Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What is True History? The Shaw Gusher Question

Portrait of John Shaw
Portrait of Hugh Nixon Shaw

What are true historical facts? Who decides what gets written in the history books?

Historians use primary sources (material written or created at the time of the events) to interpret what happened in the past. Secondary sources (textbooks, magazine articles) are written to explain a historian's interpretation of the past.

So what happens when historians cannot agree on one version of history? Who decides which facts are right?

This type of historical debate is stirring in Lambton County surrounding the the man who drilled the first oil gusher in Canada. For decades historians thought it was a man named Hugh Nixon Shaw, but recent scholarship suggests that it was actually John Shaw.

Newspaper articles from the Toronto Globe and the Hamilton Times in 1861 and 1862 refer to "Hugh Shaw" as a successful businessman who patented a still and opened a refinery in Oil Springs. He died in a tragic accident on February 11, 1863, "of suffocation, caused by inhaling poisonous gases from a well at Oil Springs…"[i] Primary sources do not support Hugh as the oil gusher pioneer. There are no references to Hugh and the oil gusher in any 1860s newspapers. The first reference to Hugh and the gusher appears two decades later in Belden's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lambton, Ontario, 1880. Also telling is the fact that Hugh's own journal of business expenditures from 1861 to 1863 does not refer to the gusher.[ii]

John Shaw was a significantly less successful businessman. The Toronto Globe described on February 2, 1862 how "… last January found him a ruined, hopeless man, leered at by his neighbours, his pockets empty, his clothes in tatters…"[iii] John got lucky with his gusher, and his accomplishment is referenced numerous times in 1860s newspapers including Hamilton Times, Toronto Leader, Toronto Globe, New York Times and Sarnia Observer (eight separate articles). Hamilton Times proclaimed on January 20, 1862, "Mr. John Shaw, from Kingston, C.W., tapped a vein of oil in his well... the present enormous flow of oil cannot be estimated at less than two thousand barrels per day, (twenty-four hours), of pure oil...”[iv] Additionally, secondary sources published by John McLaurein in 1902, A.J. Yates in 1931, Charles Wallen in 1936, and Samuel Tait in 1946 all cite John Shaw as the original gusher pioneer.

If virtually all of the primary sources refer to John Shaw as the man who tapped the gusher, how did history come to celebrate Hugh Nixon Shaw?

Belden's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Lambton, Ontario was the first source to credit Hugh but matches the description of the penniless John: "[Hugh Shaw] had been reduced by his want of pecuniary straits, that it is related of him that the very day he struck oil he was refused credit for a pair of boots." Two men melded into a single story.

An influential scholar, Robert B. Harkness, solidified Hugh as the man who discovered Canada's first oil gusher in his 1940 publication Makers of Oil History. He refers back to a series of articles that appeared in the Toronto Globe in 1861 and describes how they consistently discuss Hugh Shaw, but those articles mention nothing about the 1862 discovery.[v] Harkness notes, “How John Shaw could live in Petrolia, enjoying the glory of his gallant pioneer-namesake Hugh Nixon Shaw, along with men who knew this to be incorrect, is extraordinary.”[vi]

After Harkness, other historians and journalists began to cite Hugh, and John’s name faded. When Oil Springs celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1958, a flurry of articles credited Hugh with the discovery. The Reverend William G. Shaw, Hugh's grandson, paid homage to his grandfather with by visiting Oil Springs. He told the Sarnia Observer, “I was quite surprised… to find that there were write-ups about the Shaw well in the newspapers. Father referred to it occasionally but never attached any importance to it.”[vii]

Now, histories written about oil discoveries in Lambton County consistently credit Hugh Nixon Shaw as a penniless, down-on-his-luck vagabond who made an incredible discovery. The stories of Hugh Nixon Shaw and John Shaw have melded together under a single name.

Recently, historians have been revisiting this issue and asking questions. Who really discovered that oil gusher, and how do we decide whose interpretation of the primary sources is correct? These questions continue to keep historians on their toes!

