Chapter 14


The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 14

Railway station in Mitchell, Ontario.

Sometime during the decade after the 1861 Census, the Hemphill family left Quebec, moving west to the village of Donegal in the Elma Township in Perth County, Canada West. Their journey, a four-hundred seven mile trip “as the crow flies.” (See Map 14.1 below), was eased by the Grand Trunk Railway taking them from Montreal to the station at either the town of Stratford or Mitchell, both in Perth County and both about equidistant from Donegal. From the train station they would have ridden north in a wagon or sleigh, or some type of horse drawn conveyance the nineteen miles to Donegal in the Elma township. If they were lucky, there was some tavern that could accommodate them until they had their shanty (Canadian speak for cabin) built.

The route of The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada and the distance "as the crow flies" between Montreal and Mitchell.

They were relative latecomers to southwestern Ontario. Perth County was landlocked and thus one of the last counties to be settled. The land grant policy changed after 1825 as the Upper Canadian administration faced a financial crisis that would otherwise require raising local taxes, thereby making it more dependent on a local elected legislature. The Upper Canadian province ended its policy of granting land to "unofficial" settlers and implemented a broad plan of revenue-generating sales. The Crown replaced its old policy of land grants to ordinary settlers in newly opened districts with land sales by auction. It also passed legislation that allowed the auctioning of previously granted land for payment of back-taxes.

The Canada Company

To aid in the colonization of a large part of Canada West, the British parliament gave royal assent to a scheme to sell a large part of Upper Canada  to the Canada Company incorporated by on August 19, 1826. The Canada Company was a large private, chartered British land development company formed to purchase raw land, survey, divide into townships and then lots and market them to settlers.

Canada Company office in Toronto, Ontario

Promoted by John Galt, a Scottish writer and book publisher, who became its first Superintendent, the company was successful in populating over 1,100,000 acres called the Huron Tract, an achievement later called "the most important single attempt at settlement in Canadian history." The tract, located on the eastern shore of Lake Huron was acquired by the government from the Chippewa First Nation. One-third of the purchase price went to fund public works and improvements, while the remaining two-thirds was paid to the Crown.

The company surveyed and subdivided the massive Huron Tract, built roads, mills, and schools and advertised lots for sale to buyers in Europe. The company then assisted in the migration of new settlers, bringing them to the area by means of a boat, which the company also owned, on Lake Ontario.

John Galt was dismissed and recalled to Great Britain in 1829, for mismanagement, particularly incompetent bookkeeping. General mismanagement and corruption within the company, and its close alliance with the Tory elites, known as the Family Compact, were important contributing factors to the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837. That rebellion led to the British North America Act, 1840 which partially reformed the British provinces into a unitary system and eventually led to the British North America Act, 1867 which created Canada and its government.

Map 14.2
The Huron Road, circa 1832

In the autumn of 1828 Mr. Galt says: “Of one thing I am proud., I do not hesitate to say I was proud and with good reason, I caused a road to be opened through the forest of Huron tract nearly a hundred miles long; the first overland communication between the great lakes, . . .  all the woodmen that could be assembled  from the settlers were employed; an explorer of the line to go ahead, then the surveyors with their compasses, after them a band of blazers, or men to mark the trees in a line. Then the slashers and the wagons with provisions and other necessities, thus they proceeded to the Lake Huron and turned back to clear off the fallen timber.” See Map 14.2.

Three taverns were placed 20 miles apart between New Hamburg and Goderich. A tavern named the Shakespeare Inn was the first building erected at Stratford. It was not until 1832 that this road could be considered passable even under favorable conditions.

According to the Canada Company, "the poorest individual can here procure for himself and family a valuable tract; which, with a little labor, he can soon convert into a comfortable home, such as he could probably never attain in any other country – all his own!" The promised free transportation to the head of Lake Ontario to anyone making a down payment often did not materialize. In later years there were complaints about the Company’s inflated land prices. Moreover, the Company was accused of exaggerating the state of development of its lands, leaving some immigrants with broken promises and little return for the money that they paid.  

The settlers began arriving in the 1820s, but the majority arrived in the 1830s and the 1840s. Most became farmers, and even today, the county is known for mixed farming, dairying and hog production.

Huron Area Today

Donegal Village, Elma Township, Perth County, Ontario

This area originally formed part of the Huron District, which was constituted as the United Counties of Huron, Perth and Bruce in 1850, then Perth became its own county in 1853; and from that time the county saw more progress and development over the next five years than had been accomplished since the Huron Road was opened in 1829.

The county had eleven original townships. Eight of the townships were laid out as part of the Huron Tract by the Canada Company, and the northern three townships ¯ Wallace, Elma and Mornington ¯ were part of the crown lands known as the “Queen’s Bush” that lay between the Huron Tract and Georgian Bay. These opened up in the late 1840's and 1850's and filled with settlers, including the Hemphills, very quickly. By 1871, the county had been settled by almost equal amounts of English, Irish, Scottish and German immigrants.

