RYERSE, AMELIA (Harris), author and diarist; b. in February 1798 at Port Ryerse, Upper Canada, the daughter of Samuel Ryerse*, uel, and Sarah Underhill; d. 19 March 1882 in London, Ont.
Amelia Ryerse’s parents immigrated to Canada from the United States shortly after the American revolution, initially going to New Brunswick but finally settling at Long Point, Norfolk County, Upper Canada, in 1794. Her formal education appears to have been limited to attendance for one or more years in a school at Niagara Falls prior to 1812. Amelia’s father, who had commanded a company of New Jersey volunteers in the Revolutionary War, was placed in charge of the Norfolk County militia shortly after his arrival in Upper Canada, and subsequently was appointed lieutenant-colonel and lieutenant of the county. In 1810 he resigned these and his other offices because of illness; he died of tuberculosis in June 1812. In May 1814 American troops attacked the Ryerse farm and burned all the buildings except the main house.
On 28 June 1815 Amelia married John Harris, a master in the Royal Navy whom she had known less than six weeks. Tradition has it that she and another 17-year-old girl were among the settlers who had met a boat from a naval reconnaissance survey of the harbour between Long Point and Turkey Point, on which Harris was serving, and that, pointing to him, Amelia said, “There is the man I shall marry.” A fortnight after the wedding Harris was advised by Sir Edward Campbell Rich Owen that he had been assigned to a hydrographic survey of the Great Lakes under Captain William Fitz William Owen*. Harris was based in Kingston and during the next two years, until he retired on half pay on 1 Sept. 1817, Amelia presided over domestic affairs at the headquarters of the survey, which served as the residence for the officers; she was also involved in the preparation of draft maps of the surveyed areas. In 1817 John, Amelia, and their first child took up residence near Port Ryerse, on land which Amelia acquired as the daughter of a loyalist. They remained there until 1834 when they moved to Eldon House in London. John had been treasurer of the London District since 1821 and, after district headquarters were moved from Vittoria to London in 1826, residence in London was more convenient for him than commuting.
After her husband’s death in 1850 Amelia concentrated on her family. By 1859 it was established. Her three sons were lawyers. All of her seven surviving daughters were well married, six of them to Englishmen, including four officers in the British regiments which had been stationed in London, and this widespread family corresponded constantly in letters still preserved. In 1857 her eldest son, John, spent the summer in England and his mother wrote to him weekly. There is evidence that Amelia fell into the habit of making daily notes in the preparation of these letters and that this led to her commencing a diary on 12 Sept. 1857. She continued it for almost 25 years, to within weeks of her death, and entries are missing for only 325 of the almost 9,000 days covered. The most serious gap, for about four months during a serious illness in 1861, is compensated for by the fact that her daughter-in-law, Sophia Howard (the daughter of Egerton Ryerson), who was living in Eldon House during this period, also kept a diary from 1 Sept. 1860 to 31 Dec. 1861.
The chief value of Amelia’s diary is literary rather than historical or sociological. Nevertheless, since Eldon House was a social centre a considerable number of the members of London’s leading families appear in its pages, as well as prominent personages including Edward Blake*, George Brown*, John A. Macdonald*, and Egerton Ryerson. In conjunction with her letters, and those written by other members of the family, it provides a detailed portrait of a well-to-do 19th-century family. However, its real importance derives from its author’s consistent point of view about the events she chronicles, the clarity and objectivity of her analysis of character, as well as the dramatic fashion in which she succeeds in presenting seemingly prosaic events; the resemblance to the work of Jane Austen is striking. Despite Amelia’s sparse formal education she was extremely well read in English literature, history, and theology and had a first-rate mind. Her abilities are evident not only throughout her diary and letters but also in her other major literary project.
In 1861, at the request of her cousin Egerton Ryerson, she wrote “historical memoranda” describing her father’s immigration and his subsequent activities until 1810. She extended the narrative in 1879 to cover the period to May 1814 and this account included reports on her birth and early life as well as the attack on the farm. The revised essay was included in Ryerson’s The loyalists of America. In the view of Charles Bruce Sissons*, “these thirty pages serve to brighten the dutiful narrative of Ryerson’s second volume and present as factual and interesting an account of the early settlement of Upper Canada as is anywhere to be found.”
Amelia Ryerse was the author of “Historical memoranda by Mrs. Amelia Harris, of Eldon House, London, Ontario . . . ,” published in Egerton Ryerson, The loyalists of America and their times: from 1620 to 1816 (2nd ed., 2v., Toronto and Montreal, 1880; repr. New York, 1970), 11: 228–56; the memoranda were reprinted in Loyalist narratives from Upper Canada, ed. J. J. Talman (Toronto, 1946), 109–48. The diaries of Amelia Ryerse are held at UWO.
[Egerton Ryerson], My dearest Sophie; letters from Egerton Ryerson to his daughter, ed. C. B. Sissons (Toronto, 1955), xxxiii–xxxvi. R. [S.] Harris, “The beginnings of the hydrographic survey of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” Historic Kingston, no.14 (1965): 24–39. L. H. Tasker, “The United Empire Loyalist settlement at Long Point, Lake Erie,” OH, 2 (1900).