Category: Memoirs

Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit, Pt. III

Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit, the final installment

Miss Anne Powell and her party did eventually make it to Detroit on June 9, 39 days after leaving Montreal. Along the way, she met Chief Joseph Brant, and visited Niagara Falls. Her letters describe in some detail her impressions of the Niagara Gorge and the Falls, a council that she witnessed of 200 First Nations chiefs near Fort Erie and some of the event’s participants. From Fort Erie it was a five-day journey from Fort Erie to the Detroit River at the head of Lake Erie, some thirty kilometres below Detroit.  Interestingly, Miss Anne notes that since the British had ceded Fort Detroit to the Americans, a new town must be built across the river from it. This town, named Sandwich, was not actually established until 1796, around the time that the Americans took up residence at Fort Detroit. Later, the town of Sandwich was renamed Windsor. Fort Detroit eventually disappeared beneath the streets of the expanding city of Detroit and has been lost to history.

And so we leave Miss Anne Powell enjoying the social life and the parties and the scenery on the Detroit River, because that’s where her letters leave off. Later, she returned to Montreal and married Isaac Winslow Clarke. Clarke was a Loyalist who had before the American Revolution lived in Boston. In fact, he was one of the consignees for the British East India Company’s shipment of tea that was thrown overboard during the famous 1773 “Boston Tea Party” event, as noted by Old Province Tales author William Renwick Riddell, where we find Miss Anne Powell’s story. Clarke later served in the British army during the War of 1812. He died at sea on his way to England in 1824, in his late 70s. Sadly, Miss Anne Powell died in 1792, barely 30 years old.

One caution here: remember that a resource like Old Province Tales is a secondary source. While it may be a good place to start (not to mention a lot of fun to read), if you’re planning to apply this type of source to your research be sure to cite is as such and don’t take anything the author says for granted. Even though an author may state that someone was born or died at a certain date, for example, this may be incorrect. Always verify these types of claims through primary resources if possible.

As I’ve noted previously, sources other than the traditional genealogical sources like censuses, cemetery records, land petitions and deeds, and so on can often reveal interesting tidbits of information that we might otherwise never discover. However, we sometimes have to go to more offbeat sources online to find records like these. One source I highly recommend you make use of is is a non-profit Internet library founded in 1996 for the purposes of, as the site’s “About” section notes, “offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format”. They hold a vast amount of digital resources, including old manuscripts. I have found and used city directories (another useful resource for locating family members), commercial directories, digitized Canada  and U.S. census documents, books, pictures, even old movies. It is an incredible resource that you should check out. You can download many of these materials in PDF, epub, and Kindle formats. Some are only available through’s collaborator, Google Books (another repository of old manuscripts).

Tips for Using

Although they have a lot of Canadian documents, these are not always found where you might expect them. For example, under the drop-down menu “Texts” you will see headings like “American Libraries”, “Canadian Libraries”, “University Libraries”, “Project Gutenberg”, etc. Even though you might be looking for Canadian documents, many of these have been contributed by U.S. universities and libraries from their own holdings and will be found under the heading of U.S. contributors. I recommend that when searching for Canadian textual materials you search using the “Texts” heading, which will return results for texts from all sources.

Another useful tip is to use the Subject and Author links that you will find in the landing page of the text you’re looking at. So, once you’ve searched on your terms and received links, after you choose a link you will see the landing page. Here you will see “Author”, “Subject”, and “Publisher” headings, which are also linked. Often these links can lead to additional discoveries. An historical author may have written more than one work, a publisher may have related works that have been uploaded, and you may find additional works on the same subject.

Another link to pay attention to on the landing page is the “Book contributor” link. These are the folks who provided the digitized materials to Often they have whole catalogues on the site that you can browse through to find additional materials.

The Wayback Machine

(picture source: Wikipedia)

Finally, the site has a feature called “The Wayback Machine”. If you’re not old enough to remember it, the “Wayback Machine” is a reference to the cartoon “Peabody’s Improbable History” from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the 1960s. Archive’s WM, though, is a function that allows you to search for websites from the past. that no longer exist If you find yourself clicking on a dead link on a website, and you really want the information that just might be on that dead website, try copying and pasting the link into the Wayback Machine and click the “Take Me Back” button. Chances are good that the site is archived and you might still find the information you were looking for.

All in all is a fantastic website. I have spent hours browsing through the resources there. And I always find something new and unexpected.

I have listed below some of the resources I used in researching and writing this little series. As always, please feel free to comment or ask a question. You can also contact me via my website at I am always happy to answer questions about Canadian heritage.

Sources:, Entries for William Dummer Powell and Richard Duncan,

Brymner, Douglas, archivist, Report on Canadian Archives,  1889, Brown Chamberlain, Ottawa,  Collections Canada

Carp, Benjamin L., Terms of Estrangement: Who Were the Sons of Liberty?, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter, 2012,

Riddell, William Renwick, Old Province Tales, 1920, Glasgow Brooke and Company, Toronto


Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit, Pt. II

Pearce Heritage Research Associates

I hope that you have read the Captain Richard Duncan biography at the website . By now you might be asking, “why do I have to do homework to read this blog?”. Well, you don’t really. I just wanted to give you two entirely different perspectives on the same historical person, Captain Richard Duncan, and if you read his “official” story, you’ll better understand those two perspectives.

Meet Mary Wright Duncan

On the way to Detroit, Miss Anne Powell stayed overnight at the home of Captain Richard Duncan. There, she met both the Captain and his wife. She doesn’t mention the wife by name, but we know that she was Mary Wright. She married Richard Duncan in October of 1784.

