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Elora, Fergus, and Guelph owe their existence to the Grand River. For centuries this magnificent river, which stretches from lake Erie to within 25 miles of Georgian Bay, was used as a highway by natives. The river and the trails nearby linked the five Huron tribes in the north with their enemies, the five Iroquois tribes in the southeast. The powerful "Neutral" Nation (so-called by the French because their great war chief Souharissen kept out of the Huron and Iroquois fur trading feud) lived between the two enemies. In 1620, more than 12,000 "Neutrals" lived in 40 villages in the Grand River Valley.
By 1651, the Iroquois had destroyed all the Huron and Neutral villages. A host of factors contributed to the Iroquois's decision to force their Huron enemies - and their former Neutral friends - into one large league of Iroquoian-speaking peoples. Flint arrowheads proved useless against the Iroquois' Dutch muskets: many survivors among the Hurons and Neutrals joined the Iroquois; others dispersed in all directions. The Grand River country lay empty.
The American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) forced British Loyalists and their New York Iroquois allies north into Canada. To satisfy Iroquois claims, and to acquire lands for white settlement, the British purchased the former Neutral lands from the Mississaugas - a nomadic group of Algonkian- speaking Indians who then occupied the area. The Iroquois were granted a strip of land 12 miles in width, lying on both sides of the Grand River, running from its mouth to its source. When surveys were made later, the extreme length of the river was discovered and the grant to the Six Nations Iroquois curtailed. The Iroquois were left with 1200 square miles of Grand River valley lands.
To the Iroquois of the 1790s, this territory was both too large for their own farming needs and too small for commercial hunting grounds. By 1800, the fur trade was finished in what is now south central Canada. Under Chief Joseph Brant, the Iroquois were persuaded to sell off part of their lands to speculators. Elora and Fergus lie on lands purchased in 1807, lands which formed the northern limit of the Six Nations grant.
Guelph was founded in 1827 by John Galt on the banks of the Speed River. The Township, lying southeast of Fergus and Elora, had been part of another huge land purchase from the Mississauga people, in 1792. Originally called the Halton Block, it had been set aside as a Crown Reserve for the Six Nations Iroquois.
Before the Iroquois dispersals of 1647-1651, the land had been the hunting grounds of the Neutral and Huron Indians. In the distant past, these three nations are thought to have been one people. To the French, the Hurons and the Neutrals each referred to the other as "Attawandaron" or "The people whose speech is slightly different."
John Galt was a Scottish novelist, poet, world traveler, promoter and businessman. In creating Guelph in an unsettled block of wilderness, Galt acted on behalf of the Canada Company, a gigantic land speculation and settlement enterprise he'd successfully promoted in Britain. Several factors had prompted Galt's enterprise. The American invasions of 1812 had caused a great commotion in the province of Upper Canada. Tremendous property damage had been done by both American and British troops and hundreds of settlers had fled into the bush to become squatters. Many Canadians had tried unsuccessfully to obtain compensation from the British government. In 1822, a group of these claimants hired John Galt to pursue their case in Whitehall. The government steadfastly refused to consider any kind of cash settlement and Galt evolved the idea of selling the vacant lands of Upper Canada to compensate his clients. He also hoped of course to enrich both himself and the Canada Company's shareholders.
Galt's plans fit nicely with the desires of the Executive Council of Upper Canada. By 1823, this elite group wished fervently to convert all vacant lands into cash. Cash would mean they need not be forced into popular reforms by the elected Assembly's capacity to cut off tax revenues. In 1826, the Canada Company purchased 2.3 million acres for 2.4 million pounds sterling. As agent, Galt's duty was to drive up prices on company lands. To do this, a town was necessary. But there was absolutely no other reason for settlement in the unbroken forests of Guelph Township in 1827. Promotion was everything and John Galt poured money into the site.
