FORSYTH, WILLIAM, farmer, businessman, and militiaman; b. 1771, probably in Tryon County, N.Y., son of James Forsyth and Mary –; m. first c. 1795 Mary Ackler, and they had ten children; m. secondly Jane –, and they had nine children; d. 27 Feb. 1841 in Bertie Township, Upper Canada.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries few natural scenes then known could equal the spectacle of the great falls at Niagara. Renowned for its power and magnificence, the falls lured visitors of every sort: tourists, eccentrics, would-be poets and artists, and others less taken with the falls’ majesty than with reaping a profit from nature’s sublimity. These hucksters-cum-entrepreneurs have been an enduring presence at the falls and a carnival-like atmosphere and an often slatternly appearance have been their legacy. William Forsyth was such an entrepreneur, the first on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.
Forsyth’s father was a loyalist farmer who in 1783 or 1784 moved his wife and five children to the west side of the Niagara River. The family made its home in Stamford Township, where William was living in 1796 when he first petitioned for land. Three years later, then described as a yeoman, he stood trial for a felony. He was acquitted but on 7 March was jailed for a capital offence. Escaping the next day, he was foiled in his attempt to reach the United States and, back in prison, he petitioned Administrator Peter Russell* for release conditional upon “his banishing himself.” Despite the support of Robert Hamilton*, the most powerful man in the district and an important figure in the portaging trade around the falls, Russell hesitated since Forsyth’s offence involved “so many Questions of Prudence – Policy – & Law.” By mid May he had still not made a decision, after which date nothing further is known of the incident.
Forsyth next appears as a farmer living close to the Horseshoe Falls. In his reply to an 1824 query about Forsyth’s claim for losses in the War of 1812, Thomas Clark*, a neighbour and commanding officer of the 2nd Lincoln Militia (Forsyth’s unit), reported him “a man of uncouth behaviour.” Clark remembered that he had given “some displeasure and trouble to my Officers by leaving his duty and going home at nights.” On the other hand, Clark believed that at the battle of Beaver Dams in 1813 “he behaved very well in harassing the Enemy before taken prisoners.” That fall American forces plundered Forsyth’s home and farm. More damage was done to his house by Indians during a council convened by Major-General Phineas Riall. Clark noted that in 1814, when Major-General Louis de Watteville was quartered there, he used Forsyth as a spy “to go across the river . . . but report says that he took over as much if not more than he brought back.” Clark was not in the province at the time, however, and was unsure how true the allegation was: “Forsyth is a man not generally liked, and perhaps malice may have instigated the report – his neighbours . . . have no doubts about his loyalty – and further say that when the Enemy were in possession here, he did, and did naturally shape his Conduct as well as he could to save his property.” Although Forsyth’s claim of more than £425 for losses was initially rejected, upon appeal, and after Clark’s review of his wartime record, he was allowed £90 in 1824.
Rumour and innuendo hung over Forsyth like the ever-present mist over the falls. The wartime stories did not impugn his character but they detracted from it, suggesting a man with a sense of what was best for himself. One popular historian, Gordon Donaldson, has hinted that Forsyth used his knowledge of the river to smuggle goods to and from the United States. There is no corroboration but Forsyth’s early brushes with authority, mad escape from jail, and self-serving character suggest that there may be room for doubt.
Some time after the war Forsyth built an inn on his property. Charles Fothergill stayed there in early April 1817. Two years later botanist John Goldie described it as the “nearest” to the falls of several inns along the river. In 1818 Forsyth had erected a covered stairway into the gorge for a different view at 1s. per person. These stairs were, he admitted, “upon the chain reserved for Military purposes, in front of . . . [his] Land between it and the River.” The falls was Upper Canada’s greatest scenic attraction and Forsyth’s inn was the place to stay. The Duke of Richmond [Lennox*] stayed there in 1818 as did Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay] a year later. The duke’s party were less than pleased by the innkeeper’s ability to accommodate them, in spite of his professed exertions, and there was a problem over the account. When Dalhousie arrived Forsyth’s reputation was suspect; none the less, he found the “tavern & accommodation . . . were very good indeed, and the man himself, tho’ a Yankee & reputed to be uncivil, was quite the reverse to us, obliging & attentive in every way.” Visitors often seized upon other traits: Adam Fergusson* pronounced Forsyth a “personage sufficiently shrewd and well informed” whereas Samuel De Veaux found him “a man of enterprising character.”