The three townships in the Queen’s Bush were largely swamp and were considered almost impenetrable; portions of which were said to be fit only for wolves, of which there were many. As late as 1855 these swamplands were considered irreclaimable. These swamps produced very fertile soil once drained. It was the largest township in Perth County and in 1854 concessions were offered for sale. Settlement in Elma began in 1848 by the arrival of Mr. George Code, although he was, it is said, piloted through the woods by a “squatter,” named Tennent. Mr. Code applied for and received a grant of 500 acres of land, building a sawmill. From the 1903 publication, The History of the County of Perth from 1825 to 1902 is the following:

Hemphills in History of the County of Perth from 1825 to 1902 by William Johnson, published 1903

Pioneer operations were rapidly followed by those rural industries which enable the settler more conveniently to prosecute his calling. Villages soon sprang up as if by magic. The most important business center in this township was the last to be founded and did not come into existence until subsequent to constructing the southern extension of the W., G. & B. Railway in 1875. This place is now known as Atwood. Several brick blocks have been erected, and excellent sidewalks laid for public convenience. Here are also express, telegraph, and newspaper offices, good hotels, and stores of every description, where goods can be obtained to satisfy the most fastidious tastes. Meantime a grist mill, sawmill, flax mill, and a planning mill have been erected, giving employment to large numbers of men. There is also a factory where washing machines, tanks, and screen doors are manufactured, with other small wooden-ware.

A home in Stratford, the largest town in Perth County and the county seat. Undoubtedly one of the “ high class [homes] . . . often equal, if not superior, to those found in older places.”

No history of this progressive village would be complete without mention of its spacious private residences. These are of a high class, and often equal, if not superior, to those found in older places, both as to architectural design and appointments. In keeping with other improvements, education has not been neglected. An excellent school building has been erected, where an average of 115 pupils attend daily for instruction. Two teachers are employed — Mr. Anderson, who is principal, with one female assistant.  By 1900, Elma was considered one of the best townships in the county.

A Campbell Soup Company factory was Atwood's main employer until it closed in 2008.

The township Elma was named in honor of Lady Elma Bruce, daughter of James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, Governor-General of Canada. The county was named for the historic Perth in central Scotland and the county town of Perthshire. It was the town that had the riot caused by John Knox inveighing against Catholic idolatry. [1]

Donegal was originally named Buchananville because of the large number of Buchanans.  The first postmaster, John Foster, came from Donegal, Ireland, and suggested this name. Donegal is “in a splendid section of agricultural country, has [had] a store and post office. The first settlers near this place were Buchanans (seven brothers), Littles, Masons, Hemphills, Wilsons, Harveys and Irwins.” William Hemphill, son of Andrew, brother of James, and my 2nd Great Uncle, married Margaret, the daughter of one of those Buchanan brothers. Their son, Andrew Thomas Hemphill, a cousin to Grandma Charter, died in 1953 and was buried in Listowel, a neighboring town only 7 miles away from Donegal where he was born. Listowel survives today, undoubtedly due to its train station. Much of the Hemphill/Buchanan family relocated in Friday Harbor, San Juan, Washington, including William and Margaret Buchanan Hemphill.

Bill Buchanan writes that two of his ancestors “paid $100 to the Widow Howden for her to sign a quit claim giving up her right to land which must have been close to, and probably lying across, the two new claims. A commission was set up to hear claims of the various land locations claimed by squatters and,” according to Bill Buchanan, “they make intriguing reading in the Township papers.”

Disking the field in 19th century Ontario

The Hemphills are shown on Concession 10, Lot 30 on an undated plat of the Elma township; (See Map 14.1). they are also shown to be in the Elma Township in the 1871 Canada Census, as well as all subsequent censuses until Andrew’s death in 1903. The Elmanac: The History of Elma Township 1857-1997 shows the following in regards to Concession 10, Lot 30:

  • 1854 occupied by James Law
  • 1856 William Little
  • 1857 Andrew Hemphill
  • 1868 Andrew Hemphill (Patent, i.e., legal title)
  • 1902 Andrew Thomas Hemphill
  • 1908 Joseph Cooper

The Irish were the largest ethnic group in Elma; in 1861 the total population of was 2,392 and the acreage under cultivation was 7,445.

Andrew’s lot is 100 acres. In 1842, the Canada Company was selling land at about £ 0.59 (11s/10d) per acre, for which it had paid the government £ 0.175 (3s/6d) per acre. The government, anxious to promote settlement in the territory north and east of Colborne Township was selling land at £ 0.3125 (6s/3d) per acre. Details of what Andrew paid for his 100 acres have not been located, but Crown lands prices per acre range from 7s/6d to 12s/6d, payable in ten equal annual installments. Actual occupation to be immediate and continuous; the land to be cleared at two acres annually for each hundred acres, etc.

