‘The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived’
Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (May 30, 2019)
by Jim Vollmershausen, Vice-President, Richmond Hill Historical Society
Over 220 years ago, in 1798, a group of royalist exiles from revolutionary France arrived in Upper Canada and settled in what is now Richmond Hill. They were led by the Comte de Puisaye, a younger son of minor French nobility. De Puisaye, who fled to England during the French Revolution and subsequently led two unsuccessful military forays into France, was able to convince the British government to fund a plan to settle a group of French royalist officers in Upper Canada. Under this arrangement, this group of 41 settlers would receive the same land grants and assistance as the United Empire Loyalists who migrated to Canada following the American Revolution.
While some colonial officials were skeptical that these new high-born arrivals would be suited to the hardships of pioneer life, they nevertheless received Crown grants along both sides of Yonge Street between Elgin Mills and Stouffville roads, along with transportation, tools, and rations. Their arrival at their new holdings coincided with winter in late 1798, and the settlers, along with their servants, began the job of building cabins and clearing land under less than ideal conditions.
When spring arrived in the new settlement, named Windham in honour of the British official who had facilitated their new venture, some progress had been made — a number of cabins had been built, enough land had been cleared to think about crops, and a church was being planned. Spring, however, also turned Yonge Street into a quagmire. Supplies were much delayed, and a number of servants chose to abandon the primitive settlement for better opportunities. Progress ground to a halt as 1799 wore on, and the royalist pioneers seemed to be losing interest in pursuing their future in the wilderness. Early skepticism about their ability to prosper in Upper Canada’s hinterland was borne out.
Within a year of their arrival, a number of settlers simply left Windham for larger centers in the colonies or returned to Europe. Ten years after the first royalists arrived to start their new lives, only two families remained. Michel Saigeon became a successful farmer in King Township and Laurent Quetton St. George prospered as a fur trader in York. The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived.