At the end of the Revolutionary War life began anew for those who had remained loyal to Great Britain or who had fought on her behalf. They now found themselves as outcasts from the American states where they had made their homes. Known as United Empire Loyalists, some returned to Great Britain and others went to British possessions in the West Indies, but many began their lives anew in the remaining British territories in North America. Among these was the influential and energetic Richard Beasley who quickly became well-known throughout Upper Canada.
Arriving in 1777 as a "refugee loyalist," he was involved in a number of commercial projects near his home at Barton on a commanding site overlooking Burlington Bay. (The site of Richard Beasley's home later became the property of another leading Upper Canadian politician, Sir MacNab who built his home known as Dundurn Castle, now a prominent historical landmark, on this land.) A cousin of Richard Cartwright, one of the province's wealthiest businessmen, Beasley had also entertained Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth and was well-connected socially in the small society of Upper Canada. (Elizabeth Simcoe was an accomplished painter and one of her landscape paintings portrays a view similar to that from Richard Beasley's home.)
Among those also seeking favours from the British government were Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) and the Six Nations Indians who had fought on the British side during the American Revolutionary War. Commissioned as a captain by the British in 1780, Brant retained his position as a war chief in an Indian-loyalist band throughout the duration of the war. As such, he was entitled to land grants according to his rank. Brant and the Six Nations Confederacy sought new lands from Britain to reward them for their loyalty to the British Crown and for the loss of their hunting grounds in the former British colonies.
Even before Upper Canada had been formally established as a province, Brant had urged Sir Frederick Haldimand, the British governor of Quebec, to purchase "from the Mississaugas or proprietors" a tract of land "consisting of about six miles on either side of the Grand River. . . running from the River la Tranche [the Thames] into Lake Erie, for the use of the Mohawks and such of the Six Nations as are inclined to join them in that settlement."
Haldimand was sensitive to their claim and he feared further unrest among the First Nations who were finding difficulties in their adaptation to the new political realities. In the famous "Haldimand deed" of October 25, 1784, he set out the terms of what was surely one of the most unusual loyalist land grants:
I do hereby in His Majesty's Name authorize and permit the said Mohawk Nation and such others of the Six Nation Indians as wish to settle in that quarter to take possession of and settle upon the banks of the river commonly called Ouse or Grand River, running into Lake Erie, allotting to them for that purpose six miles deep from either side of the river beginning at Lake Erie and extending in that proportion to the very head of the said river, which them and their posterity are to enjoy forever.
The official survey of the boundaries of the Six Nations lands was conducted in January 1791 by Augustus Jones, the newly appointed deputy surveyor for Upper Canada. His completed plan (submitted on 24 August 1791) outlined 674,910 acres that carved a great swath through the very centre of the new province. The implications of controlling so important a land area were not lost on the government of Upper Canada nor on the Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. Almost from the beginning a controversy developed over Brant's determination to dispose of parts of the Six Nations land.
Rather than retaining the land for his people, Brant sought to sell it and he suggested that incursions of white settlement had adversely affected the Indian hunt:
The Indian hunts being worn out and their people fallen into disuse of that method of subsistence, and, it not being sufficiently advanced in agricultural arts to maintain themselves, the Letting of the Lands appears [to him] the most reasonable mode of making provision for their Women, Old Men and Children.
It is not without a little irony that the lands Brant sought to dispose of were the most distant from the settlers along the lakefront. His attempts to sell parts of these lands were immediately blocked by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe who did not believe that this would be in accord with the intent of the original land grant set out by Governor Haldimand. For his part, Brant saw this as a slight against the native peoples' right to control their own destiny.
In the end, it was finally determined that the land would be surveyed and sold by the government on behalf of the Six Nations. This provided the government with some control over the loyalty and integrity of the purchasers of such a major tract of land and over the disposition of the funds. Far from resolving the problems, this arrangement led to incredible rancour and for a time again threatened the future of the land and its new settlers.
