BIRDSALL, RICHARD, land surveyor, militia officer, justice of the peace, politician, and office holder; b. 1799 in Thornton-le-dale, England, son of Francis Birdsall; m. first 23 Oct. 1821 Elizabeth Burnham in Cobourg, Upper Canada, and they had four daughters; m. secondly 8 July 1836 Charlotte Jane Everett of Belleville, Upper Canada, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 21 Jan. 1852 at Graham’s Inn (Bailieboro), Upper Canada.
Richard Birdsall was raised in Yorkshire and educated, at his family’s wish, for a career as an officer in the Royal Navy. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars such prospects were dim, however, and possibly in response to this realization Birdsall immigrated to Upper Canada in 1817 with his older brother William. The brothers received land in Edwardsburgh Township, Johnstown District, but settled in Vaughan Township, Home District, instead. Richard taught school in adjacent York Township before qualifying for his licence as a deputy land surveyor in 1819. That summer he was hired to survey Otonabee Township in the interior of the Newcastle District and from that moment his life became intimately linked with the district.
Between 1819 and 1826 Birdsall surveyed a number of townships in the area as well as the future town-site of Peterborough in 1825. In 1823 Frances Stewart [Browne*], who with her husband Thomas Alexander Stewart* had settled in Douro Township the previous year, reported seeing the “very smart young Englishman” pass by her window with “a blanket about his shoulders, a pair of snowshoes in his hands, and a small fur cap,” looking “ragged and weatherbeaten” after two months in the woods surveying the township. These surveys had been contracted for by Zacheus Burnham, a prominent citizen of Hamilton Township, whose daughter Birdsall married in 1821 and from whom he purchased 920 acres of land in Asphodel Township on the shores of Rice Lake. Birdsall had performed the survey of the latter township himself in 1820 and had named it after the abundant trilliums which reminded him of the asphodels of England. By 1827 he had cleared and cultivated 40 acres and built a substantial frame-house there, still occupied by his descendants. But his wife’s accidental death that same year must have represented a severe set-back. His young daughters were looked after elsewhere for several years.
In the 1830s Birdsall completed several major surveys including those of Smith Township, Wilmot Township, and, with William Hawkins, the northern boundary of the Huron Tract. He was also employed as a land agent for the Canada Company and as an inspector for clergy and college reserves responsible for leasing and lumber licensing. A captain in the 2nd Regiment of Northumberland militia from 1822, during the rebellion of 1837–38 he served as a captain in the 4th Regiment and helped raise and equip at his own expense the 7th Provisional Battalion of Peterborough militia in 1838–39. A resourceful leader in the local community, he was first appointed a justice of the peace for the Newcastle District in 1827 and a coroner in 1828. His position as magistrate involved him in litigation such as that resulting from riparian flooding above the dam constructed in 1838 at Crooks’ Rapids (Hastings) as part of the Trent Canal. His own property was affected, as was that of John Gilchrist. In 1842–43 Birdsall represented Asphodel on the Colborne District Council. After the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1849, he became the first reeve of Asphodel and sat on the Peterborough County Council in 1850 and 1851. His attempts to move into politics on the provincial level were unsuccessful. He withdrew his candidacy in 1844 for the sake of party unity, but in the general election of 1847–48 he split the conservative vote with John Langton*, allowing reformer James Hall to win for Peterborough.
By the late 1840s Birdsall had acquired more than 4,000 acres of land in scattered parcels. He developed his Asphodel farm, sold timber, and constructed a wharf on Rice Lake at Birdsall’s Landing. Early in 1852, while on a business trip, he contracted pneumonia and died a few days later, an untimely end for a man whose diligence and skill had fostered permanent settlement and progress in Peterborough County.
AO, MS 211; RG 1, A-1-6: 5721, 5748; RG 21, Newcastle District, Asphodel Township, census and assessment rolls, 1820–46; RG 22, ser.155, will of Richard Birdsall. St Peter’s Anglican Church (Cobourg, Ont.), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1817–37. Frances Stewart, Our forest home, being extracts from the correspondence of the late Frances Stewart, ed. E. S. Dunlop (2nd ed., Montreal, 1902), 36. Valley of the Trent (Guillet). Correspondent and Advocate (Toronto), 3 Aug. 1836. Weekly Despatch (Peterborough, [Ont.]), December 1847, 10 Feb. 1852. Land surveys of southern Ontario: an introduction and index to the field notebooks of the Ontario land surveyors, 1784–1859, comp. [R.] L. Gentilcore and Kate Donkin (Toronto, 1973). J. L. Graham, Asphodel: a tale of a township ([Hastings, Ont.], 1978). Helen McGregor, “Richard Birdsall,” Peterborough, land of shining waters: an anthology ([2nd ed.], Peterborough, 1967), 86–91. T. W. Poole, A sketch of the early settlement and subsequent progress of the town of Peterborough, and of each township in the county of Peterborough ((Peterborough, 1867; repub. 1941, 1967).