The Scottish settlers of Scarborough were known as heavy drinkers, but not so Robert Hamilton. My great-great grandfather, who settled in this Upper Canadian farming community in 1830, was a “pioneer total abstinence advocate,” and his opposition to alcohol almost prevented his barn from being built.
Between 1796 and 1826, the government granted land in Scarborough to Loyalists, military officers and a few other settlers. Most were absentee landowners, however, and the population only began to grow after 1815, with the end of the Napoleonic wars. The height of immigration occurred in the 1820s and early 1830s, with a huge influx of settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland.
Most of the Scarborough’s Scots came from lowland counties such as Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire. Many had friends or relatives who had already settled in the area and encouraged others to follow. Robert was no exception: he was a weaver from Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and his in-laws, the Stobo family, were said to have been the first Lanarkshire settlers in Scarborough in 1824.
Robert and his wife, Elizabeth Stobo, and their six children stayed with the Stobo family when they first arrived. Soon they found a farm of their own, lot 25, concession III, and started to clear the trees so they could plant crops.
Felling trees wasn’t as easy as it looked, however, as the Hamiltons learned. In 1832, three weeks after arriving in Scarborough, Robert Rae, Robert Hamilton’s brother-in-law, was helping clear the Hamilton farm when he was killed by a falling tree. The widowed Agnes Hamilton Rae brought up four children alone and eventually managed to purchase thirty acres of her own.
One of the traditions the settlers brought from Scotland was the custom of holding “bees,” in which neighbours helped each other with major projects, such as barn raisings. The person whose barn was being erected normally provided whisky to the volunteers, so when abstainer Robert Hamilton refused to serve any alcohol, the volunteers refused to help with the barn. The deadlock was broken when Robert gave the head carpenter the authority to oversee the barn-raising as he saw fit, and the carpenter approved the whisky.
Eventually, alcohol was no longer so central to the social lives of Scarborough’s Scots. Rev. James George, of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, founded the first recorded temperance society in the community in 1834 and, by the turn of the 20thcentury, no liquor was allowed at barn raisings.
Research notes: When I started to research this post, I just wanted to find out more about my ancestors’ lives, and I was excited to find references to Robert Hamilton on the website of The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society, www.beamccowan.com. This website gives an account of Robert Rae’s fatal accident. I wanted to learn more, so I ordered a couple of the booklets published by the society. When I read the footnotes, I realized that the McCowans are descendants of Robert and Agnes Hamilton Rae – and therefore distant cousins of mine!
Another excellent resource for the early history of Scarborough is The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896, available online at http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028900970/cu31924028900970_djvu.txt. Written to celebrate Scarborough’s first centennial, this is the source of the story of the barn-raising.
Scarborough produced another book to celebrate its second centennial anniversary. The People of Scarborough: A History, by Barbara Myrvold, published by the City of Scarborough Public Library Board, 1997, gives a comprehensive overview of the community’s history. It is also available as an online PDF at static:Torontopubliclibrary.ca/da/pdfs/238353.pdf.
Finally, I discovered that Robert Hamilton took part in a curling match between Scarborough and Toronto on a frozen Toronto Bay in 1836. This little anecdote didn’t fit into my article, but I wanted to mention it anyway because it led me to a charming painting of Toronto Bay (now called Toronto Harbour) in winter: http://www.distilleryheritage.com/snippets/49.pdf.
See also: https://www.writinguptheancestors.ca/2013/12/from-lesmahagow-to-scarborough.html