Roger Conant Life In Canada

Roger Conant—His position in Massachusetts—Remained in the United States two years without being molested—Atrocities committed by “Butler’s Rangers”—Comes to Upper Canada—Received by Governor Simcoe—Takes up land at Darlington—Becomes a fur trader—His life as a settler—Other members of the Conant family.

The author’s great-grandfather, Roger Conant, was born at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on June 22nd, 1748. He was a direct descendant (sixth generation) from Roger Conant the Pilgrim, and founder of the Conant family in America, who came to Salem, Massachusetts, in the second ship, the Ann—the Mayflower being the first—in 1623, and became the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony under the British Crown. He was graduated in Arts and law at Yale University in 1765. At the time of the outbreak of the Revolution in 1776 he was twenty-eight years old. His capacity and business ability may be judged from the facts that he owned no fewer than 13,000 acres of land in New England, and that when he came to Canada he brought with him £5,000{14} in British gold. He appears to have been a man of keen judgment, of quiet manners, not given to random talking, of great personal strength, and highly acceptable to his neighbors. In after days, when he had to do his share toward subduing the Canadian forest, they tell of him sinking his axe up to the eye at every stroke in the beech or maple. The record is that he could chop, split and pile a full cord of wood in an hour.

Although he became a United Empire Loyalist and ultimately came to Canada, leaving his 13,000 acres behind him in Massachusetts, for which neither he nor his descendants ever received a cent, Roger Conant’s decision to emigrate was not taken at once. The Revolution broke out in 1776, but he did not remove from his home until 1778. Even then he does not appear to have been subjected to the annoyances and persecution which some have attributed to the disaffected colonists. What the author has to say on this point comes from Roger Conant’s own lips, and has been handed down from father to son. He has, therefore, no choice in a work of this kind but to give it as it came to him. It has been the rule among many persons who claim New England origin to paint very dark pictures of the treatment their forefathers received at the hands of those who joined the colonists in revolt from the British Crown. For instance, words like the following were used soon after the thirteen colonies were accorded their independence and became the United States:

ROGER CONANT.

Born at Bridgewater, Mass., June 22, 1748.
Graduated at Yale University in Arts and law, 1765.
Came to Darlington, Upper Canada, a U. E. L., 1792.
Died in Darlington, June 21, 1821.

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“Did it serve any good end to endeavor to hinder Tories from getting tenants or to prevent persons who owed them from paying honest debts? On whose cheek should have been the blush of shame when the habitation of the aged and feeble Foster was sacked and he had no shelter but the woods; when Williams, as infirm as he, was seized at night and dragged away for miles and smoked in a room with fastened doors and closed chimney-top? What father who doubted whether to join or fly, determined to abide the issue in the land of his birth because foul words were spoken to his daughters, or because they were pelted when riding or when moving in the innocent dance? Is there cause to wonder that some who still live should yet say of their own or their fathers’ treatment that persecution made half of the King’s friends?”

Roger Conant, however, during the two years he remained at Bridgewater after the breaking out of the Revolution, was free from these disagreeable experiences. He frequently reiterated that such instances as those of Foster and Williams were very rare, and maintained that those who were subject to harsh treatment were those who made themselves particularly obnoxious to their neighbors who were in favor of the Revolution. Persons who were blatant and offensive in their words, continually boasting their British citizenship and that nobody dare molest them—in a word, as we say, a century and a quarter after the struggle, forever carrying a chip on the shoulder and daring anybody to knock it off—naturally rendered themselves objects of dislike. It must be borne in mind that, right or wrong, the entire community were almost a unit in their contention for separation from Great Britain. Yet Roger Conant, who did not take up arms with the patriots, was not molested. His{16} oft-repeated testimony was that no one in New England need have been molested on account of his political opinions.

