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BURWELL, MAHLON, surveyor, militia officer, businessman, office holder, politician, and jp; b. 18 Feb. 1783 in New Jersey, son of Adam Burwell and Sarah Veal; m. 20 April 1810 Sarah Haun in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, and they had seven sons and two daughters; d. 25 Jan. 1846 in Port Talbot, Upper Canada.

Mahlon Burwell is thought to have descended from an English family with homes in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. Part of the family moved to North America in the 17th century, settling in Virginia. Burwell’s father, a native of New Jersey, was probably a loyalist during the American Revolutionary War; in 1786 he settled in what would soon become Upper Canada and in 1797 he received 850 acres of land in Bertie Township for military service.

According to a newspaper account in 1833, Mahlon had not much more than 12 months of schooling, and when he decided to take up surveying, had little formal training in it. He failed to meet the provincial requirements for licensing as a surveyor in 1805 and had to extend his apprenticeship. Yet he acquired the minimal mathematical background necessary to use the instruments of the time: a circumferentor and a measuring chain. Despite the trying circumstances under which he worked, his field-notes, maps, and diaries are detailed and contain a remarkable amount of scientific information. Such records were obviously a requirement of surveyors’ contracts, but not all supplied them. It was no doubt because of his thoroughness that Burwell was engaged to survey so much of southwestern Upper Canada. Upon the recommendation of Thomas Talbot* he was first employed by the provincial government in 1809, laying out townships (most in the Talbot settlement) and beginning the Talbot Road. Between 1809 and 1812 he moved from Bertie to Port Talbot, in Southwold Township on the north shore of Lake Erie, and later settled on the line between Southwold and Dunwich Township.

During the War of 1812 he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel in Talbot’s militia regiment (1st Middlesex) but saw little action. He was ordered on duty in December 1812 and was among those who helped organize the defence of the London District. He may have taken part in the hostilities on the Niagara frontier in 1812–13 and was on duty at Otter (Big Otter) Creek, north of Lake Erie, in 1814. In August of that year he was carried off by marauders as a prisoner to the United States, and a month later his property at Port Talbot was destroyed. Taken eventually to Chillicothe, Ohio, he was released on parole in December.

Returning home, Burwell resumed surveying. Between 1814 and 1825 he surveyed all or part of 24 townships north of the Thames River and south of it, in the counties of Kent and Essex. As well, he resumed work on the Talbot Road, long considered the best road in Upper Canada, which constituted an enduring testimony to his skills as a surveyor. After 1825 his work for the government was much more dispersed geographically. By 1834 he had completed 49 surveys or resurveys, a remarkable accomplishment. The work was physically demanding and stressful because of bad weather and the lack of resources sufficient to pay, shelter, and feed his men. These hardships took their toll on Burwell, who developed rheumatism. In 1832, when he was still only 49, his health prompted a letter to William Chewett, acting surveyor general, requesting that he not be asked to make a resurvey of Dunwich Township should it be needed.

At first paid in cash, Burwell subsequently accepted recompense in land. Under the system of tendering to survey, his bid was invariably 4 1/2 per cent of the area to be surveyed. As a result, he built up large holdings of land in various parts of Upper Canada, especially in the southwest. He is known to have received a total of 39,759 acres, but this figure does not include whatever compensation (possibly cash) he received for 18 surveys on which the government’s record is silent. In addition, he was granted or purchased some 3,525 acres. His holdings were thus at least 43,284 acres. In 1830–31, on property at the mouth of Otter Creek, which he had received for surveying Bayham Township, Burwell and his brother John laid out a plot for a village, Port Burwell. There Mahlon later built Trinity Church (Anglican) and formed a company to promote harbour development and the shipment of timber.

Burwell had to ballot for the location of the acreages he acquired and was therefore unable to pick choice lots. Nevertheless, provided he disposed of his holdings rapidly, he was financially better off to accept land rather than monetary compensation for his services. Some insight into the process can be gained from examining his holdings in Essex County, where most of his land was located. Of the 67 properties there belonging to him or his estate between 1815 and 1854, only 6 were of good qualitet, between 1823 and his death in 1846, he sold 54 per cent of his holdings within 2 years of receiving them, the rest within 10. (Most was sold to fellow surveyors Benjamin Springer, Peter Carroll, and Roswell Mount*.) Moreover, he seems to have obtained the going rate. The same pattern must also have prevailed in the centrally located and more populous areas where Burwell held better endowed lands.

