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History: Local Settlements

The Baldoon Settlement:

Lord Selkirk
Lord Selkirk

When Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, toured the Scottish Highlands in 1792, he was horrified by the destitution the people suffered. Caught in the upheaval of the Agricultural Revolution, the Highland peasants were the desperate victims of the forces of modernization. Selkirk, sensitive to their plight, became convinced over the ensuing decade that their suffering could be alleviated through emigration to British North America. After establishing a successful settlement of eight hundred Highlanders in Prince Edward Island with help from the Colonial Office in 1802, Selkirk decided to create a colony in Upper Canada. He spent 1803 traveling the interior of North America, undertaking an exhaustive study of the terrain, crop expectations, conditions of trade, and systems of local government. His most pressing concern was the degree and speed with which immigrants (especially Highlanders) adapted to their new homes, and concluded that they were better off in North America than their counterparts in Scotland.

The Baldoon Settlement
The Baldoon Settlement

Lord Selkirk arrived in York in November of 1803 and stayed there until early January, pouring over provincial maps in search of a site for another colony. The Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada had received instructions from the Colonial Office to grant Selkirk his request for 1,200 acres plus land in any unclaimed township of the earl's choice. With an eye for national strategy, he selected the northwest portion of Dover Township near the junction of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, believing that the United States would inevitably absorb Canada unless British immigrants quickly settled along the border. A settlement at the waterway would furthermore secure the trade route into Rupert's land and northern Ontario and help to ensure the settlement's success. Selkirk named the area Baldoon, after his ancestral homeland, and hired Alexander McDonnell, Sheriff of the Home District and fellow Highlander, to manage the project.

View a chart (PDF file) detailing the division of land in the Baldoon Settlement
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Baldoon's Promising Start

Western District Map
Western District Map

Baldoon's lush grasses would provide excellent fodder for sheep, and the open tract of land would need little clearing. Selkirk and McDonnell arrived at the start of June in 1804 to meet William Burn, shepherd and acting overseer, and the hired men who were preparing the site for the families that were expected to arrive by the end of the summer. The men (who included five farm labourers and three carpenters in addition to Burn) had been busy since April preparing the land for the establishment of the Home Farm, which was to be Selkirk's personal property and the operational centre of the settlement. That June, the local workmen were joined by fifteen additional men Selkirk had recruited during his tour of Upper Canada by promising them land if they married and settled.

Selkirk's 950-acre triangular home farm was bound on the west by the Chenal Ecarte River, on the east by Big Bear Creek, and on the north by the dividing line between Dover and Shawnee townships. The settler's lots were situated along the eastern banks of the Chenal Ecarte and Big Bear Creek. The main source of the farm's income was to be derived from sheep, bred only from the finest imported Spanish merino rams, as the breed could be kept "for very little more expense than the most ordinary and produce three times the value." (Lionel Johnson, a Northumbrian Selkirk had met in Albany, had driven one thousand of these creatures from Queenston to Baldoon that spring.)

Selkirk contracted suppliers in Detroit for five pairs of work oxen, fifty ewes, and five thousand pounds of beef. He also imported Spanish Merino rams, which were renowned for their wool-bearing qualities, from the United States, brought in twenty dairy cattle to produce milk, cheese, and butter, and ensured that the settlers would be provided with an adequate supply of Indian corn for the first winter. Burn and the workmen planted rape seed, which could be converted into oil, and hemp, for which there was a high demand in Europe. In addition to these key crops, they planted cereals such as corn, oats, and wheat, and fodder such as hay, timothy, and clover. Selkirk oversaw the construction of an ox stable, a storehouse, a barn, and two log houses for some farm labourers who were en route from Prince Edward Island.

Robert Briggs of Malden township, Essex County, had been contracted to build Selkirk's farmhouse. Thirty-five feet long by eighteen feet wide, the one-and-a-half storey house was also to be equipped with a 16-by-14-foot kitchen, ten windows, panel doors, brass handle locks, two flights of stairs without brackets, and seventy pairs of shutter hinges.

