Throwback to the 1830’s and a “sort of” relative

This week I have been working in Toronto and I took it upon myself go seek out this plaque that acknowledges a very distant relative who had a significant role in Ontario history.

Peter Matthews (1790-1838) was married to my fourth great aunt, Hannah Major. Hannah’s, brother, Henry Major (1808-1887) was my third great grandfather. The Major family originated in Caven, Ireland, moved to the Maritimes in 1775 and then to the Pickering district of Ontario where they owned a sawmill in – wait for it – Majorville, a little community near Highway 7, just north of Whitby that is now known as Whitevale. The White family took over the district from the Majors in the 1840’s and thus renamed the town. Sounds a bit like the Wild West.

Peter Matthews was born near Belleville Ontario, the son of United Empire Loyalists. He and Hannah Major were married in 1811 when she was 15 years old. They had 8 children and she died at age 33. I don’t know much more about Hannah but there is a lot of information about her husband Peter who farmed at first but subsequently became a political figure and local martyr/hero.

During the war of 1812, Peter fought under General Brock. Later, he became involved with the rebels around Toronto led by William Lyon MacKenzie who were protesting and fighting the Family Compact group that controlled Upper Canada. This was thirty years before Canada became Canada and Ontario was Ontario. Peter ended up leading a group of 1000 rag-tag protesters against the government soldiers in December 1837. They were soundly defeated and Peter and his co-conspirator, Samuel Lount were captured and tried for treason. Once convicted, they were held in a dirty small jail cell and eventually they were hanged in a spectacle execution that took place near the old Courthouse, now very close to the King Edward Hotel around King and Yonge Streets. The city limits ( see the map below) were at about where Dundas Square is now. Montgomery’s tavern, dubbed the Rebel Camp was at approximately present day Yonge and Eglinton.

The execution was done, in part, to make an example of these rebels who, in fact, were trying to advocate for a fairer government. Their bodies were thrown in the Potters Cemetery initially but were later moved to Toronto Necropolis Cemetery where a monument bearing the inscription below was erected in 1898. Peter was also posthumously pardoned by Queen Victoria.

This week I found the plaque on a building at 1 Toronto Street marking the gallows spot where Peter Matthews and Ssmuel Lount were hanged. There are other monuments and plaques at the cemetery and in Pickering.

My connection with this fellow – a sort of six degrees of separation – is somewhat remote and not truly ancestral but it is intriguing to read about his exploits and demise and know that my thrice great grandparents and the rest of the Major Family must have found all this quite disruptive and disturbing.

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