Still, while he waited for sales he had to pay taxes. Since his holdings were scattered, he felt he was not deriving the benefits he should. In the 1830s much of his correspondence with the government was related to the possibility of exchanging parcels. An Anglican, he was permitted in 1837 to exchange land in Caradoc Township for clergy reserves in Bayham, which he intended to donate as a glebe to the new church in Port Burwell. An earlier, more ambitious exchange had been denied. In 1829 he sought to exchange 10,000 acres, in scattered lots, for an equivalent amount south of the Huron Tract, in what is now Sarnia Township. Here he proposed to establish tenants and to entail the block to his heirs. This was financially an astute move but it failed because the lands had already been assigned and because it was held that a successful application would only induce similar applications. The problem of disposing of Burwell’s scattered parcels of varying quality passed to his heirs.

Throughout his lifetime Burwell was the friend and aide of Thomas Talbot, the autocratic, Anglo-Irish colonizer who played such an important role in the settlement of southwestern Ontario. He valued Burwell for his professional skill and usefulness, and no doubt had a large say in his appointment in 1809 to the lucrative post of registrar of lands for Middlesex. In addition, he helped secure Burwell’s election to the House of Assembly in 1812. Perhaps because of this assistance and the friendship between the two, Burwell bore Talbot’s sarcasm towards him. Yet in 1817 Burwell publicly criticized the proposed celebration of the Talbot settlement’s anniversary, an event he judged excessively expensive and “premature,” in that Talbot was still alive. Resolutions were passed by the anniversary committee declaring Burwell’s views “indelicate and obstructive” and written in the “most disrespectful manner.” The relationship survived and Talbot was greatly grieved at Burwell’s death in 1846. Edward Ermatinger*, writing about Burwell in 1859, used such words to describe him as imperious, opinionated, assiduous, ambitious, and politically consistent – qualities which may have been attractive to Talbot. But Ermatinger also described Burwell as selfish, egotistical, vindictive, intellectually dull, and given to ostentatious displays of courage, and he painted the picture of a man to whom circumstance offered the chance of rising to the “highest rank as a statesman” but whose personal qualities stood in the way. In contrast Ermatinger’s son, Charles Oakes Zaccheus, saw Burwell as someone who, possessing little suavity, was essentially a man of integrity. He was a man of marked character, no one was indifferent to him, few liked him, and many resented every breath he took. His character is reflected in the names he bestowed upon his sons: Alexander, Hercules, Isaac Brock, Hannibal, John Walpole, Leonidas, and Edward.

From 1812 to 1820 he represented Oxford and Middlesex in the assembly and from 1820 to 1824 Middlesex. He was defeated by John Rolph* and John Matthews* in 1824 and again four years later but sat for Middlesex from 1830 to 1834. He lost in 1834 and did not return to the house until 1836, representing the town of London. Between 1812 and 1824 Burwell supported the government in the house, and in 1828 was described by William Lyon Mackenzie*, editor of the reform Colonial Advocate, as one of the “Positively Ministerial, or Court Candidates.”

As a supporter and servant of the government, Burwell became the recipient of patronage. In 1813 he received the first of his many commissions as a justice of the peace and a year later he was appointed to arrest those suspected of high treason during the war. In 1820 he became collector of customs at Port Talbot; in 1821 he was a member of the assembly committee that reported on Upper Canada’s financial concerns with Lower Canada. The following year he became a commissioner under the alien act for the London District and in 1824 was appointed a coroner for that district. John Matthews, his political opponent, argued in 1828 that Burwell had secured sufficient remunerative posts to be styled “Commissioner in Banco Regis.” These sentiments were echoed later that year in the Colonial Advocate, where Mackenzie saw the actions of “the cast off Mahlon Burwell” as “profligate, abandoned and shameless.” The benefits of his offices and most especially his success in securing survey contracts explained, in Mackenzie’s opinion, his consistent loyalty.

