THOMPSON, TOLER (Tolar), agricultural improver; b. c. 1780 in Upper Sackville (N.B.), only child of John Thompson and Mary Toler, widow of John Grace; m. Alice Charters, and they had eight children; d. 23 June 1846, and was buried in Sackville Parish, N.B.
Toler Thompson is remembered in New Brunswick for his efforts to improve the Tantramar marshes in the Chignecto Isthmus. These marshes had been farmed to a limited extent by Acadians from the late 17th century until their expulsion from the region in 1755 [see Robert Monckton*]. Homesteads had been built on dry ground and some lower, flooded land had been made arable by means of dykes and arrangements of flap gates (aboiteaux). The gates were balanced to close under a seating head of tide and to open for the release of imponded fresh water when the tide dropped. The first English-speaking settlers, mainly from New England and later from Yorkshire, England [see Charles Dixon*], followed the same pattern of land use. To some extent, however, the region remained boggy into the 19th century. In 1816 the Methodist missionary Joshua Marsden noted that a journey to Tantramar involved “both trouble and fatigue, as the marsh was frequently overflowed . . . I was obliged on these occasions to have a guide, who rode with a long pole in his hand, which as the waters we rode through were muddy, he kept plunging to the bottom, a little ahead of his horse, to ascertain the direction of the creeks, and that we might not unawares plunge into any of them.”
Of the second generation of marsh farmers, Thompson initiated valuable improvements in land use. These included definition of the topography, or the potential drainage pattern, of the marshes, excavation of drainage ditches (some of which served also as transportation canals), and construction of roads. He also developed a method of renewing the fertility of the marshlands which involved periodic flooding with silt-laden water from the Bay of Fundy. Upon precipitation of suspended solids and nutrients, the salt water was drained away. Residents of the Tantramar area still acknowledge indebtedness to Thompson for the creation of dry, wealth-producing pasture and crop land.
Details of Thompson’s activities are scarce. When applying to Surveyor General George Sproule* for a grant of land in 1817, he indicated that he had undertaken to build a road from Great Bridge River to Point Midgic (Midgic) and had already spent £364 of his own money on it. In a supporting document William Botsford*, member of a prominent local family, described Thompson as “a person of enterprise and industry” who had been engaged for about three years in cutting a large ditch at the head of Sackville marsh “which has and will be attended with great public benefit, and has cost him much time and expense.” That year Thompson obtained a government grant of £100 towards his road. In 1817–18 he was employed in cutting a canal from Mud Creek to Rush Lake, under the direction of the supervisors of the “great road” and the commissioners of sewers for the region; he was still trying to obtain full payment for his services in 1822. In 1821 he applied to the government for further assistance in constructing his road, on which he had spent another £136. He noted that his improvements enabled settlers to take up ungranted lands, facilitated the transport of timber and other materials, let in the tide “which overflows certain grounds, and the mud that is thereby left, will make good and beneficial Meadow Lands,” and prevented the flooding that had previously damaged the main road to Halifax. The result of his petition is not known.
Popular tradition has it that Thompson was the grandson of the Irish peer John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury. According to this account, which is somewhat confused and has many variations, Toler’s daughter Mary eloped with John Grace, a groom or coachman in her father’s employ, and came to the Chignecto area of Nova Scotia, where her husband drowned three years later. She then married John Thompson, a Yorkshireman, at Upper Sackville in New Brunswick. Attractive though the tradition is, it would seem to be without foundation since John Toler did not marry until 1778, about two years before Toler Thompson’s birth.
[Family traditions concerning Toler Thompson were provided by Dr J. Toler Thompson of Moncton, N.B., in a series of interviews with the author. An undated notebook in Dr Thompson’s possession, apparently compiled in the early years of the 20th century by another descendant, Cogswell A. Sharpe, supplied further details. r.j.c.]
PANB, RG 4, RS24, S29-P5, S30-P38. Westmorland Hist. Soc. (Dorchester, N.B.), Grave marker for Tolar Thompson. Joshua Marsden, The narrative of a mission to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Somers Islands; with a tour to Lake Ontario . . . (Plymouth Dock [Plymouth], Eng., 1816; repr. New York, 1966). W. C. Milner, History of Sackville, New Brunswick (Sackville, 1934); “Records of Chignecto,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 15 (1911): 74–75. C. W. Moffat, “Shall we establish an endowment to the memory of Tolar Thompson?” Tribune-Post (Sackville), 2 June 1947.