As a matter of fact, he frequently averred that he made a mistake when he left New England and came to the wilds of Canada. To the latest day of his life he regretted the change, and said that he should have remained and joined the patriots; that the New Englanders who were accused of such savage actions towards loyalists were not bad people, but that on the contrary they were the very best America then had—kind, cultivated and considerate. Nor was he alone in this conviction. He was fond of comparing notes with other United Empire Loyalists with whom from time to time he met. He was always glad to meet those who had come to Canada from the revolted colonies. And he again and again averred that their opinion tallied with his own, viz., that they were mistaken and foolish in coming away. He entertained no feelings of animosity against the new government who appropriated his 13,000 acres. Neither does the author. Such feelings were and are reserved for Lord North, whose short-sightedness and obstinacy were the immediate cause of the war. A man who could say that “he would whip the colonists into subjection” deserves the universal contempt of mankind, especially when it is remembered that at the very moment of his outbreak of ungoverned and arbitrary temper the colonists were only waiting for an opportunity to consummate an entente cordiale with the Mother Country, and to return to former good feeling and peace.{17}

On the other hand, Roger Conant had that to tell regarding some of the British forces which does not form pleasant reading, but which the author feels impelled to set down in order to present a faithful picture of Great Britain’s stupendous folly, viz., her war with the American colonies in 1776. The first body of irregular troops of any sort that he saw who were fighting for the King were Butler’s Rangers, which body, to his astonishment, he found in northern New York State when wending his way to Upper Canada. For some time he tarried in the district where this force was carrying on its operations. It would seem as if the very spirit of the evil one had taken possession of these men. Acts of arson by which the unfortunate settler lost his log cabin, the only shelter for his wife and little ones from the inclemency of a northern winter, were too common to remark. Murder and rapine were acts of everyday occurrence. Manifestly these atrocious guerillas could not remain in the neighborhood that witnessed their crimes. They found their way in various directions to places where they hoped to evade the tale of their villany. In after years one of these very men wandered to Upper Canada, and, as it happened, hired himself to Roger Conant to work about the latter’s homestead at Darlington. An occasion came when this man, who was very reticent, had partaken too freely of liquor, so that his tongue was loosed, and in an unbroken flow of words he unfolded a boastful narrative of the horrid deeds of himself and his companions of{18} Butler’s Rangers. One day, he said, they entered a log-house in the forest in New York State, and quickly murdered the mother and her two children. They were about applying the torch to the dwelling, when he discovered an infant asleep, covered with an old coverlet, in the corner of an adjoining bedroom. He drew the baby forth, when one of the Rangers, not quite lost to all sense of humanity, begged him to spare the child, “because,” as he said, “it can do no harm.” With a drunken, leering boast he declared he would not, “for,” said he, as he dashed its head against the stone jamb of the open fireplace, “Nits make lice, and I won’t save it.”

It is no wonder that Roger Conant said that many times his heart failed him when these terrible acts of Butler’s Rangers were being perpetrated, and that he felt sorry even then, when in New York State and on his way to Upper Canada, that he had not remained in Massachusetts and joined the patriots. It is to be remembered that these persons were burnt out, murdered, and their women outraged, simply because they thought Britain bore too heavily on them, and that reforms were needed in the colonies. Nor could these acts in even the smallest degree assist the cause of Britain from a military point of view.

On October 5th, 1792, Roger Conant crossed the Niagara River on a flat-bottomed scow ferry, and landed at Newark, then the capital of Upper Canada. Governor Simcoe, who had only been sworn in as Governor a few days previously, came to the wharfside

GOVERNOR SIMCOE.

(From the tomb in Exeter Cathedral, England.)

(By permission from the J. Ross Robertson collection.)

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to meet the incoming emigrant, who, with his wife and children, his waggons and his household stuff, had come to make his future home in Upper Canada.

“Where do you wish to go?” said the Governor.

“I think of following the north shore of the lake eastward till I find a suitable place to settle in, sir.”

“But the land up there is not surveyed yet. Should you not prefer to go up to Lake Simcoe? That is where I would like to see you take up your abode.”

But Roger Conant shook his head. He had made up his mind to go to the north shore of the lake, eastward, and there he ultimately went. When Governor Simcoe found that he was determined, he told him that when he had fixed on a location he was to blaze the limits of the farm on the lake shore he would like to have. When the survey was completed, he, the Governor, would see that he got his patents for the area so blazed. And in justice to the Governor, the author is pleased here to set down that he faithfully kept his word. The patents for the land blazed by Roger were duly and faithfully made out. But the author must express strong disapproval of his ancestor’s ultra modesty in not blazing at least a township in Durham County to compensate him and his heirs for the 13,000 acres which he had lost in Massachusetts.