Certainly by 1828 Burwell was exercising considerable power and influence. Matthews wrote to Zacariah Mudge in January 1828 that, for years, under the influence of Talbot, Burwell had controlled all the civil and military appointments within Middlesex County and, as chairman of the Court of Quarter Sessions and foreman of the grand jury, held enormous administrative and legal powers: “It becomes necessary therefore to be a sattelite of this mans, or to suffer the persecution and punishment which he assumes the power to inflict.” By 1832 what the reform St Thomas Liberal called the “Burwell dynasty” (a group including John Bostwick and Burwell’s brother John) had become “almost absolute” thanks to the support of Talbot. In 1833 Asahel Bradley Lewis*, the Liberal’s editor, reported that Middlesex was controlled as “absolutely . . . as is the petty sovereignty of a German despot.”

A most important element in this control was the office of justice of the peace. Burwell worked hard to secure the appointment by the central government of those he considered appropriate. In 1835, of the 60 nominated for the London District, he recommended 20. Interestingly, four years earlier, he had seen his way clear to nominate Eliakim Malcolm*, whose politics he deemed “rather radical.” This he, did against the advice of fellow tory John Baptist Askin*, who as clerk of the peace stood on top of the district’s oligarchic ladder. Burwell’s tolerance, remarkable in this politically troubled period which culminated in rebellion, led to the appointment of reformers to a variety of offices. Presumably he felt, as historian Colin Frederick Read has suggested, that there was little to fear from those with the talent, social standing, and property needed to qualify for these positions. Burwell was also concerned about the geographical distribution of the magistrates. In 1835 and again in 1836 he warned the provincial government that the magistrates in and around London unduly influenced the business of the Court of Quarter Sessions because they were closer to the court and thus able to attend regularly. His advice undoubtedly influenced the decision to partition the London District in 1837.

Paradoxically, having sought to limit the influence of the town of London, he was elected its first representative in 1836. He was aided in this election by J. B. Askin, with whom he was frequently at odds. In the same year Burwell sent Civil Secretary John Joseph* a list of his supporters who would be eligible to vote if land patents were issued to them and sent immediately to Askin. They were. Yet, when Askin asked Burwell to help examine rebels from the district in January 1838, Burwell, though colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Middlesex militia, did not reply. Nor did he attend that month the Court of Quarter Sessions, of which he was chairman. He may have been ill, he may have considered events politically too explosive, or he may have decided to devote his time to the upcoming parliament. Whatever his reason, he soon came to believe that a conspiracy existed to remove him as chairman and indeed he was passed over in April in favour of Joseph Brant Clench*. Burwell was soon under attack too as registrar of lands, in which office his son Leonidas served as deputy. The officials in London sought to appoint a Londoner as registrar and to move the registry office from near Port Talbot to their town. Burwell, pointing to his long service, his expenses in building the office, and its location nearer the “geographical centre” of the district, managed to stave off the opposition for a time. Yet his influence was dwindling and he was considered derelict in his duty. No doubt he was associated in the minds of some with the abuses of office and low moral character of his fellow magistrate and brother, John. He might have looked for support to Askin had he not fought with him. He was anonymously accused of mismanaging district funds. In his defence, he argued in 1839 that the charge had been prompted by lumbermen who refused to pay him the appropriate fees for the services of the Port Burwell Harbour Company, in which he was the principal entrepreneur. In the post-rebellion era the central government could no longer afford to support the old “courtier compact.” Even Thomas Talbot had his power of supervision within the Talbot settlement removed in 1838.

In 1842 Mahlon Burwell turned over his business interests at Port Burwell to his son Leonidas. He died at Port Talbot four years later. As a surveyor and registrar he had played an important role in the settlement of southwestern Ontario. As a friend and adviser of Thomas Talbot and as a magistrate and mha, he figured significantly in the political history of the region. Some said his service was motivated by self-interest. Unfortunately, much of the documentary material which survives was written by his detractors in an emotionally charged period. Burwell was not simply a government toady. He held more liberal views than many on matters of education to the extent of demanding, in 1831, and then chairing a committee on education. He hoped to ensure a centralized, provincial system. Realizing that it required adequate financing, a need overlooked by many reformers, he proposed, in a series of forward-looking school bills in 1832, 1833, and 1837, to use local taxation for support and to introduce crown-appointed, district boards and commissioners with supervisory powers. He was capable of opposing Talbot and could see his way to recommending radicals as magistrates. Paradoxically, in a period in which all politicians claimed independence as a characteristic, he was a forceful individual demonstrably capable of it in thought and action, even if he was remarkably partisan over issues and views which he cherished. However one regards his motives, which this author does not consider base, Burwell played a significant but, as yet, largely unacknowledged role in the life of the province.

