Founding of Guelph
The story of the founding of Guelph on April 23, 1827 is filled with theatrics and ominous preminitions. How could we expect less when our founding father is a Scottish novelist, explorer and entrepreneur. Galt travelled Europe with poet Lord Byron while writing his biography, and had a unique vision for his new town in the wilderness. Thankfully, historians do not have to guess what Galt had in mind, because he narrated his own story about the founding of Guelph in his 1833 autobiography.
So let's hear the story straight from Galt himself....
"On the 22nd of April, the day previous to the time appointed for laying the foundation of my projected polis, I went to Galt, a town situated on the banks of the Grand River, which my friend the Honourable William Dixon, in whose township it is situated, named after me long before the Canada Company was imagined; it was arrived at the maturity of having a post-office before I heard of its existence. There I met by appointment at Mr. Dickson’s, Dr. Dunlop, who held a roving commission in the Canada Company, and was informed that the requisite woodmen were assembled.
Next morning we walked after breakfast towards the site which had been selected. The distance was about eighteen from Galt, half of it in the forest, but till we came near the end of the road no accident happened. Scarcely, however, had we entered the bush, as the woods are called, where the doctor found he had lost the way. I was excessively angry, for such an accident is no trifle in the woods; but after “wandering up and down” like two babes, with not even the comfort of a blackberry, the heavens frowning and the surrounding forest suddenly still, we discovered a hut, and “tirling at the pin”, entered and found it inhabited by a Dutch shoemaker. We made him understand our lost condition, and induced him to set us on the right path. He had been in the French army, and had, after the peace, emigrated to the United States; thence he had come into Upper Canada, where he bought a lot of land, which, after he had made some betterments, he exchanged for the location in the woods, or as he said to himself, “Je swapé” the first land for the lot on which he was now settled.
With his assistance we reached the skirts of the wild to which we were going, and were informed in the cabin of a squatter that all our men had gone forward. By this time it began to rain, but undeterred by that circumstance, we resumed our journey in the pathless wood. About sunset, dripping wet, we arrived near the spot we were in quest of, a shanty, which an Indian, who had committed murder, had raised as a refuge for himself.
It may be proper to mention here, that a shanty is a temporary shed formed of the branches of trees; such a tabernacle as Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, according to the old Scottish ballad, retired to during the prevalence of a pestilence.
“Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
They were two bonnie lasses,
They bigget a bowwer on yon burn brae
And theekit it o’er wi rashes.”
We found the men, under the orders of Mr. Prior, whom I had employed for the Company, kindling a roaring fire, and after endeavouring to dry ourselves, and having recourse to the store-basket, I proposed to go to the spot chosen for the town. By the time the sun was set, and Dr. Dunlop, with his characteristic drollery, having doffed his wet garb, and dressed himself Indian fashion, in blankets, we proceeded with Mr. Prior, attended by two woodmen with their axes.
It was consistent with my plan to invest our ceremony with a little mystery, the better to make it be remembered. So intimating that the main body of the men were not to come, we walked to the brow of the neighbouring rising ground, and Mr. Prior having shewn the site selected for the town, a large maple tree was chosen; on which, taking an axe from one of the woodmen, I struck the first stroke. To me at least the moment was impressive, -- and the silence of the woods, that echoed to the sound, was as the sign of the solemn genius of the wilderness departing for ever.
The doctor followed me, then, if I recollect correctly, Mr. Prior, and the woodmen finished the work. The tree fell with a crash of accumulating thunder, as if ancient Nature were alarmed at the entrance of social man into her innocent solitudes with his sorrows, his follies, and his crimes.
I do not suppose that the sublimity of the occasion was unfelt by others, for I noticed that after the tree fell, there was a funereal pause, as when a coffin is lowered in the grave; it was however, of short duration, for the doctor pulled a flask of whisky from his bosom, and we drank prosperity to the City of Guelph."
Source: The Autobiography of John Galt, Volume II, Chapter IX, published 1833.