Forsyth was an aggressive entrepreneur anxious to cater to the public and expand his business as the tourist influx increased. In his situation, he needed to court the government, not run foul of it. In October 1820, through Robert Randal* (a self-styled victim of judicial partiality and executive persecution), Forsyth petitioned the Executive Council for a lease of occupation of the 66-foot-wide allowance reserved for military purposes, which fronted his property. He also wanted to secure the privilege of operating a ferry below the falls. The government, however, had no intention of leasing the military reserve, and ferry rights had already been awarded. Randal had been told that Forsyth was the “last man to look for indulgence of any Kind whatever” on account of his behaviour to Richmond. Forsyth’s hurried explanation of May 1821 noted that “much has been said and that greatly misrepresented in respect to my conduct on that occasion.” But his account, reasonable as it seems, availed him nothing.
Forsyth’s intentions were twofold: to enlarge his accommodation for tourists and to ensure his control over the pre-eminent view of the great cataract. His own lands (inherited from his father) were just downriver from the falls, and he purchased from William Dickson the farm adjoining his own. Forsyth’s combined acreage gave him a monopoly of the best views, especially that from Table Rock, the famed outcrop near the edge of Horseshoe Falls which offered the finest prospect of it. On his newly acquired property Forsyth had built by 1822 the Pavilion Hotel, also known as the Niagara Falls Pavilion. It was described ten years later by Thomas Fowler as a “handsome frame building, . . . three stories high, with piazzas on both sides.” In 1826 Forsyth added wings which were “chiefly filled with bed rooms.” No expense was spared. It was, he thought, “perhaps the most splendid establishment of the kind,” “unequalled in this new country” and “a place worthy of fashionable resort – whereat visitors of rank and distinction may always have suitable accomodations.” An 1827 advertisement emphasized its claim as a luxury establishment “for noblemen and gentlemen of highest rank with their families, & for pleasure parties.” It had “ample” rooms and one of the main rooms allowed 100 people to “dine with ease.” The larder was stocked with “viands from every land,” the cellars offered “the best flavoured and most costly wines and liquors,” and good stabling was available across the road. As late as 1832 the approach to the falls from the Pavilion was through a forest which, as Fowler put it, “conceals the prospect till close at the place, when the scene instantaneously bursts forth with astonishing grandeur! The place at which the visitor arrives by this route is Table Rock.” At the hotel, the falls was visible only from the rear balconies.
Among Forsyth’s services were daily stages to Buffalo, Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Queenston, and Lewiston (he had successfully petitioned the House of Assembly, with the assistance of Robert Nichol*, to prohibit Americans from operating stages “along the Niagara Frontier”), the rental of carriages and post-horses, the stairway, and a ferry service to the United States. Table Rock was the site of the entrance to Forsyth’s stairway, at the bottom of which he eventually added a tour behind the Horseshoe Falls. For 50 cents the visitor was outfitted with waxed pantaloons, frock coat, Dunstable hat, and shoes. Forsyth did everything in his power to lure tourists and to make them comfortable. “I have ever had,” he said in 1826, “a great desire to add to the unrivalled natural beauties of the wild and romantic scenery in the midst of which I dwell.” Accordingly, he claimed in 1829 to have spent “perhaps not less than Fifty thousand Dollars” on his operation.
By 1827 he was “reaping,” as one account put it, “a fair reward from a generous public.” But his dominance had been challenged: a rival, John Brown, had built a hotel upriver, although his Ontario House could not equal Forsyth’s establishment, or so it was said. In 1826 it was burnt under mysterious circumstances while one of Forsyth’s sons was resident. Brown rebuilt the following year. A note published in William Lyon Mackenzie*’s Colonial Advocate hinted that Brown was the instigator of “infamous reports” that William Forsyth had been “privy to the burning.” Brown’s purpose in venting the rumour, the note continued, was to deprive Forsyth – “an enterprizing individual who had done more to accommodate the public, than any other stage proprietor or tavern keeper in Canada” – of his fair share of business. To increase that share the imaginative Forsyth was planning the first in a long history of spectacles, an event calculated to draw an extraordinary number of visitors and produce an extraordinary profit. Carnival days were dawning at the falls and Forsyth would be the ring-master.