Alexander McDonell
Alexander McDonell

Selkirk left Baldoon for Sandwich in July 1804, where he received estimates for a distillery and grist mill, which he planned to have built once the settlers were securely established. He left Sandwich at the end of the month in high spirits, optimistic for his settlement's future.

Selkirk met his settlers in Kingston that August in Kingston as he was heading east and they west from Lachine, Lower Canada, "a remarkable feat given the uncertainties of travel at the time." 1 The one hundred and two Highland immigrants had departed Kircudbright, Scotland, in May, and had arrived in Lachine on 19 July after nearly two arduous months of travel on the Oughton. Other than ten-year-old Robert Buchanan, who had died on the crossing, all of the settlers who had left Scotland in the spring safely arrived in Canada that summer. After landing in Lachine (near Montreal), the fifteen families traveled west in carts to a point just above the Lachine Rapids, where they boarded bateaux and were rowed up the St. Lawrence to Kingston, where they met Lord Selkirk on 5 August. Selkirk "dealt with their various requests for credit, food provisions, employment and land, giving them decisions on the spot." 2 He also showed a personal interest in the Highlanders, asking how they felt about "going up country" and living away from the sea coast. Three young men also made an impression on him, and he arranged to send parcels of cotton to eighteen-year-old Hugh McCallum (who was to be the schoolmaster), Alexander MacDonald, the piper, and the young Archibald MacDonald.

While Selkirk departed for Scotland, the fifteen families continued west, sailing four days across Lake Ontario to Queenston. They were then taken overland to a point beyond Niagara Falls and again boarded onto bateaux to be rowed down the Niagara River and on to Lake Erie. They continued along the north shore of Lake Erie to Amherstburgh, where they transferred to open boats to finish the final stretch of their journey up the Detroit River and into Lake St. Clair. They finally arrived at Baldoon on 5 September 1804.

Selkirk had recruited for this scheme in Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, and most of the families had indeed originated from that part of Argyll. A letter written in 1806 reveals that the MacDougalds hailed from Mull, as did David MacCallum and his family. A tombstone inscription reveals that Allan MacLean and family hailed from Tyree. The passenger list completed at Lachine gave few details aside from their names and ages, but the six MacDonald families had given the compiler many difficulties. To distinguish among them, he recorded certain features such as their origins or occupations. Thirty-two-year-old Donald MacDonald, a tailor from Tyree, for instance, was differentiated from the forty-five-year-old Donald MacDonald from Laggan in Inverness-shire. The Angus MacDonald from Oronsay, a small island south of Colonsay, was distinguished from the other Angus MacDonald from Kirkland, Dumfriesshire. Except for Allan MacDougald, all of the family heads were middle-aged, and most had teenaged children.

Settler Lots
Settler Lots

To lower the risk of desertion, Selkirk had recruited only families, and only of the poorer classes to settle the remote land. Those "who can scarcely by the year's labour procure the subsistence of their families would think themselves but too rich if they could have the independent possession even of a small lot of land," and would make reliable settlers. 3 They worked on indenture contracts, agreeing to labour on Selkirk's Baldoon farm for a number of years in exchange for free passage to the site and other benefits. Fifty acres were given to them upon their arrival "so that by working on them in spare time they may become attached to the place." 4 In time they would be able to own their lots and even add to their holdings.

The rich and fertile plain of the settlement looked promising and attractive, and Selkirk had been well aware of vast agricultural potential of swampy land once it had been drained and fenced. Unfortunately, the new colony was immediately struck by a series of misfortunes from which it never fully recovered. While the site later became one of the richest farm lands in northeastern America, it was low-lying, marshy, and subject to periodic flooding. When Selkirk had visited Baldoon the previous year, water levels for the nearby lakes and rivers had been at record lows, five or six feet shallower than they would be for the next thirty years. The summer of 1804 had also been unseasonably wet. Alexander McDonell reported that the rain had "swelled the Big Bear Creek so much that it gives its own dusky colour to the river all the way down. The water in the point of wood where Turner ... was clearing is knee deep." 5 It was challenging enough to cultivate a low-lying site, but the drainage work that was necessary that September was "quite beyond the power of ordinary settlers." 6

