What Happened the Night of November 12, 1833?

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In Thomas Conant’s book, Upper Canada Sketches, published in 1898, he traces the Conant family’s journey from Devon England, to Massachusetts and eventually to a new life in Canada. The book contains a number of illustrations by artist E.S. Shrapnel, known for his landscape paintings and genre scenes.  This article is about the illustration appearing on page 144 entitled “World to Come to An End: Stars are Falling.” All quotations are from Upper Canada Sketches, unless otherwise noted.

In Upper Canada Sketches, Thomas Conant, recounts a mysterious incident that his father, Daniel Conant, witnessed as a young man.   On the evening of November 12, 1833 while salmon-spearing from a boat at Port Oshawa,  Daniel witnessed an astonishing sight as “globes of fire as big as goose eggs began falling all around his boat.” Unbeknownst to him, he had just witnessed a very intense Leonid Meteor Shower, which occur approximately every 33 years. This particular meteor shower was one of the most prolific of all time, with an estimated 240,000 meteors falling in nine hours.1 The storm was seen everywhere in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. So astonishing was the sight that newspapers in Europe even talked about it.  This particular storm eventually led to a theory on the origins of meteors.

Becoming increasingly frightened as the fire-balls continued to fall from the sky, Daniel decided it was a good time to take his salmon and go home.   As he reached his home (Lot 6, B.F., East Whitby), he found the whole household awake and watching the spectacle, apparently too “aroused and frightened” to be able to sleep.  In time, the meteors appeared to be slowing in intensity, so everyone “went to bed to pass a restless night after the awe-inspiring scene they had witnessed.”

 Rising well before the sun next morning, Daniel was surprised to see the sky was still filled with the shooting stars.  Quickly, “he called his hired help in the lumbering business, to come down the stairs. They needed not a second invitation.”  One man by the name of Shields was so overwhelmed he dropped to his knees and began to pray (you can see him in the illustration).  Daniel went out doors and was surprised to note the balls of fire did not burn or hurt.  Thomas Conant makes note that everyone in the household was frightened,  “Of the grandeur of the unparalleled scene my father said almost nothing, for I am led to think they were all too thoroughly frightened to think of beauty, that being a side issue.” 

Daniel decided to visit a neighbor, “a preacher of some renown in the locality.”2 Arriving at his house, Daniel found “the preacher, already awake, was seated at the table beside a tallow dip reading his Bible, with two other neighbors listening and too frightened, he said, to even bid him good morning. He sat and listened to verse after verse and still the stars fell. The preacher gave no explanation or sign.” Noticing day was about to break, Daniel left the preacher’s home and once more ventured outside. On his walk back home, Daniel searched the ground but could find no evidence that the fire balls caused any damage and “what became of the stars that fell he could not conjecture.”  A sailor, Horace Hutchinson, wrote a verse (or doggerel as Thomas calls it) about the event,

I well remembered what I see,
In eighteen hundred and thirty-three,
When from the affrighted place I stood
The stars forsook their fixed abode.

The next Leonid Meteor Shower happened in 1866-1867 at which time the Comet Tempel-Tuttle was determined to be the source of the meteors. The next occurrence of a prolific Leonid Meteor Shower is expected in 2033. 

About the Illustration

The illustrations E.S. Shrapnel (1847-1920) rendered for Upper Canada Sketches are reminiscent of his work in portraying the landscapes and stories of Canada’s wilderness.  Thomas said Shrapnel painted the picture from an actual photograph of the house. Notice how he inserted the praying figure of the hired man Shields in the doorway.  Sonya Jones, Curator of Collections at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, sums up the whimsical nature of Stars are Falling,

This charming folk art piece by Edward Shrapnel clearly captures the awe and fear that would have accompanied a meteor shower at this time. The smoldering meteors on the foreground, the lit up night sky, the body language of the figures, all add a rich narrative to this otherwise simply executed work. Folk art is often effective in telling stories in simple but clear ways.


  1. https://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/history.html
  2. The preacher referred to in the book could possibly have been Thomas Henry. Henry was ordained as a minister in 1832 and in 1833  was living on an adjacent lot (Lot 7, B.F.) in a house located north of present day Henry House.

The Importance of a Little Wicker Doll Set

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

In 1981, a collection of wicker doll toys were donated to the Oshawa Museum. The donation of a tiny rocking chair, a toy washstand, and a set of doll furniture certainly fit the collecting mandate of the Museum given that the Pankhurst family had been long time residents of Oshawa.  These toys also had deep connection to an important part of Oshawa’s history as the donor, Greta Pankhurst, was the great-granddaughter of Wealthy Andrews, the matriarch of one of Oshawa’s earliest Black families.