In August 1827 Forsyth, Brown, and Parkhurst Whitney, owner of a hotel on the American side, advertised that a “condemned” schooner, the Michigan, with a “cargo of Living Animals” would be sent “through the white tossing, and the deep rolling rapids of the Niagara and down its grand precipice, into the basin ‘below.’” When in early September the great day arrived, Mackenzie was there. The roads were jammed, the hotels and galleries “were crowded with people dressed in the pink of fashion,” “every place and every corner and nook was filled.” Bands played, a lion roared, and “show-men with wild beasts, gingerbread people, cake and beer stalls, wheel of fortune men” hawked their wares or plied their trades to a throng estimated by Mackenzie to have been at midday about 8,000 to 10,000. Finally, about 3:00 p.m., the ship made its appearance with its unwitting cargo: two bears, a buffalo, two foxes, a raccoon, an eagle, a dog, and 15 geese. The crew departed at Chippawa above the falls and the Michigan was towed closer to the rapids before being cut adrift. When it hit the first set, “there was a simultaneous shout of applause” from the appreciative crowd. In the second the ship lost its masts and several of the cargo, including a bear and the buffalo. It reached the falls rent in half and was smashed on the rocks below. One goose survived. The bear had swum to an island above the falls where it was recaptured; it was later sold to a hotel on the American side for display. Not long after, spectacular stunts by daredevils such as Sam Patch and Jean-François Gravelet* (Charles Blondin) became a regular attraction at Niagara Falls.
Forsyth’s interest derives from his accomplishments in turning the sublime (the word most often used by visitors to convey the falls’ majesty) into the ridiculous. But there is more to his historical reputation than his being the founder of the first tourist trap in Upper Canada. He was the central figure in the so-called Niagara Falls outrage, an event first drawn to public notice by Mackenzie in 1828 and since recounted by several historians. For John Charles Dent* writing in 1885, as for Mackenzie, the outrage was a “violent and utterly unjustifiable exercise of brute force” sanctioned and ordered by Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland*. And, like Mackenzie, Dent considered the outrage part of a pattern of events leading back to the attack on Mackenzie’s printing-shop, the type riot of 1826. This sort of interpretation, “a simple case of Might versus Right,” has been out of historical fashion for some time. Most recently Paul Romney has returned to this incident and others like it which “created the impression of a province ruled by men who were ready to punish any sort of opposition by violence and coercion.” Indeed, it was the Forsyth affair which led to an investigation by a parliamentary committee into the administration of justice.
Fought on several fronts, the war which culminated in the outrage had its origins in a contest over tourist dollars. The major dispute focused on control of the military reserve fronting Forsyth’s property, particularly the land which he had purchased from Dickson. In 1826 he applied to Dalhousie, with whom he enjoyed good relations, for a licence of occupation which would give him legal control of the reserve. He had heard rumours that “many applications” had been made for it and, “as it is the only bar between my lands and the Cascade I feel the utmost anxiety to ascertain whether it is yet indisposed of.” Its loss would jeopardize his stairway (and another which he planned to build, with free use by the public, in 1827), his road from the hotel to Table Rock, and, most important, his control over the view from the latter. Dalhousie was reassuring. He did not think Maitland would grant to others a licence to a strip “so immediately convenient” to Forsyth’s buildings. And, in any event, he believed there was no “intention of granting it because [it was] reserved expressly for public purposes – free from the exclusive control of any person.”