"The best laid plans:" Baldoon's Struggles

Constant rainfall from July through October delayed construction of the fourteen houses to be completed, and the two that had already been finished were flooded. The settlers, already exhausted from their long journey, sought shelter in makeshift tents. Neither were they prepared for the malaria outbreak that came with the mosquitoes that bred in the swamp. Heavy rains destroyed most of the crops that had been sown that summer, and many of the settlement's valuable sheep, having to be kept some distance from the farm to be out of the flooded area, were felled by wolves or rattlesnakes; all of them suffered from scab.

McDonell's appointment, meanwhile, proved to have been disastrous. Focused on other career moves, he failed to manage the settlement properly in Selkirk's absence. He spent the majority of his time between 1804 and 1809 in York seeking promotion, and it was only after his prospects for other employment faltered that he showed much enthusiasm for his position with Selkirk. He was constantly at odds with those he left in charge during his frequent and extended absences from Baldoon, and he completely disregarded Selkirk's instructions when his own opinions diverged.

Despite the hardships that were plaguing the Baldoon settlers, McDonell departed the site in November for his home in York, leaving Peter MacDonald in charge. McDonell was en route to York when he learned that sixteen people, including five heads of families, had died in the course of just a few short weeks, including Peter MacDonald. Rather than return to the site to help the desperate settlers through this crisis, McDonell instructed that John MacDonald, a workman from Prince Edward Island, should take charge, and continued to York. Six more people would die before the year's end.

Route to Baldoon
Route to Baldoon

It wasn't until February 1805 that Selkirk, who was by that time back in Britain, heard about the sixteen deaths that had occurred during the first autumn at Baldoon. Distressed, he immediately ordered McDonell to temporarily move the settlers to higher ground the forks of the Big Bear Creek in Shawnee Township or to St. Clair River. But when McDonell finally returned to Baldoon in the spring of 1805, he saw that the settlers' health had improved and decided that the disaster had passed, Disregarding Selkirk's instructions, McDonell chose not to relocate the settlers. But fever returned that summer, and claimed two more heads of family. All of the Baldoon families were then moved to Sandwich, where they remained throughout the summer at Selkirk's enormous personal expense.

After the Lieutenant-Governor refused Selkirk's request for land in Shawnee Township, he decided to abandon Baldoon for the time being. Selkirk instructed McDonell to immediately purchase three cleared farms on the Thames River for the settlers, sell the cattle, have someone look after the sheep, and ensure that the buildings did not fall to disrepair. With such a high mortality rate among his settlers, Selkirk thought they should live on better land until Baldoon was thoroughly cleared and drained. McDonell, however, did not tell the settlers about this plan until the spring of 1806, thinking that the worst had passed. Although the majority of Baldoon's inhabitants were in favour of relocating, McDonell overruled them and decided to give Baldoon another chance.

Although McDonell continued to neglect his duties at Baldoon, the settlers were beginning to make progress by the spring of 1806. John MacDougald was so pleased, in fact, that he wrote to his brother back in Mull encouraging him and others to come join the settlement: "There is not a place under the sun better than this place," he wrote. "Any person that intends to come to this country and that can take � to this place he may make a living of it with very little trouble." MacDougald went on to describe the opportunities for blacksmiths, shoemakers, and carpenters, the multitude of fish to be had, and the prosperity to be found in Canada compared to what could be attained in Scotland. 7

Baldoon Farm Map
Baldoon Farm Map

By this time, too, the settlers were being released of their indentures, and ten of the thirteen lots along Big Bear Creek and the Chenal Ecarte were "under improvement, with tolerable houses on them." 8 Allan and John, two sons of Angus MacDonald from Oronsay, were running a ferry at Little Bear Creek; Angus MacDonald from Kirkland was supervisor of the four Home Farm labourers; and two shepherds, Mitchell and Lionel Johnson, were in charge of the sheep. Despite the fact that only eighty of the hundred and two people who had arrived in 1804 survived, at least thirteen additional settlers had come to join them by 1809, and seventeen men owned farms. After facing career setbacks in York, McDonell finally moved with his family to Baldoon in March 1809 and spent large sums of money on the improvement of the Farm House. At the end of that year, however, Selkirk finally dismissed him, and chose Thomas Clark of Queenston to be his replacement.

