Perth, Ontario: Celebrating its 200th Anniversary
Perth is a Canadian town of some 6000 inhabitants in southern Ontario. Located on Section 7 of the 5000 mile long Trans-Canada Highway, Perth is easily accessible from western Quebec, eastern Ontario and Upper New York State.
1816: A Military Settlement is established Named after its Scottish counterpart, Perth began as a military settlement established after the 1812-14 War between Britain and the USA, a pivotal event in embryonic Canadian nationalism. Fearful of any future American invasion from the south, Perth was founded in 1816 in the backwoods to the north of the St. Lawrence “front”, one of three strategic defensive townships initiated in what was then called Upper Canada, a home for United Empire Loyalists.
In spring 1816 the earliest inhabitants of Perth were led north from Brockville on the St. Lawrence River: firstly along a scarcely-marked forest trail, then by means of a “scow”- a flat-bottomed boat – 22 km along the Big Rideau Lake, and finally, via the valley of what was later named the Tay River. By autumn 1816, over 1500 people occupied 20 houses in the 1 square mile village of Perth with a further 250 homes in its immediate hinterland. Along with neighbouring townships, these pioneering developments occupied land purchased by the government from the local Chippewa and Mississauga tribes.
After initial surveying, land was allocated in blocks – a pattern echoed in today’s grid-iron layout of Perth’s street plan and its farming hinterland. Pioneer settlement, however, was not for the faint-hearted: clearing the dense woodland was physically demanding, and further hindered by inadequate government-supplied axes and equipment, never mind many settlers’ lack of farming experience; soils generally were poor, formed from thin, stone-ridden glacial deposits; climate was harsh and challenging – 1816 and the summer of 1817 were among the coldest years on record. In spite of these difficulties, fields were cleared and crops planted; log, then frame houses were built, followed by stone constructions for the wealthier; public buildings, mills and the first churches (Presbyterian then Anglican) were erected; communications were improved – the Tay River was bridged, new roads were built and navigation was improved by excavating the Tay Canal to link with the larger Rideau Canal.
The Early Settlers Perth’s population growth was encouraged by various factors. A government land grant for each family, 6 to 8 months of provisions and equipment and tools were significant “pull” incentives. “Push” factors for many British migrants, including unemployed Scottish weavers, reflected post-Napoleonic Wars economic distress; others, including many continental Europeans, were discharged veterans of the American War. Indeed, by 1817, of the 1890 inhabitants according to the Rev. William Bell, Perth’s first Presbyterian minister, soldier settlers and their families (1,253) outnumbered the civilian settlers (637). One related point: in spite of the Scottish place names and the promotion of Perth as a “Scottish“, indeed “Highland” settlement eg. Scotch Line, Tay River, statistics do not confirm this assertion; returns for 1822 show only a third of the inhabitants were of Scottish (mainly Lowland) origin, a figure later overtaken by Irish settlers.
Perth today Two hundred years on, this military settlement set along the Tay River and founded to defend a young Canada for the British Crown, functions as a service centre, as a manufacturing town, as a tourism hub for outdoor pursuits, as a heritage town with historic Victorian architecture and as a dormitory town, accessible to Kingston and Ottawa, about an hour’s drive away, and summed up in promotional literature as “a modern community with old-world charm- a living mosaic of life in rural Ontario in the 1800s.”