Grocery store interior

In The Canadian Settler's Guide Catherine Traill, a writer with twenty years’ experience there, advises:

For those contemplating settling in the backwoods or bush,. . . let none but the strong in arm and will go upon wild land. The giants of the forest are not brought down without much severe toil; and many hardships must be endured in a backwoodsman’s life, especially by the wife and children . . . But a wild farm is not to be made in one, two or even five years . . . takes years to clear enough to make a really good farm, to get barns and sheds and fences and a comfortable dwelling-house: few persons accomplish all this under ten, fifteen and sometimes twenty years. I am speaking of the poor man, whose only capital is his labor and that of his family.”

“But a wild farm is not to be made in one, two or even five years . . . takes years to clear enough to make a really good farm, to get barns and sheds and fences and a comfortable dwelling-house: few persons accomplish all this under ten, fifteen and sometimes twenty years”

The first order of business is to clear enough land to build a house; recommended is to build a “shanty” (log cabin) using the logs from the felled trees, from 14 to 18 feet long and 12 to 14 broad, depending on the size of the family. Trees were felled with a felling axe or a two-man cross-cut saw. The roof is made of wood shingles from split blocks 18 to 24 inches long. A thousand shingles will cover 10 square, or a thousand square feet. The spaces between the logs are filled in from the inside by split pieces of basswood, cedar or other wood. This is called “chinking.” On the outside these spaces are plastered over with mortar, “being the clay mixed up with water, and which makes a good substitute for lime. By mixing a little sand with the mortar, it makes it harder when dry, and not so liable to crack.” The chimney is built at one end … When the shanty or house is to be raised or built, the neighbors are invited, and they always come willingly, for there is not one among them but had the same done for himself. This is called a ‘bee.’ There are house, chopping, and logging bees.

Once the house is completed and the settler is living on his land, the next order of business “is to obtain a supply of flour and potatoes, which will easily be procured from any of the older settlers, or, as regards the flour, at the mill. Groceries, hardware, clothing, and other articles needed, can be obtained at the nearest stores or shops. If the immigrant is settled by the month of June or middle of July, he will, if inclined, find employment at ‘hay-time’ . . . But if he can remain on his own land, it will be better. – If so, the sooner he begins to underbrush a few acres the better, and afterwards to chop the same and get it cleared, ready to put in or sow fall-wheat by the 15th of September, or at least the 20th. The way in which land is cleared and fenced, will be show in the next division of these brief remarks. . . If an emigrant, with a wife and family, settles on his land, it will be profitable for him (more especially where there are children) to buy a cow . . . ” However, another guide warns, “. . . unless on cleared or partially cleared farms; but we are speaking of a first settlement in the backwoods. Cows, pigs, and fowls must eat, and if you have nothing to give them unless you purchase it, and perhaps have to bring it some distance, you had better not be troubled with them, as the trouble is certain and the profit is doubtful.”

Ontario, Canada in the late 19th Century

The 1871 census shows that Andrew was then 52, Anne 53, James 14 and William 12. In that year, Elma had six schools, all log buildings. In its side walls holes were bored and wooden pins inserted. Across these pins, boards were laid, forming desks, which were occupied by those pupils who were more advanced. In front of those desks were benches made of slabs, supported by pins inserted in auger holes made at end. Across the building were other benches placed parallel. The pins supporting the front rows were short, forming low seat for smaller children. Each row had longer pins than that in front, thus elevating the seats on above another as they extended backward. Along the walls were hung a few cards with large alphabetical letters and “a lonely map or two that seemed to have lost their way in the woods and crawled into this old schoolhouse for shelter.”

The Elma Township Public School is near the town of Atwood, which was named Elma Center in 1854. In 1876, when the railway came through, Elma Center became Newry Station (Newry was nearby). However, in 1883, a new name was suggested "when Eliza Gray of Detroit observed that the new hamlet was in the shadow of a surrounding wood, and her uncle William Dunn proposed the adoption of Atwood," which won wide acclimation and the name was thus changed to Atwood.

Friday Harbour in San Juan County, Washington. Many of the Buchanans moved there from Donegal, as did as William Hemphill, 2nd Great-Uncle, James’s younger brother, and his wife Margaret “Margie” Buchanan Hemphill, after his father’s death. One of his sons took over the farm in Elma for a time.

The northern townships of Howick (Huron County), Mornington, Elma, and Wallace (Perth County) were well-colonized by the Irish, who were the dominant ethnic group in 1881. Families like the Hemphills, who came on their own or in small groups, having first acquired some experience of life and farming in Canada elsewhere, were the lifeblood of the area.

