This week we take a look at mid- to late- August of 1866, and we will find one story dominating the headlines in this neck of the woods. It will also, of course, be the last time we talk of “Peterborough, Canada West” — our discussion will soon move to “Peterborough, Ontario.”
Click on for Fenians, a retirement party, German unification, and more Fenians…
The big news, as the summer of 1866 drew to a close, revolved around the Fenian raids, an episode of Canadian history that is generally now seen as a small blip on the radar right around Confederation, but was very much at the forefront in those days and weeks. To make a long and complicated story very short, the Fenians were Roman Catholic Irish-Americans, many of them veterans of the Civil War, who launched attacks into southern Canada in response to Britain’s occupation of Ireland. Small but significant battles at Ridgeway and Fort Erie in June of 1866 had resulted in Fenian victories over an ill-prepared Canadian milita, although the raiders were forced to withdraw eventually. The threat of the raids led to a call for volunteers to take up arms, and the Peterborough Examiner, on August 23rd, paid tribute to those who had done so:
“They are fathers, brothers, friends, and therefore dear to us. But more than this, they are our temporal defense in the time of invasion, and as such, independent of our relationship, are dear to us. Not a citizen but felt a sense of security during the late Fenian trouble, when he thought of our brave volunteers.”
The big fear, in Peterborough and elsewhere in Canada, was that these raids marked the beginning of something very serious. While the U.S. military had been active in trying to prevent the attacks, there was a great deal of political sympathy for the Fenians south of the border, not least because of the fraught relations between Britain, and by extension Canada, and the United States during the Civil War. The August 23rd Examiner quoted a letter from a Canadian resident of Indiana as follows:
“[Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Schuyler Colfax], in his speech here the other day, said that it was the intention of the Government to let the Fenians have their own way next time. They (the Fenians) are more active than ever, and it is fully believed here that this winter will see Canada in their possession. You seem to think in Canada that the trouble is over; far from that, the real danger is now. Fenianism is now become part of the Yankee politics of the day; Democrats and Republicans are loud in their praise of the organization.”
In any event, the fears proved unfounded. There would not be another serious Fenian raid until 1870, by which time the movement itself was in some disarray, not to mention the fact that the Canadian military response was far more organized.
Other things were going on in Peterborough at the time, of course, including the retirement of Captain McNaughton of the Peterborough Fire Department. Captain McNaughton had been instrumental in the creation of the department, and his stepping-down was feted in a truly major way (“Justice and more than justice [was] being done to the edibles…” reported the August 23rd Examiner about the party). However, even here, the Fenian situation intruded itself, with speaker after speaker first toasting Capt. McNaughton and immediately digressing to promise stout opposition to any future raiders.
Elsewhere, as noted up above, the creation of the Dominion of Canada was on the horizon, and it was accompanied in August of 1866 by a small tiff over money. Per the August 16th Examiner, the “nice little sum of $190,000” was being handed over by the government to the Eastern Townships of Canada East (i.e. Quebec), and the municipalities of Canada West were wondering a bit where their share was. It was a situation that did not appear to have any immediate resolution, as Parliament was out of session. It is also very clear that, by this time, there were no remaining doubts that Confederation would occur properly and on schedule, especially with the Fenian raids reinforcing the notion that the unity of British North America was a highly desirable thing.
The major piece of overseas news, and it was receiving some attention in the Peterborough papers but no more than that, was the process of unifying the disparate states of Germany. June and July of 1866 saw a brief war between Prussia and Austria, which resulted in a number of former Austrian possessions joining the German Confederation. The Kingdom of Italy, still moving towards full independence, was involved as well on the Prussian side, and it was in this conflict that Garibaldi’s nascent country took possession of Venice.
The August 30th Examiner also contained alarming reports of the cholera outbreak in London’s East End. That outbreak, which was in fact dealt with extremely effectively by the standards of the times, nonetheless managed to kill 4000-5000 people (link is a PDF), and must have re-awoken fearful memories on this side of the ocean of the epidemic of 1832, which had killed thousands in the Canadas.
I will close here by returning to the issue of the Fenians, and a bit of a “coming attractions” for future installments of this series. Some raiders had been taken prisoner during the battles in June, and there was an ongoing debate over what was to be done with them. An anonymous letter from “a correspondent from the back country,” to the Peterborough Examiner, on August 23rd, contained an idea:
“[The writer] would make a railroad across British North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, cutting through the Rocky Mountains, and make the Fenian prisoners perform the labor, that thus their evil might be turned into good, in opening up a fertile country for settlement.”
Construction of the trans-continental railway, without the participation of Fenian P.O.W.s, would begin in 1881, and that is not too far in the future for our purposes.
Next time, then, we will take a look at late August of 1867!