STEVENS, ABEL, colonizer and Baptist preacher; b. in Pittsford (Vt), son of Roger Stevens and Mary Doolittle; m. 1779 Eunice Buck of Pittsford, and they had at least ten children; d. in 1825 or 1826, probably in Steventown (near Delta), Upper Canada.
Abel Stevens’s early life was closely intertwined with the exploits of his elder brother Roger. Shortly after the outbreak of the American revolution Roger Stevens, a large landowner in Pittsford, aroused the wrath of local rebels by refusing to renounce his allegiance to the crown – an act of defiance that led to his arrest and imprisonment and the confiscation of his property. Somehow managing to escape, Roger gained employment as a guide for a brigade of German troops serving under Major-General John Burgoyne*. Imprisoned again after Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (near Schuylerville, N.Y.) in October 1777, Roger engineered a second escape with the assistance of his brother Abel, then farming in the Pittsford area and known chiefly as a skilful hunter and courageous Indian-fighter. In 1781 Roger was a spy for British troops stationed in Vermont, and Abel frequently assisted him in the collection of military and political intelligence. From 1782 until the end of the war Abel, described by Roger as “a loyal Man and entirely unsuspected among the Rebels,” travelled widely throughout the New England area gathering information that was later relayed to his brother at secret rendezvous points. Unfortunately, although Roger was satisfied with Abel’s work, the British military was less than enthusiastic. One officer complained that Abel’s reports were “not near Adequate to our expectations, nor the expence paid him and his brother in money and furrs, &c.” He also claimed that Abel could not keep a secret and practised the “art of pretending to many important Secrets which had never any other foundation than in his own Brain.”
Following the revolution Roger Stevens lived in Montreal for a few years before settling along the Rideau River in 1788. Abel, however, remained in Vermont until 1792, when he and a few other Pittsford residents conceived the idea of establishing a settlement in the new colony of Upper Canada. After journeying there in May 1793, he made a number of applications for land: one requested a township grant for himself and five associates; another asked for a grant of 30,000 acres along the Thames River for the purpose of creating a “Baptist society” under the British flag. Although neither application was accepted, Stevens received 200 acres for himself and for each of his children, along with a verbal promise of additional land for the families he might bring from Vermont. For some reason, however, he was dissatisfied and, with the encouragement of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe*, he began looking for a better site in the area to the east. Eventually he made his way to Leeds County, and there he applied to the local land board for a grant in Bastard Township. When his application was accepted he returned briefly to Vermont to recruit settlers. Shortly afterwards, in February 1794, he led six Baptist families back to Leeds County, where they immediately set to work laying the foundations of a community known, appropriately enough, as Steventown.
Stevens did useful work as a colonizer and promoter. By 1798, if his own testimony is to be believed, he had persuaded more than 200 Vermont Baptists to settle in the townships of Bastard and Kitley. As well, in the late 1790s he played a leading role in the construction of an 18-mile road from Gananoque to Kingston, and from 1794 until the early 1800s he was closely connected with plans to build a foundry which would process the Gananoque area’s rich resources of bog iron. The latter project was described in a detailed petition Stevens submitted to the Executive Council in February 1799. He informed the council that £3,000 in capital would be needed, and that once the project was completed 50 skilled workmen would be employed. He also claimed to have three American associates who would not come forward unless they received “suitable Apportionments of the Waste Lands of the Crown in the Vicinity of the manufactory.” The council gave Stevens six months to reveal the names and identities of his associates as well as the amount of capital at their disposal, and also to “specify the progress which he will undertake to make annually in the business.” In July 1799 Stevens provided the information. When the council was still unsatisfied, Stevens turned to Ruel Keith, the master workman of the proposed foundry. In the spring of 1800 Keith and an American entrepreneur by the name of Wallis Sunderlin came to Upper Canada with a large body of labourers to begin construction. Although Stevens himself no longer had a financial stake in the project, he assisted Sunderlin in his efforts to obtain a suitable land grant. At length, Stevens’s lobbying paid dividends: in September 1800 the council ruled that Sunderlin would receive 12,000 acres upon construction of the foundry. By 1802 this foundry was completed, and it continued in operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1811.
Stevens was also a key figure in the province’s early religious life. In 1796 he and four other Baptists from Bastard Township petitioned Simcoe to recognize the right of “regularly ordained Elders in any Baptist Church” to solemnize marriages. At about the same time Stevens and Daniel Derbyshire gathered a congregation of “baptized believers” in Steventown. In 1803 the members of this congregation, fearing that they had acted “in many respects not agreeable to gospel prudence,” formed themselves into a church during a visit by two missionaries from the United States, Joseph Cornell and Peter Philanthropos Roots. Both missionaries returned the following spring to conduct the ordination of Stevens and Derbyshire. In an account of the ceremony written for the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society, Derbyshire wrote that “my poor unworthy soul never had a more solemn day than this. We left them offering up thanks to Heaven for the visit, and blessing you in the name of the Lord, for sending help among them who seemed ready to perish.” From this time on Stevens preached frequently in neighbouring settlements, leaving the Steventown church in Derbyshire’s care. In addition, he served as a delegate to the Thurlow Association, the first Baptist organization established in Upper Canada. He also assisted in forming Baptist churches in Gananoque, Augusta, and Crosby (North and South Crosby) townships, and in 1805 he participated in the ordination of Elijah Bentley* at a meeting held in Markham.
One of the many forgotten figures in early Upper Canadian history, Abel Stevens played a crucial part in the social and economic development of Leeds County. He was also one of a small band of preachers who succeeded in planting the Baptist faith throughout the eastern section of the province.
Canadian Baptist Arch., McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ont.), Phillipsville Baptist Church (Phillipsville, Ont.), minutes of Steventown Baptist Church. Leeds Land Registry Office (Brockville, Ont.), Liber K, no.124. PAC, RG 1, L3, 446a: S misc., 1793–1812/71, 175; 448: S1/64; 448a: S1/160, 162–63; S2/45; 450: S3/104; 451: S4/92, 136, 140; 452: S5/44. Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 4: 261. Mass. Baptist Missionary Magazine (Boston), 1 (1803–8), no.3: 65–77. S. [E. H.] Ivison and Fred Rosser, The Baptists in Upper and Lower Canada before 1820 (Toronto, 1956), 88–89, 101, 127, 145, 147–48. E. A. Cruikshank, “The activity of Abel Stevens as a pioneer,” OH, 31 (1936): 56–90; “The adventures of Roger Stevens, a forgotten loyalist pioneer in Upper Canada,” OH, 33 (1939): 11–37. S. E. H. Ivison, “Noteworthy Canadian Baptists, 3: Abel Stevens, U.E.L.; an early Baptist preacher and colonizer,” Quest (Toronto), 4 Dec. 1960: 784 (copy at Canadian Baptist Arch.).