Of immediate concern to Forsyth was his dispute with John Brown, who had built a plank-road to the falls from the Ontario House and constructed a stairway which, Forsyth alleged, was on his property. The stakes were high and Forsyth was not reluctant to take matters into his own hands. Brown had not only been burnt out in 1826 but had also had his road blocked by Forsyth, who fenced his property from the hotel to the falls so as to deny Brown’s patrons access except across Forsyth’s property. Into the fray stepped Clark, who, he later testified, had told Brown that Forsyth “had no right to put the fence where he did.” Clark had his own interests in this fight. First, he was Forsyth’s rival in a bitter struggle over the ferry rights below the falls which had been awarded to Clark and his partner, Samuel Street, in 1825. Clark later complained to Attorney General John Beverley Robinson* that they had been unable to occupy the site because of Forsyth’s harassment. Although he lacked direct proof, Clark blamed the Pavilion’s owner for the loss of three boats in 1826 and for a broken stairway in 1827. Secondly, as was also revealed in later testimony, he had “a claim upon” Brown’s hotel. It was not long after Clark’s suggestion about the fence that some residents of the area complained to Maitland “of being . . . shut out from the river by the illegal act of an individual.”
Thus in May 1827 Captain George Phillpotts, the commanding Royal Engineer in Upper Canada, appeared at the falls to resolve the matter. Crucial to his decision was a determination as to the exact location of the reserve. Forsyth, for instance, contended that the 66-foot allowance ran from the river’s edge, thus minimizing the effect of the reserve below the falls, where some of it would be in the gorge. There were two other possible interpretations: first, that the reserve extended back from the the edge of the gorge, known to contemporaries as the lower bank; secondly, that it extended back from the edge of the escarpment (both the Pavilion and the Ontario House were near that edge), known as the upper bank. Phillpotts decided that the reserve was taken from the upper bank, and thus extended almost to Forsyth’s inn and, in fact, included on it some of his out-buildings as well as his fences.
Rather than press the matter in court, in May 1827 Maitland ordered Phillpotts’s party to tear down the fence “to prevent any Monopoly” – and thereby perpetrated the outrage. Forsyth put it up again, and later that month this second fence was torn down. On the second occasion a blacksmith’s hut belonging to Forsyth was dumped over the escarpment. Now the various disputes went to court. On 30 Aug. 1827 Brown won a civil action against Forsyth, who was convicted of tearing up Brown’s road. Then, on 3 September, Clark and Street won their suit against Forsyth for obstructing their ferry. Robinson successfully upheld the crown’s claim to what it considered reserve property in a trial before James Buchanan Macaulay* (the presiding judge in the two previous cases) and associate judges Clark and William Dickson. Forsyth lost but the jury had taken 24 hours to reach a decision. He filed counter-suits against Phillpotts and sheriff Richard Leonard for trespass, but lost both actions.
The affair took a political turn when a petition from Forsyth to the House of Assembly was presented by John Matthews* on 28 Jan. 1828. It led to a major confrontation between the crown and the assembly. The gist of Forsyth’s complaint was “the substitution of a military force to decide the question of right . . . in a country not under martial law.” He asked the house for redress and requested it “to watch over and protect the rights of the people from the encroachment of military power.” His petition went to a select committee composed of John Rolph* in the chair, Robert Randal, Matthews, and John Johnston Lefferty. When the committee demanded the appearance of the adjutant general of militia, Nathaniel Coffin, and the acting superintendent of Indian affairs, James Givins, Maitland refused to give his permission. On 22 March the two men were jailed for contempt of the house and three days later the lieutenant governor prorogued the session. Given that Rolph had acted as Forsyth’s counsel in the 1827 suits and chaired the committee, it is not surprising that Forsyth won its support. James Stephen, the colonial under-secretary, upheld the committee while the colonial secretary, Sir George Murray, notified Maitland’s successor, Sir John Colborne*, on 20 Oct. 1828 that Maitland “would have exercised a sounder discretion had he permitted the officers to appear before the Assembly; and I regret that he did not accomplish the object he had in view in preventing Forsyth’s encroachments by means of the civil power . . . rather than by calling in military aid.”
