Friends in the Niagara Peninsula, 1786-1802

By Richard MacMaster

Friends began settling in the Niagara region in 1786. They were part of a larger migration "from the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, particularly the county of Sussex, in the latter state".(1) Many incoming settlers, including some Friends, had stood loyally by King and country during the American Revolution and could be counted as refugees from the United States. Nearly all Friends who came to Niagara had taken no active part in the war and did not claim to be Loyalists. They had suffered nevertheless from double taxation and the loss of civil rights for their refusal to bear arms or pledge to defend the new nation. These penalties continued after the war. In 1778 Quakers in Chester County "in behalf of themselves and others in similar circumstances" petitioned the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for relief stating that "being conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, they have been fined in considerable sums for not attending militia musters" and their property seized by local collectors who gave no receipts so "the petitioners are still chargeable with the same fines." In urging repeal of "the present disgraceful test law" in 1789, the editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette observed that:

Virginia, and the governor of Canada, have already taken advantage of our folly; they invite Quakers, and other sects who are opposed to oaths, and promises of fidelity to government to come and settle among them.(2)

Other patterns can be seen in this Quaker migration. It originated in a small number of Quaker communities that had exceptionally close ties with one another. Friends who settled in the Niagara peninsula came from southeastern Lancaster County and eastern Bucks County and from Sussex County, New Jersey. Mennonites, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans also came to Niagara from these same places. During the American Revolution this had been the safest route for British prisoners escaping from internment camps to reach their own lines at New York. Sergeant Roger Lamb, for instance, recorded in his journal how "our worthy friends the Quakers" helped him and his companions across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Quite a few settlers in Ontario had sheltered these fugitives and some had suffered for it.

Friends in other parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey sent few or no members at all to Ontario. Friends moving to Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in these same years did not come from meetings in Bucks County or Sussex County. Of 84 Quaker migrants from Pennsylvania who brought certificates of membership to Hopewell Monthly Meeting in 1786-1797, Chester County meetings accounted for 52 individuals and families with certificates. Sadsbury Monthly Meeting in southeastern Lancaster County sent 15 certificates, two meetings in York County sent 10, Exeter Meeting in Berks County sent 4, meetings in Montgomery County sent 3, and Philadelphia only 2. Since the wartime experience of Pennsylvania Friends was much the same, with no regional differences in the enforcement of state laws, these different sources of Quaker migration to Ontario and Virginia are striking. Only Sadsbury sent members to both Niagara and the Shenandoah Valley. In this case Friends reflected a broader migration pattern.(3)

The pattern was already an old one. In the eighteenth century some l,260 southeastern Pennsylvania Friends followed the Philadelphia Wagon Road to cheaper, but equally fertile, land in Virginia. "The migration accelerated dramatically in the 1760's, when 291 Quakers moved south," the majority of them with children. Land was no longer available for more than one or two sons of Chester County farmers, but the general prosperity of the region provided other alternatives to migration, as Duane Ball demonstrated. In his study of Chester County Friends, Barry Levy showed the degree to which they were able "to diversify their children." They had some more investments, rented more land, and followed a wider variety of occupations than their parents had. Bucks County Friends used the same strategies. They combined farming and a trade and set their sons up as blacksmiths and wheelwrights and in every other honorable occupation. Migration also relieved pressure on a now limited supply of land. This migration was also at full tide in the 1760s. Fifty Quaker families moved to Virginia. Friends in Bucks County also crossed the Delaware to settle first at Kingwood in Hunterdon County, New Jersey and later to establish a daughter colony at Hardwick in Sussex County.

Movement to new lands on the frontier again began in earnest in the late 1780s as the economy revived in Pennsylvania after a period of severe depression. With farm prices improving, tenants and small land owners could afford to move. As Professor James T. Lemon noted in his classic study of southeastern Pennsylvania:

Even Quakers and Mennonites, after two or three decades during which their holdings did not expand, felt the pressure and established new colonies elsewhere. In the more expansive early 1790s movement was considerable.(4)

As land grew scarcer and land values soared in long-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, sons of large Quaker families would have to subdivide their father's farm, move away or choose another occupation than farming. Subdividing a small farm made no sense. Economic diversification and migration to other settlements of Friends worked as ways to preserve the Quaker community so long as the individual sought counsel from the meeting in making a change and did not go off on his own "in a disorderly manner." The experience of one Bucks County Quaker family can illustrate some pressures on the meeting.