Clark's first assignment, selling the Home Farm, was prevented by the outbreak of the War of 1812. The war was disastrous for the fledgling settlement. Baldoon's location made it a tempting and convenient target for Americans; in July, Captain Robert Forsyth and his small militia unit raided family houses and the Home Farm. The looters returned to Sandwich, which was being held under the command of General Hull, with "a small herd of cattle, nearly 1,000 sheep, and accompanied by the settlement's large boat and ten small ones laden with grain, flour and other booty." 9 Later rumors suggested that Hull had sold the sheep in Detroit for personal gain. When General Brock captured Detroit, Colonel Matthew Elliot of the Indian Department saw to it that the remaining sheep were returned to Baldoon.

Yet twenty-one families were still living in the area by 1817, including seven MacDonald families and three MacDougald families. Despite the fact that Peter MacDonald had passed away just a few weeks after arriving in Baldoon, his family had thrived. His sons, John and David, had found employment in the area, while Selkirk was paying for Peter to attend school in York. By 1818, twenty-six families were settled in Baldoon, and Selkirk had managed to acquire an additional 2,200 acres for these extra eleven families. Even the high waters had finally begun to recede.

The Founding of Wallaceburg: Selkirk's Experiment as a Success Story

Shawnee Township Plan
Shawnee Township Plan

Despite the successes the Baldoon settlers were enjoying, Selkirk's farm was another matter. McDonell had not let shares to tenants, as Selkirk had instructed, and its operational expenses had spiraled out of control, leaving Selkirk with little more than mounting debts. Having been leased to William Jones at the end of the war, Selkirk finally sold the farm in 1818 to John McNab, a fur trader with the Hudson's Bay Company. After McNab died two years later, William Jones and James Woods of Sandwich purchased it for �281. The name of the Baldoon settlement disappeared with the transaction.

Although commentators almost unanimously declared the experiment an utter failure, a distinction must be made between the success of the settlement site and the eventual success of the settlers themselves. Although Baldoon was abandoned for a time, the settlers formed around it the nucleus of several communities in Lambton and Kent counties.

In 1822, twenty-one families lived at Little Bear Creek, many of them the original fifteen families and their descendants. Most of the settlers clung to their fifty acre lots on Big Bear Creek until the Shawnee Township opened for settlement later that year.

Laughlan MacDougald, son of John and Sarah McDougall, had come to Baldoon with his parents as an eight-year-old child. He became Wallaceburg's first settler, buying Crown lot 13, 2nd Concession of Chatham Gore at the forks of Big Bear Creek MacDougald opened a multi-purpose building to serve as his home, a trading post, and a tavern. His two younger brothers, Archibald and Hector, joined him later, and founded a thriving lumber business. Later Laughlin opened the village's first hotel across the street, and in 1834 he launched the Wallace and the Selkirk, the first of many schooners to be built in the new settlement.

Others soon followed. Hugh McCallum, son of David and Mary McCallum and Selkirk's chosen schoolmaster for Baldoon, opened the village's first post office in 1834. "The Forks" eventually adopted the name Hugh gave to his post office: Wallaceburg, in honour of the legendary Scottish patriot, Sir William Wallace. John McDonald, eldest son of Donald Taylor McDonald, built a home that became the focus of the "Baldoon Mystery"; hundreds of people traveled great distances to the area's first tourist attraction in hopes of seeing a poltergeist at work.

Wallaceburg, Ont.
Wallaceburg, Ont.

