I started these articles on local history asking the questions: What were the attributes of locations and the circumstances of time that saw certain areas develop? Why did some communities prosper and thrive while others stagnate or disappear? Who were the early players and what were their dreams?
The significance of the location of what would become known as Brantford, was that Indigenous peoples’ trails converged here, at Market Square, which became a trading centre; and the Grand River was easier to cross at this location. It was a natural gathering / meeting place.
White settlement in the vicinity of Brantford grew slowly. Population estimates of white settlers was mostly anecdotal, through recollections of the early settlers - 1818, about a dozen people; 1823, about a hundred people; 1827, between two- and three-hundred. Word of the desirability of the area was spreading. In 1824 Joseph Read prepared a village plan. So by the mid-1820s it was clear that the settlers were contemplating organising the settlement. In 1827 the settlement was officially named Brant’s Ford which quickly became Brantford. Lewis Burwell prepared a preliminary survey of the area and a plan for the village in 1829. Burwell based his plan on the plan prepared by Read.
1830 was the tipping point for Brantford. On 19-April-1830 the Natives surrendered 807 acres of land to the Crown as a town plot. The land was the farm of Chief John Hill. Burwell’s second survey was completed in June-1830. His village plan consisted of eight streets running east / west and thirteen streets running north / south. The shape of the original village plan resembled a parallelogram. Land was then sold to the current landholders.
Burwell’s map shows the business in existence at the time and the land holders of property under Brant leases. Joseph Brant and his heirs did not sell the land in this area, they granted leases, typically 999 year leases. On his final plan Burwell set aside six blocks: Market (Square), Public Square (Victoria Park), County Court House, Market (Alexandra Park), Kirk (Presbyterian Church) of Scotland (block immediately north of Alexandra Park), and Burying Ground (Central School). Burwell also designated six church properties: Episcopal (Grace Anglican), Methodist (where the downtown TD Bank is located), Presbyterian (where the City Hall is located), Congregational (Dalhousie St, second lot from the corner of Charlotte St), Baptist (Bridge St), and African (corner of Peel and Dalhousie Streets).
In 1830 Brantford was described as not much of a place, a thin scattering of frame and log houses along Colborne St. Nothing but scrub oak and a swamp filled with thick cedar trees.
In May of 1831 the sale of land by public auction was held and the pace of development picked up considerably. With land (and title) available, settlers began to arrive in greater numbers; English, Irish, Scots, Canadians, and Americans.
John A. Wilkes erected a distillery in 1830; William Kerby opened a distillery and grist mill in 1831, William Spencer built a brewery in 1832. These provided a market for locally grown grain. John Lovejoy and William Dutton built hotels.
Brantford’s most influential citizen in its formative years was Ignatius Cockshutt. Ignatius first arrived in Brantford from Toronto in 1829 to help his father’s partner open a general store. Ignatius was 17. The business quickly failed and Ignatius returned to Toronto. Sensing the opportunity in Brantford, Ignatius returned in 1832 to manage the Brantford branch store for his father. The Brantford store performed so well under Ignatius’ management that the family closed their Toronto operations and moved to Brantford in 1834. This store, a general store in the broadest sense, was the foundation of the Cockshutt business empire that bankrolled the Cockshutt Plow Company. Cockshutt and its successor companies operated in Brantford from 1877 to 1985.
No place of worship existed in Brantford until Grace Anglican Church was completed in 1832. The current church replaced the original white frame building. Before that, the Mohawk Chapel was the closest place of worship.
By 1832 a daily stage coach ran between York, Brantford and Niagara, and three times per week between Brantford and Detroit. These services made Brantford accessible but the condition of the roads were horrendous. Travelling by stage coach was physically demanding.
In 1832 a visitor to Brantford described the village as follows: "This thriving village (Brantford), is quite a neat and stirring little place....It is situated on the bank of the river, which is here a stream of some importance....There is a handsome bridge erected over it, opposite the town. A grist mill, running four pair of stones, is located within its limits, and several saw-mills are in operation nearby. There are about a dozen mercantile stores....a considerable number of mechanics shops that make a good appearance and two pretty good taverns in the village....The settlements on either side of the road, for some distance, are extensive and quite dense.” (from Gary Muir’s Bits and Pieces of Brantford’s History: Brantford in the 1830s).
This is quite a contrast to the 1830 description of the village. In just a couple of years Brantford really started to develop and take shape.
The first newspaper published in the village was The Sentinel. It was launched in 1833 by David Keeler, who moved here from Rochester, NY. The name of the paper was changed in 1839 to The Brantford Courier and Grand River Commercial Advertiser, published by Thomas Lemmon, Keeler’s father-in-law. The Courier’s final issue was published on 28-December-1918. Its subscriber list was sold to the Brantford Expositor.
Popular past times in Brantford in the 1830s included: drinking, almost every store in town sold liquor, whisky sold for 12 ½ cents a gallon; fighting, from too much drinking; gambling, which led to drinking and fighting; and the Bee, from barn raising to corn shucking to quilting, the Bee provided for gossip and drinking. Residents also enjoyed swimming, fishing, sleighing, and horse racing. With the lack of diversity in entertainment and cheap liquor readily available, it is understandable why drinking was such a popular past time. The availability and abuse of spirits is what led to the temperance movement and ultimately Prohibition.
In 1832 Brantford had a population of about 350. By 1837 the village had grown to 1,200.
In 1833, Lewis Burwell reported that Brantford had several merchandising stores, a gunsmith, a blacksmith, a saddler, a lumberyard, two hotels, saw mills, grist mills, a brewery and two distilleries. This activity was largely located in what is now the downtown area. Because of the primitive conditions of the streets and roads at that time Queen and Wellington was considered far away and out of the way. East Ward and North Ward were all bush with a few log huts. West Brant was cleared and farms were established.