This Week in Peterborough: 1870



Emperor Napoleon III (left) speaks with Count Otto von Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan. (detail from a painting by Wilhelm Camphausen, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons)

September of 1870 was a time full of incident, including the one poignantly illustrated in the picture above, and Peterborians looking for a topic of conversation would not have had to look far.  Click on for Rebellion in Canada, War overseas, and Shouting and Conflagration in Peterborough herself!

From the Peterborough Examiner, September 15th, 1879

The story in the Peterborough Examiner for September 15th, 1870, is brief, saying only: “Riel and O’Donoghue escaped to Pembina ere the troops reached Fort Garry. ”  And so ended the episode of Canadian history generally known as the Red River Rebellion.  It had begun the previous fall, when Métis settlers in the Territory of Rupert’s Land chased incumbent Governor William McDougall out of the region and seized Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) under the leadership of Louis Riel.  At the root of the problem, to make a long story very short, were concerns on the part of the largely Catholic, francophone, part-Native, Métis that McDougall would show preference in government matters to their white, anglophone, Protestant neighbours.

Having taken Fort Garry and established a Provisional Government, Riel and his supporters entered into a protracted series of negotiations with the Canadian government, and matters appeared to be moving towards an amicable resolution.  Ottawa acknowledged that the rebels’ demands were reasonable, and the Métis for their part were doing their genuine best to accommodate the interests of everyone in the region, regardless of race, creed, or language.

However, in March of 1870, things changed for the worse when the rebels executed a man named Thomas Scott, who had trying to incite anglophone opposition to Riel’s group.  This move, generally regarded as a political blunder by Riel, prompted the federal government to send a military expedition to the area.  Upon the approach of the troops, the Métis abandoned Fort Garry, and as the Examiner tersely noted, Riel fled into exile.  He would return, and a much bloodier conflict would result, fifteen years later, but the immediate upshot of the Rebellion was the creation in July 1870 of the Province of Manitoba.


Louis Riel (centre), with members of the Provisional Government (Library & Archives Canada, #3194516)

As important a moment as it was in the early history of the Dominion, the dénouement of the Red River Rebellion attracted surprisingly little notice in the newspapers of Peterborough, and what pushed it to the side was the Franco-Prussian War.  That had begun in July of 1870, fueled in large part by French concerns over the long-term impact of German unification.  On September 2nd, the Battle of Sedan ended in a thunderous victory for the Prussians, as they captured not only 100,000 French soldiers, but also Emperor Napoleon III himself.  Despite its distance, Sedan was big news in Peterborough, and the Examiner gave over most of its news section in three consecutive issues to first-hand accounts, hour-by-hour updates, and the like.  The September 8th issue described the aftermath of the defeat in France:

“No sooner is Napoleon a prisoner than the Empress leaves Paris, and a Republic is immediately declared, with Gen. Trochu President.  The new government declares its determination to continue the war while a Prussian soldier is in France, but certainly with slim hopes of success.  Nothing short of one million well equipped and well trained men need attempt to drive the Prussians out of the country.”

The Battle of Sedan did indeed decide the ultimate outcome of the war, but the fighting would continue for several more months until the surrender of Paris to the Prussians in early 1871.  Its death toll is estimated at nearly 170,000.

In terms of local news, mid-September of 1870 saw a number of items on the public plate.  First of all, we discussed a couple of posts ago the worry that a new rail-line down through Port Perry would divert the produce of the back country away from Peterborough.  By 1870, those fears seemed to have been realized, causing the September 15th Examiner to lament:

“Peterboro has lost the trade of those hands which cut this lumber, which in four summer months amount to not less than $250,000, all through the madness and incapacity of the Midland Railway Directors… When shall we learn wisdom.”

However, there were also railway construction plans afoot in Peterborough at this time, as the Town Council was debating as to how to fund a connecting rail line to Chemong Lake.  That line would eventually be built, and although it was out of use by the early 1890s, its remains are still visible.  You can see the old railway embankment branching off of the Rotary Greenway Trail (itself following the route of the rail line to Lakefield) in a northwestern direction, just to the north of Parkhill Road.


A reminder that, amidst all the railwaying, more traditional forms of transportation were still available! (Peterborough Examiner, September 15th 1870)

The railway was not the only issue that had the Examiner in a fiery mood.  There was also a scandal going on involving the Peterborough Gas Company, under the directorship of Robert Romaine and John Carnegie (two famous local names there!).  The problem was a simple one: the company had contracted, in the winter of 1869, to provide gas for 20 streetlamps, but nearly a year later only five were actually lit.  The directors claimed that a dispute between the company and one of its contractors was delaying matters, but the Examiner’s editors were derisive of this notion, as the September 15th issue reveals:

“Now here are those guardians of the town’s interest actually deceiving and misleading the Council in order to save themselves the cost of laying down pipes to the more distant posts.

We will not speak of the standing of these men in any religious community, but leave our readers and the citizens generally to draw their own conclusions in reference to their fitness to lead in great religious or moral duties.”

Biting words, and the result of them was predictable.  In its September 22nd issue, the Examiner revealed that it was facing a lawsuit for defamation from Romaine and Carnegie.  The paper was contrite:

“We would very much regret if we should find ourselves guilty of publishing an untruth against either of these gentlemen, and for any over harsh language, if pointed out to us we shall willingly make the amende honorable.”

Without going too deeply into the tedious details of the affair, it does appear that the newspaper had jumped the gun somewhat with its accusations against Romaine and Carnegie.  The editors claimed, in their defense, that they had been misinformed about the contents of a document that they had not had a chance to peruse.

Finally, last week’s post included a mention of the gardening exploits of Peterborough County Sheriff James Hall.  The early Fall of 1870, however, saw the good Sheriff suffer a nasty setback to his horticultural activities when his stable and outbuildings caught fire one night.  The fire then spread, as reported in the September 15th Examiner:

“His beautiful garden was greatly destroyed, and his fine ornamental trees that required years of culture and watching are very much injured.  The kitchen part of his dwelling was very much injured, and a portion of furniture was damaged in trying to remove it…”

The cause of the blaze, speculated the newspaper, was a match carelessly dropped by somebody trying to burgle Hall’s chicken coop.  Coincidentally, the Peterborough Council was, at that time, being urged to purchase a steam-powered fire engine for the town’s volunteer fire department.  An engine was indeed eventually acquired, although I was not able to determine exactly when.


The Peterborough Fire Wagon, early 20th-century. (City of Toronto Archives, via PtboCanada)

On that somewhat melancholy note, we come to an end of our trip through September of 1870.  Next week, it’s late september, 1871!

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6 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1870

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