James Hemphill and Isabella Terry Marry and the Birth of Grandma Charter

On May 5, 1880, at the age of twenty-three, Isabella Terry and James Hemphill were married in the Elma township by the Reverend Robert Renwick. The marriage register shows them both as residents of Elma, witnesses were sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Briley, a Hemphill neighbor and William Hemphill, now Isabella’s brother-in-law. The marriage record refects that Isabella does not know her mother’s name. Seven months later, on December 7 of that year, Mary Ann Hemphill (GM) was born, although for some reason she always used the name Mary Ella, rather than Mary Ann, which is on the birth register.

James and Isabella maintain their own household in Elma, separate from Andrew’s. In 1883 another daughter was born and named for her mother, Isabella Bryden. Sons Andrew and Richard followed in 1885 and 1888.

Donegal Cemetery, Elma, Perth County, Ontario, Canada

Anne Liggett Hemphill, after raising James and William, preceeded Andrew in death, succumbing after four weeks of “general debility,” on June 29, 1891. She was buried in Donegal Cemetery. (See Item 12.8 in Appendix)

After four decades or so of toiling to clear the land, build a house, and farm, Andrew suffered a stroke; called apoplexy at that time. (See the record.) He was unconscious for eight weeks and then died April 26, 1903 and was buried next to Ann in the Donegal Cemetery, more than 3,000 miles from Ulster where he was born; he had lived for eighty-five years. 

End Notes

[1]Knox climbed into the pulpit at Perth, and, surrounded by the full panoply of medieval Catholicism – the images, the relics, the candles, the painted walls – began to inveigh against idolatry. The congregation dispersed, but later that day, when a priest began to prepare for mass, a boy shouted out that it was idolatry. The priest hit the child, who then threw a stone, missing the priest, but breaking the tabernacle (the receptacle for the bread).
Suddenly, the church was a scene of destruction – stones were thrown, glass smashed, and statues torn down. The iconoclasm spread in a wave to the other churches in the town. Knox later distanced himself from the violence of the ‘rascal multitude’, but the overall result pleased him. Within a couple of days, Scone Abbey had met the same  fate.

CLICK on an image to see it full size

Item 12.4
1881 North Perth Ontario Canada Census showing James, Isabella, and Mary Hemphill living in their own household in Elma
Item 12.5
1881 North Perth Ontario Canada Census
showing Andrew, Anne, and William living together and above them is James and Elizabeth Terry and their four children.
Item 12.6
Marriage record of William Hemphill and Margaret Buchanan
Item 12.7
1891 Canada Census for Elma Township
Item 12.8
Ann Liggett Hemphill’s Record of Death
Item 12.9
1901 Canada Census for the township of Elma
Item 12.10
Record of death of Andrew Hemphill
Item 12.11
1851 Canada Census showing the Terrys in Uxbridge, Ontario
Item 12.24
1871 Canada Census for Elma
Item 12.14
Marriage Record of James Hemphill and Isabella Terry in Elma, Perth County, Ontario, May 5, 1880.
Item 12.26
Birth record of Mary Ann (Ella) Hemphill, Dec. 7, 1880

Primary Sources:

  • Bannister, John William.   The Life Of A Backwoodsman, Or, Particulars Of The Emigrant's Situation In Settling On The Wild Land Of Canada. On-line Ed. (London, Marchant Singer and Co. 1843)
  • Buchanan, Bill. History of Elma Township and Perth County, Ontario The Huron Tract and the Queen's Bush, On-line.
  • Personal correspondence with Bill Buchanan; his resource was the Elmanac: The History of Elma Township 1857-1997
  • Campey, Lucille H. Ontario and Quebec’s Irish Pioneers: Farmers, Laborers, and Lumberjacks. Kindle Ed., Dundurn, 2018, Toronto
  • Campey, Lucille H. Seeking a Better Future: The English Pioneers of Ontario and Quebec Kindle Ed., Dundurn, 2012, Toronto
  • Campey, Lucille H. The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784 - 1855: Glengarry and Beyond. Kindle Ed., Dundurn, 2012, Toronto
  • Johnston, William. History of the County of Perth: 1825-1902 On-line Ed. (Stratford. At the Beacon Office. 1903) pp.342-362. Available at
  • Lee, Robert C. The Canada Company and the Huron Track, 1826 - 1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics. Kindle Ed., Toronto, 2004, Natural Heritage Books
  • Traill, Catherine Parr. The Canadian Settler’s Guide. On-line Ed. (5th Ed., Toronto, The Old Countryman Office, 1855)
  • Trail, Catherine Parr. Letters to Persons Who Are Engaged in Domestic Service. On-line Ed. (New York. Leavitt and Trow.1873)
  • Traill, Catherine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada. On-line Ed. (London, Charles Knight & Co., 1846)