Glengarry County GenWeb: A Brief History of Glengarry County

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Glengarry County GenWeb

A Brief History of Glengarry County

Glengarry, the most easterly county of Ontario, is one of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry. Fronting on the St. Lawrence River and Lake St. Francis, it has the Quebec counties of Soulanges and Vaudreuil bordering to the east, Prescott County to the north and Stormont County to the west. Its 478 square miles comprise the townships of Charlottenburgh and Lancaster in the south and Kenyon and Lochiel in the north. The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railways, as well as Highways 34, 43 and 2 provide excellent transportation facilities for the county.

Glengarry is one of the original counties into which the district of Lunenburg was divided in 1792 by proclamation of Lord Dorchester, then officiating Governor of Canada. Many of the early settlers came from Glengarry, Scotland and held to the memory of their Scottish homes in choosing Glengarry for the name of their new homes.

Early pioneers were mainly United Empire Loyalists from the Mohawk Valley in New York. When they were forced to move to Canada, about 1784, they were fairly well experienced in pioneering. They included the names of Macdonell, the McLennans, Charles Rose, John Hay and Benjamin Glassford. They chose Charlottenburgh, the most westerly and largest of Glengarry’s four townships. In 1794 forty families from Scotland, the McLeods, McGillivrays, McCuaigs, McIntoshes, Campbells, Cams and Frasers among them, arrived in Lochiel and settled near Kirkfield.

Families dispossessed by landlords wanting their lands for sheep grazing, they were under the superintendence of a Roman Catholic priest, the Reverend Alexander Macdonell. They settled, in 1786, in St. Raphaels, the first settlers in Glengarry County to be away from a river highway. Of necessity they pioneered a road from St. Raphaels to Coteau, the nearest gristmill. These people, the Grants, McLeods, McCrimmons, McDonalds and McMillans among them, knew little about pioneering agriculture, but with the aid of earlier settlers they survived and gradually improved their holdings. A number of them took up land in Lochiel Township, in northeast Glengarry, included are the names of John Dewar, John McPhee, Donald and Archibald McGillivray, and Roderick and Alexander McLeod. The Reverend Alexander MacDonell built the first Roman Catholic church in the county at St. Raphaels around 1789. Constructed of wood, it was called the Blue Chapel, because of its blue ceiling. In 1802 St. Raphaels was erected officially into a parish and from this focal point missions in the Roman Catholic religion spread across the county. The Reverend Alexander Macdonell died in 1803.

Yet another Alexander Macdonell, of the Greenfield branch of the family, brought members of his clan to Canada in 1792. His son, LI. Col. John Macdonell (Greenfield) was aide-de-camp to General Brock and with Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. At that time he was Attorney General of the province and member of the Legislative Assembly for Glengarry.

Again, in 1804, a namesake of the first priest, Alexander Macdonell, arrived in St. Raphaels. He was the Reverend Alexander Macdonell, chaplain of the Glengarry Fencibles, who brought a party of that disbanded militia regiment to settle at St. Raphaels. Zealously he discharged his pastoral duties. Traveling by horseback, by birch canoe, living with the Indians en route, he covered hundreds of miles each year and soon St. Raphaels became the centre of the Roman Catholic religion in Upper Canada. Reverend Alexander Macdonell began the erection of a fine stone church in 1819; the doors opened in 1826. In 1970 a fire burned the church, leaving a stone shell as a fascinating memorial. He also erected a stone presbytery and a seminary, not only for the training of priests, but also for use as a boys’ school. Reverend Alexander Macdonell was appointed bishop in 1819, and in 1826 he became the first Bishop in Upper Canada. He died while on a visit to Scotland and later was buried in Kingston. Alexandria, Lochiel Township, was named in his honour. From the days of the early Glengarry Fencibles, a fine military tradition has come down to the present Glengarry Highlanders.

Glengarrians involved in the North West Company were: Hon.William McGillivray, chief director of that company; Angus Bethune, son of Reverend John Bethune, who brought organized Presbyterianism to Glengarry in 1787 — Angus Bethune was great-grandfather of Dr. Norman Bethune, famous for his medical work in China.

The lives of the three greatest explorers associated with the NorthWest Company, David Thompson, Sir Alexander MacKenzie and Simon Fraser briefly touched the County of Glengarry. David Thompson lived for a time in Williamstown and with his sons ran a general store. Sir Alexander MacKenzie, whose uncle settled in Glengarry in 1784, gave a bell to the Presbyterian Church at Williamstown and maintained a pew there, though he, himself, spent little actual time in the county. Simon Fraser lived for many years at St. Andrews, close by in Stormont County.

