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Pioneer Days on the Thames


IN Kent, the earliest white settlements were along the watercourses, and the earliest of all were on the Thames. There were two reasons for this. The waterways were practically the only means of travel and transport, and their high banks were more healthful than the swampy terrain farther inland. So, when the French Canadians on the Detroit, and the United Empire Loyalists, sought new homes, they found them in Kent along the Thames.

The earliest white settlements seem to have taken place some time before 1790. Tradition has it that Edward Parson, the first white native of Kent, was born on the Raleigh side of the Thames in that year. A survey made early in Governor Simcoe’s regime showed 28 white families settled along the river; and when Simcoe himself traversed the Thames en route to Detroit in February, 1793, considerable progress had been made in settlement.

Simcoe himself appreciated the strategic importance of the river. At one time he seems to have considered making Chatham his capital. He authorized the laying out of a townsite at this point. The original survey was made by Abram Iredell in 1795; and Iredell, receiving Lot 17 at the southeast corner of William and Water streets in part payment, built there, about 1800, the first log house in Chat— ham, and planted the first orchard.

Simcoe’s plans included a shipyard, established on the flats east of Tecumseh Park, where, in the winter of 1795, William Baker, formerly in charge of the Royal Naval yards at Brooklyn, supervised the building of five gunboats designed for service in the war with the United States which Simcoe regarded as imminent. The present Tecumseh Park was set aside in Iredell’s survey as a military reserve, and there, even before Sirncoe’s visit, a log block house had been built.

Simcoe’s differences with his superior, Lord Dorchester, led, however, to his resignation, and his ambitious plans for development on the Thames languished.

Curiously, the most important pioneer settlements on the Thames were, not at Chatham, but above and below Simcoe’s townsite. In 1792, Jan Van Dolzen, an elderly loyalist of Dutch descent, settled on the Thames about four miles below Chatham. A son, Isaac Dolsen—as the name was speedily Anglicized—located on the Raleigh side, and another, Matthew, in Dover. About Matthew’s homestead, there grew up, in the course of years, a considerable trading community, with a tavern, store, blacksmith shop, distillery and other small pioneer industries. Another trading center grew up around the Thomas McCrae homestead on the Raleigh side; and both McCrae’s and Dolsen’s were thriving communities when Chatham was merely a name.

The early business activities of Chatham were, actually, beyond the eastern limits of Iredell’s townsite. About 1792 Thomas Clark moved from Dolsen’s to a location on McGregor’s Creek, about a mile upstream, where he built a primitive sort of mill, the first in Kent county. Clark borrowed money from John McGregor of Sandwich, the upshot being that Clark found lodging in Sandwich jail and McGregor took over and rebuilt the mill and gave his own name to the creek. The mill was destroyed by the Indians in Procter’s retreat in 1813; but some years after the war it was rebuilt, a store and a distillery added, and extensive trading was carried on by John McGregor and his son, Duncan.

Kent’s first postoffice was established at McCrae’s— which was, incidentally, the first brick house in Kent. The postoffice was known as Raleigh. Subsequently, still under the name of Raleigh, the postoffice was transferred to McGregor’s Mills; and ultimately, about 1830, to Chatham itself.

Iredell, the pioneer Chatham settler, died early in 1812, just before the war broke out: and his townsite remained empty till 1820 when William Chrysler located on the south hank of the Thames immediately west of Third Street. From this year dates the permanent settlement of Chatham; and with its gradual growth, the rival communities of McCrae’s, Dolsen’s and McGregor’s Mills faded from the map.

Settlement on the upper Thames beyond Chatham antedated the War of 1812. In 1794 William Baker, the shipbuilder, was granted several hundred acres on the north bank of the river; and though Baker does not appear to have settled there, his son-in-law, Joseph Eberts, did so, founding one of Chatham’s leading families. The first real settler on the Chatham township river front was George Sicklesteel, a Hessian, who located in 1794; and whose son, David, for many years kept the Sicklesteel tavern on the old homestead.

The transfer of Detroit to the Americans in 1796 resulted in many loyalist residents of that community seeking new homes on the Thames. One of these, Frederick Arnold, a native of Berlin, located on Lot 4, River Range, Howard township, about 10 miles above Chatham. Here, some time between 1797 and 1800, Frederick, or his son Christopher, built a flour mill, later adding a saw mill. At Chris. Arnold’s house, Tecumseh breakfasted in his retreat up the Thames; lingering afterward to prevent his braves, who had camped in the surrounding woods the night before, from firing the mill.

But before this, in 1809, the government had surveyed townships, the surveyed road between Howard and Harwich passing a short distance west of Arnold’s Mill. At this point on the river, four townships — Chatham and Camden on the north and Harwich and Howard on the south — cornered, the cross roads point being known as Kelley’s Corners. A distillery was built a short distance west; and, as a result of the destruction of McGregor’s Mill at Chatham, Arnold’s had for some years a monopoly of the milling business, which stimulated the growth of the community. The sons of Frederick Arnold located on both sides of the Thames, Lewis Arnold giving his name to the present Louisville; and the Arnolds continued a potent force in the life of the growing community.

About 1830 a post-office, White Hall — the second post-office in Kent — was opened on the north side of the River. Stores were opened; a foundry was established by Chris Arnold’s son Frederick; and a brickyard, the first in Kent, was established by Christopher Gee, who also operated a ferry when the primitive bridge was swept away —for which reason the community was known for a couple of decades as Gee’s Ferry. In 1854 an enclosed wooden bridge was built to span the Thames, as a result of which the community activities seem to have shifted largely to the north bank, and the place became known by its present name of Kent Bridge.

Joshua Cornwall, a Connecticut loyalist, was, about 1796, the first settler in the present Camden, then a wilderness. Both he, in 1816, and his son, Nathan, in 1834 and 1836, represented Kent in the Canadian parliament. Cornwall’s nearest neighbors were the Moravian missionaries and their Indian flocks at Fairfield (the original Moravian— town) a few miles east of the present Thamesville.

Another Connecticut Loyalist, Lemuel Sherman, located a little farther upstream from Cornwall, some time before 1804 ; for in that year his son, David, was born on the Sherman homestead. Sherman built a large frame house with a palisade fence of oak stakes, and a large barn. The Shermans went through the stirring times of Procter’s retreat, and after the battle of Moraviantown, the Sherman barn was converted into a temporary hospital for the British and American wounded. The historic structure survived for more than a century.

The Americans after the battle destroyed the Moravian village; but after the war, the Indians were re-established in a new village south of the river, in Orford township.

Settlement along the river front grew. In 1852, when the building of the Great Western Railway was mooted, David Sherman, a son of the pioneer, surveyed a portion of the homestead into a village plot. A great admirer of the Indian chief, he named his village Tecumseh; but later, when the post-office was transferred from Nathan Cornwall’s, the name was changed to Thamesville.

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