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PURDY, WILLIAM, miller; b. 2 Aug. 1769 in Westchester, N.Y., son of Jesse Purdy; m. first Elizabeth Brundage; m. secondly Hulda Yates; m. thirdly Sabia Wilcox; d. 22 Jan. 1847 in Bath, Upper Canada.

William Purdy’s father, a loyalist, served in Emmerich’s Chasseurs during the American Revolutionary War. In 1787 William moved to St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Que., and two years later to the newly formed loyalist settlements on the upper St Lawrence. He received a land grant there in Yonge Township. In 1816 Purdy moved to Vaughan Township, where he purchased the mills of John Lyons. The destruction by fire of a new flour-mill in 1828 may have been a deciding factor in Purdy’s sale of the entire property, located north of York (Toronto), to Benjamin Thorne and William Parsons.

In December 1829 Purdy petitioned for a new mill-site. The following year he was granted 400 acres in Ops Township in the Newcastle District on the condition that he build a dam and saw- and grist-mills there. Despite difficulties with spring floods and fever, he had made good progress by September 1830. He had planted part of the five or six acres he had cleared and, at the site of present-day Lindsay, had “quarried out of a Rock on the Bank of the [Scugog] River, a place sufficient to set my saw Mill and for the [flume], and have erected a good and Substantial frame, with a good Solid frame of Dam.” James Grant Chewett*, of the Surveyor General’s Office, thought Purdy “should receive all possible encouragement.” When John Langton* stayed overnight at Purdy’s in October 1833, he noted that the mills had what he imagined to be “the largest mill-dam in the world.” That same month Purdy petitioned for the patents on his land, asking also that existing and future deeds on lots already overflowed by the mill-pond should carry reservations protecting him “in the right of keeping the water at its present height” and from lawsuits for damages. This petition was granted by the Executive Council on 9 May 1834.

Purdy’s dam had a dramatic impact upon the area. Once a meandering stream, the Scugog became navigable for more than 30 miles as water overflowed 1,050 acres along its course, converting a marshy, tamarack forest into Lake Scugog. Many welcomed good mills and a navigable stream in an area lacking both, but there was concern that no effort had been made to calculate the effect of the dam, and many lost land or mill privileges because of the drowning.

In 1835 a parliamentary committee appointed Nicol Hugh Baird, an engineer, to report on the impact of the dam and the probable effect of its removal. Baird believed that improved navigation was an asset to the area and would tie into government efforts to create a main canal linking Simcoe and Rice lakes, but maintained that a dam with a 5-foot lift, instead of 12, would be sufficient. This structure would reduce both the size of the flooded area and the stretch of navigable waters, but would still allow ample power for Purdy’s mills, which, he claimed, could be more efficient. Baird appeared confident that a road or railway would be built linking Windsor Harbour (Whitby) and Lake Scugog, that the Trent canal (not completed until 1905) would be developed, and that boats would never require more depth. The government accepted his major recommendation that it build its own dam, with a 5-foot lift, below Purdy’s. However, it provided no incentive for Purdy to remove his.

Purdy supported a petition of 1836 for the construction of the proposed Trent canal and a road from Windsor Harbour. His main concern, however, was the issue of indemnification. He had hoped to be protected from lawsuits, particularly by those owners whose patents were issued before 1834, but he received little government support. In January 1837 Purdy again petitioned the government for flooding rights on the lands overflowed as a result of his dam. Alexander McDonell*, who was in charge of settlement in the area, confirmed that Purdy had been assigned the mill-site because of his knowledge of mills in similar situations and admitted that the mills were “in every respect adequate to the demand of the surrounding Country.” He nevertheless denied “Knowledge of any promise of indemnification” for the flooding of any lands patented before or after 1834.