John Gillam, who came to Ontario, a landless, unmarried young man, was one of eight sons of Lucas and Ann Dungan Gillam of Middletown Township in Bucks County. His father ranked among the less prosperous farmers and paid taxes on 117 acres in 1782. One son Simon, who married in 1783, lived on his father's farm and eventually inherited it. Other sons appear on tax lists from 1785 through 1791 as landless or as tenant farmers, paying taxes only on a horse or a cow. Middletown Monthly Meeting disowned all of Lucas Gillam's sons except Simon and Joshua. Joshua was too young to be challenged by military service in the American Revolution. His brother Simon's losses by distraint for muster and substitute fines were reported to the Meeting for Suffering of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but Lucas Jr. "left in a disorderly manner and joined a military body" in 1778. He was a Loyalist. Militia fines bore heavily on poor young men and distant places appealed to those with few prospects at home. Joseph "eft his master and these parts" in 1781 as an apprentice or hired man. He later went to Ontario, according to family tradition. James and John mustered with the militia in peacetime in 1786. Thomas "left these parts as a soldier" in 1794 and joined his brother in Niagara a year later. The other Gillam brother, Jeremiah, married a wife who was not a Quaker. Daughters of the family all remained Friends; the eldest moved with her husband to Sadsbury Monthly Meeting in Lancaster County in 1787.(5)

Establishing new communities evidently ranked high in the priorities of Friends who came to Niagara. Nearly all of them chose to settle in a compact Quaker rural neighbourhood; only a few selected lands in isolation from other Friends. They came to Niagara in extended families, so the religious community had a strong family base. Quite a few unmarried young men migrated, but usually in company with older parents, married sisters and brothers. There were not many isolated individuals among the Friends or any of the other migrants. The typical Quaker settler in Ontario belonged to a network of more-or-less closely related families who had moved at least once in the Colonies before coming to Upper Canada. The settler's immediate family included a United Empire Loyalist, usually a brother or brother-in-law disowned for taking up arms in the King's defence. Some Quaker settlers sold a profitable farm or mill before leaving for Ontario, but the typical Quaker migrant owned insufficient land for profitable farming and many were landless or farmed someone else's acres as a tenant. Movement to the Niagara frontier in these years began what is called a chain-migration, with other family members and former neighbours following the first-comers a few years later. In some cases this involved migration in two stages. Friends from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Sussex County, New Jersey were also going to the upper Susquehanna valley in Pennsylvania in the 1780s and 1790s, establishing meetings at Catawissa, Roaring Creek, Muncy and elsewhere. Some of them later moved to Ontario joining kin in Pelham and Yonge Street meetings.(6)

This chain migration of extended families included men and women of Quaker background who had been disowned in New Jersey or Pennsylvania or never associated themselves with the meetings in Upper Canada. Settlements of Friends in Niagara as elsewhere had families with only this tenuous link to the Society of Friends who nonetheless participated in the life of the community. Other convinced Friends carried unfamiliar surnames into the meeting. The Quaker settlements, while compact, were not isolated from their neighbours.(7)

Settlement Patterns

Friends, like other settlers, took their time in locating lands at Niagara. This enabled them to select not only fertile acreage, but land close to other Quaker settlers. Philip Frey received an appointment in December 1784 as deputy surveyor "for making surveys in the Upper District of the Province of Quebec" and began surveying in the settlements at Niagara in 1786. Major Campbell, commanding at Niagara, wrote Frey in July 1786 urging him to "come down" and begin "making a regular survey of the whole settlement" which was needed "from the number of people daily coming in from American States.” In October 1788 Frey sent "a plan of the settlement of Niagara" to the surveyor general, but he was asked to make a new plan with the names of each settler on his lot. Frey replied that this was difficult to do:

With respect to my insertion of each Propietor's name in his Lot be pleased to allow me to observe that the change of property &c is as yet so frequent that it would convey but a very uncertain acco't of each man's settlement, therefore could not be depended upon to stand on record… the people being allowed to roam about and choose situations in every respect suitable to them makes this Settlement very much scattered and it would employ ten surveyors to follow them in order to lay out their lands .(8)

Irritating as this may have been to the deputy surveyor, Friends who came to Niagara over a period of years were enabled to locate or relocate Crown grants side by side in two major settlements.

Ezekiel Dennis may have been the first Quaker to settle on the Niagara peninsula. When he petitioned for additional land in 1797, Dennis presented an order dated 12 October 1786 from Major A. Campbell to Philip Frey, deputy surveyor, requesting that "Ezekiel Dennis being intitled to 500 acres for himself and Family as a Loyalist you'l please direct him to any ungranted Lands." He came up from Richmond township in northern Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Tax records there indicate that Ezekiel Dennis owned 15 acres of land, a horse and a cow. In 1784 the assessor noted that Dennis had a dwelling house and a family of nine. The 1786 tax list indicated that he had gone away. He evidently returned for his family and recruited others. Richland Monthly Meeting gave certificates dated 25 5th month 1788 and addressed to Friends at Niagara to Ezekiel Dennis and his brother Joseph Dennis and their families. On June 3, 1788 Ezekiel and Ann Dennis deeded their land in Richland Township to Robert Penrose. Joseph and Deborah (Webster) Dennis, their three children, and Ezekiel and Ann Dennis and their nine children traveled to Niagara in the summer of 1788 to settle on lands Ezekiel Dennis had chosen.(9)

