This Week in Peterborough: 1861


The Great Comet of 1861, from the “Bilderatlas der Sternenwelt” by E. Weiss, 1888. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Comets!  Traditional harbingers of momentous things, and not always good momentous things either.  There were certainly massive events underway in 1861, both for Peterborough itself and in the world at large, so it is perhaps appropriate that that June had featured a visit from a truly spectacular comet – the “Great Comet of 1861” – whose tail was reported to cover a 90-degree arc of the night sky, and which was bright enough to cast shadows.

Click on for fire, war on the doorstep, and an election!

The big international news — no surprise here — was the outbreak of the American Civil War.  The conflict had been underway since April, and by the week of July 16th, there were worries developing in Canada over whether it would come North.  A London Times editorial (that’s the London in Britain, not the one in Ontario, by the way), reprinted in the July 18th Peterborough Examiner, described the situation south of the 49th in dramatic terms:

“There is no doubt that America is in arms from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico; that the authority of the State and National Executive, never very strong, is shaken, and in many places suspended, that the passions of a Democracy, which can ill brook the slightest contradiction, have been stung almost to frenzy by open revolt, and that for some unknown reason it has pleased the Northern States to empty all the vials of their wrath on the English nation.”

Actually, the reason for Union anger towards Britain was the latter’s refusal to declare that Confederate warships counted as pirates under Maritime Law.  That may seem an odd stance for Britain to take, particularly given the Royal Navy’s aggressive approach to combatting the slave trade (see “This Week in Peterborough for 1858), but the British were heavily reliant on supplies of cotton from the Southern States, in addition to being understandably unwilling to dive into a civil war.  And so neutrality was maintained, which among other things meant that ships from both sides could make some use of Canadian ports.


The Confederate cruiser CSS Tallahassee, shown here, I believe, in Halifax Harbour in 1864. (via

However, Britain was also mindful of that very real possibility that the war could spill northwards, especially given the troubled state of the relationship between itself and the Union.  And so, on July 6th, our old friend the S.S. Great Eastern arrived at Montreal carrying a contingent of British soldiers to help defend Canada if needed.  This was not a universally popular move on either side of the Atlantic.  There was a significant, although not immense, body of opinion in Canada at the time that supported closer ties with Washington than with Westminster — William Lyon MacKenzie, among others, went so far as to argue that Canada should in fact annex herself to the U.S.  In Britain there were fears that reinforcements in the colony would simply provoke the Union rather than warning it off.  Furthermore, with the march towards 1867 and Canadian Confederation well underway, popular sentiment in Britain was starting to lean towards the idea that Canada could and should look after herself.  From the same Times piece quoted above:

“Canada has the power of shaping her own destinies, and it is neither possible if it were wise, nor wise if it were possible, to interfere with the gradual unfolding of events… Even were she without an imperial garrison, it is quite time for this great, wealthy, and high-spirited colony to organize for itself those means of defence which she has so often used to such good advantage.  Canada armed and on the alert has nothing to fear from invasion…”

In any case, the troops were indeed sent (and there would be more reinforcements later on in 1861), but were never needed.


Peterborough Examiner, July 11th, 1861

Turning to local matters, mid-July of 1861 saw the town of Lindsay dealing with the aftermath of a horrendous fire that had destroyed two-thirds of the community on the fifth of the month ($400,000 in 1861 dollars was an appalling total).  Miraculously, nobody was killed in the blaze, although hundreds were left homeless and it was several years before Lindsay was fully recovered and rebuilt.

And July 10th was election day!  The election of 1861 resulted in the incumbent Conservative government of John A. MacDonald and George-Étienne Cartier remaining in power in the Province of Canada, although it lost seats to the George Brown’s Liberals.  The riding of Peterborough saw a very tight race to replace incumbent Liberal/Reformer Thomas Short.  The Conservatives candidate was Wilson Seymour Conger, who had actually preceded Short as the area’s parliamentary representative as well as serving as Mayor of Peterborough in 1856.  Opposing him was Col. Frederick W. Haultain, a former officer in the British army.  Haultain’s son, also named Frederick, would much later enter politics himself, and become a key figure in the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The race in the riding of Peterborough was a very, very, tight affair, with Col. Haultain prevailing by only 30 votes out of more than 2500 cast .  Conger alleged that the county sheriff was guilty of preventing his supporters from voting in some of the outlying areas (there was no secret ballot in them days), but his chances were also hurt by a minor scandal from a couple of years earlier.  In 1859, Conger had been sued successfully by the County over £2,000 that had gone missing from a debenture program that Peterborough was undertaking (I briefly passed over the beginnings of this situation in the 1858 “This Week in Peterborough” post).  There is little to support his allegations of electoral malfeasance — indeed, similar accusations of attacks on Haultain’s supporters were also rumoured — so I rather suspect that Conger’s defeat had a lot more to do with the missing money.


Peterborough Examiner, July 18th, 1861.

The Examiner, meanwhile, had been staunchly backing Col. Haultain, and was ecstatic over the final result; the July 11th edition declared that his win was “one of the great election triumphs ever known.”  The newspaper’s closing statement on the day after the election was as follows:

“The election is over, and we will again be able to publish our usual variety of reading matter.  Much of our space has lately been taken up with subjects of interest to electors, though not to readers generally, but we will endeavor to make up the difference.  We have labored earnestly in what we believed a good cause, and we think most of our readers will agree with us that we have not labored in vain.”

In the next “This Week in Peterborough” post, we’ll look at late July of 1862.  There will be other things up here in the meantime, so please do check back!

Sir John A. MacDonald (left) & Sir George-Étienne Cartier.

Sir John A. MacDonald (left) & Sir George-Étienne Cartier.

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7 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1861

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1862 | Peterboriana

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  5. Pingback: The Victory Song of Colonel F.W. Haultain | Peterboriana

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