Roger blazed but some 800 acres. For one thing, blazing involved a large amount of very heavy work. The intervening trees of the unbroken forest had to{20} be cut away. A straight line must be made out from blaze to blaze. Besides, the emigrant to those silent and pathless forests appears to have had small thought of any future value of the land thus acquired, and as he would have said, colloquially, he was not disposed to bother with blazing over eight hundred acres.

Realizing the difficulty the incomer would have in getting across the fords at the head of Lake Ontario, between Niagara and Hamilton, Governor Simcoe sent his aide-de-camp to pilot the cavalcade. No waggon road had been constructed along the shore. But the sand was the only obstruction, and after several days’ travel he arrived at Darlington, where was the unbroken forest, diversified only by the many streams and rivers of undulating central Canada. It was a fine landscape that lay around the emigrant, with the divine impress still upon it. The red man had not changed its original features. He had contented himself with the results of the chase among the sombre shades of the forest, or, floating upon the pure blue waters in his birch-bark canoe, he took of the myriads upon myriads of the finny tribe from the cool depths below.

The whites had only just begun to obtain a livelihood in the broad land. Not more than 12,000 persons of European descent then dwelt in all Upper Canada, now forming the peerless Province of Ontario, with its 3,000,000 of inhabitants. Roger Conant had chosen a beautiful location, and here with a valiant heart he started to hew out a home for himself and his family. Although he had brought to this prov{21}ince from Massachusetts £5,000 in British gold, he was unable at the first to make any use of it, simply because there were no neighbors to do business with, and manifestly no trade requirements.[A] But we find him, about the year 1798, becoming a fur trader with the Indians. He invested some of his money in the Durham boats of that day, which were used to ascend the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, being pulled up the rapids of that mighty river by ropes in the hands of men on shore. Canals, as we have them now around the rapids, were not then even thought of. Nor was the Rideau Canal, making the long detour by Ottawa, which did so much afterwards to develop the western part of the province. With capital, and possessing the basis of all wealth robust health, Roger Conant pursued the fur trade with the Indians to its utmost possibility. Disposing of the goods he brought from Montreal in his Durham boats, he accumulated, by barter, large quantities of furs. To Montreal in turn he took his bundles of furs, and gold came to him in abundance, so that he rapidly accumulated a considerable fortune. While doing so, and pursuing his trading with the red men, his home life was not neglected. Rude though his log-house beside the salmon stream at Darlington was, it was spacious and comfortable, and in its day might even be termed a hall. It had the charm of a fine situation, and it had Lake Ontario for its adjacent prospect. Conant had brought a few books from his Massachusetts home{22} at Bridgewater, and while he conned these ever so faithfully over and over again, the great book of nature was always spread before him in the surpassingly beautiful landscape that included the shimmering waters of the lake, the grass lands upon the beaver meadow at the mouth of the salmon stream, and the golden grain in the small clearings which he had so far been able to wrest from the dark, tall, prolific forest of beech, maple and birch, with an occasional large pine, that extended right down to the shingle of the beach. Of his sons it may be said that, although capable men, they were handicapped in the race with the incoming tide of settlers so soon to come to the neighborhood of that rude home at Darlington, in the county of Durham, Upper Canada. They were at a grievous disadvantage because of their lack of education. Education could not be obtained in Ontario in the early days of the nineteenth century. There were no schools, and had there been schools there would have been no pupils. Consequently we find Roger’s sons possessing grand physical health, and pursuing the vigorous life of that day, with but little education. They felled the forest, and obtained from the soil the crops that in its virginity it is always ready to give. Eliphalet, who was only a very small boy when his father brought him from Massachusetts, attended to the business affairs of the family as his father got older, and we find him making, after Roger Conant’s death, a declaration as to his father’s will, in which he states that he is especially cognizant that the will should be so and so. That instrument was{23} admitted as a will by the court of that day, 1821, the date of Roger’s death. To us such proceedings seem crude, particularly as the document referred to conveyed an estate of great value.

