History of Lucan & Area
Lucan, Ontario, may be best known for the Black Donnellys and the famous massacre that took place northeast of the village. But, there is so much more to Lucan's history that began in the late 1820's with Biddulph's first settlement, Wilberforce. The following is an article outlining Biddulph's early history that was published in "Lucan 125 Souvenir Booklet 1871-1996".
Among the first residents of Biddulph Township were free blacks from Cincinnati, Ohio, who settle in the area in the autumn of 1829. The black refugees were forced to leave Ohio as a result of the enforcement of the state's "Black Laws", which required all blacks living in Ohio to provide a $500 bond as security and to guarantee good behaviour. As many blacks were unable or unwilling to provide the necessary amount, a Colonization Committee was formed to arrange an exodus from Cincinnati.
Two members of the committee travelled to York (modern Toronto) to see if they would be welcome in Canada. John Colbourne, the Lieutenant-Governor of the province, replied: "Tell the Republicans on your side of the line that we do not know men by their colour; if you wish to come you will be entitled to all the privileges of His Majesty's subjects."
Encouraged by this response, the Colonization Committee negotiated with the Canada Company for the purchase of 800 acres in Biddulph Township in the Huron Tract. The lots, consisting of lots 2, 3 and 5 north and south of the Proof Line Road, and Lot 11 south of the Proof Line Road, extended from the site of today's St. Patrick's Church along No.4 highway to the Ausable River.
Although population statistics are conflicting and unreliable, reports suggest that between 150 and 200 people moved to the settlement. Among the early settlers were: William and Rosanna Bell; Philip and Vilana Harris; Benjamin Paul; Nathaniel Paul; Ephraim and Caroline Taylor; and Peter and Salome Bulter.
Life in 19th Century Biddulph Township was difficult for the new arrivals. As former city dwellers, most were not accustomed to farming, and the heavily wooded land needed to be cleared before it was suitable for planting. However, although inexperienced, the settlers were enthusiastic and hardworking, and prepared to make the settlement, named Wilberforce Colony in 1821, a success.
As Assessment Roll for Biddulph Township for 1835 indicates that the colonists were indeed making progress, and that they had cleared 100 acres of land in five years, and owned approximately 100 head of livestock. One eyewitness noted in 1832 that "the houses, barns, fences and general appearance of this settlement are mean enough, but I consider it in most respects equal, and in some superior, to settlements of whites in the Huron Tract of the same standing."
Other sources also indicate that Wilberforce was making steady progress, and that the Colony had a day school as well as a summer school for girls, as well as two religious societies (Baptist and Methodist) and a Temperance Society. While most residents were naturally involved in agriculture, several businesses also developed, including a general store, blacksmith shop, brickyard and sawmill.
Finally, a Board of Managers was elected by the residents to oversee the internal and public affairs of the Colony, and also to appoint two representatives to collect funds to support the settlement's schools and churches.
Despite the early progress, Wilberforce went into a steady decline by the late 1830's. Some of the original colonists died, or discovered that they did not care for farming, and sold their land to the incoming Irish. Others moved to urban centres with larger black populations, including Chatham, Amherstburg, and Detroit.
The major blow to the settlement's prospects, however, came as a result of the efforts of the two representatives appointed to collect funds for the colony. Nathaniel Paul, who was sent to England to solicit funds, returned with over $7000 in collections, but his expenses totalled over $8000, leaving the Colony with a substantial debt.
The efforts of the second agent, Israel Lewis, were even more damaging. Lewis spent over 10 years collecting funds throughout the United States and Canada, but obstinately refused to turn over any money to the Board of Managers. Angry and frustrated, the Board of Managers were forced to publish notices in several newspapers warning contributors not to donate any money to Lewis. The bad publicity that resulted seriously damaged the Colony's reputation, and long time supporters, including abolitionists and the Quakers of Ohio and Indiana, began to withdraw their support.
Today, there are only a few signs marking the presence of Wilberforce. There is a sign on Main Street commemorating the Colony's founding, and several early residents are buried in graveyards on Sauble Hill and St. James Cemetery in Clandeboye. Further, the descendants of Peter Butler, one of the original settlers, still reside in the village.
However, while there is little to mark their passing, the story of the
early black settlers deserves to be told and remembered. Like the Irish
who came to Biddulph in the 1840's and 1850's, and the Dutch who moved
to the township after World War II, the black refugees came to Biddulph
Township with hopes and dreams. Today's Biddulph Township residents can
take pride in the fact that their township has often been the home of those
who sought a better life for themselves and their descendants.
Lucan's history continues with the arrival of Irish settlers that included Col. James Hodgins, Biddulph's first settler. If you're interested in finding out more about Lucan and Area history, please visit the Lucan Area Heritage Museum, located at 192 Frank Street, Lucan.
The museum is open every Saturday from
1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.