John Galt was fired from the Canada Company in 1829, for insubordination and extravagance. After his departure, Guelph ground to a halt. Land values threatened to fall and the company was forced to revert to Galt's style of capital expenditure and aggressive marketing. By 1833, shareholders were making immense profits; for Galt, the enterprise ended in financial disaster. The county did fill up in the following decades and Guelph slowly rallied. The attractiveness of the small city one sees today, is due, in no small measure, to John Galt's grand and extravagant design.
The name "Guelph" was chosen by John Galt to compliment the British royal family, whose ancestors had been associated with the Guelph party in its struggle with the Ghibellines for control of Italy and Germany from the 11th to the 14th centuries.
Caves abound in the cliffs of the Elora gorge and one - the wampum cave - has a special place in local lore. In the dark days of the 1651 Iroquois invasion, the "Neutral" people fled their country. Before leaving, they deposited precious wampum beads in a cave near their sacred waterfall. Two hundred years later, in 1857, Indians from the upper lakes returned to search for the wampum left by their ancestors. They had no success. Then, in 1880, two village lads found wampum beads washed out of the cave by heavy rains; a search was made and the "Neutral" treasure discovered.
Besides its famous gorge, Elora also claims Wellington County's first white settler - Roswell Matthews who located at the waterfall in 1817 in the hopes of starting a mill. One can't be certain of this claim, however. By the early 1800s, white men and women were traversing the Grand River Valley on a fairly regular basis.
The first agriculturalists in the Valley had been a colony of Pennsylvania Mennonites. Like the Quakers, the Mennonites had been promised freedom from religious persecution when they left their native Switzerland in the early 1700s at the invitation of William Penn. Mennonites had prospered in America; in 1805, a group formed the German Company and bought land south of the Elora waterfall, in what is now the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
Whatever the merits of the Roswell Matthews claim, he was not the last to attempt a mill at the Elora waterfall. The 8-story stone mill next to the falls today was built in 1859 to replace a frame building that had burnt. The mill is now a hotel wherein one can see a peculiar piece of unworn rock in the center of the falls. Called the 'tooth of time', the rock has become the symbol of Elora. The name was given to the early settlement by Capt. William Gilkison, after the cave temples of Elora, near Bombay, India.
Fergus, as its name suggests, has been a Scottish stronghold since 1833. Four miles upriver from Elora, the town was named after its cofounder, Adam Fergusson, laird of "Woodhill" in Perthshire, Scotland. At home, Fergusson had been a member of the Highland Society, a group wishing to collect and disseminate accurate information to prospective Scottish emigrants. In 1831, he offered to undertake a fact-finding mission.
Ideally suited to his task, Fergusson had wealth, connections, and a keen interest in agriculture and stock breeding. Moreover, he had seven sons whose opportunities in depression-ridden Scotland, had dimmed. Fergusson's mission to Upper Canada for the Society was a great success. His account of clearing a bush farm and producing a living from it can be faulted only for its optimism. Fergusson not only convinced himself but scores of well-educated Presbyterian lowlanders to emigrate to Upper Canada.
Fergus was chopped out of heavy forest on 7,367 acres purchased by Fergusson and James Webster. Much the younger of the two, Webster remained in the bush to oversee their joint enterprise while Fergusson took up residence in a new "Woodhill" on the shores of Lake Ontario. In 1842 he became the Honourable Adam Fergusson when he was appointed a life member of the Legislative Council of United Canada. Until his death in 1862, he interested himself in the improvement of agriculture throughout the province.
Adam Fergusson was one of a group of wealthy, privileged Britons who came out to Canada expecting a great landed aristocracy to be established. The supreme law of the land - The Constitutional Act of 1791 - had gone so far as to allow for an hereditary Legislative Council. By the time Fergusson emigrated, however, the winds of political reform were blowing into the gales of the 1837 rebellion. A great landed aristocracy was the last thing wanted by the thousands of poor, freedom-loving, land-hungry immigrants.
Adam Fergusson appears to have adapted comfortably to the changing times.
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