On November 25, 1796, Joseph Brant drew a deed for 93,160 acres on Block 2 of the Six Nations lands in favour of three prominent Upper Canada businessmen, Richard Beasley, John Baptiste Rousseau, and James Wilson. The deed was recorded at Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) at the seat of the government of Upper Canada. Under its new policies, however, the government halted the sale. Two years later on February 5, 1798, a Crown Grant was drawn for this block of land and the title registered. Richard Beasley assumed the interest of his partners and signed a new mortgage for £8,887 provincial currency not to Joseph Brant, but in favour of the trustees for the Six Nations.
If anyone could open these lands for settlement and could assure the provincial leaders of his loyalty to the Crown, it was Richard Beasley. The land that Beasley purchased was 30 miles from the lakefront at Dundas and even further removed from the capital at York. It did not appeal to many settlers, but its isolation and the quality of the soil attracted a number of farmers from Pennsylvania. Not considered to be United Empire Loyalists, for the early Mennonites and other pacifist sects from Pennsylvania had taken no part in the American Revolution, they were unlikely to have been active on the rebel side Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe encouraged their immigration to this new province, assuring them that they would have "a just right to such exemptions from bearing arms as they have hitherto met with under the ancient Government of the British States." In 1793 he went further, specifically outlining the means by which "Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers would be exempted from military service." Mennonites had in fact been arriving from Pennsylvania since 1786, settling along the shores of Lake Ontario. The liberal terms of sale on his new lands offered by Richard Beasley attracted their interest as land prices in Pennsylvania had increased beyond their means.
In 1800 a small group of Mennonites travelled to the Grand River with an Indian guide and a surveyor provided by Beasley, choosing homestead sites and acquiring deeds for their property from Beasley. Within two years 25 Pennsylvania families had settled on Block 2 of the former Indian lands. It came as a painful shock to them in 1803 when Samuel Bricker, one of the Pennsylvania farmers, learned in York that some of Beasley's political rivals had called his land dealings into question and that, despite the back-breaking work clearing their lands, the Mennonites in Block 2 did not hold a clear title to their property.
Beasley seemed to have aroused the jealousy and ire of some of his political and business rivals. Popular accounts written many years later in a fictional story of Mennonite settlement by the late Mabel Dunham and accepted uncritically by local historians impugned Beasley's motives and his character for selling some of the lands in Block 2 before he had retired the entire mortgage on his purchase. There is no primary evidence to suggest that Beasley had misled the early Mennonite settlers. It is more likely that both Beasley and the Mennonites were caught up in the longstanding rivalry between Joseph Brant and the members of the Executive Council of Upper Canada. When the Executive Council prepared to take action against Beasley, Joseph Brant entered the fray in Beasley's defence. Writing on behalf of the chiefs, Aaron Hill, Jr., warned the Government's Executive Council:
(The Chiefs) are surprised to have heard (the executive council) were about to sue Mr. Beasley & Co. respecting the Township, particularly as they had understood that you had refused to act as a Trustee when your aid was wanted to forward the business. They cannot consent to have Mr. Beasley distressed wantonly as they are convinced he has done his endeavour to pay them, and had separate Mortgages taken place, they have every reason to believe that he would not have been the least behind in the performance of his Contracts, they therefore request that time may be given to him.
Joseph Brant was quite blunt about his support for Beasley and his distrust of the motives of the Executive Council:
Richard Beasley, [Brant said]has done everything in his power to fulfill his Contract, and more than probably could he have obtained separate Mortgages as prayed for, in that case by his Manly and strenuous exertions, We rather think he would then have been enabled to have done us every justice. And separate Mortgages were faithfully promised him by our Trustees, and we again repeat, had this promise been complied with on the part of the Trustees, that we cannot think otherwise, but that Mr. Beasley would have paid us to the uttermost fraction.
This stirring testimonial on Beasley's behalf led the Executive Council to extend his title for another year in order for him to raise new funds to retire the mortgage and thereby secure clear title for those to whom he had sold land. Beasley had already paid significant sums to Joseph Brant as the duly accredited agent of the Six Nations Indians, and Brant, in light of his past relationship with the Executive Council, was in no mood to turn these funds over to the government.