John Clarke

Mahlon Burwell’s voluminous survey records are divided between two repositories. The AO’s holdings include correspondence in RG 1, A-I-1, 17, and A-I-6, 4–10, 12, 16–17, 19, 24; survey diaries and field notes in RG 1, CB-1, boxes 2, 16, 19, 23–24, 26, 32, 36–37, 39–40; and numerous survey maps in the Map Coll. Additional material, including diaries, field notes, and maps, remains at the Ont., Ministry of Natural Resources, Survey Records Office (Toronto). One of Burwell’s survey diaries was published as “The diary of Mahlon Burwell, January 24 to August 4, 1827,” ed. R. M. Lewis, OH, 49 (1957): 199–219.

PAC, MG 24, G46; RG 1, E3, 87:48–50; L 1, 28: 427; 29: 57, 188, 362, 366, 487; 30: 19, 25, 405; 31: 353, 599, 604; 32: 557; 33: 418; 34: 134; 35: 321; 36: 149; 37: 224, 416; 38: 585; 39: 471; L3, 36: 139/71; 40: 1311/164; 44: 813/9; 49: 815/53; 50: 815/145; 60: 820/43; 61: 820/113; 63: B21/ 151; 64: 822/73; 65: 822/120; RG 5, A1: 47897–99, 70880, 83070, 84377, 91306–7, 93684, 93956–57, 97746, 106552–62; B36, 1: 58; C1, 12, file 1501, no.6469; RG 8, I (C ser.), 681: 149; 685: 156; 1222: 205; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 122, 124, 126–27, 130–31, 133, 135–36, 138–39, 141, 144, 147, 150, 153, 156, 162, 182, 194, 245, 300, 302, 423. UWOL, Regional Coll., Burwell family papers. “Early records of St. Mark’s and St. Andrew’s churches, Niagara,” comp. Janet Carnochan, OH, 3 (1901): 58. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1913: 111, 129, 311; 1914: 266. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1831: 34–35; 1833–34, app.: 120–22. Colonial Advocate, 1 May, 5 June 1828. Liberal (St Thomas, [Ont.]), 29 Nov., 6 Dec. 1832; 25 July 1833. Death notices of Ont. (Reid). 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, ed. C. E. Heidenreich (Toronto, 1973), 39–101. A. G. Brunger, “A spatial analysis of individual settlements in southern London District, Upper Canada, 1800–1836” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1974). Canadian education: a history, ed. J. D. Wilson et al. (Scarborough [Toronto], 1970). John Clarke, “A geographical analysis of colonial settlement in the Western District of Upper Canada, 1788–1850” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., 1970). C. O. [Z.] Ermatinger, The Talbot regime; or the first half century of the Talbot settlement (St Thomas, 1904). Edward Ermatinger, Life of Colonel Talbot, and the Talbot settlement . . . (St Thomas, 1859; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). F. C. Hamil, Lake Erie baron: the story of Colonel Thomas Talbot (Toronto, 1955). E. N. Lewis, Sidelights on the Talbot settlement (St Thomas, 1938). Patterson, “Studies in elections in U.C.” D. W. Thomson, Men and meridians: the history of surveying and mapping in Canada (3v., Ottawa, 1966–69), 1. Archibald Blue, “Colonel Mahlon Burwell, land surveyor,” Canadian Institute, Proc. (Toronto), new ser., 2 ([1898–1905]): 41–56. John Clarke, “Mapping the lands supervised by Colonel the Honourable Thomas Talbot in the Western District of Upper Canada, 1811–1849,” Canadian Cartographer (Toronto), 8 (1971): 8–18. R. L. Gentilcore, “Lines on the land: crown surveys and settlement in Upper Canada,” OH, 61 (1969): 57–73. C. [F.] Read, “The London District oligarchy in the rebellion era,” OH, 72 (1980): 195–209.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John Clarke, “BURWELL, MAHLON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 27, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burwell_mahlon_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burwell_mahlon_7E.html
Author of Article:   John Clarke
Title of Article:   BURWELL, MAHLON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   May 27, 2024