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.

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.

 

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“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 – Thomas Street

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The community of Cedardale was located in Oshawa along Simcoe Street, south of Bloor Street.  One cannot speak of this village without talking about the Conant family, a long-standing and renowned family in Oshawa’s history.  A number of streets in the Simcoe/Wentworth/Bloor area have been named after this family.  Today, we’ll look at the namesake of Thomas Street, Thomas Conant.

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Thomas Conant was born in Oshawa on April 15, 1842.  His father was Daniel Conant, who built the first mill in the Oshawa area and was also involved in the Rebellion of 1837.  Thomas was the great grandson of Roger Conant, one of the first settlers to arrive in the Oshawa area, in 1792.

Thomas Conant was educated at Eddytown Seminary, near New York.  He returned home to administer his father’s property, but shortly after he became involved in the American Civil War.  His father, Daniel, encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunities that could be found in the United States.  Thomas left for New York on June 18, 1864, and later went on to Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, visiting Northern Armies.  It is reported that as many as 80 000 Canadian men went to the United States during the Civil War, lured by the prospect of money an adventure.  Thomas was horrified by the suffering he saw in the army hospitals, and when asked if he wanted to enlist he declined.

When in the United States, Thomas Conant met with President Abraham Lincoln.  Thomas’ first impression was that Lincoln was a very awkward man.  Although it is unknown what they spoke about, Thomas was granted a pass to go and where ever he wanted in Virginia and the area of Washington.

Eventually, Thomas returned to Oshawa, where he lived until he began to travel.  He travelled around the world twice, visiting many exotic places. At a time when transportation was still fairly primitive, this was quite an achievement.  He regularly contributed articles to several newspapers, including The Oshawa Vindicator and the Toronto Globe.  These newspapers published letters from him, describing the places he visited.

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“Assassination of Author’s Grandfather. Canadian Rebellion, 1837-38” Print from Thomas Conant’s Upper Canada Sketches, illustration by E.S. Shrapnel

In addition to his newspaper articles, Thomas Conant also wrote books.  His works include Upper Canada Sketches (1898) and Life in Canada (1903).

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The Conant family home, c. 1902

Thomas lived in the Conant family home, known as “Buenavista,”a brick mansion located on the corner of Wentworth and Simcoe Streets in Oshawa.  It was torn down in November 1985 to make way for a 43 unit townhouse development by the Durham Region Non-Profit Housing Corporation.  Thomas was also an avid reader, and his private library, located in his house, consisted of 6000 volumes.

Thomas married Margaret Gifford, and in 1885, a son, Gordon Daniel Conant, was born.  Mr. G. D. Conant was very dedicated to public service and held many prominent positions, including Mayor of Oshawa and Premier of Ontario.  Thomas Conant died in 1905, at the age of 63.  He is still remembered as an outstanding citizen.

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Conant Headstone, Union Cemetery, Section C


Above biographical information on Thomas Conant from Historical Oshawa Information Sheets.

Student Museum ‘Musings’ – Shawn

Maintaining a gentlemanly character was certainly no easy feat for those living in Victorian Oshawa. Of course, one was expected to have discipline and an esteemed manner regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless even those of high status lost a few battles to their tempers.

Thomas Conant, esq.  Author of 'Life in Canada' and 'Upper Canada Sketches'
Thomas Conant, esq. Author of ‘Life in Canada’ and ‘Upper Canada Sketches’

One such example involved a conflict between the respectable Thomas Conant Esq. and arithmetic teacher, Mr. D. Black in the fall of 1865. Now, the twenty-three-year-old Thomas certainly did not think of himself as an expert lecturer but he found himself quite unsatisfied with the teaching style utilized by Mr. Black to portray the rudiments of figures to his younger sister, Electa. Thomas, not burdened by timidity, made himself plainly understood. However, Mr. Black quickly took offence to these comments, claiming that he would not “submit” to Thomas’ “interference and dictation.”After a few exchanges things appear to have gotten heated quickly.

After being taken aback by Mr. Black’s non-compliance Thomas pressured further, boldly stating that his behavior seemed to imply…

“…that we should shut our eyes and take no interest in the pupil’s under your charge.

I have neither time nor inclination to continue a discussion – but contend that persons having an interest in the pupils have a right to suggest as I have done and demand a gentlemanly answer.

And in a later response Mr. Black, still having none of Thomas’ intervention, replied with:

You seem offended at the ‘tone’ of my reply to your note of yesterday and characterize it as ungentlemanly. Perhaps it was. If so, I regret it. But you will understand its tone little perhaps when I tell you that the tone of the letter to which I  wrote in reply struck my mind as impertinent and dictatorial.”

It is likely Electa never quite realized the extent of the bold, quoted, and underlined words being exchanged between these two gentlemen over her education. Yet, while the language is quite appalling for these Victorian men I’m sure many can relate to their good intentions. Whether a parent, older sibling, or instructor the method of how to properly up-bring and treat those under out care still exists as a personal and potentially controversial topic. Unfortunately, Helen Lovejoy cannot be everywhere to ensure that “won’t somebody please think of the children?!” rather than their gentlemanliness in many of these times of need.

"Think of the Children!"
“Think of the Children!”