How Loyalists, the American Revolution & John Simcoe Colonized the Rideau River


Its the late 1700s along the Rideau Waterway. European settlers have begun to arrive at a rate unseen by local Indigenous groups, ever before. Settlers’ knowledge of this land is little to none and they are unlikely to survive the winter before them. For now, the weather is mild, but they must hurry if they are to have enough warmth, shelter and food to make it through without giving in to the elements or starving. Local Indigenous groups help these early settlers by teaching them to make and use snowshoes and toboggans, while others are instructed on resourceful ways to preserve and produce food, even tapping the local maple trees. As the days shorten and the crisp fall air gives way to the gnawing cold of winter, families huddle in one room cabins to keep warm. They are sustained by the produce they were instructed to grow, the dried meat they were taught to make and the warmth of the fire that endlessly burns to keep light and life; a fire stoked by wood from a limitless forest surrounding them.

Once this first winter has passed, the settlers now wiser and stronger, face the year with new determination. Larger, sturdier homes are erected, and tasks are made systematic in order to benefit from the land as much as possible. The reality of scarce monetary resources weighs heavily on the head of the house, so he arranges to work the next winter in a lumber camp, in order to send money to his family and so that their next winter might be just a little easier.

How and why did these settlers willfully subject themselves to the harsh wilderness of Upper Canada? What drove them to this place? Money? Their King? And, how did this effect Indigenous life in the area? We will explore the relationship between Indigenous groups, the Crown and its representatives in the Rideau Region and how settler families, unprepared for the winter ahead, ever managed to survive. In order to appreciate the trials of that first winter, we must go back in time to better understand this region and the role each of these players had in this cross-section of time, cultural backgrounds and experience.


Indigenous Use of the Rideau Waterway

This story is best understood by first exploring the region and those that inhabited it long before Europeans ever thought to come to the “New World.” Over ten thousand years ago, Indigenous groups began calling the Rideau Region home, just as glaciers from the last ice age were retreating and the Champlain Sea was left behind, covering nearly the entirety of what would become the Rideau Region. This new landscape would morph into the hills, valleys and rivers that we are familiar with today. Survival in this area was no easy feat. Between scorching hot summers and brutally cold winters, mosquitos and any number of wild creatures to contend with, this was an untamed land. For Indigenous groups in this area, they knew how to best survive and excel within these extremes and did so for millennia before settlers ever stepped foot in this Region.

Through thousands of years of adaptation and ingenuity, the local Indigenous groups of this Region, now known as the Iroquois (who occupied the south) and Algonquin (who inhabited the largest portion of the Rideau Region), were bona fide experts on this land. While these two groups lived in such proximity, sharing a common identity, the Rideau, they had distinct expressions of their culture and way of life. The Algonquin were a semi-nomadic hunting and gathering society that established summer and winter camps, in order to better utilize seasonal plants and game. All the while, the Iroquois lived a more sedentary, agricultural lifestyle, settling in large, palisaded villages with longhouses, growing corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. While these differences were more concrete in nature, the Indigenous groups of the Rideau did share an intrinsic, deep connection to this land, which shaped their mastery of vital skills and who they are. This land was an extension of themselves and essential to their very survival and identity – a connection spanning our modern age.

At the time of early European settlement, the Rideau Waterway was being extensively used to source food, trade, as well as transport goods and people on birch bark canoes. With the Rideau’s exceptional connections to other rivers in the area, Eastern Ontario became an important intersecting artery, allowing for communication across a vast network of waterways to distant shores. While the concept of settlers coming to an unknown, wild land may sound thrilling, it came with traumatic and fatal consequences for the Indigenous peoples of Canada, devastating realities no non-Indigenous person will ever feel the full weight of or hope to atone for.

