‘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

Historic plaque about the de Puisaye Settlement located in front of St. John's Anglican Church Jefferson.

The de Puisaye Settlement 1799

In the fall of 1798 some 40 exiled French Royalists under the leadership of Joseph-Genevieve, Comte de Puisaye (1754-1827), emigrated from England to Upper Canada. The following year they were given rations and agricultural implements and settled along Yonge Street in the townships of Markham and Vaughan. However, these members of the nobility and their servants were unable to adapt themselves to a pioneer existence and by 1806 their settlement, known as Windham, was abandoned. De Puisaye lived for a time on an estate near Niagara, but returned to England in 1802. Erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board.
The de Puisaye Settlement 1799 – Erected by the Ontario Archaeological & Historic Site Board at 12125 Yonge St. (positioned in front of St. John’s Anglican Church). – 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.

Portrait of the Comte de Puisaye in his later years.
Comte de Puisaye (in his later years). – Richmond Hill Historical Society

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.