In her letters, Miss Anne writes about her 1789 meeting with Mary:

We pass’d one night at the house of a Capt’ Duncan, whose Wife I had often heard mention’d by my sister and whose story I commiserated before I saw her person. She is one of the loveliest young women I ever saw, both in person and manners, is now only nineteen and has been 5 years married.

Interestingly, we discover from Miss Anne’s writing that Mary is nineteen years old. She has also been “5 years married”. That means that Mary was wed at the very tender age of fourteen. This fact is not mentioned in the profile of Captain Duncan. As a family historian, if you were investigating this family’s story, you might have missed this fact if you had not dug a little deeper into the story. A marriage record might have revealed this, but perhaps not. In 1784, there were no official marriage civil registers. These were not begun until 1869 in Ontario, and considerably later in Quebec. Church records might be the only available source for this type of information. However, there was no standard format for recording such unions and the information contained in them varies. If I were researching the Duncan family, I would most certainly want to see any available marriage record after having read Miss Ann Powell’s letters.

I haven’t seen the marriage record for Mary Wright and Captain Duncan to know what information is contained in it, or indeed if it even exists. However, my point is not to prove Mary Wright’s age. My point is only that sometimes an unusual, “unofficial” source can yield some very interesting information.

I love the juicy-gossip quality of Miss Anne’s writing. My general perception of her is that she was a likeable, honest, and caring individual. If you read her letters, I’m sure you will agree. So when she writes about Captain Duncan himself, I’m inclined to believe what she writes about him.

Meet Richard Duncan

In the official biography, we learn that Duncan’s father, John, was an “Indian trader” operating out of Schenectady, New York. Further, “By the time of the American revolution the Duncans had acquired extensive landholdings but had also accumulated a joint debt of £3,000”. Generally, Duncan was a good soldier, rising from the rank of ensign, and having participated in the Battle of Saratoga. You can read about the infantry company he commanded during the war, some of his exploits, and the company’s modern re-enactors at After the Revolution, he was granted lands in Mariatown (near Morrisburg, Ontario), and continued to add to this allotment by purchasing more acreage around him.

Miss Anne confirms many of the facts presented in the official biography. But she adds an extra dimension. She tells us about the character of the man, Richard Duncan, rather than the military figure, something not in evidence in the more staid recounting of his life on Please don’t get the impression that I’m picking on; it’s a great resource for this type of background information. Nor am I necessarily trying to intentionally impugn the reputation of an obviously very capable Loyalist soldier. My intent is only to show how resources like the letters of Miss Anne Powell can add that extra, human dimension to our research subjects.

Anne Powell doesn’t like Captain Duncan. She says as much, even as she expresses extreme sympathy for the position of her young hostess.

She describes Captain Duncan as: “a Man who is old, disagreeable and vicious, but he was suppos’d to be rich and her friends absolutely forced [Mary] to marry him.” She clearly despises his treatment of his young wife: “I never heard of such a series of cruelty being practiced on any poor creature in my life both before and after her marriage.” And she loathes Captain Duncan himself: “The disgust I felt towards him is now settled into a fixed aversion which can never change for it is founded on principle.

Earlier, I used the quote from to show that Captain Duncan was a man deeply indebted to his creditors (“a joint debt of £3,000”). Miss Anne confirms this as she tells us, “After the sacrifice was made [i.e., after Mary Wright wed Duncan], her friends had the mortification of finding themselves deceived in his circumstances ; so far from being rich he was deeply in debt, and had nothing to live upon but his half-pay and his new lands which were then in a state of Nature.” By the way, I used a calculator on the website to calculate that the Duncans’ debt of £3,000 would be equivalent to £4,000,000 ($6 million CDN) today, so his indebtedness was not a small thing.

This dishonesty in his representation of himself to Mary, and perhaps to her family and friends, might be why Miss Anne so harshly decries Mary’s condition, living in the wilderness in such a poor state: “There, however he brought her, and there she lived in a hut without society, and almost without the necessaries of life, ’till he built a house, which he has done upon so large a scale that it will never be finished.” Her description of Mrs. Duncan’s married life is in stark contrast to the life of affluence with Captain Duncan that evidently Mary and everyone else concerned expected.

A Good Flow of Spirits

Miss Anne concludes her description of the experience by expressing her hopes for Mary Wright Duncan: “I felt myself very much interested for this sweet young woman and should have great pleasure in hearing her Tyrant was dead, the only means by which she can be released.” This might not be a charitable way to express herself, but I think it clearly underscores the depth of feeling Captain Duncan evoked in Miss Anne.

Reading her letters, I grew to quite like Miss Anne Powell. She was not one to suffer injustice lightly. Certainly, she expresses quite clearly that she would never allow herself to be put into circumstances similar to her friend, Mary. She is, we find, particularly strong-willed for a woman of her time. She would rather die than to live the way Mary was living:

I, at that moment thought with pleasure of a circumstance that has often mortified me, the slightness of my own constitution which will never leave me long to struggle under any great misfortune ; a good flow of spirits buoys me up above the common vexations of life; few people, I believe, bear them with more temper, but an evil too great for the strength of my mind would soon send me to the grave.

That’s it for this week’s installment. Stop by again for another new adventure in history. Next time, I’ll tell you how I found this amazing story and what other free resources are available at the same website. As always, please feel free to comment on anything you read here on this blog.

End of Pt. II

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 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