Mel Robertson's Burford History
Burford's First Families
This page is excerpted from Burford's First Family, printed on November 28, 1979. To read the full article, click here.
There is considerable evidence that the Burford Plains were inhabited by an intelligent and well-organized nation of people well before the arrival of the white settlers. Until fairly recently this nation was assumed to be the so-called "Neutral" nation which was dispersed by the Iroquois in the 17th. century. However, correspondence with a number of Canada's leading archeologists during the past year, indicates that the 'latest' sites of habitation in the Township date from 900 to 1300 A.D. The verification, or otherwise, of this assertion will depend on the archeological examination of a number, of known, but unexplored, village sites in the Township. In the meantime, since these early inhabitants left little information about themselves we are faced with the problem of deciding which was the first family of white settlers to live here. There seem to be three claims to this distinction - Dan Springer, Thomas Horner, and Abraham Dayton.
The claim of Dan Springer is based on the dairy of Major Littlehales, Governor Simcoe's secretary on his trip through the area in Feb. 1793. On Feb. 10th., Littlehales wrote "We did not leave the Mohawk village till noon when we set out with J. Brant and 12 Indians, came to a camp of the Mississagas and slept in the trader's Cabin". This entry has been interpreted by some writers, to indicate that a white settler was living in Burford Township prior to 1793 and further, that it was Dan Springer a former member of Butler's Rangers and a man whose name appears in Western Ontario history a number of times. However, the next entry in Littlehales' dairy seems to refute this claim - "Feb. 11th.-passed over some fine open plains said to be frequented by immense herds of deer but since there was little snow we did not seem them..." The plains referred to were the Burford Plains which begin east of our eastern boundary.
The second claim to the effect that Thomas Horner was our first settler seems to be refuted by an entry in the Journal of the Executive Council (the government of Upper Canada) dated Aug. 14th. 1795 which states that Horner came into the province in May of that year and settled in "Watson's Township" which is Blenheim to the north-west. Horner subsequently claimed to have brought twenty settlers to Blenheim in 1794 but does not seem to have mentioned Burford Township. Consequently, the facts appear to be that inspite of the appearance of Homer's name in early Burford history he was essentially a Blenheim man whose association with Burford Township in the pre-1800 era was at the extreme north border between Burford and Blenheim and that any claim that Horner was our first settler cannot be substantiated by available information.
The third claim is that of Abraham and Abigail Dayton who came into Burford Township in late 1793 or early 1794. This claim seems to have the best grounds for priority and it may be of interest to examine the lives and background of these remarkable people.
Abraham Dayton was born in 1745 to a family of American Quakers. The place of his birth cannot be determined but it is known that he was of British extraction. He was a man of deep religious conviction who was so opposed to the rebels in the American Revolution that instead of becoming a "Fighting Quaker" he moved to the Wyoming valley during the Revolution to avoid the fighting. On April 8th. 1770 he married Abigail Cogswell who was also deeply religious. They settled in New Milford, Connecticut where they became leading citizens in the local Town Meeting. In 1782 Jemima Wilkinson, a religious zealot and prophetess came to New Milford seeking converts. The Daytons were very impressed with the so-called "Universal Friend" and took a prominent part in the welcome to her. Their enthusiasm reached a peak two years later when Abraham Dayton deeded a piece of his land to the sect for the purpose of "Promotion of the cause of God and the advancement of the True Church." Then later in the year, when Wilkinson visited Pennsylvania, Dayton joined the entourage that accompanied her. In 1786 when the sect was under much criticism in Connecticut, Dayton was chosen as one of a committee of three to explore the Genesee country of New York state for the site of a new religious community. They set out in 1787 carrying with them the sum of 800 pounds that the sect had provided for the purchase of land. Dayton and his committee were impressed with the region around Seneca Lake and bought a strip of land 9 miles long and 92 rods wide from the New York Genesee Land Company which claimed to have a 999 year lease from the Indians. In the spring of 1788 a party of 25 adherents of the "Universal Friend" reached the Genesee site and settled on the land which, due to its narrow shape, was now called the non-religious name of "The Garter". Dayton, who was a miller by trade, was quick to spot a mill site near a waterfall and in the autumn of that year millstones were purchased in New Millford and transported by bateau and ox sled to the site. There he established the first mill in western New York state. Everything seemed to be going well until it was discovered that the Genesee Land Company had no right to sell the Indian land and in 1788 a law was passed by the New York legislature declaring the sale to the "Universal Friend" to be null and void. This quashed the Seneca lake settlement and in Dec. 1791 Dayton sold his interest in the Seneca Lake mill and accompanied by a small party, set out to seek a new community site in the Upper Canadian bush. They entered Canada at Niagara and penetrated the wilderness to the Burford Plains. The remoteness of the plains and their open spaces and plentiful water seemed to offer an ideal spot for the "New Jerusalem" and Dayton hastened back to Newark on the Niagara River to consult with Govenor Simcoe.
The Governor was impressed with Dayton's forthright personality and the fact that he appeared to represent a group of Quakers; a sect Simcoe admired. As a result Simcoe urged Dayton to submit a petition to the Executive Council for land on the Burford Plains. Dayton returned to the Genesee country for consultation with Jemima Wilkinson and was back in Newark in the fall of the year ...
On the following day Dayton appeared before the Executive Council who granted his petition provided that he could show that the land had been purchased from the Indians. Dayton returned to the Genesee and found to his dismay that Jemima Wilkinson had been persuaded not to go to Canada. Dayton came back to Burford on his own and settled on Concession 6 Lot 2 north-east of Burford (now Jack Whitehead's property). There he began to build a grist and saw mill. Shortly thereafter Simcoe rescinded his grant of Burford Township to the "Universal Friend" as he felt that they had been misrepresented as Quakers.
In 1795 Dayton took to his bed with what was called "consumption" which was the word then used to describe any form of pulmonary disease. During his illness Dayton was visited regularly by the Rev. Peter Fairchild a Baptist clergyman and his son from nearby Charlotteville. During one visit Mrs. Dayton called Peter Fairchild outside as it was apparent that Abraham's demise was imminent. When she came back into the house her husband asked her what she had been discussing. She told him and Dayton replied immediately that he should have thought about it himself. The end came on March 1st., 1797 when Dayton clasped his wife's hand and said "You have been a mother, a wife, a sister and a friend." Then he closed his eyes and died. The Fairchilds were notified and they came, each bearing a cherry board under each arm; a remarkable feat of strength and agility considering that the 25 mile trip on horseback was over the most primitive of trails. John Eaton, a joiner and former ship's carpenter, was summoned and Dayton was laid to rest in the cherry wood coffin. The site of his grave is unknown but the record of his death is treasured by his descendants in the family Bible.