Lionel Johnson distinguished himself in local politics after opening the settlement's first blacksmith shop, and was chosen to represent the Gore of Chatham on the District Council of Essex, Kent, and Lambton. He was elected chairman of the Kent Provincial Council in 1849, and continued to serve his community in various capacities as Reeve, Deputy Reeve, and Warden over the next twenty-five years. Alexander McDougall, nephew of Laughlan McDougall, was reeve at the time of Wallaceburg's incorporation as a village in 1874. Four Baldoon descendants have since held Wallaceburg's highest office since its incorporation as a town in 1896: J. W. McDonald served as mayor from 1909-1910; C. S. Stonehouse, 1929-1930; J. Eric McDonald, 1944 and 1950; and L. Stonehouse in 1976-1978. Three more Baldoon descendants, Chester McGregor, W. J. McDonald, and Frank C. Nightengale served as reeves in 1911, 1917, and 1950, respectively.

The Highland names given to the developments and sub-developments begun over the next forty years reflected the impact the Baldoon settlers had on shaping the community. After 1860, families unattached to the Baldoon site - including James Baby of Windsor fame - joined the Scottish settlers on "The Forks". As the community grew, so did its business and industrial interests. However, not all of the original Baldoon settlers came to Wallaceburg: Angus McDonald, only son of Donald and Margaret McDonald, for example, opened the first tannery of the St. Clair River after apprenticing in Amherstburgh, and by necessity became Sombra Township's first schoolteacher. He taught in a small log cabin he built next to his house, and played one of the leading roles in Port Lambton's growth and development.

Although Baldoon failed as an experiment in planned colonization, the pioneers refused to be defeated by their disappointments and hardships. The movement away from Baldoon was no diaspora; instead, its inhabitants remained in the area to cut bush and drain marshes, turning the wilderness into one of the richest mixed-farming areas in North America. Through dogged determination and extraordinary effort, the children and grandchildren of the Highlanders from Kirkcudbrightshire turned an empty plain into a thriving town.

Every summer, volunteers re-enact the lives of the first Baldoon settlers in MacDonald Park, Wallaceburg

Baldoon Settlers Re-enactment
Baldoon Settlers Re-enactment
Settler's Canoe
Settler's Canoe
Makeshift Shelter
Makeshift Shelter
Cooking Stew
Cooking Stew
Bear Skin
Bear Skin
Settler's Around Fire
Settler's Around Fire
For a full examination of the Baldoon settlement, consult:
Mackenzie, A. E. D., Baldoon: Lord Selkirk's Settlement in Upper Canada, Phelps Publishing Company: London, Ont., 1978.
Available in the Central Windsor Public Library: Call No. 971.333 McK

Also of noteworthy interest is:
Campey, Lucille, The Silver Chief: Lord Selkirk and the Scottish Pioneers of Belfast, Baldoon and Red River, Natural Heritage Books: Toronto, 2003.
Available in the Central Windsor Public Library: Call No. 971.00491 Sel

The fifteen families who arrived at Lachine on the Oughton, 19 July 1804

Name Age Sex Remarks
Peter MacDonald
Mary MacDonald
John MacDonald
David MacDonald
Peter MacDonald
42
45
13
12
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Angus MacDonald
Jean MacDonald
Angus MacDonald
Andrew MacDonald
Kath MacDonald
Nancy MacDonald
31
40
3
6
8
3 months
Male
Female
Male
Male
Female
Female
From Kirkland
Donald MacCallum
Mary MacCallum
Hugh MacCallum
Isa MacCallum
Flora MacCallum
Amelia MacCallum
Peggy MacCallum
Ann MacCallum
50
40
18
16
14
9
7
4
Male
Female
Male
Female
Female
Female
Female
Female
Charles Morrison
Peggy Morrison
James Morrison
Flora Morrison
Christian Morrison
Fa: MacKay
49
34
13
14

