Last week, we looked at the story of John Strachan French, mill owner and merchant in Burritts Rapids between 1841 and 1858. The problem is that various official records and the accepted history of the man and his activities seem to contradict each other, a real problem for the historian.
The story goes that French bought a grist mill from Thomas Smyth in 1840, and “ran a store out of what is now the Community Hall, but owned a saw and shingle mill as well”. These accounts say that French bought the Mill Lot, between Grenville and East Street from Smyth, and sold his interest in the mill to Tom Black “about the time of Confederation”, which was in 1867.
Now here’s the problem. The official land title records for Burritt’s Rapids have no mention of Thomas Smyth owning any property in the hamlet. It shows that French bought part of the Mill Lot from Henry Burritt in 1850, and it was just a small part on the east side of the lot for which he paid £6.5/- [about $25]. The mill and store were on the west part of the Mill Lot, and were owned by Justus Merwin in 1848, who had paid £1,250 [about $5,000] for the property. That seems clear, except that the 1851 Census says that J. S. French did own “1 Grist Mill & Oat Mill…1 Shingle factory..1 Saw Mill”.
Even more confusion arises when other records are consulted. The annual Tax Assessment Rolls for Burritts Rapids show that French owned a mill in 1847, which does fit with the land title records that show he bought lot 1 on the east side of Grenville Street in 1841, where he built his home and the saw mill. But it refers to him as a Miller and Manufacturer, not as a Merchant, until 1857, when his property increases in value by $500 over the previous year, and he is listed as owning a store for the first and only time. He died the following year, without making a will, and in a great deal of debt. He had mortgaged his property for more than $3,200, and his entire estate seems to have been lost by 1861, when his widow, Mary Ann, signed a release claiming any interest in the estate of her late husband.
This estate, as it is called on some historical maps dating from 1861, included the home and saw mill, as well as any interest in the store, and a tannery and land on East Street. It was a remarkably quick fall from the 1851 Census report that shows the value of his mills at £1,500 [$6,000].
Which record are we to believe? The land title records, showing ownership of the lands, do not support the claim that French owned the Mill Lot until after 1850. He may not have owned the store, now the Community Hall, until 1857, which means he did not build it in the first place. The land titles show that the Mill Lot was owned until 1847 by Henry Burritt, who sold it to William Patrick, who passed it on in 1848 to Justus Merwin. In 1860, Merwin sold it to John Greenshields. But, (here we go again), Merwin lived in Prescott and was an absentee owner of the Burritts Rapids lands. Perhaps Justus Merwin leased the Mill Lot to French before he became owner in 1857? If so, why is listed in other sources as the owner?
French is also shown on a 1861 map as having owned lots on the west side of East Street, where a tannery was located. The Land Title records are once again raise some questions. His name does not appear in the Land Titles records for these lots, but an interesting notation may shed some light on things. They show that lot 1 passed from Frederick Moore to John Greenshields, who took possession of the Mill Lot in 1847.
Greenshields took possession through a Deed Poll, but perhaps not from Moore. The notation reads that the transfer “is an assignment by Moore, but likely he sold to French with no deed does not appear to be reg’d”. It could be that the Land Title records did not record French as owner of property because the sales to him were never registered.
There’s one other interesting discrepancy in the records concerning John Strachan French. In 1847, the Tax Rolls show him owning 160 acres on lot 4, concession 1 in Oxford-on-Rideau, just west of Burritts Rapids. But the land title records have no record of him owning that land at any time.
Much more can be written about the family and its affairs, but the fact that even as prominent a figure as J. S. French could leave behind such a confusing and complex set of records indicates how difficult it can be to get at what really happened in the past. An historian’s life can be quite a busy one!