William Buell, who is generally acknowledged to be the first settler in Brockville, succeeded in putting this city on the map in the early 1800s.
Why Buell arrived at this specific spot on the river and then managed to obtain a grant of land here is not clear. Traditional tales of new arrivals drawing lot numbers out of a hat are recorded at other locations along the St. Lawrence. It is said that the present village of Johnstown, chosen at the beginning as a future town site, was where the disbanded loyalist soldiers of Jessup’s Corps stopped to draw their land tickets.
The land surveyors during the previous winter of 1783-84 had hurriedly laid out the side boundaries of each`river lot. We have learned that Thomas Sherwood, an ensign with the Loyal Rangers, settled with his wife and two sons in the summer of 1784 on what became Lot 1, Conc. 1 of Augusta Township.
William Buell may have come in 1784 to scout the country that was available by himself. It is more likely that he waited until the next year. His wife, Martha, had just learned of a new baby on the way after seeing their first-born, a daughter, die as an infant the previous year. This second baby which they also named Anna, was born on January 19, 1875 at Lachine, Lower Canada. It is believed that Buell brought out his wife and new baby to the new loyalist land in the spring of 1785.
Buell located himself here at a spot which was a natural stopping place for river traffic ‒ a small bay which later became known as Buell’s Bay. He proceeded to build a rough log cabin before the winter arrived and continued to clear part of the land. On the far western side of this small bay was a projecting point of land covered with a grove of oak trees. This was the area which became known as Oak Point and was located at the foot of the present day Kincaid St.
His first cabin was located back from the shore in the area of Hardy Park. A small river or creek flowed into the St. Lawrence, a short distance west of Oak Point. The creek mouth never did become part of his land grant but further north it travelled through much of his land and was soon named Buell’s Creek for that reason.
The available government land on either side of Buell’s does not seem to have been settled until a few years had passed. In the 1790s, Daniel Jones, a loyalist with some saw milling experience, arrived and proceeded to construct a saw mill near the mouth of Buell’s Creek. He had for a number of years been petitioning the Land Board for mill sites in various other locations in eastern Upper Canada. He settled here, however, built this first mill, and received a grant of 100 acres which ran north from the shore and next to that given to Buell.
From the beginning William Buell worked hard to develop his property. He planted a large apple orchard from seed in 1786. He also built himself a larger, more permanent hewn-log home further north. This second house is indicated on an early map as being on the east side of Home St., north of Water St. As more immigrants arrived in this area he seemed willing to sell off town lots in the area of his home and along the King’s Highway, which eventually ran from Montreal to York. This soon became the main street of the developing village.
It is this resourceful management of his property which must be recognized as leading to his success. His rise from yeoman to gentleman was managed with skill as the opportunities presented themselves. William Buell was obviously somewhat of a promoter and he encouraged new arrivals, many of them from the United States, to settle on his developing town site.
He was a man with definite political ideals. He espoused the liberal ideas of reform at a time when “Yankee democracy” was not very popular in the new Upper Canada. In any case, the electors of the district sent him to represent them in the Parliament of 1801 and he sat in the early Legislative Assembly until 1804. During this period it appears that he removed his family to Pointe Claire in Lower Canada until his term was over.
Perhaps the most important event leading to the development of Elizabethtown (the government name for Brockville from 1810 to 1812) had taken place with the moving of the government offices of the Johnstown District to Buell’s location in 1809. A number of area residents in 1805 had petitioned the Assembly to abandon the Court House and Gaol in Johnstown.
Subsequently, it was decided in 1808 by the government that the Court House at the village of Johnstown was, in fact, located too far away from the western end of the District of Johnstown, an area which ran as far west as Gananoque. A more centrally-located site was sought in the district and the three main landowners at Elizabethtown were quick to respond. Daniel Jones, William Buell, and Charles Jones each offered the government a free plot of land on which to build a new court house and gaol.
After some consideration and a visit to the three sites, it was decided to accept a high piece of land belonging to William Buell. He executed a deed and signed the four acre plot over to the crown on May 16, 1809. This grant of land also included a 60 foot strip of property for a wide road leading down to the River St. Lawrence.
