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.

Publishing the Thomas Henry Correspondence Collection

By Caitlan M., Research & Publication Co-ordinator

In 2013 the museum received a box of jumbled up letters, receipts, and other pieces of papers which turned out to be a truly amazing donation as these papers were either written by or sent to a Henry family member. This became known as the Thomas Henry Correspondence Collection. Since receiving this collection, the idea of using the collection to help further understand the lives of the Henry family was always there but the time and resources were not available then.

Jump forward to a few months ago, a grant was received to hire a person to go through and create an annotated book. However, this book will only focus on the letters from a family member to family member. The idea is to go through and give the letters context; explaining the other names throughout the letter, the location from where it was sent from, any business ventures and all the other details.

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Thomas Simon (TS) Henry (A983.41.5)

For example there is a letter written from Thomas Simon (T.S.) and John Henry to their father, Thomas Henry. It was written in September of 1879, the sons mention they were not able to attend the Toronto Exhibition and later in the letter make a point of saying Thomas was there “to enjoy the Old Pioneer conflab.” This is all really interesting as the Canadian National Exhibition or CNE was originally called the Toronto Industrial Exhibition and its opening year was in 1879. Although his sons mention that Thomas was only at the exhibition to enjoy a conversation with the York Pioneers; a group of men formed to preserve York County’s early history, a history Thomas would have been a part of since he was a substitute in the War of 1812. The York Pioneers were at the Toronto Exhibition as they were moving a log cabin – the Scadding Cabin (originally known as Simcoe Cabin,) to its now permanent home.

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A001.7.6; letter to Thomas Henry from his sons George and TS.

I have also been making a point at looking at census records to see how the family continued to move around. Take George Guy, grandson to Thomas Henry, we have two letters written by him – from 1878 and 1879, both are written from Winnipeg. George was born in East Whitby, he headed west to find work sometime around 1878 and was able to purchase land in Morris, Manitoba. What’s interesting about him is two things happen in most of the census records; his location changes and his occupation changes.

  • 1881 Census: Location: Morris, Manitoba. Occupation: Cultivator
  • 1891 Census: Location: Morris, Manitoba. Occupation: Gram Buyer
  • 1905 Census: Location: Buffalo Ward 25, Erie, N.Y. Occupation: Carpenter
  • 1910 Census: Location: Buffalo Ward 17, Erie, N.Y. Occupation: Watchman – public school
  • 1920 Census: Location: Buffalo Ward 12, Erie, N.Y. Occupation: Engineer – public school
  • 1925 Census: Location: Buffalo Ward 12, Erie, N.Y. Occupation: Janitor
  • 1935 George dies, buried in Buffalo.

Although I am unsure why George moved around so much, I can’t help but wonder if it was to move closer to his new occupations.

The book will be published sometime in 2018 with the transcriptions of each of the letters and all of the annotations.


Transcription of above letter:

A001.7.6

Postcard sent to Thomas Henry from T.S.  and J. Henry (punctuation added during transcription)

Georgetown Sept. 8th 79

Dear Father

I am here today with Thomas. We are both well and healthy. We hope you are awe well as could be expected considering your age. I did attend the Toronto exhibition but expected to go to Ottawa the week after next. No doubt you was at Toronto to enjoy the Old Pioneer conflab to see Lawrence and the Princess and you could look ? on the Bay and imaginette great chougesuce(?) 1812 when you was a big boy in tall muddy York as you called it an you have a log cabin in the ? city. Did you see it?  I understood it is well put ?

 

*If you can add to this transcription or note any corrections, please leave a comment.

The Importance of Continued Research

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

For a number of years, I have been undertaking research into early Black history in the Oshawa area. This inquiry is part of a larger shift in our focus here at the Oshawa Museum.

