The history of Chatham-Kent

A military encampment at Tecumseh Park, c. 1885. Tecumseh Park has been a military reserve since 1794 when Simcoe ordered the establishment of a shipyard on this site.

Photo: A military encampment at Tecumseh Park, c. 1885. Tecumseh Park has been a military reserve since 1794 when Simcoe ordered the establishment of a shipyard on this site.


Dave Benson

Buildings and architecture, Community, Cultural landscapes

Published Date: Feb 11, 2010

Chatham-Kent’s rich cultural heritage began long before European settlement when large stockaded villages and Neutral Indians dominated the Thames River and the Lake Erie-Lake St. Clair shorelines.

The Thames attracted French and Loyalist settlers as early as the 1780s. Persecuted Moravian missionaries from Pennsylvania also came up the Thames and established the village of Fairfield in 1793. Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe identified the Forks of the Thames (present-day Chatham) as a site of strategic importance and established a blockhouse and shipyard there in 1794. Similarly, the Sydenham River was the site in 1804 of one of Lord Selkirk’s early communities, Baldoon, near present-day Wallaceburg.

By 1812, settlement had developed to such a degree that settlers were able to muster a respectable militia force to defend the region. This progress was set back during the American pursuit of British and First Nations forces in the fall of 1813, which resulted in the burning of mills, the destruction of Fairfield and the death of Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.

In the decades following the War of 1812, settlement continued along the Thames, while the clearing of the Talbot Trail brought new immigrants to the fertile lands along the Lake Erie shore. Morpeth, Wheatley, Port Alma and Port Crewe all developed as shipping ports for the developing agricultural hinterland. During this period, Chatham-Kent also became a major destination for refugees from slavery. Buxton, Dawn and Chatham all became important sites of Black settlement.

In the 1850s and 1860s, one of the earliest discoveries of oil was made near Bothwell. Although the oil boom was short lived, the region’s fossil fuel heritage continued with the discovery of natural gas fields and the establishment of Union Gas in the early 20th century.

The construction of four major railroads between 1854 and the 1880s had a profound impact on the settlement pattern and economic development of Chatham-Kent. Many of the former port communities were now overshadowed by station towns such as Highgate, Charing Cross, Ridgetown and Tilbury. The convergence of several of these lines at Chatham enabled the city’s rapid industrial, commercial and population growth in the late 19th century. Chatham became a leading exporter of agricultural implements, as well as the manufacturing capital of horse-drawn vehicles in Canada. Likewise, the rails and shipping on the Sydenham River contributed to Wallaceburg’s development as Ontario’s “Glass Town.”

Chatham-Kent’s agricultural production in the late 19th century was facilitated by technological innovations that allowed over 50,000 acres of low-lying marsh to be drained through the use of dikes, dash-wheels and deep underground tunnels. This land was considered the most fertile in Ontario and its reclamation one of the largest in North America. With this reclaimed land, Chatham-Kent enjoyed productive and innovative agricultural expansion through such new crops as sugar beets and hybrid seed corn.

The growth of the Chatham-Kent area has been broad and profound. If the past has been any indication, then the area’s future growth shows tremendous promise.