If you would like to read a more detailed exploration of this topic, you can review the Shaw Investigation report.

[i] Toronto Globe, February 14th, 1863, “Hugh Nixon Shaw Obituary”
[ii] Original journal in collection at Oil Museum of Canada, Oil Springs.
[iii] Toronto Globe, February 5th, 1862, “A Promising Trade”
[iv] Hamilton Times, January 20th, 1862, “Extraordinary Flowing Oil Well”
[v] Toronto Globe, August 27, September 2, September 6, and September 12, 1861.
[vi] Harkness, p. 9.
[vii] Sarnia Observer, Ben Fiber, “Oil Pioneer’s Grandson Attends Centennial,” July 2nd, 1958, p. 22.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Call For Vintage Film Footage in Lambton County

Following the highly successful screening of vintage film footage in Alvinston, Lambton County Archives is looking for the public's help in locating and digitizing more old film from across Lambton County.
A screening of film footage captured in Alvinston during the 1940s attracted more than 130 residents to a recent viewing at the Alvinston Library. Lambton County Archives believes the popularity of the event demonstrates there is an appetite for more vintage local films and hopes to expand its archival holdings beyond traditional documents and still photos to a wider selection of media.
"Lambton County Archives would love to digitize residents' 8 mm or other vintage film," says Dana Thorne, Archivist.  "Lambton County needs video footage that features our local history. Not only does old film footage offer unique insight into the past, it is also important to create digital copies of this material before the fragile film becomes unviewable."
Any film loaned to Lambton County Archives will be screened by the Archivist.  If the footage is determined to have local historical significance, the material will be converted to digital format with a copy to be housed at Lambton County Archives. For more details about the digitization project, visit the Lambton County Archives Vintage Film Footage page or contact Dana Thorne at 519-845-3324 ext. 5239 or via email at 
One of the most interesting pieces of footage to come in so far is the "Stars of the Town" footage from Alvinston. The footage was shot in Februar 1949 by a name named LeRoy (Roy) Harold Massecar. When he was not busy in his fulltime work as a reverend, Massecar travelled across Ontario and filmed the activities in small towns between 1947 and 1949. He would show the video footage in town halls and community centres, charging a small admission for local residents to watch themselves on the silver screen.
Roy used silent, black and white 8 mm film to capture approximately 100 Ontario locations. For more information on Roy's other projects, visit the Western Archives page on the "Stars of the Town."
His footage was recorded in Alvinston in February 1949 and screened on March 4, 1949. Two shows ran at 7:30pm and 9:30pm and admission was forty-five cents or twenty-five cents. The Alvinston Free Press published several articles and an advertisement for the event, included below. The newspaper reported in the March 9 issue that the screenings were a success: "To say the least, they were a scream - one long one - each time someone did something 'funny,' none of which were posed for. Just the ordinary passing parade of life in a small town like Alvinston."

DVDs have been produced with copies of the footage. They can be purchased for $20+HST at the Lambton County Archives (787 Broadway Street, Wyoming) or the Alvinston Library (3251 River Street, Alvinston). Learn more at the "Stars of the Town" DVD webpage

The Alvinston Free Press, 2 March 1949, p. 1

The Alvinston Free Press, 23 February 1949, p. 1

The Alvinston Free Press, 9 March 1949, p. 1

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sarnia's Boys' Brigade Hall and Armoury

Thomas Nisbet with eight members of his
Boys' Brigade company
Sometimes one man's vision for a single organization can have positive implications for the rest of the community. This was definitely the case when T.W. Nisbet embarked on an ambitious project to build a hall for the Boys' Brigade.

Thomas Nisbet with his
wife, prominent Sarnian
Charlotte Vidal Nisbet.
The Boys' Brigade was conceived by Sir William Alexander Smith in Glasgow in 1883. The organization's goal was "the advancement of Christ's kingdom among boys, and the promotion of habits of obedience, reverence, discipline, self-respect..." [extracted from "Company Card of 1st and 2nd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901, The Boys' Brigade in Canada," page 1] Originally a British movement, the Boys' Brigade quickly swept across the globe throughout the British Empire.