The Mennonite settlers also realized that Richard Beasley's predicament could work to their advantage as his land problems afforded them a unique opportunity. Samuel Bricker and Daniel Erb, offered to purchase all of the unsettled portion of Beasley's land (some 60,000 acres), hoping to arrange for financing within their families in Pennsylvania. In keeping with a tradition that had been established among some Mennonites, Erb had been sent to Canada hoping to find "a large enough tract to accommodate a group settlement."
From the Executive Council's point of view, the Mennonites, while not considered to be United Empire Loyalists, were also not republicans or revolutionaries, and their reputation as skilled agriculturalists was known. In November 1803 an agreement between Richard Beasley, Daniel Erb, and Samuel Bricker was filed with the Executive Council and in May 1804 they paid a first instalment of £4,602.10 to Colonel Claus, chairman of the trustees for the Six Nation's Indians. A bond was given at that time for the balance of the purchase-£6,l02.10-to be paid on May 23, 1805.
Ironically, the new purchasers soon found themselves in a position remarkably similar to that which had confounded Beasley. They failed to raise the necessary funds and, like Beasley, Bricker and the Erbs could not make full payment on the date the bond came due. According to one author:
this small group of men (Samuel Bricker and his in-laws and John, Jacob, and Daniel Erb) hoped to secure title to the tract in their own names.[Like Richard Beasley] It is believed that they hoped to secure an extension of the time limit to enable them gradually to dispose of the property to incoming settlers and pay off the balance with the proceeds, with resultant profit to themselves.
Although Claus may have been impressed by the earnestness and sincerity of the Pennsylvania farmers, he would make no allowances for them to grant separate title to the land any more than he would for Beasley. His reasoning was simple enough: if separate title or partial discharge could be permitted, the best lands would be taken up and the remainder left as waste. He insisted that the terms for final payment would be extended for not longer than one year plus one week.
Returning to Pennsylvania with a plea combining a sense of religious duty and economic motivation, the farmers raised the remainder of the money to clear the title and to create a future Mennonite colony. A group of 26 individuals contributed funds and, in order to divide the 60,000 acres in an equitable way, formed an organization that has come to be known as the German Company. This name was used to describe their portion of the Indian land now officially referred to as the German Company Tract. Augustus Jones was commissioned to survey the holdings and divide them into equal-sized farm lots. Lots 1 through 128 were 448 acres each, while the remainder were 83-acre lots. The lots were then numbered and awarded by random drawing so that lot selection would be fair and equitable for each shareholder.
On June 29,1805, the original mortgage was discharged and title to the property was given to Daniel and Jacob Erb. By this fortunate sale to the Mennonites, Beasley had been able to pay for the whole tract of land and still retain 34,012 acres. Originally he had paid one shilling, 11 pence, per acre, and he now sold it at the rate of three shillings, four pence. For the Mennonites, this was still an excellent opportunity to acquire a vast holding of undeveloped land for approximately one dollar per acre, compared to the going rate for cleared land in Pennsylvania of $100 to $150 per acre.
John Erb, who would immediately commence to establish a grist and saw mill at the future site of Preston, had also done well. He had purchased 20 lots, totalling 7,500 acres. His brother Jacob acquired eight lots, each containing, 448 acres. It is perhaps also significant that the solicitor at Niagara who acted on behalf of the German Company was the Honourable William Dickson, whose experience in drafting the separate deeds and in arranging the conveying of land titles had made him acutely aware of the possibility of acquiring such blocks of land.
Although the future townsites of both Preston
were not part of the original German Company Tract, they were settled by Mennonites from Pennsylvania who began arriving in 1806 and 1807. Preston was located principally on lots 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the survey commenced by Beasley in 1802, known as Beasley's Broken Front. Lying three miles to the east, Hespeler would come to be situated on lots 9 and 10 of Beasley's Second Concession and on the west half of lots 9, 10, and 11 of the Third Concession. The majority of Mennonites coming to take out land in Upper Canada were from the Pennsylvania counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Berks, Lancaster, York, and Franklin.