1804, Upper Canada was little more than a well-behaved
child. Established only 13 years earlier by the Constitutional
Act of 1791, the settlement was seen by its distant
British rulers but certainly not heard. John A. MacDonald
wouldn't be born for another 11 years, and William
Lyon Mackenzie was still a Scottish schoolboy in short
pants. Still, the colony's leaders were beginning
to emerge, and it was showing at least some potential.
the summer of that year, Ogetonicut, a member of the
Muskrat branch of the Chippewa, allegedly killed John
Sharp, a white man assisting two American brothers,
the Farewells, with their fur trapping operation on
Lake Scugog. The native man -who had previously sworn
to avenge the murder of his brother, was immediately
suspected and quickly apprehended on Toronto Island.
defence successfully argued that the trial be held
in the district of Newcastle at Presqu'ile Point.
The murder had occurred just within Newcastle's borders,
and under English common law, no one could be tried
in one district for a crime allegedly committed in
another. Although an inconvenience, government officials
decided to make the most of the technicality. The
area still needed a capital. If the native man were
tried, found guilty (which seemed, shamefully, to
be a foregone conclusion), and hanged at Presqu'ile,
the events would serve nicely to establish Newcastle
as the District Town.
October 7, 1804, the principals of the trial boarded
the government-commissioned Speedy, an 80-foot, two-masted
schooner - or "fore-and-aft" - built in
Cataraqui in 1776.
In addition to the prisoner, they included some of
the most prominent figures in Upper Canada. Justice
Thomas Cochrane, the judge for the trial, was a 27-year-old
phenom with a promising legal career stretching out
before him. United Empire Loyalist Robert
Isaac Dey Gray, had been appointed first Solicitor-General
of Upper Canada in 1794, and in 1796 was elected to
the Legislative Assembly. He had practiced law in
Cornwall and was one of nine founding members of the
Law Society of Upper Canada. Also on board was Angus
McDonnell, counsel for the accused, first clerk of
the Legislative Assembly, and Treasurer for the Upper
Canada Law Society. John Stegman, the provincial land
surveyor for the Surveyor-General's Office, was also
required to make the trip. Rounding out this "who's
who" of Upper Canada society was John Fisk, the
High Constable of York, and Jacob Herchmer, a wealthy
York businessman and prominent Loyalist.
less political importance were the two young children
of a couple obscurely linked to the case. Unable to
afford fare for their own passage, the couple tucked
their children aboard and turned away to begin the
100-mile hike from York to Presqu'ile. In all, the
Speedy's passengers and crew totalled between 20 and
39. Before she set sail that evening, a storm swept
in off the lake. Captain Lieutenant Thomas Paxton
suggested the voyage be postponed. Incredibly, the
schooner was widely considered unseaworthy, and the
experienced Paxton, formerly of the British navy,
was loath to sail her in bad weather. Government officials
ordered him to proceed.
hours into the voyage, the Speedy reached Port Oshawa,
where she stopped to pick up the Farewell brothers,
the trial's chief witnesses. The brothers flatly refused
to board her saying she was already overcrowded. They
would accompany her by open canoe. Perhaps they had
another reason not to board. The Speedy and the Farewells
maintained contact throughout the night and into the
the evening of October 8, both had reached Colborne.
As they continued their voyage overnight, the storm
worsened and the vessels were separated. By the morning
of October 9, the brothers had managed to reach Newcastle
harbour but the Speedy had not. She never would. She
was last seen pitching in high seas on her approach
to Presqu'ile Point.
Aside from a chicken coop, no trace of ship, passengers,
or crew has ever been found. While claims of discovery
have been made in recent years, all remain unconfirmed.
Steps from the Presqu'ile lighthouse, a plaque commemorating
the Speedy's fate concludes "the loss of so many
prominent persons was a severe blow to the small colony."
The tragedy changed local history, as well. Quarter
session meetings were never held at Presqu'ile's courthouse,
a government act of 1805 deemed Newcastle an "inconvenient"
site for a District Town, and Cobourg was eventually
chosen District Town in Newcastle's place. Henry David
Thoreau once observed, "There are more consequences
to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice."
by David Bojarzin. Reprinted from Watershed Magazine
with kind permission from Shelter Fell Publications.)
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