Prior to 2011, there had been minimal research into the history of the Black population in Oshawa. Some initial work had been done examining census information but that was the extent. When we were approached to take part in Trent University’s inaugural Black History event, we realized how little time had been dedicated to this area of Oshawa’s history. The invitation to the event spurred a new project that helps to tell the history of a local family from the 1790s to today. It also helps to tell a more inclusive and, more importantly, a more accurate history of early Oshawa settlers.

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Portion of 1851 Census of Canada West; lines 40-43 are for Wealthy Andrews and her three children. The enumerator has marked the column for ‘Colored person – Negroes.’  Wealthy and her family were one of two Black families living in East Whitby Township in the 1850s.

This project signaled a shift in where we focus our research, to help fill the gap in our knowledge of our community. A great deal of research has been conducted on the many industries and industrialists who helped shape Oshawa; what was missing was looking into those who worked for the industrialists, those whose labour made the factories so successful, and telling their stories. It is the experiences of the “everyday person” who help to truly understand what the community looked like in the past and how it has evolved today. Currently, we are working to tell the history of women, those who arrived in Oshawa as Displaced Persons post WWII, the Indigenous population who called this area home long before European settlers arrived and those whose names may not be recognizable but who helped shape our community.

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l-r: Albert GD Pankhurst (1885 – 1977), Ward D Pankhurst (1888 – 1978), and Greta Pankhurst (1895 – 1983). They were the great-grandchildren of Wealthy Andrews

I presented a paper on the research into early Black history at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual conference at the end of May. The paper discussed how shifting our research focus not only helps to tell a more accurate history of the community but helps to make the past more relatable the current Oshawa residents, strengthening the sense of community and spurring interest in our past with those who may not have been interested previously.


For more information on the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family, please read our three part series from Black History Month 2014

Oshawa’s Black History: One Family’s Story, Part 1

Oshawa’s Black History: One Family’s Story, Part II

Oshawa’s Black History: One Family’s Story, Part III

Street Name Stories: Building a Nation Pt. III, Plaines d’Abraham

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

With the plethora of 150 commemorations taking place this year, I thought I could use my usual Street Name Stories blog series to throw another hat in the ring.  Looking at a map of Oshawa, there are a number of streets whose names are commonplace in the history of Canada.  Over the next five Street Name Stories Posts, I will look at street(s) whose namesakes helped contribute to the growth of Canada.  In Part I, we looked at Oshawa’s Indigenous People who have called the our country home for thousands of years, and Part II looked at the early European Explorers.

There are many moments one can look at in the history of Canada which are clearly a defining moment, a turning point. September 13, 1759 is one such moment: the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

First, context. In the mid-1700s, North America was home to many different European colonies; New France was well and successful, while to its south, England’s Thirteen Colonies were also thriving, not quite yet feeling the sentiments of discontent that would lead to the American Revolution. Those were coming. An ocean away, the colonizers, England and France, were none to pleased with each other.  Everything came to a head in 1854, the start of what would become the Seven Years War.  Its name is derived from the seven primary years of conflict, from 1856 to 1863, and it would result in conflicts in Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines, five continents in all. The Seven Years War could be considered one of the first global conflicts, a world war.

In North America, the English were at war with the French and First Nations.  After a series of skirmishes, including the capture of  Louisbourg on Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and other French possessions in the Atlantic, the British forces continued their campaign further into New France, eventually reaching Quebec City.

Through the summer of 1759, the French were secure in their fortified city.  The British, led by General James Wolfe, tried to deplete stock and supplies and also tried a few strategic maneuvers to ‘lure’ the French to attack, but Marquis de Montcalm, the French officer leading the troops, held firm.

PicMonkey Collage
Photographs from around the Plains of Abraham

Wolfe saw opportunity on the morning of September 13; in the very wee hours, the British force managed to secure their position.  As described by the Canadian Encyclopedia:

…By 8 a.m. the entire force of 4,500 men had assembled. The British force stretched across the Plains of Abraham (named for 17th-century fisherman Abraham Martin) in a shallow horseshoe formation about 1 km long and two ranks deep.

