Building Canals and Fighting the Irish – The Tale of Two Gideon Grisdales

Posted: November 4, 2012 in C19th, Canadian Settlers, Cumbria, Grisdale, History
Tags: , , , ,

In 1816 Gideon Grisdale was only about twelve when he arrived with his family in Canada. The family were early settlers in North Monaghan, Ontario and I told something of their journey from Cumberland and their early years in Canada in a previous article. This is a brief story about Gideon (and later about his son who was also called Gideon) after he moved to help build a canal.

Gideon Grisdale Senior

Gideon was born in Carlisle, Cumberland, England in 1804, he had been named Gideon after his father Wilfred’s brother.   

Building the Welland Canal

While some of Gideon’s family remained in and around Peterborough County for a long time after the family’s arrival in 1816, he, together with his brother James, soon sought work elsewhere. It was probably in the late 1820s or maybe the early 1830s, when Gideon was in his early or mid twenties, when he moved to Allanburg in Welland County, near Niagara and the American border. Allanburg was at first a shanty town which had sprung up to house the mostly English and Irish workers who had arrived to build the first Welland Canal linking Lake Erie with Lake Ontario. A village was later laid out in 1832 by Samuel Keefer and originally named Allanburgh to honour two men: William Allan, a Toronto banker who was vice-president of the Canal Company, and John Vanderburgh, the first settler. On November 30, 1824, approximately 200 people gathered near Allanburg to witness the sod-turning for the construction of the canal.

The construction of the Canal was beset with challenges and underwent several revisions of its route, but a mere five years after incorporation, on November 30, 1829, the first vessels passed up the completed canal from Port Dalhousie to Lake Erie.

It is highly probable that it was to find work as a labourer on the canal that Gideon trekked from the forests and lakes of Peterborough County all the way to Allanburg. Besides to work on the canal there was no other reason to go there. Gideon probably first lived in the shanty town.

The life of the canal builders was hard. We are told that “undoubtedly the most challenging part of the entire project was digging through the earlier miscalculated 18-metre height of land between Allanburg and Port Robinson”.

This involved excavating a cut of more than 3.2 kilometres in length, at times to a depth of 21 metres from which over 760,000 cubic metres of earth were removed.

The construction was very labour-intensive, with from 250 to 600 men being employed at one time, at a wage of 63 cents a day.

The work was very heavy and difficult, accomplished by human brawn helped only by crude tools and animals. The earth was loosened by pick and shovel, moved from the excavation site by wheelbarrow and then loaded onto ox-drawn carts, or wagons pulled by horses.

If the banks were too steep for the animals to climb, mud had to be shovelled into sacks and with much struggling carried to the surface upon men’s backs.

The work was not without danger. Unstable soil, some sources even describe quicksand, was encountered in many places. Rock had to be drilled by hand and then blown apart by gunpowder. The company once boasted that there had only been three deaths “in a considerable period of time.”

Disease also took a heavy toll. Due to the conditions of moving huge quantities of wet earth, many labourers fell ill with fever. Cholera, likewise, was a grave problem.

Even the work animals suffered. Numerous oxen were killed sliding down the steep banks that became slippery after heavy rains, and many horses died from injury and infection.

Work continued on a southern extension, which was finished in 1833. In the same year Gideon married  Mary Ann Green (called Ann). Two children followed: Gideon Junior in 1834 and Robert John in 1837, both born in Allanburg itself. We next find the family in the 1850 Canadian census in Thorold, in which Gideon is listed as a labourer. Whether he was still labouring on building canals we don’t know, although the second Welland Canal which had been started in 1841 was still not fully completed.

In 1860 Gideon was to be found back in Duoro Peterborough County. He was widowed and living with his farmer nephew Wilfred McCue. How long he stayed in Duoro isn’t known, it’s also unclear how long he had lived in a house his son had bought and sold to him in Allanburg. The Thorold records contain information regarding the purchase of some land and a house in Allanburg, right next to the canal, in 1857 and 1860:

On 20 Jul 1857 (Reg 22 Jul 1857) John Harper et ux sold to Gideon Grisdale ½ acre upon which is erected and known as All Nations House in the Village of Allanburg in Allanburg in Lot 119 Thorold Twp. For £300.

Three years later Gideon Junior sold this to his father:

On 16 Jun 1860 (Reg 26 Jun 1860) Gideon Grisdale Jr. sold to Gideon Grisdale Sr. ½ acre in the Village of Allanburg in Lot 119 Thorold Twp. for £300.