With regard to this will a singular circumstance must be noted. Roger died a very large real estate owner. This part of his possessions is duly scheduled. But of his hoard of gold no mention is made. The author’s paternal uncle, David Annis, who lived with the family till his death in 1861, frequently said in the author’s hearing—it was a statement made many times—that Roger Conant had gold and buried it. Why he did so is a mystery. It is also certain that no one has yet unearthed that gold. On the farm at Darlington on which he resided, a few days before his death he took a large family iron bake-kettle, and after placing therein his gold he buried it on the bank of the salmon stream of which mention has already been made. The bake-kettle was missed from its accustomed position by the open fireplace, but search failed to reveal its whereabouts. Thereafter, and many times since, persons with various amalgams and with divining rods and sticks have searched for this buried treasure, but always in vain.

Of Eliphalet, the son, who did the business of the family, being the elder son, all trace is lost, and there is no one known to-day who claims descent from him.

Abel, another son, had an immense tract of land in Scarborough, on the Danforth Road, near the Presbyterian Centennial Church of that township. His son, Roger, left a most respectable and interesting{24} family in Michigan, of whom the best known and most intelligent is Mrs. Elizabeth West, of Port Huron, in that State. It does not appear that Abel Conant ever disposed of his Scarborough estate by deed or by will, but simply lost it, so lightly in those days did the inhabitants value accumulated properties.

Barnabas, another son of Roger, disappeared, and all trace of him is lost. Jeremiah—still another son—died about 1854 in Michigan. Of him, also, nothing is known. Lastly Thomas, the youngest son—grandfather of the author—as will be seen later in this volume, was assassinated when a young man during the Canadian Revolution of 1837-8.

Roger Conant’s daughter, Rhoda, became the wife of Levi Annis. From this union sprang a numerous and most progressive family, who are to-day, with their descendants, among the foremost of our land.

Polly, another daughter, married John Pickel and left a small family, descendants of which still reside in Darlington in the vicinity of the ancestral home.

It will be noted as a singular fact that even the most ordinary emigrants from Great Britain, seeking a home here in those early days, were in some respects better equipped than the sons of Roger Conant, with their prospect of becoming heirs of large property. For, coming from Great Britain, the land of schools, the poor emigrant generally possessed a fair education, which the young Conants did not. Also, they had, besides, the prime idea of gaining a home in the new land and keeping it. Not so the Conant sons, who so easily secured an abundance from the ple{25}thoric returns of the virgin soil of that day. Books were denied them. Of the diversions of society, the theatre or the lecture room, they knew nothing. Consequently they found their own crude diversions as they could. “Little” or “Muddy” York, the nucleus of Toronto, began to become a settlement, and to that hamlet they easily wended their way to find relief from the humdrum life among the forests at home. It is told that frequently, when they were short of cash, they would drive a bunch of cattle from their father’s herd to York and sell them, spending the proceeds in riding and driving about the town. That in itself is not very much to remark, seeing that they were the sons of a rich man, and their doings were no more than compatible with their conceded station in life. And so far as is known in an age when everybody consumed more or less spirituous liquors in Upper Canada, the Conant sons were not particularly remarkable either for their partaking or their abstemiousness. Their loss of properties cannot be attributed to their convivial habits, but rather to a want of appreciation of their possessions.

Daniel Conant, the author’s father, unmistakably inherited the vim and push of his grandfather, Roger. Thus we find him as a young man owning fleets of ships on the Great Lakes, as well as being a lumber producer and dealer in that commodity second to none of his day.[B] It may be observed, in passing, that Roger Conant during the whole of his life never seemed to care for office. Offices were many times{26} offered to him by the British Government, but he steadily refused, and died without ever having tasted their sweets. His own business was far sweeter to him, and he was far more successful in it than he could have been in office. His grandson, Daniel, had this family trait. He did not spend an hour in seeking preferments, and office to him had no allurements. His education was meagre. It was, however, sufficient to enable him to do an enormous business. He not only amassed wealth, but by his efforts in moving his ships and pursuing his business generally, he did much for the good of his native province, and for his neighbors. While his lumber commanded a ready sale in the United States markets, it was also used very largely in building homes for the settlers in his locality. The poor came to him as to a friend, and never came in vain. At his burial in 1879 hundreds of poor men, as well as their more fortunate neighbors, followed his bier to the grave. Perhaps no more striking token of the regard in which he was held by the poor can be cited, and the author glories in this tribute to his memory by the meek and lowly.

 

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