisaye later became a royalist counter-revolutionary. He took refuge in England and commanded two ill-fated expeditions against revolutionary France in 1795. Then he persuaded the British government to finance a scheme that would settle a number of exiled French royalist officers on land in British North America.
Under de Puisaye's leadership, forty-one would-be settlers sailed from England in the summer of 1798 to lead the way for an expected migration of thousands of French loyalists. They were to receive the same land grants and aid as the United Empire Loyalists who came north after the American Revolution. De Puisaye's group wanted to settle apart from the established French-speaking population, considering themselves a class above the Canadièns. That is why they were given lands along Yonge Street, equidistant from existing French-speaking communities in Lower Canada and along the Detroit River.
This location twenty-five kilometres (about sixteen miles) north of York also presented advantages to the Upper Canadian officials. Here, these émigrés, with their potential for stirring up trouble between France and Britain, could be closely supervised. The former French military officers could also be mobilized to protect the provincial capital from any northern attack and help open up the northern part of Yonge Street.15
But could such aristocrats survive in the Upper Canadian wilderness? "The trade of farming in this new country requires to Europeans as much an apprenticeship as any handcraft profession," wrote Robert Hamilton, a concerned member of the Legislative Council. "Mixed with older settlers it may be learned by such in time and by patient perseverance." But "a separate establishment of French Emigrants in the woods of the country can never succeed." They would be miserable, Hamilton predicted: "They will be idle and they will certainly become mischievous." 16
The land was granted despite these objections. In late December 1798, de Puisaye and surveyor Augustus Jones headed up Yonge Street to look over the properties. Meanwhile, probably on Christmas Day, thirteen of de Puisaye's followers arrived at York. Colonial officials gave them rations, building materials, tools, and seed for spring sowing. They were lent arms and provided with free transport for their government supplies.
Initially, residents of the Windham settlement lived in temporary barracks and worked together to clear the land and build houses. And they set to work with enthusiasm. "The land is every day being cleared of the trees," reported de Puisaye in mid-January, and "in the course of a month a village has been built." By February 14, wrote another of the émigrés, enough land had been cleared "to give a small crop of wheat, potatoes, etc." Eighteen log cabins had been built, although "not finished inside," and a church was soon to be started. 17 "Strange it must have seemed to them to waken to absolute stillness, to go out each morning to a frozen wilderness, and to hear little during the day but the occasional word of a comrade and the steady stroke of the axe," wrote a student of the colony's history many years later. "It was all very different from their former home across the water with its warm sunshine, its cultivated fields, and the close proximity of friends." 18
But as spring 1799 blossomed and more émigré settlers arrived, disillusion seems to have set in at the de Puisaye Settlement. Servants brought from England deserted the enterprise for the freedom and opportunities offered by the New World. Melting snow and thawing ground made the road to York impassable for days at a time. There were long delays in the arrival of needed supplies. De Puisaye's frustration was apparent to Peter Russell, administrator of Upper Canada since Governor Simcoe's departure.
"I fear the Count de Puisaye is beginning to grow sick of his Colonial Project," Russell wrote Simcoe in May. "He now thinks the distance too great for navigation, the roads impracticable, and the consequent difficulties of transport insuperable, and in short that his people are unequal to the hardships of reducing such heavy timbered forests into cultivation. He therefore wishes for some situation on the Lake where the nobles, aged, and women may engage in less laborious occupations." 19
The émigré landowners proved slow to learn the art of farming. "When seed-time came I had only a little land cleared," the Chevalier de Marseuil wrote de Puisaye in August 1799. "I wished to plant it. Then the fences being poor the oxen ate everything. Those [servants] which you had the goodness to send me strayed two months ago and notwithstanding my search I am not able to get news of them. I am afraid I shall lose them. After having worked to repair some of the imperfections of my house, the fall of a great oak crushed the front part of the roof and damaged the floor and other parts. The house is repaired now but I sleep on the ground." 20
After the initial weeks of hard work in early 1799, the de Puisaye colonists seemed to make no further advances. "Their log houses always remained the same, and their owners acted as if they were sojourners in a foreign land," wrote William Harrison in later years. "It was no unusual circumstance in those days to see a gentleman of France dressed in the latest fashion of the time, outside the shanty gathering chips to cook the daily meal, and many of the ladies were costly dressed while attending to their domestic affairs." 21 Given their aristocratic background, they preferred the society of York, such as it was, to the hardships of pioneer life.
Before the first year was out, individual Windham colonists began deserting the land. Some moved on to more promising New World centres like Montreal and New York; others beat a hasty retreat back to Europe. Those who remained at Windham were required, as aliens, to wait seven years to obtain clear title to their Yonge Street lands, despite de Puisaye's attempts to shorten the process. When they did receive title in 1807 and 1808, however, they too disposed of their holdings and left for Britain. With the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814, most eventually returned home. Meanwhile, on Yonge Street, "their little clearings were soon overrun with second-growth pine or were squatted on by neighbours and strangers." 22
De Puisaye's own experience was particularly bleak. Although he soon moved his own residence to Niagara, he continued to work for the improvement of his Windham properties and the betterment of his followers. He built a house on each of his four large farms on Yonge Street, cleared the requisite number of acres, and cut and cleared the road allowance. Having met these requirements, he expected to receive patents for the land, but they were never granted him. Disillusioned and impoverished, he returned to England in May 1802, spent the next few years writing and publishing six volumes of memoirs, never set foot again in France, and died near Hammersmith, London, in December 1827. 23
St. George sailed from Quebec for England and France in November 1815, apparently intending to return to Upper Canada at some time in the future. But on the proceeds of his Upper Canadian business ventures and lands, he instead bought an estate near Montpellier, France, and transformed himself into a French landed gentleman. After his marriage to Adèle de Barbeyrac in 1819, and desiring a measure of bourgeois respectability, he revised those portions of his will pertaining to an Upper Canadian son and a daughter born to St. George and Marguerite Vallière, daughter of a Windham blacksmith. St. George died in Orléans, France, in June 1821. 24
The Glen Lonely estate was located at the northeast corner of present-day Bayview Avenue and Bethesda Sideroad, part of lots 6 and 7 on the second concession of Whitchurch Township, and included St. George Lake. Henry St. George's first house there was a big log structure, with huge fireplaces and comfortable rooms. After it was destroyed by fire, St. George built a more pretentious frame residence, four storeys high, with a huge entrance hall, winding staircases, fine antique furniture, and a whiskey still in the garret. This "château" was surrounded by landscaped lawns and approached along treed driveways.
Meanwhile, as the eighteenth century drew to a close, the mixture of English and German-speaking settlers farther south along Yonge Street,Bayview Avenue, and Leslie Street struggled to carve an existence out of the Upper Canadian bush. For most, it was a pioneer life of hard work in their cabins and on their fields. Isolation was an ever-present reality. Urban amenities and regular social interaction awaited the development of a community nucleus - the future village of Richmond Hill.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991