Now the future of Buell’s Bay seemed to be guaranteed. This would be the centre of administrative activity in the District of Johnstown from then on, in spite of bitter protests from residents of Edwardsburgh Township, east of Prescott.
By 1811, 26 years after his first arrival, William Buell was able to have a surveyed village plan drawn up by Jeremiah McCarthy, a senior deputy surveyor. This plan which used both the names, “Elizabethtown” and “Williamstown” was passed down in the Buell family. It showed 26 houses and other buildings and was marked with the names of 20 residents.
But the previously mentioned Charles Jones was ambitious too. He had been a young boy when William Buell was laying his early plans, but now he had come of age, was financially well-off and had powerful family and friends in government. His friends said why not call this growing community “Charleston” since Jones owned a lot of land to the east of Buell, and was willing to sell lots to newcomers. Those wits on the outside of this name-calling, thought that perhaps the name “Snarlingtown” would be more appropriate. The government, however, continued to officially use the name “Elizabethtown”.
Perhaps an appeal for outside help resulted in the fact that sometime in the summer of 1812 the village acquired the name of “Brockville”. The civil and military administrator of Upper Canada was at that time, Major General Isaac Brock whose name and prestige was used to settle this dispute. He was well-aware of the honour given to him in this way, but perhaps we will never know if he had a direct hand in it himself.
The first streets to be laid out in the hamlet of Buell’s Bay were on a rectangular pattern, much on the ancient Roman pattern. It was not the New England way but perhaps was dictated by the direction of the shore and the Kings Highway.
The names of some of these early streets are of interest. Broad Street was the name given by Buell to the wide road leading down from the Court House between the river and the main street. The name was not generally used by people who had never seen Buell’s 1816 map. Mostly it was referred to as lower Court House Ave. or as the road leading down from the Court House. Commercial Street which ran down to the river and passed in front of Buell’s house, later became Home St.
The road opened through Buell’s orchard below the main street became Apple Street. Buell’s Return Street soon became Congo Street named after the former slave and resident Cesar Congo. When this street was officially opened by the Brockville Police Board in 1835, it was named Kincaid Street after another long time resident on the street, Archibald Kincaid. St. Andrew Street may have been inspired by Buell’s father-in-law, Andrew Naughton or perhaps by his son-in-law, André Prévost who lived on the corner of King and St. Andrew Streets.
William Buell was now approaching the latter years of his life. He had three grown up sons to divide his land between, Andrew Norton Buell, Joseph Peters Buell and William Buell, Jr. He also saw an opportunity to help out the religious groups in Brockville who were without permanent quarters.
The Presbyterian congregation of Elizabethtown was the first to receive a donation of land for a church. The deed which he gave is dated 1816, and the land was located just west of the Court House property. They built their first building, a stone structure, possibly as early as 1816, according to Buell’s 1816 map which shows a large rectangular building and is noted “Presbyterian Church”.
The Methodists held meetings in the Court House in the early years as did the Church of England. Buell offered a piece of land, just east of the Court House property, to the Anglicans. Their leaders, including the Jones family, were not thrilled with Buell’s reform politics and instead accepted land in 1819 from the Hon. Charles Jones in the far eastern end of town. The land on the square remained available for a number of years and was eventually given in 1828 to the Methodist congregation who opened their first chapel there in 1830.
The Roman Catholics were also recipients of donated land from William Buell. This took place about 1824 when they built their first church building. This lot was located right on the western edge of Buell’s land. The R.C. parish also received additional land just to the west from the two sons of Daniel Jones about the same time.
William Buell may have had a vision of what his town would look like. A “Connecticut Yankee” by birth, he was quite familiar with the New England village green and was able to visualize such a re-embodiment of this in his new country. The flowing together of such circumstances, as occurred here, have created the pattern which developed into the town of Brockville. Any other landowner may have been content to farm his property and live out his life in a modest way.
William Buell had ambition and perhaps a few lucky breaks, but he managed to make a town out of land which others may have passed over in the initial selections in 1784. Many other people became involved in the development of Brockville, but to “the old squire”, William Buell, must go the credit for such a good start.