European disease had catastrophic implications for local peoples, as they were particularly vulnerable, having never had a chance to build up immunity to these new diseases. All the while settlements pushed the Algonquin and Iroquois from their traditional hunting, gathering and sacred lands, as well as caused them to shift their transportation and trade routes. This not only affected their livelihood and health, but their very identity, as their connection to the land went so far beyond a sense of place, to who they were at their core. And, this is only skimming the surface of what Indigenous groups have endured. Despite what would be the destructive aftermath of colonization, these Indigenous groups chose to engage in meaningful ways with settlers – participating in the fur trade, taking sides in wars not of their own making and identifying winter as being a unique challenge for early settlers, teaching them how to best tap into the natural resources they had at hand to sustain themselves through the harsh winters ahead.

The Crown’s Ambitions & Challenges

Facilitating settlement of Loyalists in Upper Canada was made possible by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which, unbeknownst to Indigenous groups, effectively turned over their land rights to the Crown. Many of these early settlement locations were chosen for their access to rapids and falls, in order to use their waterpower for the milling of timber or grinding of grain. While some of these original settlements eventually faded away as technology and transportation routes changed, some became thriving communities that continue to attract people to this day.

Settlers came for numerous reasons and from various stations in life: some as Loyalist refugees, fleeing the consequences of fighting on the losing side of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783); others as economic migrants, looking for land and a fresh start; while still others were speculators, many of whom never even stepped foot on their land, hoping to passively make a profit off of the growing demand for property in Upper Canada. And, while this simplifies a complex time of colonization in this area, one aspect of this is clear and deserves its due time – settlers were not all coming to Upper Canada with a common purpose or goal. Some settlers were true agents of the Crown, directly benefiting from and participating in the Crown’s ambitions. These players actively pursued growth and development, unlike more passive settlers, such as refugees and dispossessed Irish immigrants, who were solely concerned with their family’s survival and hoped to make a simple life here. This is important to understand, because there were a number of different levels of contribution and agency present in the colonization process and seeing all settlers as unaware of the larger schemes of the Crown is unrealistic. And, while each experience was unique, they stemmed from similar sources – conflict in the former American colonies, and policies of colonization and empire building in Upper Canada.

The Crown’s main concern was to hold and develop the land they had gained through the defeat of the French. They were not thrilled with what they saw as land hungry, profiteers, scooping up land grants only to hold on to them, selling them for a profit once the demand for land in the Region had increased. So, to have a definitive claim on this land and develop it, they needed to establish a loyal base in this area through settlement. This would firmly establish the economic and physical control they so desired in this Region. But, here is the catch. People were not interested in settling along the Rideau Waterway. It was far from civilization, wild and untamed. In fact, it took war and incentivization to convince former soldiers and Loyalists to systematically settle the Rideau. But, the Crown’s challenges did not stop there, because of the difficulty and remoteness of the Region, some Loyalists who had been given land grants in this area chose not to occupy them, creating a similar side-effect as profiteering, hindering settlement and growth in this area for years, since they continued to hold their title to the land.

The First Loyalist Settlers

While some Loyalist refugee settlement had begun in Upper Canada along the St. Lawrence River and Kingston, during the American Revolutionary War, it wasn’t until 1790, several years after the War, that the first true wave of settlement in the Rideau Region began, leading to a growing number of settlers flooding this land Roger Stevens was the first recorded Loyalist settler to come to the Rideau Waterway, after having served the British forces during the Revolutionary War. He arrived in 1790 with his wife, Polly and their three young children, to what we now know as Merrickville and the surrounding area. Stevens was here with purpose, seeing a distinct role for himself in this new land, as an active agent for the Crown, to build and develop this untouched land. He lived in peace, or rather extreme isolation, as he documented living there for years without a single neighbour. But this did not stop him from dreaming, planning and building for industry in this Region. Although, by 1793, after settlement to this land had become further incentivized, other notable local names moved into this area to contribute to its development, including; William Mirick (sometimes spelled Merrick), Merrickville’s namesake and Colonel Daniel Burritt, the founder of Burritt’s Rapids. These men contributed and surpassed Steven’s vision for this area.

While central settlements, like Merrickville, were necessary for the development of water-powered industry in Upper Canada, southerly settlements were strategically valuable, using loyal men, experienced in war to act as a veteran force and defensive barrier along the American border, should any future conflicts occur. Land grants for Loyalists were significant, the heads of families receiving 100 acres, while additional family members another 50 acres and field officers could receive as much as 1000 or more acres of land. While land grants were an important first step in establishing a loyal population in the Region, settlers were also granted clothing, tools and other provisions for three years to help combat the harsh winters and poor access to supplies at commercial stores.

