Upper Canada, eh? Windsor in 1837.


View of Detroit from Windsor, Ontario around 1850

Still enjoying the leftovers from your bbq celebrating 144 years of Confederation? Ah, yes. There’s nothing like cold chicken, ribs, potato salad and watermelon washed down by an icy Molson Canadian to help prolong that warm patriotic feeling.

In addition to Canada Day being a helluva good excuse to party, it’s also a fine reason to think about our past. At least I think so.

From 1841 to Confederation in 1867, Windsor was part of what was referred to as Canada West and prior to that, Upper Canada. Have you ever wondered what Windsor was like back in 1867? Well, how about 1837?

Anna Brownell Jameson: courageous explorer, feminist and author

Thanks to the wanderings of an intrepid British woman named Anna Brownell Jameson (Murphy) we have a fascinating record of what life in this area was like so long ago. Anna Jameson was a prominent British author, feminist, travel writer, and art historian. In 1836, she was summoned to Canada by her husband, who had been appointed chief justice of the province of Upper Canada. He failed to meet her at New York, and she was left to make her way alone in winter to Toronto.

Here she began the travelogue of her journey, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, which was later published in Britain in 1838. After eight months of travelling and writing in Canada, Anna’s book provided an intimate and unique look at the people and the land as she journeyed for weeks on end by wagon, coach, steamship – and even log canoe.

Soon after arrival in Toronto in December 1836, she let it be known that the following year she would travel across Upper Canada to the Detroit River, then head north Lake Huron.

Her new Canadian friends were horrified and tried unsuccessfully, to dissuade her with predictions of certain disaster. The country, after all was still an untamed, unmapped wilderness. Certainly no place for a gentlewoman just arrived from Britain.

Ignoring their warnings, she set out and as her friends predicted, did suffer hardship and adversity. After finally arriving in Detroit she became ill, and while recuperating, found time to visit what she described as the “little hamlet opposite to Detroit”, referring to it as “Richmond” even though the name “Windsor” had been officially adopted just the year before. Her brief visit produced an interesting perspective:

“I hardly know how to convey to you an idea of the difference between the two shores. It will appear to you as incredible as it is to me incomprehensible.

Our shore is said to be the more fertile but to float between them (as I did today in a little canoe made of a hollow tree, and paddled by a half-breed imp of a boy) to behold on one side, a city, with its towers and spires and animated population, with villas and handsome houses stretching along the shore, and a hundred vessels or more, gigantic steamers, brigs, schooners, crowding the port, loading and unloading; all the bustle, in short, of prosperity and commerce …

and on the other side, a struggling hamlet, one schooner, one little wretched steamboat, some windmills, a Catholic chapel or two, a supine ignorant peasantry, all the symptoms of apathy, indolence, mistrust, hopelessness!

… Can I, can anyone, help wondering at the difference and asking whence it arises?”

Very good question Anna and one that has also made me scratch my head many times. Why did Detroit grow into a major cosmopolitan city and Windsor cling to its small town roots? Surely, the reason must be more complex than the existence of a one-mile river separating two communities in two different countries.

I did a little investigating in one of my handy local history books and discovered this little gem:

“For more than fifty years following the American acquisition of Detroit, progress was slow on the Canadian side of the Detroit River and in Essex County beyond. The difficulty of communication with the outside world was a very real obstacle in the way of both settlement and trade. Completion of the Erie Canal (1825) and the Welland Canal (1829) eased matters in allowing direct water communication with the eastern seaboard. But once the icy hand of winter descended upon the Great Lakes and their connecting rivers, isolation was complete. Improved land transportation in the form of railway connections with the east was imperative, and until this was achieved, Essex County could expect little improvement. This was to come early in the second half of the 19th century.”

Garden Gateway to Canada, 100 Years of Windsor and Essex County, 1854-1954, Neil F. Morrison, copyright 1954

"Bustling" Sandwich Street (Riverside Drive) looking west in 1891 by Frederick Arthur Verner. The Canadian Pacific Railway station is at right.

The railway didn’t come to Windsor until 1854. At long last Windsor was connected with the rest of the country. Things definitely improved; Windsor began to grow.

But it never caught up to Detroit. The Motor City had a much bigger head start and though it has suffered mightily over the last 60 years, it still is a big city and Windsor, well, hmmm…. was Anna actually looking into a crystal ball?

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About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a peculiar series of events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, (partner is Chris Edwards,) Walkerville Publishing Inc., launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999, which in due course became "The Times Magazine". Our goal was to make history real. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, masters track & field competitor (when I have time), glass is nearly full person.
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One Response to Upper Canada, eh? Windsor in 1837.

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