Early collecting practices tended to focus on collecting items that had connections to prominent early white settlers. This donation has that connection as the donor forms indicate that the items had belonged to the Conant family before coming into the ownership of Greta. This connection would have made the donation very important under these early collecting practices. While it is unclear if Greta’s connection to Wealthy was known or understood when the items were added to the Museum collection, this donation is important because of its connection to Greta and her family.

Today we are grateful for the existence of this donation as it is one of the few artefacts that we have connected to early Black setters.  Museums use artefacts or objects to help us to understand the past and to tell the story of our community. There is very little artefact or object based evidence to help us tell the history of early Black settlers in our community, and this creates a challenge when it comes to exhibiting these stories.

We are fortunate to have documentary evidence. In fact, beyond resources like census records and land records, we are incredibly fortunate to have the original marriage certificate of Greta’s grandparents, Mary Andrews and George Dunbar. We also have family photographs and an audio recording of Greta’s brother, Ward, reminiscing about growing up in Cedar Dale. Research through documentary evidence has helped us to better understand the history of early Black settlers in the area and has helped us to share this important aspect of our history.

A013.4.519: Marriage licence between Mary Andrews and George Dunbar

While we work to fill in the gaps left by earlier collecting practices, we are also working to tell the histories that were lost in that gap.  Items like the little wicker doll set are a part of work.

Student Museum Musings: Thomas Conant’s Century-Old Musings

By Adam A., Summer Student

Hello and long time no see! I’m Adam, you may remember me as the guy from last summer who exclusively blogged about transcriptions. This summer I have a rather different role, that of a researcher. Specifically, I have been tasked with gathering information about the Loyalist and Late Loyalist settlers of Oshawa for a chapter in a future museum publication.

Loyalists were those from the Thirteen Colonies who fought for or otherwise remained loyal to the British during the American Revolutionary War, after which many faced harassment and suspicion from their neighbours. Accordingly, many thousands left the embryonic United States of America to start anew in Britain’s remaining North American possessions. Late Loyalists were a later wave of migrants from the USA who came to Upper Canada and renewed their loyalty to the British Crown in pursuit of the free land on offer. In the book these two sets of early migrants from America will be contextualized as Oshawa’s third group of inhabitants following various First Nations and the French.

Researching this topic has involved a lot of reading. Since the start of this month I have powered through two articles and four books relevant to this period of Oshawa’s history. Oshawa is especially gifted with its wealth of amateur historians from the turn of the century who endeavoured to coalesce various local and oral histories of Oshawa’s pioneer days into a number of books on our early history.

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Mr. Thomas Conant’s two publications Upper Canada Sketches (1898) and Life in Canada (1903) have been particularly useful. Mr. Conant trace’s his family history in North America back to 1623 when his ancestor arrived in New England where he and his descendants proved highly successful. The Conant’s history in Canada begins with the settlement of Roger Conant in this area in 1794. Roger had been a Loyalist, in so far as he never took up arms against the crown, and migrated north to Canada as he felt unwelcome in Massachusetts.

 

img014 Roger Conant's homestead
“Roger Conants First Settlement in Darlington, Co. Durham, Upper Canada, 1778” by ES Shrapnel, as appeared in Upper Canada Sketches

With this as a starting point, Mr. Conant’s writings cover a number of subjects including family history, economic history, political history, and social history. Over the combined 40 chapters of his two books he relates: how land was cleared; the importance of trade and cordial relations with the Mississauga; the danger presented by packs of wolves; the impact of the War of 1812; tensions between those of American descent and more recent arrivals from Britain; the utility of Whitby’s port; the influence of American religious movements such as Millerism and Mormonism; the price and productivity of land; the establishment and growth of local industries; the tyranny and downfall of the Family Compact; the importance of the Grand Trunk Railway; and, much more. His writing strongly conveys the risks faced and rewards received by those would-be Americans who by choice or by circumstance ended up here in Oshawa.

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“World to Come to an End.  Stars Falling, 1833” by ES Shrapnel, as appeared in Upper Canada Sketches

 

Thomas Conant’s writings present a genuine treasure trove of information from Oshawa’s pioneer days, which allow one to really appreciate the legacy of the pioneers’ labours. Those who wish to learn more are encouraged to visit us at the Oshawa Museum. Additionally, prints of the titular illustrations from Upper Canada Sketches are available in our gift shop.

