You all seemed to enjoy my multi-part series on the forgotten villages of York County, and I thought that a closer look at the de Puisaye and Berczy settlements from the late 1700s and early 1800s may be of interest.
In my previous columns, I have covered the settlements that grew along Yonge Street north of Oak Ridges, however the same pattern was developing to the south of here, still along Yonge but populated by an entirely different ethnic group, the French Royalists.
We are headed back to the year 1798 and the arrival of 40 immigrants, along with Joseph Geneviere Compte de Puisaye, a former high-ranking office in the army of Louis XVI after the French revolution.
De Puisaye had appealed to William Pitt and the British government for a place of exile for his followers who had been exiled from France. Coincidentally, John Graves Simcoe had returned to Britain and along with Pitt they promised de Puisaye their support, writing to Peter Russel here in Upper Canada to arrange a land grant for these people.
As a result, in November 1798, the group were granted 22 lots of 200 acres each on the east and west side of Yonge from Lots 52 to 61 just south of Bond Lake on the height of land (hill) later known as the Summit.
Unlike the settlement that was to appear in our area populated by the Quakers, these settlers were ‘grub-steaked’, provided with rations and equipment, even having their land cleared and cabins built for them by the Queen’s Rangers.
They soon proved to be wholly unfit for the rigours of frontier life, and they did not possess the pioneering spirit. De Puisaye soon left the settlement behind in 1799 and went on to the Niagara area and then shortly afterwards returned to England. What of the other settlers? By 1807, having struggled to just stay alive, they too would surrender all their holdings and return to France. You will remember that by 1807 the monarchy had been restored, albeit for a brief period. I think that it is safe to say that the whole venture was a complete disaster.
Predating that attempt at settlement, in 1794, the Berczy settlement was being established. William von Berczy was an enterprising engineer, architect, land developer and speculator of German decent who had brought a group of people from Germany to the Genesee Valley in New York State to a settlement he had established. This settlement would prove to be a complete disaster and as a last resort, he turned his attention to Upper Canada and the rich land grants of our area.
It must be remembered that Berczy was an official colonization agent and the director of the German Land Company and so he required a success to rescue his business venture.
In March 1794 he had petitioned John Graves Simcoe for one million acres of land for what he would call settlement promotion but was in essence a massive business venture. The Executive Council, in their wisdom, reduced the one-million-acre request to just 64,000 acres and only with the proviso that he and his people complete the construction of Yonge from the harbour north to Holland Landing, a total of 32 miles, and make it suitable for wagon travel within a period of one year.
Berczy brought 64 German families from his Genesee, New York settlement and they would work hard to clear the land for eventual habitation and road passage. It is recorded that they were successful in cutting the road north as far as Lot 36, around Langstaff Road by the end of 1794 but alas the project was to experience failure.
Berczy had overextended his resources and due to a series of misfortunes that included crop failures, ill health, and his pipe dream of constructing a canal from the Rouge River to Lake Simcoe, he was eventually forced to forfeit his land grant and returned it to the Crown. However, he was compensated for the work he did complete on Yonge and he and his settlers were given parcels of land in parts of Markham township around Markham village, Unionville, Thornhill, and Richmond Hill.
It should be noted this compensation land turned out to be among the best agricultural land in the province and many of the descendants of this original Mennonite settlement became very successful farmers as the year progressed.
So, what happened to Berczy? Well, he was unable to get his patents for the 64,000 acres of land and after heading back to England, intent on protest, he returned empty handed and sadly went on to eke out a living in the Montreal area, dying in 1813.
Finally, we turn our attention to the Auld Kirk Scotch settlement on Concession Road 6, just west of Bradford that dates from 1819.
In 1815, some 140 Highland Scots from Lord Selkirk's Red River Settlement in Manitoba had grown disheartened by frequent crop failures and administrative issues with the Northwest Company and so they decided that they would relocate to Upper Canada, specifically a piece of land in West Gwillimbury.
Arriving by ‘Nor Westers' canoes, they would disembark in Holland Landing in September 1815. They initially found temporary employment in the various Yonge Street settlements but, in 1819, many of them had moved to this plot of land in West Gwillimbury where they would build, in 1823, a Presbyterian congregation where they held services in a building on the site. This church was replaced by a frame church in 1827 and the current structure was completed in 1869 and still stand proudly today.
The sermons were held in Gaelic in tribute to the settlers who originated from Scotland. One can find many of the original area settlers buried in the cemetery that sits within the church property.
Sadly, the old church and graveyard are all that remain of the Auld Kirk Scotch settlement. If you drive around the area, you will notice that many of the farms are particularly large. The road that once transversed West Gwillimbury has now been reduced to a gravel road terminating at Highway 400.
If you should decide to check out the former settlement site, I am confident that you will find the area of interest. The old church and graveyard still stand in remembrance of a once thriving settlement and serve as evidence of one of the founding settlements of the West Gwillimbury area and South Simcoe County.
It is my hope that my articles will serve as the impetus to prompt discovery of the historic settlements that are scattered throughout our region with their colourful pasts. If they do, then I am a happy man indeed.
Sources: Ontario's Historical Plaques: "The Scotch Settlement 1819; Bradford / West Gwillimbury Town Web Page; The Yonge Street Story by F. R. Bercham
Picture Gallery of Canadian History by C. W. Jeffreys’ Illustrations; Articles by Terry Carter Appearing in the Newmarket Era 1979 to 1990; Photo – The French Royalist Colony – National Archives of Canada; Photo - Infant Toronto Settlement Markham Township 1794 - 1797 - Public Archives of Canada; Photos – Scottish Settlement taken by Richard MacLeod
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.