When he settled, Ezekiel Dennis located 200 acres at Point Abino on Lake Erie in what was to become Bertie Township. Since this represented less than his original grant, he was awarded 500 acres in 1797 for himself and his family. Ezekiel Dennis may have been the first settler in what was by 1789 "the Quaker township." On the same day as his brother Ezekiel's request, Joseph Dennis petitioned for confirmation of his lands fronting Lake Erie in Lot 15 of Humberstone Township and additional family lands.

John Hill Sr. stated in his 1796 petition that "he came into the Province in the year 1787 and was desired by Colonel Hunter to locate lands on Black Creek" and asked to be "confirmed in 400 acres which were allowed for himself and family." John and Elizabeth Hill belonged to Buckingham Monthly Meeting in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but were living in Bertie Township in 1797 when their daughter Elizabeth married Nathan Havens. The tax lists of Buckingham Township credited John Hill with 180 acres, two dwelling houses, five outbuildings and a family of six whites in 1784. He was assessed for only 100 acres the following year and in 1786. His land petition is evidence that Hill was one of the earliest settlers in Bertie after Ezekiel Dennis.

The Dennis family network is a good example of the patterns of Quaker migration. Ezekiel's grandfather was Joseph Dennis who sold his land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and moved to Sussex County, New Jersey where he died in 1770. His oldest son John Dennis, a wheelwright, remained in Rockhill Township in Bucks County and later acquired land in neighbouring Richland Township. (He conveyed 16 acres of that land to his son Ezekiel, the first Dennis in Ontario.) Charles, the second son, eventually moved to Muncy; his son Levi settled in Pelham Township.

Joseph's third son moved to Sussex County with his father. Richland Friends gave a certificate in 1767 to Joseph Dennis Jr., his wife Hannah Lewis Dennis and their seven children to Kingwood Monthly Meeting Their eldest son, also an Ezekiel Dennis, accepted a commission as Ensign in a Loyalist regiment, the New Jersey Volunteers; he came to Niagara and settled by 1790 in Clinton Township with other Sussex County Loyalists and died there in 1810. A sister (Anne) and brother (Lewis) of the Loyalist Ezekiel Dennis also came to Ontario. Anne Dennis married Daniel Willson in 1780. They moved with their nine children to Pelham Township with a certificate from Hardwick Monthly Meeting in Sussex County.(10)

Nathaniel and Obadiah Dennis came from Sussex County, New Jersey and settled in Humberstone. Obadiah Dennis indicated in his petition in 1797 that he came to Niagara with his wife and three children in 1787. Obadiah and Prudence Dennis were among the original members of Black Creek who were included in a 1799 list of "all those who have a right of membership" but some of the others who came in 1787 had been compromised by wartime activities and no longer belonged to any meeting of Friends. John Moore, although of Quaker background, had been fined and imprisoned in Sussex County, New Jersey for helping recruits get to the British lines. Benjamin Willson had also helped recruit for the British in Sussex County as his former neighbour Nathaniel Pettit testified. John Harrit came from Sussex County, New Jersey in 1787, according to his later land petition. He brought his wife, who was a daughter of Friends, Asa Schooley, and their one child. Abraham Webster, who was one of the original overseers of Pelham Monthly Meeting in 1799, came with his wife Ann Lundy and their nine children in 1787. All of them were from New Jersey and all of them settled on lands in Bertie Township and Humber stone Township fronting on Lake Erie.(11)

Friends formed part of a growing migration from New Jersey. In September 1787 Robert Hamilton compiled a list of "Families who have this Season Come into the Settlement of Niagara" and, of 48 settlers, he identified 44 as from Jersey. None of the settlers just named appeared on Hamilton's list or a companion "Return of Loyalists and disbanded troops" already in the Niagara district. It is probable that they came later in the year. Adam Burwell arrived in 1787 but made his first improvements only in 1788, an indication that he did not live on his land through the winter. Some migrants did come very later in the season. A group of Baptist Families left Mansfield Township in Sussex County, New Jersey in mid-November 1788 to settle in Clinton Township in the Niagara peninsula.