So it seems that Gideon’s son Gideon Junior had by the age of 23 been able to buy land and a house which he sold three years later to his father for the same amount he had paid.

This piece of land had an interesting history. Originally it was part of William Hamilton Merritt’s large plot called “Lot 119”. Part of this land he sold to Captain Ogden Creighton, whose widow Eleanor Creighton sold it to John Harper in 1854. It was from this John Harper that Gideon Grisdale Junior bought the land and house before selling it to his father.

An early survey map of the first and second Welland Canal in Allanburg drawn in the 1860s clearly shows a John Harper’s Tavern on the canal as well as a Lock Tender’s House, both in Lot 119.

In any case by 1881 at the latest Gideon Senior was back in Thorold and continued to live there, possibly (but by no means certainly) in All Nations’ House in Allanburg, until his death from diarrhea in September 1889. This is his obituary:

Welland Tribune, September 27, 1889, p. 4.
Gideon Grisdale, Sr., aged 86 years, died at the residence of his niece, Mrs. Tewsley, Low Banks, on Sunday. His body was interred here on Tuesday. Mr. Grisdale has resided in this section about fifty years and for a long time lived at Allanburgh. He served twenty years as locktender, and was employed on the first Welland Canal that was excavated. Deceased was father of Messrs. Robert Grisdale of this place and Gideon Grisdale of the Ontario police, Niagara Falls.

Gideon Grisdale Junior

Turning now to Gideon Junior, from his birth in 1834 until his death sometime after 1891 but before 1901, Gideon Junior lived in and around Allanburg and later in Port Robinson, in Welland. The censuses always refer to him as a “carpenter”. His work very probably was also connected to the canal; he might also have been a lock keeper on the canal.

Gideon Grisdale Junior married Margaret Bell in 1856 in Niagara, Canada. They were to have four children: William (1857), Margaret Ann (1859), Alexander Latimer (1861) and Gideon Chatfield (1863).

Perhaps we will never know much more about Gideon Junior’s life, unless his descendants have kept stories or have documents, but as we have seen he had done well enough by 1857 to buy land and a house.

Yet there was one incident where we know that he was present and that was the “Battle of Fort Erie” on June 2nd, 1866. This was a small side event in what have become known as the Fenian Raids.

When the American Civil War ended, the “Fenian Brotherhood, who were based in the United States” started to raid “British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland”.

Canadian Militia during the Fenian Raids

While these raids, which lasted from 1866 to 1871, were perhaps not of great import in the larger scheme of things, they were to be of great significance to the development of Canada’s own national identity. I will not recount the history of the raids as there are many excellent telling of the events. Suffice it to say that usually a mixture of Regular British/Canadian troops and locally raised Canadian militia generally saw off the Irish raiders. Except that is for a defeat on the 2nd June, 1866 at the “Battle of Ridgeway”.

Before news of this rare Canadian defeat became known orders were given for the tugboat W T Cobb to embark. Gideon Grisdale was a Sergeant in the volunteer Welland Field Battery and he was aboard the Cobb. One history of what happened puts it as follows:

In response to the Fenian occupation of the township of Fort Erie, Ontario on the night of June 1, 1866, militia units throughout the Niagara Peninsula had been mobilized or put on alert. At Port Colborne a detachment of 51 gunners and N.C.O.s, British Royal Artillery bombardier Sergeant James McCracken and 3 officers (Captain Richard S. King M.D., Lieutenants A.K. Schofield and Charles Nimmo [Nemmo]) taken under command by Lieutenant-Colonel John Dennis, boarded a tugboat, the W.T. Robb carrying the Dunville Naval Brigade, consisting of 19 men and 3 officers (Captain Lachlan McCallum, Lieutenant Walter T. Robb, Second Lieutenant Angus Macdonald) (a total of 71 men and 8 officers) and steamed east to the Niagara River, then scouted downriver as far as Black Creek. The Welland Field Battery did not have its four Armstrong guns with it, and were only half armed with Enfield muzzle-loading rifles while the other half with obsolete smooth-bore “Victoria” carbines that had a limited range of approximately 300 yards at best.

