Harold Tompkins on the pier in Wexford, 200 years later

While we mark Canada 150, a local resident celebrated something older, an amazing story of a family that has been part of North Grenville history in an unbroken line stretching back two hundred years. On May 16 last, Harold Tompkins stood on the pier in Wexford, Ireland, looking out to sea and trying to imagine the thoughts of his ancestor, Dennis Tompkins, who left Ireland from that place exactly two hundred years earlier.

This may seem a fairly normal occasion, many Canadians have made a point of returning to see where their people came from. But, in Harold’s case, there was a unique element to the celebration. Dennis Tompkins had left Ireland on May 16, 1817 as part of a government-assisted migration to Canada following the end of the War of 1812. He was brought here to establish a population that would be loyal and true, a barrier against any further American intrusion into Upper Canada.

Dennis settled on the east half of Lot 29 Con 8 of Oxford-on-Rideau Township, just twenty years after the land had been surveyed. And the family has been there since – an unbroken history of settlement on the same land since 1817. Harold has investigated the family history and describes the early years:

“A couple of years ago another record was found of Dennis’ son Benjamin petitioning for the deed to the west half of Lot 29 Con 8. Accompanying that petition, Dennis stated that Benjamin had fulfilled the settlement duties in place of his son John, as John had died in November of either 1819 or 1820. It was not until 1823 before the rest of the family immigrated to join Dennis after his being alone for 3 or 4 years. His wife Anne; 3 daughters; 3 sons including Benjamin and his wife Susannah, their one year old son Dennis and John my great grandfather who was born on the ship coming over on 12 Oct 1823. The eleven of them lived in the small log house which Dennis had built, for at least the first winter and until Benjamin was able to build his own house.”

Harold had much to think about as he looked out over the Atlantic that day in Wexford: “…standing on the dock provoked thoughts of what was going through Dennis’ mind 200 years ago that day, as they were preparing to board the ship. Was it the fact they were leaving their home and homeland and the rest of their family, knowing that, in all likelihood, they would never return? Was it of travelling on a ship across the ocean and beyond, a distance of 5,000 kilometres, with the knowledge that a very real possibility existed of not even reaching their final destination? Was it, that if they did arrive safely, did they have any idea that they were going to 200 acres of trees, rocks, and a creek, without even a shack to live in and no close neighbours for support? Or was it that Dennis felt, regardless of what challenges lay ahead, it was necessary for him to go to this far off land and take the opportunity to make a better life for himself and his family?”

This, for me, is a most romantic and moving story: the story of Canada in microcosm. There are not many Canadians who can claim to have settled, cleared, cultivated and raised generations of children on the same lot of land for 200 years. Harold’s journey to Ireland in May of this year was a fitting tribute to that history, and a great way to mark the story of Canada and one immigrant family.


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