Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit


We Meet our Heroine

In 1789, just three years before her death at a relatively young age, Miss Anne Powell travelled from Montreal to Detroit. Her brother, William, had received an appointment to be the magistrate for the British territories to the west of what is now Long Point, Ontario, a town situated on the north shore of Lake Erie and just about due south of Kitchener-Waterloo. This commission had its seat in Detroit, now part of the United States, but at the time still in British hands (Britain ceded Detroit to the U.S. in 1796 under the provisions of Jay’s Treaty).

Miss Anne accompanied her brother, sister-in-law, and their family on the journey to Detroit. Before she left Montreal, she had decided she would pass some of the time in keeping a journal of the rough trip, partly overland but mostly by water. In his book, Old Province Tales: Upper Canada, published in 1920, William Renwick Riddell, describes the setting for us:

When William Dummer Powell was in 1789 appointed ‘first judge’ for the District of Hesse, i.e., all Canada west of Long Point, Lake Erie, there was no road cut through what is now the province of Ontario, and it was necessary to take the water route. He was at the time living in Montreal with his wife and family, four sons and two daughters; there also lived with him his eldest and favourite sister, Anne, a young, vivacious woman of handsome person and no little literary ability. In her letters still extant she writes in a lively and entertaining style, and her light chaff of her somewhat ponderous brother is very amusing.

Miss Anne and her travelling companions had a long journey ahead of them. If you travelled Highway 401 from Montreal to Windsor by car today, you would be travelling nearly 900 km, and this is a much shorter route than the one Miss Anne took in 1789. The map below (click on the map to enlarge it) of Upper Canada in 1800 shows the entire territory just a decade after Miss Anne’s journey. Notice that Dundas Street, intended to connect Montreal to Detroit, and bypassing Niagara Falls, is already in evidence on this map. Construction of the road began the year after Miss Anne’s death. In 1789, her party was forced to travel overland around the Falls: “There the River becomes impassable, and all the baggage is drawn up a steep Hill in a Cradle, a Machine I never saw before.” (By the way, if you would like to get a sense of what the Falls looked like in Miss Anne’s day you can find a number of pictures at Impressions of Niagara.)

Blogging was hard even in 1789

Miss Anne’s writings are a wonderful insight into her character and personality. She so easily brings to life for us what it was like to live in the early days of our country’s settlement after the close of hostilities, “the Peace” she calls it, with the new United States. We also get a real sense of who she was as a person. Although she had originally planned to keep a journal, she instead found that impractical.

She writes: “I was not aware of the difficulties attending the journey. I expected it would be tedious, and thought writing would be a very pleasant employment, and so it might have proved had it been practicable but the opportunities of writing were so few that I found it would be impossible to keep a journal with any degree of regularity, so left it wholly alone and trusted to my memory (which never deserved such a compliment) for recollecting whatever was worth communication.

Entertaining, but also historically useful

Not only are Miss Anne’s letters entertaining to read, but they provide us with a wealth of historical references. Anyone researching ancestors who once resided along the banks of the St. Lawrence River or the north shore of the lower Great Lakes during this period in history should read her stories. Like me, you’ll probably find something in her words that strikes a chord of familiarity.

I live near Kingston, Ontario, a city of about 120,000 people, attended university there, and, most recently, worked for Statistics Canada during Census 2011 out of the Kingston office. In short, I know the area well. I was delighted to encounter Miss Anne’s description of the Kingston she found along her 1789 journey:

“On the tenth day we reached Kingston. It is a small new Town and stands in a beautiful Bay at the foot of Lake Ontario. The moment we reached a wharf a number of people came down to welcome us. A Gentleman in his hurry to hand out the Ladies brushed one of the Children into the lake; he was instantly taken out, but that did not save his Mother from a severe fright. We went to the house of a Mr Forsyth, a bachelor, who very politely begg’d we would consider it our own. Here we staid 3 days and then sail’d with a fair wind for Niagara.”

Not only do we have Miss Anne’s amusing reference to her arrival and brief stay in Kingston, we actually know what it looked like in her day. Surveyor and artist, James Peachey, made this drawing of Kingston (or Cataraqui as it was then known) in 1783, just six years before Miss Anne passed through the town:

Trading history for herstory

The real value in reading Miss Anne’s reminiscences, for me at least, is in the personal insights that Miss Anne gives us about the people she encounters. There is the ring of truth in her recollections of the various personalities she writes about. One story she tells, about a “Captain Duncan” and his wife, is particularly compelling. Miss Anne is able to tell us things about this ex-military man and entrepreneur that no dry history book could ever tell us.

I’ll leave you with this link to Captain Richard Duncan’s biography on biographi.ca: http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=2383. Consider it homework of sorts, a necessary background to next week’s installment of Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit. Next week, I’ll tell you what Miss Anne thought of Captain Duncan. (Hint: she didn’t like him very much.) We’ll also explore how to use this type of historical evidence in our genealogical work, as well as where to find it (for free!).

End of Part I

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