The Effects of the Proclamation of 1792 on Settlement

In order to understand this next phase of settlement along the Rideau Waterway, we must first meet General John Graves Simcoe. He was a British soldier and statesman, who had fought against American rebels in the Revolutionary War and rose through the ranks to become the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. Throughout his time in office, he encouraged immigration and agriculture, while also supporting defense and road building.

The Proclamation of 1792 was issued by Simcoe in order to address the settlement of “Crown” land in the Province of Ontario. While Simcoe had not yet been sworn into office, this bill was never challenged and did in fact spark settlement in the region. His goal was to populate the area with Americans who were even passively loyal to the King, although he had no interest in republicans taking any share of the land.

Loyalists who had already made their home in Upper Canada, before the Proclamation of 1792, were not pleased with what appeared to be a “royal reception for rebels,” people they called “late Loyalists,” men they had fought against, in the name of the King. But, this did not stop Simcoe. He pursued Americans, because he considered them perfectly suited to settle and cultivate the land, as they were hardy and well adapted to this environment. And, this was important to Britain’s overall goal to secure and expand their holdings in Upper Canada and beyond.

Those the Crown Left Behind

Settlers coming to the Rideau Region, were unprepared for the harsh environment and the challenges that came with it. In the weeks and months leading up to their first winter in this Region, settlers relied heavily on the Algonquin and Iroquois for wisdom and guidance on how best to prepare for the long months ahead. Local groups taught settlers how to: survive the extreme seasons by making weather appropriate clothing, as well as how to make and use toboggans and snowshoes for winter transportation; navigate the rivers; grow certain crops in the summer; use the lands natural resources, like maple sap, gathering nuts and berries, as well as hunting and fishing; and preserve meat for year-round, portable protein, what we now know of as beef jerky. Without their direction, settlers would have surely perished.

Once a settler arrived, their first order of business was to create a simple house as quickly as possible, in order to survive the winter. This was usually a one-room log, fieldstone, spruce pole or sod house, and would eventually be converted into a stable, once they had constructed a more permanent dwelling. It would have been a panicked rush before their first winter, building their house, planting a garden and clearing land for crops and livestock, so that they would have somewhere to live, food and firewood to sustain them throughout the cold, dark winter. And, most importantly, as money was scarce, they had to produce most of what they would have to survive.

To supplement their meagre income, farmers took to logging camps in the winter, especially in the early days of their homestead, until they were established, producing a good harvest. But this option required resolve, as life in a logging camp was very difficult and dangerous. And, they would have to leave their family to fend for themselves in the cold, bitter winter back at their cabin. The head of the family not only had to concern themself with feeding their family and keeping them warm, but also had to consider this for their livestock, for without them, they would not survive. To add to this already challenging feat, many settlers had very little farming experience, if any at all. And, while some of this was learned through experience, much help was given by local Indigenous groups, who ensured many settlers survival.


The Crown and its agents set about colonizing this land with great rigor, for Britain and their British King. And, while settlement in Upper Canada was a success for the British, it held devastating consequences for the Indigenous groups of this area. Yet, the First Nations of the Rideau were the first to help settlers survive this harsh, unforgiving wilderness. And, without their guidance, early settlers never would have survived the trials of this land. Not only did they have to manage the extreme climate, but also a land that had never been worked before, without amenities or sometimes even neighbours.

Today, the Rideau Region is unrecognizable from the wilderness it once was. You may find glimpses of this past life, but this land has forever been changed. Just as the Indigenous groups who once solely called this Region, “home,” this land will never be the same. And, while settlers, in all their forms, struggled for their own survival and economic growth, and the Crown fought for money and country, only the Indigenous groups of the Rideau Region chose to act outside of their own best interest, helping the very people doing them so much harm. Unfortunately, in this case, the insatiable appetite of Crown agents and first settlers, devoured the good will of the Indigenous peoples.

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