Last Heritage Paper looked at the MacDonnell family’s contribution to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War; this paper, Angus MacDonnell.
Little is known of Angus MacDonnell’s early life in North America, and unlike his brother Alexander, he did not serve with any distinction during the Revolutionary War, if he indeed did serve. He spent time in Québec City and Montréal at the end of the war and acquired a sound grasp of the French language. While there he began experimenting with a new method of manufacturing potash. In November 1788 he applied for a patent, and in 1791 he gained exclusive patent privileges in the province of Québec with his brothers Alexander and James, Christopher Carter and Samuel Hopkins.
Like his brother Alexander, Angus MacDonnell was awarded considerable property in the area, not only in East Flamborough Township as listed above in the title, but between June 1796 and March 1808, he also obtained lands in Ancaster Township (Conc. 3, Lots 31 and 32) and in West Flamborough Township (Conc. 1, Lots 24-28; Conc. 2, Lot 9; Conc. 4, Lot 15; Conc. 5, Lot 8; Conc. 6, Lot 7), totalling 1580 acres.
Angus MacDonnell’s ability as a chemist came to the attention of the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, and in 1792, he was commissioned to explore areas in the Bay of Quinte and the Niagara Peninsula for salt springs. The discovery of a major location on the Fifteen Mile Creek in the Niagara Peninsula resulted in MacDonnell being appointed superintendent for the works, and he immediately set to work to produce salt for general consumption. Poor production, overspending and lack of planning caused MacDonnell’s removal in 1796 and replacement by the Rev. Robert Addison, the Anglican clergyman for the Niagara Peninsula. But this setback did not seem to hinder MacDonnell’s growing involvement in the government of the province.
On 12 December 1792, Augustus MacDonnell was appointed the first Clerk of the House of Assembly. He administered oaths to members, recorded the business of the house, and provided for the printing of its journal and statutes. In 1799, Administrator Peter Russell made MacDonnell his French Secretary and placed him in charge of the French emigrés lead by the Comte de Puisaye, instructing him to act as agent for their settlement on land north of York. Controversy occurred again, possibly because MacDonnell exceeded his authority and charges were laid against him by Puisaye. Found guilty of engaging in unauthorized transactions in Indian lands, he was dismissed as Clerk on 30 May 1801.
Undaunted, he embarked almost immediately upon a political career. In July 1801, Angus MacDonnell was elected for the first time as a member of the Assembly, representing Durham, Simcoe and the East Riding of York, and continued until his death in 1804.
From the Upper Canada Gazette, York, 4 July 1801, an announcement of the election results…
Last Friday at the final close of the Poll, for a Member to represent the county of Durham, East riding of the county of York, and the county of Simcoe, in the present Parliament of this Province, Angus M’Donell, Esq; was declared duly elected; there appearing for him 112 unquestionable votes, and for J. Small, Esq; 32 — Majority 80.1
During his brief years in the Assembly, MacDonnell was among its most energetic, productive, able and independent members. He initiated legislation, not always successfully, to encourage the cultivation and export of hemp, to better secure land title, to establish a Court of Chancery, and to reform the fee schedules of attorneys. In 1804, MacDonnell was one of the members who objected to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe’s choice of the name York. In the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada 1804, it is recorded that…
the member for York requested leave to bring before the House of Assembly, a bill to restore the name Toronto because it was more familiar and agreeable to the inhabitants.2
One of the most important facets of MacDonnell’s career — his legal practice — is virtually undocumented. A prominent York lawyer, he was admitted as an attorney on 7 July 1794, and became a barrister in 1797. He was a founding member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, and acted as Treasurer from 1801 to 1804.
In October 1804, on his way to defend an Indian charged with murder, MacDonnell was drowned when the schooner Speedy sank in a gale off Brighton. All who were aboard perished, these included Robert Isaac de Gray, lawyer, Lieutenant Jacob Herkimer, a fur trader and merchant in York, James Ruggles, a Yonge Street shopkeeper, Thomas Cochrane, Judge of the King’s Bench, John Fisk, High Constable and Thomas Paxton, Captain of the Speedy.
According to a biographical note in the York Gazette, 4 July 1807, Angus MacDonnell was…
an easy-going, pleasant companion, interested in chemical experimentation and the writing of bad poetry.3
He was in many ways typical of the early absentee land-owners in Upper Canada who obtained Crown Patents, but were far more interested in government position and power than property.
Wentworth Bygones — The Papers and Records of the Head of the Lake Historical Society, Volumes 2, 5, 9. Walsh Printing Service, Hamilton. 1971.The Town of York, 1793-1815, a Collection of Documents of Early Toronto — Edit: Edith G. Firth. Pp. 41, 68, 69. The Champlain Society for the Government of Ontario. University of Toronto Press. 1962.Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 5, 1801-1820, pp. 518-520. University of Toronto Press. 1983.Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada 1804. Sixth report of the Bureau of Archives, pp. 421, 432. 1909.
Originally published in Heritage Happenings, May 1984.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1984, 2020