There were complications still to come. On 31 Aug. 1827 the wily Clark had obtained with Samuel Street a licence of occupation on “that part of the reserve near the ferry, up and down the river.” The object, according to Solicitor General Henry John Boulton*, who granted the licence, was “to protect the lessees in the proper enjoyment of their right of ferry, and to keep the shore open and free of access to the public who had been shut out by Forsyth.” The licence had been suggested by Clark in a letter to George Hillier, Maitland’s secretary, in May, not long after the outrage. Clark wanted to end Forsyth’s obstruction of his ferry rights and to end Forsyth’s unauthorized ferry service. The licence would allow him to take legal action against his rival although he expressed some disingenuous concern that it might have a “grasping or Monopolising appearance.” Licence in hand, the partners warned Forsyth on 14 September that any subsequent incursions would render him liable to prosecution. With Forsyth at their advantage, Clark and Street did not hesitate to press their position and in December 1828 they brought, and won, two suits of trespass against him. Forsyth was badly shaken and on 16 Jan. 1829 he petitioned the Executive Council asking that the reserve “instead of being converted into a Monopoly for the benefit of speculating individuals be thrown open to the public.” He thought “it hard to have his front taken from him and given to another whose lands are not adjoining.” Even his stairs had been taken away by this decision and part of his meadows and buildings lost as well. The council found no irregularity in the lease of the ferry rights to Clark and Street but recommended against the continuation of the license of occupation for the reserve. Colborne himself noted that a “certain extent” near the ferry should be granted to the partners but that a one-chain strip on the top of the bank “should be thrown open to the public for a road.” Council concurred.
Mackenzie was an old acquaintance of Forsyth and had the outrage raised by Joseph Hume in parliament in 1832. In the mean time, Forsyth, “harrassed by Law – injured by the Government – persecuted for the sake of his property and embarrassed in his business,” sold his hotel and property to a group of investors that included Clark, Street, and William Allan*, who planned to subdivide the land for the proposed “City of the Falls.” Forsyth was to remain as proprietor of his hotel (the group had also acquired the Ontario House) until December 1833. In total, he sold 407 acres plus the buildings for £10,250 which was, by his estimate, $15,000 less than what the property was worth. When Clark and Street erected a museum and baths on the reserve, Colborne took action. Phillpotts had been succeeded by Richard Henry Bonnycastle, who took “care not to employ the military in any shape” in ordering them to desist. The partners “now turned, full of grievance, against the government,” as Bonnycastle put it, and won damages in 1833, a verdict which astounded Forsyth, not unreasonably.
Forsyth was by no means destitute. He had bought land in Bertie Township near Fort Erie in 1832. Despite the years of litigation and petitioning, he lived in comfort and elegance in Bertie Hall, his fashionable, pillared home. Yet he lived in hopes of receiving the compensation he felt was owing over the outrage. In 1835 Mackenzie raised the issue in the house, with predictable results. The select committee, which he chaired, considered that Forsyth had “sustained great injury at the hand of Sir Peregrine Maitland . . . and is entitled to compensation.” On 2 April 1835 he wrote to Forsyth, “You may think that I have been neglectful in your cause, but it is not so – I have done all I could.” Months later, having heard the ferry rights of Clark and Street had reverted to the crown, Forsyth applied for them but was informed that the lease had not expired. That fall he sought a licence of occupation for the portion of his lands in Bertie fronting the Niagara River; however, executive councillor Robert Baldwin Sullivan* later explained that council could not allocate “any part of the chain of reserve . . . originally made for public purpose.” Squabbling over the reserve continued unabated through the 19th century, the crown contending against entrepreneurs. It was finally ended in December 1892 by a decision by John Alexander Boyd* in the High Court of Justice. With great understatement, he wrote that the “matter presented for determination has, in various forms, occasioned doubt and perplexity for some hundred years.” Phillpotts’s survey of 1827 was upheld.
Forsyth had fought tooth-and-nail to monopolize the tourist trade at the falls. When he failed to obtain what he wanted by lawful means, he did not hesitate to use coercion. He built a tourist empire and lost it to his most serious competitor, Clark. Unable to get redress in the courts and out-manœuvered by Clark, who was able to make his own deal for the vexed strip of military reserve, Forsyth sold out. But the river never lost its lure and Forsyth never left it. When he died in 1841 he bequeathed more than 800 acres and £1,000 to his children and wife. To one son he allowed whatever “Money as my Executors may recover or receive from Her Majesty’s Government for Claims for Damages.” In June 1850 Nelson Forsyth approached Mackenzie about raising the claim yet one more time but nothing came of it.