14
Male
Female
Male
Female
Female
Female
John MacDougald
Sarah MacDougald
Angus MacDougald
John MacDougald
Hector MacDougald
Lauchlan MacDougald
Archibald MacDougald
James MacDougald
Munly MacDougald
Flora MacDougald
50
47
17
14
10½

6

18
4
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Male
Male
Male
Female
Female
Remained with sick son
Remained with sick son


Sick
Remained with father



Remained with father
Allan MacDougald
Ann MacDougald
Mary MacDougald
21
19
5 months
Male
Female
Female
Angus MacPherson
Kirsty MacPherson
Alexander MacPherson
Donald MacPherson
Dugald MacPherson
Mary MacPherson
49
43
19
17
4
8
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Female
Alexander MacDonald
Mary MacDonald
John MacDOnald
Angus MacDonald
Neil MacDonald
Unice MacDonald
Ann MacDonald
Kath MacDonald
35
30
13
8
3
9
5
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Female
Female
Female
Piper
John McKenzie
Ann McKenzie
Keneth McKenzie
Donald McKenzie
Flora McKenzie
36
36
10
8
6
Male
Female
Male
Male
Female
John Buchannan
Kath Buchannan
Alexander Buchannan
Robert Buchannan
Donald Buchannan
John Buchannan
Marion Buchannan
Kath Buchannan
Nelly Buchannnan
42
31
17
10


19
8
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Male
Female
Female
Female



Died en route from Scotland
Donald MacDonald
Kath MacDonald
Angus MacDonald
Chrisy MacDonald
Sarah MacDonald
Mary MacDonald
Kath MacDonald
Flora MacDonald
Peggy MacDonald
45
37
11
15
13
9
7
5
3
Male
Female
Male
Female
Female
Female
Female
Female
Female
From Laggan
Donald MacDonald
Flora MacDonald
John MacDonald
Duncan MacDonald
Hugh MacDonald
32
26
6
3
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
From Tyree; tailor
Donald Brown
Marion Brown
Hector Brown
Alexander Brown
Neil Brown
Flora Brown
38
35
7
5
n/k
7
Male
Female
Male
Male
Male
Female
Allan MacLean
Mary MacLean
Mary MacDonald
Hector MacLean
Kirsty MacLean
Mary MacLean
Effie MacLean
32
30
48
8
10

8 months
Male
Female
Female
Male
Female
Female
Female
Angus MacDonald
Nancy McLaughlin
Ann MacLean
Allan MacDonald
John MacDonald
Archibald MacDonald
Donald MacDonald
Hector MacDonald
Neil MacDonald
n/k
n/k
n/k
18
16
n/k
n/k
n/k
n/k
Male
Female
Female
Male
Male
Male
Male
Male
Male
From Oronsay
Souce: : National Archives of Canada MG24-18 vol.4, 105-8


  1. Campey, Lucille H. The Silver Chief: Lord Selkirk and the Scottish Pioneers of Belfast, Baldoon and Red River. Natural Heritage Books: Toronto. 2003. 50
  2. Campey, "Silver Chief," 58
  3. The Selkirk Papers (C-14) 14,637: Plans and Undertakings for the Baldoon settlement, c. 1804. Campey, "Silver Chief," 63
  4. Selkirk Papers (C-14) 14,652: Plans and Undertakings. Campey, "Silver Chief," 60
  5. Alexander McDonell to Lord Selkirk, 25 September 1804. Selkirk Papers, vol. 54, p.14,326
  6. Selkirk Papers (C-13) 14,130-36: Representations by the Earl of Selkirk, 25-16 July 1805. Campey, "Silver Chief," 52
  7. John MacDougald to Hugh MacDougald, Mull, 29 April 1806. Campey, "Silver Chief," 66
  8. Selkirk Papers (C-14) 14,556: Selkirk to Alexander McDonell, 31 January 1806. Campey, "Silver Chief," 66
  9. Hamil, Fred. Lord Selkirk's Work in Upper Canada: The Story of Baldoon. Unpublished, 1942. 85
The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.
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