Farming was the main occupation of Glengarry families and although the county is well watered by the Raisin, the Baudette and the Delisle Rivers, as well as several branches of the Rigaud River, the land did not produce too many rich farms and it became customary for the young men to winter in the lumber shanties to supplement their income. Tales of log drives and shantymen belong to Glengarry’s cultural heritage. The men also left for parts of the United States and the western provinces seeking a more lucrative way of life.

By the early nineteenth century Glengarry’s population was almost exclusively Scottish. Gradually this began to change. A shortage of land in the populated areas of the neighboring Quebec townships induced French Canadians to move into Glengarry. Some of the Scots, in turn, moved to settle elsewhere. Today the population of the county is about half French and half English. Because of this trend, many of the Protestant churches fell into disuse while the Roman Catholic churches flourished. In 1978 there were 2 Anglican, 5 Presbyterian and 11 United churches, with one each of Seventh Day Adventist and the Covenanters. There were 15 Roman Catholic churches in that same year.

In 1789 the first post office of Glengarry was opened at Charlottenburgh. It served an area of almost 500 square miles, although most of the people were concentrated along the river front and a few miles inland. Mail couriers on foot or horseback ran the mail to various destinations. Canoe, river steamer, stagecoach and railway were also used at various times. In 1869 the mail came up the north shore of the St. Lawrence via the Grand Trunk Railway. From the first post office of 1789 to the last opened in Williamstown in 1833, Glengarry numbered 58 post offices. In the late 1800’s many were, for various reasons, closed and the coming of rural mail in the early 1900’s caused the closing of others.

The Montreal Telegraph Company built a telegraph line across Glengarry in 1847 to provide communication between Toronto and Montreal. They located a station at Lancaster and one in Cornwall. This was the first of such telegraph lines that were built in Glengarry. The telephone first came to Cornwall in 1880 and was soon followed by this service in other centres, and by 1911 the telephone was available to anyone in Glengarry who wished to have it.

The Grand Trunk Railway opened in 1855 between Montreal and Brockville with a station at Lancaster. In 1856 the line continued to Toronto. In 1882 the Canada Atlantic line was completed in Glengarry County greatly benefiting the county. In particular, Maxville quickly thrived as a principal intermediate station on the line, with new stores and hotels built for the welcome commerce. In 1904 the Grand Trunk bought the Canada Atlantic. In 1914 Glengarry’s final railway was the Stormont and Glengarry line connecting Cornwall with the CPR main line and five more railway stations were opened in Glengarry making a total of 19 altogether.

Alexandria, founded as Priest’s Mills in 1819, became the county seat and principal shopping area for the district. Today it is still the most important centre in Glengarry. By 1903 Alexandria’s industries included Munro and McIntosh, carriagemakers, the Schell Factory and Foundry, and the Canadian Bond Hanger Company. The Graham Creamery opened in 1922, the Carnation Plant in 1952 and Brown’s Shoe Company in 1960. Alexandria is no longer the county seat. Glengarry was one of the original counties of the District of Lunenburg until the Municipal Act of 1850 when it was united with the counties of Stormont and Dundas. Cornwall then became the county seat of the United Counties.

The first newspaper, the Glengarry Times, under its editor, J.C. McNeil printed a first issue in December 1880 in Lancaster. The paper foundered and was followed in three or four years by the Glengarry Review, a Conservative-slanted paper which changed its name in 1888 to the Glengarrian. The Liberals then established the Glengarry News in 1892 and today it is the sole newspaper in Glengarry.

Glengarrians of Scottish descent retain an active interest in their culture and are proud of the Gaelic language which is zealously preserved. The Glengarry Highland Games, held annually in Maxville, are the largest of their kind in North America. The Nor’Westers Museum, opened in an old brick school in Williamstown in 1957, and the Glengarry Pioneer Inn and Museum in Dunvegan, both tell the early history of the county. The Glengarry Historical Society was organized in 1959. Historic sites are in evidence all over Glengarry.

For such a small county (population about 30,000 in 1976), Glengarry has produced a large number of well-known figures. The most famous of these is Ralph Connors, born Charles Gordon, whose two books, Men from Glengarry and Glengarry School Days, sold more copies than any other Canadian book at the time. Three other authors, Carrie Holmes MacGillivray, Grace Campbell, and Dorothy Dumbrille, have also written novels set in the county. Sir Edward Peacock (1871-1962), born at St. Elmo, was a schoolmaster in Canada before leaving for England where he became a prominent financier and director of the Bank of England. Near St. Raphaels lived John Sandfield Macdonald, who became the first Premier of Ontario, 1867-71.

While there is a number of manufacturing industries located in the various centres of the county, much of Glengarry remains rural and farmers are engaged in dairy and poultry farming and hog raising.

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Last updated: 2009