The divisiveness caused by Purdy’s mills became evident in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1837–38. A false rumour circulated in the Peterborough area that William Lyon Mackenzie* was hiding in the mills. Purdy, who apparently had spoken out against the “family compact,” was arrested on 13 Dec. 1837 and taken to the district jail in Cobourg. Along with the 11 others arrested from the Newcastle District, including John Gilchrist*, he was discharged without trial. In the summer of 1838 armed settlers attacked his dam, which they believed was the source of an outbreak of fever and ague.

The provincial Board of Works had nearly completed its dam before settling with Purdy and his sons the terms for removing theirs. In December 1843 they were granted £400 plus “the use of all surplus water that would not be needed for navigation” in exchange for relinquishing damage claims and keeping the new dam (completed by the summer of 1844) in repair. Responsibility for the new dam and management of the mills fell upon two of his eleven children, his sons Hazzard Wilcox and Jesse Thomas, for William had transferred most of his claim to them in 1836 and had no remaining interest after February 1839. In 1838 he and Jesse moved to Bath, where William spent his last nine years peaceably as a farmer. Jesse inherited the farm in 1847 and sold it to Hazzard in 1850. Both later moved to Meaford, Upper Canada, and then to North Dakota.

The controversy over the dam remained long after the Purdys had left. William Purdy, in tune with the spirit of material development characteristic of the age and of millers at all times, was frustrated. He had improved navigation and provided adequate mills for an area that otherwise had limited potential. Yet, even though he was probably a reformer, the reformers treated his dam and mill as examples of the excesses of the government, and the government provided only guarded support, choosing to believe that Purdy’s difficulties were the result of his building his dam too high.

Elwood H. Jones

AO, RG 1, A-I-6: 8289; A-II-2, 1: 209. Bath United Church (Bath, Ont.), Cemetery records. Ont., Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, Heritage Administration Branch (Toronto), Hist. sect. research files, Victoria RF.1. PAC, RG 1, L1, 35: 404; L3, 402: P8/64; 404a: P12/146; 408: P18/107; 418: P misc., 1775–95/182; RG 5, A1: 55219–21, 55319–25, 60463–68; RG 68, General index, 1841–67: 42. Victoria Land Registry Office (Lindsay, Ont.), Deeds, Ops Township, nos.542, 568, 744, 3067–68, 4212 (mfm. at AO). Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1843, app.Q, schedule AA; 1845, app.AA. John Langton, Early days in Upper Canada: letters of John Langton from the backwoods of Upper Canada and the Audit Office of the Province of Canada, ed. W. A. Langton (Toronto, 1926). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, no.99; 1836, no.13; 1837–38: 386–87; 1839, 2, pt.{{i}}: 156; Journal, 1835: 32, 40, 195, 218, 398–400; 1836–37: 154, 161. The valley of the Trent, ed. and intro. E. C. Guillet (Toronto, 1957). British Whig, 4 Nov. 1834. Christian Guardian, 7 April, 12 May 1847. Chronicle & Gazette, 27 Dec. 1834. Cobourg Star, 20 Dec. 1837. “Purdy family history,” comp. Kaireen Morrison (typescript, 1982; copy in possession of Elwood Jones, Peterborough, Ont.). “Bless these walls: Lindsays heritage, ed. Moti Tahiliani (Lindsay, 1982). History of Toronto and county of York, Ontario . . . (2v., Toronto, 1885), 2: 127. L. A. Johnson, History of the county of Ontario, 1615–1875 (Whitby, Ont., 1973). Watson Kirkconnell, County of Victoria centennial history (2nd ed., Lindsay, 1967), 31–32, 94–95. Lindsey, Life and times of Mackenzie, 2: 376. John Squair, The townships of Darlington and Clarke, including Bowmanville and Newcastle, province of Ontario, Canada (Toronto, 1927). F. G. Weir, Scugog and its environs (Port Perry, Ont., 1927).

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Cite This Article

Elwood H. Jones, “PURDY, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/purdy_william_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/purdy_william_7E.html
Author of Article: Elwood H. Jones
Title of Article: PURDY, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: November 1, 2014