This Week in Peterborough: 1877


From the Peterborough Times, November 10th, 1877.

It seems, in this series, that hardly a couple of years go by when we do not have a Peterborough election to discuss.  Early November of 1877 is no different, but this time Peterborians were voting not for federal or provincial representation, but to express their view on a social matter.  Civil disorder, and bad feelings all ’round, were the order of the day…

So click on for Prohibition in Peterborough, a political set-back for a famous Canadian, and the arrival in the country of another renowned individual!

Peterborough was in a foment in early November of 1877, and the reason had largely to do with a piece of legislation that had been passed back in 1864, before Confederation.  The Bill in question was the Canada Temperance Act, better known as the Dunkin Act, and it permitted individual towns or regions to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages if they could get the voters’ approval in a plebiscite.  Just such a vote took place in Peterborough at the very end of October, and as you might imagine, it occupied a very large share of the column inches of the local papers.


Mrs. Letitia Youmans, in the 1890s. (via

The run-up to the vote had been a tempestuous one.  The town’s Temperance League had been active for many years, vocally supported especially by the Peterborough Examiner, and for the campaign the brought in some big names from the national White Ribbon movement; the likes of Edward Carswell and Letitia Youmans were in town in late October and into November.  The Peterborough Times, on November 3rd, expressed its aproval of the latter individual:

“It will not be considered out of place in us to record our high appreciation of the services rendered to the Temperance cause by Mrs. Youmans.  She came to our town but a short time ago, and yet how large a place she has won for herself in the hearts of hundreds.”

Apart from the famous visitors, three hundred local women held a running prayer vigil in support of the Dunkin Act, and there were other manifestations of support.

Peterborough’s tavern-owners, meanwhile, campaigned just as vigorously against the Act, holding rallies and public meetings.  Their “celebrity spokesman” was E. King Dodds, a horse-racing aficionado who had founded the Canadian Sportsman magazine.  His visit, however, did not go over as well as Mrs. Youmans’.  As the November 1st Examiner, which we must remember was hardly an unbiased source in this matter, gleefully reported:

“E. King Dodds, the hero of the Anti-Dunkinites, was imported from Weston with all the pomp and glitter of a Persian Shah; but after one hearing the people were so satisfied of the hollowness of his arguments and the vileness of his cause that… he had to leave town without a single person to convey him to the station.  His friends even despised his efforts.”

As the three days set aside for voting (October 29th to 31st) arrived, tempers continued to fray around Peterborough.  An anti-prohibitionist meeting was stormed by partisans of the Temperance side on the 27th of October.  On the other side, an “Anti-Dunkinite” by the name of Charles Stapleton was arrested on October 30th after first having tried to drive a horse and wagon at speed through a Temperance rally, and then allegedly threatening to horse-whip Police Constable Magee, who had prevented him (charges in this matter were later dropped).  On the first day of voting, there were skirmishes over access to the polling station, and the Examiner reported that “[a] bloody row was likely to be the result, [until] the Mayor, to prevent it, swore in twenty special constables.”


From the Peterborough Examiner, November 8th, 1877.

Apart from the minor civil disorder, the voting itself, conducted by public polling rather than secret ballot, was somewhat anticlimactic.  According to the November 8th Examiner:

“By three o’clock of the first day it was plain that the Bill would be carried; for by this time the Antis… had to call on every available man, while the Dunkinites had over 100 voters in their rooms — ready to be polled.”

Indeed, the Dunkin Act was passed in Peterborough, the first town of that size in Canada to make it law.  In the short term, this had little effect; Peterborians in search of a drink, after all, needed only to cross the river to Ashburnham, which had not yet held a plebiscite.  However, the “Dunkinites” expanded their horizons, and in due time the entire County was dry.  It did not last long.  Over the next few years, Prohibition became a chip in the political power game between the federal and various provincial governments, and the Dunkin Act was superseded by bits of legislation at both levels.  In any case, by the end of the 1880s, Prohibition had been repealed in all the areas that had voted for it.