I would imagine this was quite the sight for Montcalm and the French forces. Montcalm had a force of roughly the same size; where they differ is in experience.  The French forces were comprised of soldiers, militia, and First Nations; the British forces were regular soldiers, highly experienced and well trained.  Montcalm decided to attack immediately, hoping to catch the British unprepared.

Here’s where hindsight comes in handy: many historians believe that if Montcalm waited for reinforcements rather than act right away, the result of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham may have turned out differently.  The battle resulted in a retreat from the French forces, and both Wolfe and Montcalm died due to wounds.

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“The Death of General Wolfe,” by Benjamin West, oil on canvas. The Royal Ontario Museum has this portrait in their collection, an ‘Iconic’ artefact. This Video has a great analysis of its importance and symbolism.

The Plains of Abraham wasn’t the final battle of the conflict, but it represents the turning point in the North American theatre. By September 1760, British forces manage to capture Montreal, and the Treaty of Paris in 1763 brings an end to the Seven Years War. This treaty results in New France being ceded to the British, the start of British rule of what would become Canada.

 

Wolfe Street is found off Simcoe Street, south of Bloor; Oshawa’s Harmon Park Arena is located on Wolfe Street.  Montcalm is located one street south of King Street between Waverly and Stevenson.


References

Official website for the Plains of Abraham, National Battlesite Commission: http://www.ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/en/

The Canadian Encyclopedia: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-the-plains-of-abraham/

Meet the Museum: Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The focus of this blog series is the staff of the Oshawa Museum and their role at the site.  What does it mean to the archivist or curator at a community museum?  What goes on behind the scenes in the Programming office?  What is our Executive Director’s favourite memory of the Museum? 

Join us and see what happens behind the doors of Guy House.

What do you do at the Oshawa Museum?

I am the Archivist which means that I manage the archival collection.  The archival collection is made up of historical documents or records related to the history of Oshawa. Within the collection, we have photographs, maps, oral histories, newspapers, land deeds, diaries, personal correspondence and so much more.

It is my job to ensure that this information is preserved and made available to those interested in researching.

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Why did you choose this career?

I was in third year university when I took a course on public history.  This course opened my eyes to the many different ways a degree in history could be used.  The whole first half of the course focused on the history and role of museums and I was hooked.  From that point on, I shifted my focus from becoming a teacher to working towards a career in the museum field.

 

What is your favourite part of your job?

The fact that each day comes with the possibility of some new discovery.  Whether that be stumbling upon an obituary that helps us to better understand someone or reading through a handwritten letter that changes the way we look at our history, there is always the potential to discover something new each day.

 

What do you find to be the most challenging part of your job?

From a research perspective, I do find the lack of early Oshawa newspapers to be rather challenging. There are large gaps in Oshawa’s newspaper record due to a fire that wiped out so many prior to having them microfilmed.  There is a gap between 1873 and 1922 and once again during the period of the Second World War.   Newspapers provide such a great snapshot of life at a very specific time and it very challenging that so many of Oshawa’s early ones have been lost.  It is for this reason that we recently had several of our hardcopy newspapers from these missing times digitized.

You can view many of Oshawa’s early newspapers on the Canadian Community Digital Archives website.

 

How did you get into the museum field?

Honestly, I was in the right place at the right time.  I had just finished my internship at the Canadian War Museum and had graduated from the Museum Management and Curatorship course from Sir Sandford Fleming when a job was posted for Tour Guide at the Oshawa Community Museum.  I was hired here in September 1999 and worked hard in that position until the following September when the position of Archivist became available.  Collections management had been the area of museum work that I truly loved and I was over the moon when I was hired as Archivist.

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What is your favourite memory of the Museum?

My favourite memory of the Museum is the reopening of Guy House after the fire.  That was such a challenging time but we persevered and continued to focus on ensuring that we advocated for the importance of heritage in Oshawa.