Some early settlers located their lands and then returned home for their families. A second migration of Friends came in 1788. Asa Schooley and his family brought a certificate with them from Hardwick Township in Sussex County affirming that "he is an orderly and peaceable man, and is a member of the Society of The People called Quakers" and dated in April 1788. They were following their married daughter and others might have come with them from Sussex County. The Dennis families from Richland Monthly Meeting cannot have left Bucks County until June 1788.(12)

These Friends formed a reasonably compact settlement within Bertie Township and adjacent parts of Humberstone Township by 1793 when Jacob Lindley, Joseph Moore and other Friends from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting visited them. Moore mentioned Benjamin Willson, Asa Schooley, John Harrit, John Cutler, Daniel Pound, and Joseph Havens as among Friends he met in Bertie Township. The visitors "went to Ezekiel Dennis's, up the side of Lake Erie about six miles, to Point Ebino" and next day continued "on the lake shore, about ten miles, to what is called the Sugar Loaf," and called on seven Quaker families.(13)

The Quaker settlement stretched in contiguous farms on either side of the later town of Ridgeway. Joseph Marsh lived on Lots 16 and 17 Third Concession on the Garrison Road and the road from Fort Erie to Sugar Loaf. Adam Burwell was his neighbour on Lot 18. Joseph Havens, Benjamin Willson, Daniel Pound, Joel White Morris, John Harrit, whose petition suggested he had settled on Lots 28 and 29 as early as 1787, Asa Schooley, Jehoiada Schooley, John Hill, and Azaliah Schooley owned adjacent farms to the Humberstone line. John Moore, Joseph Havens and John Cutler all owned land across the township line. Ezekiel Dennis was located at Point Abino.(14)

Ezekiel and Nathaniel Dennis, Jehoiada and Azaliah Schooley, Joseph Havens and his son Nathan, John and Crowell Willson, sons of Benjamin Willson, Thomas Doan and John Cutler were among signers of a petition from settlers at Point Abino in 1793.(15)

Not all Friends lived in this neighbourhood. Abraham Webster settled much closer to Fort Erie on Lot 8 fronting on Lake Erie. Another group of Friends lived in Humberstone Township closer to Sugar Loaf. Abraham Laing, Wilson and Elijah Doan, Titus and Enos Doan, Joel White Morris, Joseph and Nathan Havens, Asa Azaliah, and Jehoiada Schooley, John Harret, John Cutler, Amos Morris, James and Samuel Wilson were among the signers of another 1793 petition, this one from "Inhabitants settled round the Point called Sugar Loaf." Some of them, as we have seen, lived closer to Point Abino. There was another cluster of Friends in Humberstone Township. Joseph Dennis patented Lots 14 and 15 fronting on Lake Erie, Benjamin Schooley had a grant for Lot 18 Second Concession, and Thomas and Aaron Doan patented Lots 16 and 17 Third Concession.(16)

When Pelham Monthly Meeting was established in 1799, members of these families formed Black Creek Preparative Meeting. Abraham Webster, Asa and Sarah Schooley were the first overseers. John Cutler and his children, Abraham and Ann Lundy Webster and family, Obadiah and Prudence Dennis and family, Joseph and Deborah Webster Dennis, Joseph and Ann Havens with daughter Sarah, son Nathan, his wife Elizabeth Hill Havens, and their son Daniel and Prudence Pound and family, brothers Abraham and Isaac Laing, Titus and Deborah Willson Doan and son Wilson Doan were on the initial list of those at Black Creek with a right of membership among Friends. Ezekiel Dennis brought his certificate from Richland Monthly Meeting for himself and his family. Anna Morris, widow of Joel White Morris, and Joseph Marsh each brought certificates from Rahway and Plainfield Monthly Meeting for their families. Adam Burwell and his children requested to be joined among Friends.(17)

Other members of these same families evidently shared in the life of the Quaker community, for example, as witnesses at family weddings, but never held membership in Pelham Monthly Meeting.(18)

The Doan, Harret, Havens, Moore, Schooley, Webster, Willson families and some of the Dennis family were from Hardwick Monthly Meeting in Sussex County and Kingwood Monthly Meeting in Hunterdon County. The Laings came from Shrewsbury Monthly Meeting in Monmouth County, and the Marsh and Morris families from Rahway and Plainfield Monthly Meeting in Morris County. Ezekiel Dennis and his family from Richland Monthly Meeting and John Cutler and his children from Buckingham Monthly Meeting were the only settlers from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Cutler, a widower, brought his nine children in 1789 from Buckingham Township where he was taxed for 117 acres. Adam Burwell may not have been a Friend before coming to Upper Canada in 1788, as he said he had served under the British standard as a Loyalist and married the daughter of another Loyalist Nathaniel Veal. Daniel Pound, who served in the Engineers Department with the British Army on Staten island during the war, and was originally from Mendham Monthly Meeting in New Jersey.(19)

Conclusion of article

© 1995 Canadian Friends Historical Association