It takes a huge stretch of the imagination to visualise Oxford-on-Rideau Township in 1800. There were no roads, no houses, no residents. Think about the trees in Limerick Forest: they have been growing for about 60 years. The trees in Oxford in 1800 had been growing for thousands of years: pine trees 150 feet high and eight feet around; hemlock, tamarack, and large areas of swamp land. The rivers were the only means of getting around, and even they were not considered navigable at all times. Try and imagine: no Kemptville, no buildings of any kind. No Rideau Canal, the Burritt farm was on the far side of the Rideau, and the nearest settlement was at Merrickville, known as Mirick’s Mills.
Into this untouched wilderness, in 1801, came three brothers and their families, the very first settlers in the new Township of Oxford-on-Rideau. Jeremiah Harris was 33 years old, his wife, Priscilla, was just 21. They had a son and a daughter, aged 2 and 1, and another son, Barnabas, would be born the year after they arrived.
William Harris was 28, married to Huldah, 30, and with three sons aged 9, 6 and 3. Two more would be born before 1803, but William died later that same year. The youngest brother, Caleb Harris, was 24, his wife, Lucy, 22. Their son had been born in 1800, their daughter, Nancy, born the year they took up their land by the Rideau River. Another daughter, Mary, was born the following year.
The families came from Ireland, and leased a Crown Reserve, Lot 2 in the first concession. This implies that they were not entitled to the free land grants available to Loyalists or discharged soldiers, nor were they ready to buy land. Oddly enough, the lease they held was in Caleb’s name, the youngest brother, and was dated August 27, 1801. It read:
“Leased to Caleb Harris of the Township of Oxford in the County of Grenville in the District of Johnstown Yeoman Lot number Two on the Rideau in the said Township of Oxford, a Crown Reserve, – Under the Administration of Lieutenant Governor Hunter The Lease to bear date at the time of the signing thereof and the Rent to commence 29th September 1802.”
The Harris families probably chose Lot 2 in that concession because it was on the river, and two old Indian trails met at that point. The first linked the St. Lawrence and Rideau, and the part crossing North Grenville today is the line of Bolton and Davis Roads, and the other, now River Road, followed the line of the Rideau River. The Harris land was closest to Mirick’s Mills and Stephen Burritt and his family were across the river.
Jeremiah and Caleb became involved in the local government, which was centred in Mirick’s Mills and covered four Townships: Oxford, Wolford, Montague and Marlborough. The entire population of the four townships was just 264 in 1802. Two years later, it had grown to 408.
In 1802, Jeremiah was appointed one of the Overseers of the Highways, Caleb was elected Town Clerk, and Jeremiah was elected one of two Assessors in 1804. That year, a second family also arrived to settle in Oxford Township. The Bullis family had settled in Marlborough Township, and Daniel and Elizabeth moved with their family onto the Clergy Reserve on lot 1, concession 1, next door to the Harris property.
William Harris died in 1803, but his sons, Hebron, Daniel, and Sylvanus, and their children, can be traced down through the history of Oxford-on-Rideau. Daniel bought lot 22 in the Third Concession in March, 1818 at age 23. The property remained in the extended family until 1944. Daniel Harris, died January 25, 1869, aged 70.
Sylvanus bought Lot 19 in the First Concession and it later passed to Robert. After his death, his ten children leased the land to Robert’s widow, Clarissa. It then went to a younger Hebron Harris and was subdivided and sold over the years. Interestingly, in 2004, Rhonda Lee Harris, married to Arthur Keith Sharland, transferred part of this lot to Keith and Rhonda in 2004. Is Rhonda Lee a descendant of the original Harris family who became Oxford’s first family back in 1801?