The Dunkin referred to in the Act’s colloquial name was man by the name of Christopher Dunkin, who had been a Member of Parliament representing the riding of Drummond-Arthabaska in Canada East, subsequently the Province of Quebec.  By odd coincidence, as Dunkin’s namesake Bill was being voted on in Peterborough, his old riding was holding a by-election (Dunkin himself had long since left politics and become a judge).  Drummond-Arthabaska had elected a Liberal in the federal election, but he had been appointed Minister of Inland Revenue, and this move, for reasons I am not quite clear on, forced him to stand a by-election.

“Never yet has the Conservative party fought an adversary with such rage,” reported the November 8th Examiner, in its post-mortem of the October 27th vote in Drummond-Arthabaska.  Indeed, the campaign was distinguished by its ferocity, with the separation of Church and State as the key dividing issue.  The Conservatives, who opposed such separation and were thus backed by the politically powerful Roman Catholic Church in Quebec, won the day, and saw Désiré Olivier Bourbeau elected as their candidate.  It proved, however, a momentary set-back for the defeated Liberal; in subsequent years, Wilfrid Laurier would establish a long-lasting political dynasty for his party in Quebec, not to mention setting a still-standing record for longest unbroken tenure as Prime Minister of Canada and earning serious consideration for the title of best ever to have held that office (in case you were unaware, he is the fellow on the five-dollar bill).


Statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier on Parliament Hill, Ottawa. (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, that was not the biggest story in Canada in the late Fall of 1877.  That particular bit of news was occurring out West, in what is now Saskatchewan.  In May of 1877, the Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull had crossed the border with a number of his people, fleeing American military forces who were seeking to avenge the utter destruction of Gen. George Custer and his cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn the preceding year.  Even though several months had passed, the question of what to do with Sitting Bull was still very much a hot topic in early November, even in far-off Peterborough.  This was mostly due to arriving reports of an October 17th meeting, brokered by the Northwest Mounted Police, between the Lakota Chief and U.S. Army General Alfred Terry.  Terry tried to convince Sitting Bull to return to the United States, offering a full pardon, but the meeting came to nothing.


Sitting Bull, photographed in 1885. (Photograph from the Library of Congress)


On the one hand, the Peterborough newspapers were generally sympathetic to Sitting Bull’s plight.  The November 1st Examiner lamented “the very unfair treatment to which the Indians of that country have been subjected by [U.S. Indian Department] agents who robbed them with one hand and the government with the other.”  However, there were also deep concerns in the public mind about what would happen if the Lakota began raiding back across the border, and what it would mean for still-dicey Canadian-American relations.  From the same Examiner editorial quoted just above:

“So long as Indian troubles continue in American territory, the hostile tribes will always have hearty sympathisers in these refugee Sioux; and deep sympathy is always a strong incentive to material assistance.  Thus there is… the danger of international complications…”

There were also worries, particularly among the Blackfoot, Cree, and Assiniboine peoples who were already living in the area, about potential scarcity of food resources.  In the end, it was the threat of starvation that forced the issue, as the Canadian government was unwilling either to allow Sitting Bull and his people to settle permanently, or to expel them.  Facing a food shortage in 1881 (the buffalo herds had failed completely in 1879), they returned to the United States and surrendered.  It was a sad sort of end to that particular episode.

Elsewhere on the international front in early November of 1877… well, there was not much in the way of interesting news.  The Russo-Turkish War, which we discussed last time, was lurching along towards its conclusion.  However, since it had not, as feared, caused a general Europe-wide conflict, it garnered only a few passing mentions in the Peterborough newspapers.

Next time, we will take a look at early- to mid-November in 1878!


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2 Responses to This Week in Peterborough: 1877

  1. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1878 | Peterboriana

  2. Pingback: This Week in Peterborough: 1929 | Peterboriana

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