A Duel in Old Oshawa

The book Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant is the source of many interesting facts and tales concerning the early history of Oshawa.  One such tale he writes of concerns Oshawa’s only known duel.

The argument began at a ball thrown in Whitby in April 1838.  The event was apparently a very fancy affair that included a fine selection of most attractive cakes.  One young man accused another of pocketing some of these delightful cakes.  The accused did not take kindly to this and it was decided that the only way to clear himself of this accusation was through a duel.

The young man accused of stealing the cakes quickly made his way on horseback to the tavern operated by Mr. Richard Woon.  It was here, at the south-west corner of Oshawa’s Four Corners that the duel was to take place.

As the gentlemen positioned themselves at each end of the hotel’s front porch, Captain Trull who had command of a few troops stationed in Oshawa, attempted to put an end to this foolishness.  He placed one of his own men between the combatants in an attempt to prevent each of them from firing.

The idea was a good one, however, one of the young men just side-stepped the soldier and fired his weapon.  While his bullet missed, his intended target was spooked and immediately threw down his weapon and ran for his life.

Interestingly, this was not the end of the duel.  Capt. Trull, who worked hard to try and prevent the duel, found himself disgusted by the apparent cowardice of the man who ran away.  The story goes that he quickly picked up the discarded pistol and ran after the young man intending to fire on him for being such a coward.

“So laughably ended Oshawa’s only duel” – Thomas Conant.

Where The Streets Get Their Names – Annis Street

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The street names of the former community of Cedardale are wonderful tributes to those who called this area home.  The former Henry Street was named after Thomas Henry, Guy Avenue after the Guy family, Thomas Street after Thomas Conant.  Businesses like Whiting and Robson also have their place on Oshawa’s map.  Annis Street is no different, likely named for David Annis.  The following biography of David Annis is from the Oshawa Historical Society’s Historical Information Sheets.

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David Annis

David Annis was born on April 5, 1786, the son of Charles Annis, a United Empire Loyalist from Massachusetts.  Charles crossed the Niagara River into Canada in 1793, staying in York, now Toronto, and Scarborough Heights before joining his friend Roger Conant in what is now Oshawa.

David established himself as a prominent citizen through his many business dealings.  Although he was uneducated, and could not even write his own name, David had excellent, natural, business ability. In 1808 he was a fur trader with the local Indigenous population.  He sold the furs in Montreal, which made him a very wealthy man.

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“Daniel Conant’s Lumber Mill” Print by ES Shrapnel, from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant

One of the most noteworthy achievements of David Annis was the construction, along with Daniel Conant, of a lumber mill, located on Oshawa Creek.  A dam was built under the frame mill to provide power, and most of the white pine in the area was sawn there.  The lumber was floated down the Oshawa Creek, (which was then much larger).  Conant and Annis were also involved in ship building, building the schooner Lord Durham around 1836, which was said to be one of the first vessels in this part of Canada. Wood from the lumber mill was loaded onto the schooners owned by Conant and Annis, and was transported to Oswego, Sodus, Niagara, Kingston, as well as many other ports located on Lake Ontario. Lumber from the mill was also used in Oshawa to construct buildings such as the J.B. Warren Flour Mill.

David Annis acquired a great deal of land, which eventually came into the possession of Daniel Conant. On October 3, 1845, it is recorded that David Annis sold 175 acres of land to Daniel Conant, for one hundred pounds. Land was also sold to John Shipman and other settlers.

David Annis was said to have been a man of fine heart, a friend to the poor and hospitable to all.  He never married, and had no children.  He spent his last years living with the Daniel Conant family, and died on May 28, 1861, at the age of 75.

David was buried in the Harmony Burial Ground, but was exhumed nineteen years after his death, in 1880, by Thomas Conant, son of Daniel Conant.  It is unknown why the casket was opened, but it has been recorded that all who were present were shocked by the excellent condition of the body.  David was moved to the Union Cemetery, where Daniel Conant is also buried.

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Of note, the image above may NOT be David Annis.  Former Visitor Host Shawn explored David Annis and historical discrepancies with photographs in an earlier blog post.  This image has been credited as being either David Annis or David’s brother Levi.  Give Shawn’s post a read for more background into these pictures.

Annis Street does not appear to be on the 1877 Atlas or 1895 County of Ontario, however, it listed in the 1921 City Directory as well as on our 1925 City Map.