The Fenians apparently gone, Dennis turned back upriver to secure the village of Fort Erie and deny them an easy escape route. Dennis and a company of the Welland Field Battery, landed without difficulty, rounding up a number of stragglers. But when John O’Neill returned with the bulk of his force from his victory at Ridgeway, the volunteers – expecting to encounter only scattered bands of defeated Fenians under close pursuit – were unable to resist them. A fierce firelight followed, in which the militia soldiers and sailors were swept off the shores by the better-armed Fenians and most of the Canadians who had landed were captured. While his men were making their stand, Dennis ran away on foot and hid in a house, shedding his uniform and shaving off his luxurious sideburn whiskers. He would later be court-martialled for deserting his men but he was acquitted by two of the three officers serving on the tribunal.

The “Battle” of Fort Erie 1866

Gideon Grisdale had been involved in this fight and was one of those captured. (Some histories have mistranscribed his name as Griswold). They were released by the Fenians a few days later.

The last thing we know about Gideon Junior before his death in Port Robinson in October 1892 is that in 1891 he was living with his wife Margaret in Niagara Falls Town in Welland County. He was it seems by then a member of the “Ontario Police”!  How this came about is a mystery.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Penny Minter says:

    Hello Steven, I have found a few more references to Grisdale’s in some papers that I have. You may or may not have already seen them.
    Mitchell & Co.’s Gazetteer of the County of Welland 1865 has 3 references to Grisdale. One Gideon Grysdale is in Allanburg and is listed as a carpenter. There are 2 Grisdale’s listed in Port Robinson. Gideon as a labourer and Robert as a carpenter. In the same publication under the Township of Thorold there is a listing for Robert on Lot 202f. This lot would be in Port Robinson.

    The 1842 census of Thorold Township, Welland County lists Gideon Grisdale, locktender. There are 4 in the family. Land was held by bond.

    The 1881 census lists numerous Grisdales in 2 families – Robert (44), Mary Ann (30), Frederick (16), Salena (10), Ella Maud (6) and Hugh (4). Also – Gideon (47), Margaret (46), William (23), Latimore (20) and Chatfield (18). A second Gideon is listed separately. He is 77, a widower and his occupation is listed as lighthouse keeper.

    I have a copy of the death record for Robert John Grisdale from 1923. In the record his parents are listed as Gideon Grisdale and Mary Green. I am still looking for a death record for Gideon Jr.

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Thanks for this Penny,

      So I guess Gideon Senior first married Mary Green had two children and then died sometime after 1842. Gideon later married an English born Ann (Chatfield or not). The name Alexander Lattimore Grisdale comes from Alexander Lattimore who was born in Ireland but can be found living with his family in Welland at the time. He married a Mary Bell. So both the Lattimore and Bell families would be worth exploring more for a connection. That just leaves the Chatfield name to explain!

      Also on the 1881 census are you sure it reads Lighthouse Keeper for Gideon Senior? It’s very faded on my screen, though I see the keeper bit.

      Stephen

  2. Penny Minter says:

    Hi Stephen, I took the information for the 1881 census from a transcription done by the Niagara Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. I did think that lighthouse keeper was a bit odd. I have sent an email to a contact of mine to see if there were any sort of lighthouses along the Welland Canal. I have also asked him to check with a researcher in Port Robinson who may have a prayer book from the 1840’s which may have belonged to my ggg-grandmother. It’s a stretch, but, I’m hoping there might be some sort of inscription in the book to indicate who the original owner was. I will let you know if anything comes from this.
    Another reference I have found for Gideon Sr. comes from the Report of Welland Canal Company. [4th Sess. 13th Parl. 2nd Victoria, 1839]
    Balance Sheet of the Welland Canal Company’s Books, to 30th November, 1838, line 64, Gideon Grisdale…….5 £,14s,11-1/2d
    Bills of Work and Materials, line 64, Gideon Grisdale……3£, 11s, 6-1/2d
    Lock-Tenders, line 64, Gideon Grisdale…..55£, 19s, 11-1/2d
    Penny

  3. Stephen Lewis says:

    Welland Tribune, September 27, 1889, p. 4.
    Gideon Grisdale, Sr., aged 86 years, died at the residence of his niece, Mrs. Tewsley, Low Banks, on Sunday. His body was interred here on Tuesday. Mr. Grisdale has resided in this section about fifty years and for a long time lived at Allanburgh. He served twenty years as locktender, and was employed on the first Welland Canal that was excavated. Deceased was father of Messrs. Robert Grisdale of this place and Gideon Grisdale of the Ontario police, Niagara Falls.

  4. […] Building Canals and Fighting the Irish – The Tale of Two Gideon Grisdales […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s