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01 September, 2011

AMASING STORY OF COLONEL THOMAS TALBOT, THE COLORFUL BARON OF LAKE ERIE SHORES

Okay all you Wrights Lane followers who were born along the northern shores of Lake Erie and those who may also have family and acquaintances living there:  What do Port Burwell, Port Stanley, St. Thomas, Port Talbot, Talbotville and Malahide Township all have in common?

The answer is, Col. Thomas Talbot who was responsible for the designation of those names some 200 years ago. 

I came across much of the information in this post yesterday while doing some rather hasty research for my friends in the Dresden Virtual History Group.  The subject was broached by David McVean of Deluth, Minnesota, who revealed that his "other side" was Talbot and he regretted that the early impact of "Talbot" was little known in the Kent County area of Southwestern Ontario in particular.

Well, I'm here to tall you that a certain Irish aristocrat by the name of "Talbot" had an astonishing impact on not only Kent County, but the counties of Norfolk and Essex on either side of it.  Here is the story.
COL. THOMAS TALBOT

Colonel Thomas Talbot (July 19, 1771 – February 5, 1853) was born at Malahide Castle in Ireland near Dublin.  He was the fourth son of Richard Talbot and his wife Margaret Talbot, 1st Baroness Talbot of Malahide

Surprisingly, at the age of 11 he was commissioned Ensign in the 66th Foot Regiment and was appointed aide-de-camp at 16 to distant relative, the Marquess of Buckingham, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.  In 1790, the year after Buckingham’s resignation, Talbot joined his regiment on garrison duty at Quebec and the following spring moved with it to Montreal. Partly on Buckingham’s recommendation, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, named Talbot as his private secretary in February 1792. The young lieutenant was thus provided with unlimited opportunities to travel throughout the new province with its thick, mixed deciduous wilderness, and to impress Simcoe with his abilities.

The bond forged between the two men over the next four years seems crucial in explaining Talbot’s subsequent actions.  After a brief recall to England, Talbot convinced the government there to allow him to implement a land settlement scheme along the northern shore of Lake Erie. He chose property in Elgin County in adjoining townships, Dunwich and Aldborough, when his petition for 5,000 acres (20 km2) was granted in 1803. It was May 21, 1803 that he landed at a spot which has been called since Port Talbot, and built a log cabin. Nearby, he added a sawmill, a cooper shop, a blacksmith shop, and a poultry house along with a barn. When settlers began to arrive in 1809, Talbot added a gristmill as well.

Here he ruled as an absolute, if erratic, potentate, doling out strips of land to people of his choosing, a group that emphatically did not include Americans, liberalism or anyone insufficiently respectful. For every settler he placed on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land, Talbot received an additional 200 acres (0.81 km2) for himself. He wanted permanent and compact settlement. One of the conditions attached to the free grant of 50 acres (200,000 m2) which he offered to settlers, was the right to purchase an additional hundred and 50 acres (200,000 m2) at $3 each, and the promise of a road in front of each farm within three and a half years. The other condition was the building of a small house and the clearing and sowing of 10 acres (40,000 m2) of land.

The result of the road-making provision was that the settlement became noted for its good roads, especially for that named Talbot Road. By the late 1820s Colonel Thomas Talbot had organized the construction of a 300-mile (480 km)-long road linking the Detroit River and Lake Ontario as part of grand settlement enterprise in the south western peninsula. By 1820, all of the land originally allotted to Talbot had been taken up. From 1814 to 1837 he settled 50, 000 people on 650,000 acres (2,600 km2) of land in the Thames River area. Many, if not most of the settlers, were American. He had placed about 20,000 immigrants on the Talbot settlement by 1826.

Because he had done his work so well, the government placed the southwestern part of the province under his charge. This afforded Talbot the opportunity of extending the Talbot road from the Long Point region to the Detroit River. In 1823, Talbot decided to name the port after his friend Baron Edward George Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, whose son, Frederick Arthur Stanley would become Canada’s governor general and donate to the hockey world the elusive trophy, which still bears his name. According to returns placed before the House of Assembly in 1836, title to some 5,280,000 acres (21,400 km2) located in twenty-nine townships had at one time gone through his hands.

Talbot's administration was regarded as despotic. He was infamous for registering settlers' names on the local settlement map in pencil and if displeased, was alleged to have erased their entry.

During his lifetime and certainly after, Talbot came under intense criticism. When he placed settlers names in lots and with pencil, did he do so in order to cheat them or was it because it was easier to remove the name if the settler failed to fulfill his obligations in the time allowed? He was arbitrary in the way he accepted some people but rejected others. Was that because he was a bigot and corrupt, or was it because he would not accept speculators and people he thought were going to fail?


He dealt with applicants through a window of his home. If the window was closed, applicants had to wait. If he did not approve of an applicant, he would simply slam the window shut and that would be that. If a settler did not complete his work in an approved time, Talbot simply erased his name from the map and his rights disappeared. However, there is no doubt that, whatever people thought of his methods, they worked. The areas he settled were very much in demand. His roads were the best in Upper Canada and his settlements successful. So much so that the area he controlled expanded until it covered most of Southwest Ontario west of Port Burwell and south of London.

His insistence on provision of good roads (notably the eponymous Talbot Trail), maintenance of the roads by the settlers, and the removal of Crown and clergy reserves from main roads, quickly resulted in the Talbot Settlement becoming the most prosperous part of the province. Eventually, however, he began to make political demands on the settlers, after which his power was reduced by the provincial government. Talbot's abuse of power was a contributing factor in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

The Talbot home in Port Talbot was called Malahide (which was demolished in 1997, generating much public outcry from heritage preservationists). Talbot died in the home of George Macbeth at London, ON in 1853 and is interred in the cemetery of St. Peters Anglican Church near Tyrconnell in Elgin County, overlooking his beloved Lake Erie.

Talbot was, and is, an enigmatic character whose deeds are far better known than his personality. He left no autobiography or reminiscences and his bachelorhood dictated no legacy of family recollections. Certain eccentricities – alcoholism, snobbery, reclusiveness, and alleged misogyny – have been featured prominently in various biographies and may have warped the public view of his character. But whether these traits were as important to his make-up as has been suggested is open to question, possibly with no satisfactory answer. Talbot was clearly the product of a privileged, aristocratic upbringing which may well have implanted in him strong feelings of superiority that prevailed throughout his life. These feelings may have been especially obvious in the pioneer society of Upper Canada, where few of his peers ventured let alone resided. His impeccable pedigree was probably a lifelong support. In spite of his geographical isolation he was recognized, visited, and entertained as an aristocrat, until his death, by eminent men and women in both Canada and Britain.

When he died in 1853, at age 82, he had been visited at his historic home on Lake Erie by General Isaac Brock, Francis Gore, Mrs. Anna Jameson, Sir Peregrine Maitland, Sir John Colborne, Chief Justice Sir John Beverley Robinson, his brother the Honourable Peter Robinson, Dr. William Dunlop, Bishops Stuart and Strachan, Sir George Arthur, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Aylmer and many others.

Indeed, a most fascinating and colorful part of our Southwestern Ontario (and Canadian) history.  Curiously, a part that many of us who have lived here all our lives are just beginning to discover.

*To view an excellent video on "The Talbot Settlement" courtesy of the Elgin County Museum, click http://youtu.be/iRWmsSp91zQ
Grave site at St. Peter's Church in Tyrconnell, simply reads "Col. Thomas Talbot, founder of the Talbot Settlement."   


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