This Week in Peterborough: 1868


A Brazilian naval blockhouse after the siege of Humaitá, 1868. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Early September, 1868, was a bit of a fraught time in Peterborough, not to mention in the country at large, and one gets the impression from the newspapers that nobody was particularly happy about anything.  Why?  Well, click on for a sensational trial, local political controversies, and news of awfulness in far-off lands…

We begin with an infamous episode in early Canadian history.  On April 7th, 1868, Member of Parliament Thomas D’Arcy McGee, whom we have encountered in this series before, had been assassinated as he returned to the boarding house where he lived in Ottawa after a late-night debate.  A man by the name of Patrick James Whelan was arrested and charged with the murder (Whelan was a devout supporter of the Fenians, whom McGee had just as vigourously opposed), and his trial began on September 7th.  The Peterborough Examiner devoted a considerable amount of ink to the proceedings — four and a half full broadsheet columns on September 10th — and with some justification:

“Perhaps none of the many important trials held in Canadian Courts gave rise to such wide-spread and deep interest as that which commenced [in Ottawa on Sept. 7th].  The trial of James Whelan for the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, M.P., has long been looked forward to…”


Patrick J. Whelan. (via Wikimedia Commons)

There remains some doubt about whether Whelan actually committed the crime; he certainly protested a complete lack of involvement with it, and the evidence was mostly of the circumstantial variety.  Nonetheless, he was convicted on September 15th, and, once his avenues of appeal had been rejected, went to the gallows in early February of 1869.  The murder of McGee, the trial of Whelan, and the coverage of the episode in Peterborough, are deserving of their own post here, and there will be one at a future date.

The courthouse action may have been the big news of early September, 1868, but there were significant doings in Peterborough itself as well.  As we discussed when looking at 1867, the primary issue for local candidates in the election that summer had been the settlement of the back country, and the sooner the better.  A year later, however, concerns had arisen about how the settlement policy was being carried out.  The main bone of contention was the government’s insistence that lots had to be paid for in full and immediately.  The September 3rd Examiner inveighed against this in no uncertain terms:

“The policy of compelling the immediate payment of all arrears is cruel.  Many of the early pioneers of the back woods have found it difficult enough to meet the demands of their family while they have been clearing their farms and getting some kind of house to live in.  It requires a number of years of labor… to get a few acres cleared, a house and barns raised, roads formed and schoolhouses built… Yet in the face of all this they are to be compelled to pay all arrears to the Crown at once.”


Map of Peterborough County, 1879, showing individual lots (via McGill University)

Adding to the tension was the fact that some lots were available to new settlers as free grants, causing resentment among those who had previously paid for theirs.  Existing settlers were eligible to receive further lands for free… so long as all the arrears on their original property had been paid, of course.  This anger in the back country led the Examiner, in the same article quoted above, to note ominously that “[m]eetings have been held on the Bobcaygeon Road, and the present system condemned.”

The controversy over the back country at this time was not limited to the fight over Crown Land policy.  To the south and west, the Port Whitby and Port Perry Railway was planning to build a line that would divert a fair amount of the produce of the back country away from the Port Hope, Lindsay, and Beaverton Railway, and thus from Peterborough itself.  The Examiner, in a September 3rd editorial, warned that this was imminent, and that not enough was being done to prevent it:

“[the PHL&B], Port Hope, and Peterboro are quietly folding their hands or opposing each other, while for the extra outlay of about $40,000 they are compelling the people of the back country to seek an outlet by Port Perry and Whitby.  This is a subject of more importance than many are willing to admit, but they will find it out yet to their sorrow when they cannot help themselves.”


Lokomotive of the Midland Railway of Canada (the re-named PHL&B) at Lindsay in about 1870. (via Canada Science & Technology Museum, Image# CN002547)

The PW&PP’s proposed line was eventually built, but it was generally unreliable due to the poor quality of its roadbed, and the rail traffic through Peterborough survived.  By the early 1880s, both railways, along with a number of others in the region, had become part of the Grand Trunk Railway, and in due course were merged into the CNR.

Amidst all of this, and despite the lurking worries, rekindled by the murder of McGee, about the possibility of Fenian raiding, the recreational life of the city went on.  From the September 3rd Examiner:

“Thursday last being a holiday by general consent of the citizens, all made up their minds for a frolic… [T]he great mass, tired of the cares of business and confinement, sought a day’s pleasure away from the city’s din, on the lakes and river.”

On this particular occasion, both the city firemen and the Freemasons hosted picnics, with associated boat trips and the like.

Given how much was happening locally, and in Canada, it should come as no surprise that early September of 1868 saw very little international news catching Peterborough’s attention — for one thing, there simply was not enough space in the newspapers after the local stories had been dealt with!  However, there is one event that bears mentioning; the September 3rd Examiner notes, briefly the fall of the Paraguayan city of Humaitá to Brazilian forces after a long siege.  This battle occurred as part of what is known as the Paraguayan War, an appalling six-year conflict that saw the deaths of roughly two thirds of the population of Paraguay, including nearly all of the adult males.

Next time out, we look at 1869, and we will hope for happier news on all fronts!


Masthead of the Peterborough Examiner, mid-1860s.

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1 Response to This Week in Peterborough: 1868

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1920 | Peterboriana

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