The Mysterious Mr. Henderson

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Part 1: From war to Kemptville

On December 28, 1837, a man called John Henderson, then living in Ogdensburg, New York, wrote to William Lyon Mackenzie at Navy Island in the Niagara region. Mackenzie was in exile following the failure of the rebellion instigated by him in Upper Canada, now the Province of Ontario, that same month. People had been killed, a few were later hanged after trial on treason charges, and the entire province had been thrown into turmoil by the outbreak of violence. Henderson, too, was in exile, having, he claimed, had his entire fortune “extracted” from him back in the town he had set his business – Kemptville.

John Henderson, according to his letter to Mackenzie, was an American citizen who had fought in the War of 1812 in a number of battles, including Chrysler’s Farm and Sackett’s Harbour. Now, aged 43, he was eager to join Mackenzie to continue the battle for “the Reduction of British power in the Canadas”. He was prepared to fight and die, and informed Mackenzie that he could bring with him to the cause “a number of volunteers”, if only he could find the money to get to Navy island. But he was destitute, thanks to the way he had been treated in Kemptville, and was only eager to get his revenge on them by joining Mackenzie’s forces.

On the face of it, John Henderson seems a pathetic figure, bitter and angry, a victim of malign forces and looking for a handout and a cause. There is no indication that Mackenzie ever answered his letter, though it remains in the Mackenzie Papers in the Archives of Ontario. He might have remained just a footnote in history, but it turns out there was far more to the mysterious Mr. Henderson than that one letter suggested.

By using other sources, the story of John Henderson in Kemptville becomes somewhat clearer, and it is linked to, not only Kemptville in the 1830’s, but the wider world of Upper Canada during that turbulent decade. We know, from his letter to Mackenzie, that John Henderson came to the Canada’s in 1826, living first in Montreal in Lower Canada, where he stayed for four years. Then, he says, in 1830 he moved to Kemptville to take up a business partnership with a merchant called Baxter Bowman.

Bowman was a lumber merchant based in Buckingham, Lower Canada, who had the cutting rights to the timber on the du Lièvre River and the upper Ottawa River. He operated a number of sawmills on the du Lièvre, as well as a gristmill. Bowman was a justice of the peace for the region and also served as a captain in the local militia. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada in 1834 for Ottawa County. The municipality of Bowman on the du Lièvre River was named after him.

It is not known when and where Henderson and Bowman first met or entered into business as partners, but they bought two lots in Kemptville from Asa Clothier in 1834 for £112 and ten shillings, which would have been the equivalent of about $500. The lots were on the South Branch at what is now part of Curry Park. They operated as Bowman and Henderson in 1835 and 1836, selling a wide variety of goods to the people of Kemptville, advertised as “the most extensive and choice assortment of Dry Goods, Liquors, and Groceries ever offered for sale in the village of Kemptville”. Clothing, hats, fabrics, hardware, tools, fruits and spices, guns, axes, nails, cutlery, all were available at Bowman and Henderson’s store on the South Branch. It is assumed that there was a warehouse and wharf on their property, as their merchandise was imported by steamboat on the recently completed Rideau Canal.

As was usual at the time, their goods were available, not just for “ready cash”, but through barter and exchange. “All kinds of produce will be received in payment at higher prices than any other person can pay at Kemptville”, according to an advertisement in the Prescott “Vanguard”on January 6, 1836.

What happened to turn this prosperous merchant along Kemptville’s waterfront into the embittered rebel living in destitution in Ogdensburg just two years later, eager for revenge and to overthrow British rule in Canada. In a word: politics. In addition to his business venture in Kemptville, John Henderson was also involved in local, and provincial, affairs. And this brought him, and Kemptville, into the mainstream of Upper Canada politics as it swept towards rebellion and crisis.

Next: Part 2: The coming storm.

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