[Documents relating to William Forsyth are scattered through the major government records of the period. The most useful are: AO, RG 22, ser.96; ser.125; ser.131; ser.138; ser.155; PAC, RG 1, E3 and L3; RG 5, A1; RG 7, G1; RG 8, I (C ser.); RG 19; and PRO, CO 42. Several manuscript collections proved helpful: AO, MS 4; MS 75; MS 78; MS 88; MS 198; MS 500; MS 516; and MTRL, W. W. Baldwin papers.
The most complete documentation of the Niagara Falls outrage is found in U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1828, app., “Report of the select committee on the petition of William Forsyth”; G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1833, 26, no.543: 1–28, Upper Canada: return . . . dated 6 February 1833; – for, copy of the reports of the two select committees to whom were severally referred petitions addressed to the House of Assembly of Upper Canada . . . (copy at AO, Imperial blue books coll.); and the report on the second Forsyth petition in the assembly’s App. to the journal, 1835, no. 22. Several maps in AO, Map Coll., D-6, depict the military reserve quite effectively. The Royal Ont. Museum, Sigmund Samuel Canadiana Building (Toronto), has a fine water-colour of the Pavilion Hotel in 1830 by James Pattison Cockburn.
Contemporary newspapers used include the Colonial Advocate, 1824–33; Niagara Gleaner, 1824–33; and Upper Canada Gazette, 1823–28. Of local records, the most rewarding were the abstract indexes to deeds for Bertie and Stamford townships at the Niagara South Land Registry Office (Welland, Ont.), available on microfilm at the AO, and the surrogate court records at AO, RG 22, ser.234, vol.2. Among the printed primary sources, those worth consulting include: “District of Nassau: minutes and correspondence of the land board,” AO Report, 1905: 303, 339; “Grants of crown lands, etc., in Upper Canada, 1792–1796,” 1929: 113; “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” 1914: 157, 164; Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), 1: 133–38; “The register of Saint Paul’s Church at Fort Erie, 1836–1844,” ed. E. A. Cruikshank, OH, 27 (1931): 150; and “Settlements and surveys,” PAC Report, 1891, note A: 3.
Travellers’ accounts of the falls abound and few fail to mention Forsyth or his hotel. The most pertinent to this biography are Charles Fothergill, “A few notes made on a journey from Montreal through the province of Upper Canada . . . ,” entries for 7–14 April 1817, in his papers at UTFL, ms coll. 140, vol.21; John Goldie, Diary of a journey through Upper Canada and some of the New England states, 1819 (Toronto, 1897); Thomas Fowler, The journal of a tour through British America to the falls of Niagara . . . during the summer of 1831 (Aberdeen, Scot., 1832); Adam Fergusson, Practical notes made during a tour in Canada, and a portion of the United States, in  (Edinburgh and London, 1833); W. L. Mackenzie, Sketches of Canada and the United States (London, 1833); Samuel De Veaux, The falls of Niagara, or tourist’s guide to this wonder of nature, including notices of the whirlpool, islands, &c., and a complete guide thro’ the Canadas . . . (Buffalo, N.Y., 1839); and R. H. Bonnycastle, The Canadas in 1841 (2v., London, 1842). Of the numerous histories of Niagara Falls, the best, as well as the most recent, is G. A. Seibel, Ontario’s Niagara parks: 100 years; a history, ed. O. M. Seibel (Niagara Falls, Ont., 1985). Traditional accounts of the outrage in Upper Canadian historiography are best represented in J. C. Dent, The story of the Upper Canadian rebellion; largely derived from original sources and documents (2v., Toronto, 1885), and Aileen Dunham, Political unrest in Upper Canada, 1815–1836 (London, 1927; repr. Toronto, 1963). The tendency in the period after World War II to downplay the importance of the outrage is evident in Craig, Upper Canada. For sharply contrasting views on the government’s handling of the affair, see Patrick Brode, Sir John Beverley Robinson: bone and sinew of the compact ([Toronto], 1984), and Paul Romney, Mr Attorney: the attorney general for Ontario in court, cabinet, and legislature, 1791–1899 (Toronto, 1986). The best summary of Romney’s position on the partiality of the administration of justice is his article “From the types riot to the rebellion: elite ideology, anti-legal sentiment, political violence, and the rule of law in Upper Canada,” OH, 79 (1987): 113–44. r.l.f.]