Shortly after Smith established the organization, Bank of Commerce manager Thomas W. Nisbet brought the program to Sarnia with the first company of the Boys' Brigade in Ontario. He quickly took on an ambitious project to build a hall. Organized recreation was not very prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century, and Nisbet worked hard against negative public opinion to fund the building's construction (which had an estimated price tag of more than $10,000!) When he secured the support of a wealthy backer, Nisbet was able to hire H.G. Philips of Sarnia to oversee the design and construction. By June 3, 1894 a dedication service was taking place to acknowledge the opening of the new building. The Sarnia Observer published an extensive article on Nisbet's achievement after the dedication service:

"In a building such as this which, thanks to T.W. Nisbet's energy, liberality and perseverance, Sarnia now possesses, athletic exercises, swimming, diving and all the various forms of physical training can be carried on pleasurably and profitably throughout the entire year.

The Boys' Brigade Hall, or Armoury
"The new hall, which is situated on the west side of Christina Street, a little north of George, is a two story red brick, with stone trimmings, fronting 61 feet on Christina Street, and running 119 feet back to the lane... The main entrance door is trimmed all round with stone, with the monogram of the Boys' Brigade on the key stone... The drill room is 57X90 feet, with a hanging gallery running completely round the apartment, fitted up for running track, and with seating room for audience. The drill room is fitted with trapeze, horizontal and parallel bars, travelling rings, ladders and all the appliances and fittings of a complete gymnasium..." (8 June, 1884, page 4)

After the construction Nisbet assumed financial responsibility for the building's ongoing costs, which were funded in part by the sale of season tickets to Sarnians ($6.00 for a man and $3.00 for a woman). Nisbet's grand vision produced not only a building for the Boys' Brigade, but also an important social hub for the community that provided new and exciting athletic opportunities to all Sarnians.

The gymnasium of the Boys' Brigade Hall

Thomas Nisbet in the Boys' Brigade hall with a group of young women
who are taking advantage of the well-equipped facility.
Back row, L to R: Maizie Gurd, Mary Mackenzie, Charlotte Vidal Nisbet,
Thomas W. Nisbet, Francis Flintoft, Francis Johnston (?)
Middle row, L to R: Edith Nisbet, Grace Mackenzie (?)
Bottom row, L to R: Alice Clark, Nellie Mackenzie

Over time the building would become known to local residents as the Armoury. It took on much wider functions than just an area for the Boys' Brigade when it was selected to house Sarnia's militia. The building was even converted to a theatre before it was torn down in 1962 to make way for Sarnia's new City Hall.

Here are some of the Boys' Brigade Company Rules, extracted from "Company Card of 1st and 2nd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901, The Boys' Brigade in Canada," pages 3-4:

1. Members must at all times set a good example to their comrades and other boys.
2. Members must take the greatest possible care of all accoutrements entrusted to them.
3. Members must come on parade in uniform, sharp to the minute, looking smart and clean.
4. Members must give prompt and cheerful obedience to all the orders of their officers and non-commissioned officers.
5. Members must always salute their officers when they meet or go up to address them when in uniform.

Download the Company Card of 1st and 2rd Sarnia Companies, 1900 - 1901 document in full (which has interesting descriptions of the company's activities and rules and contains many great pictures).

Monday, November 3, 2014

Lost Burial Grounds - Victoria Cemetery Controversy

An old church site has caused a big stir in Lambton County and raised ethical questions about burial grounds and monuments. This blog post will provide a brief outline of the controversy and then summarize some of the documents in our collection at the Lambton County Archives that point to the existence of a pioneer cemetery.

At the beginning of October a small woodlot at 8947 Petrolia Line was cleared by a bulldozer. When a citizen noticed broken monuments on the bulldozed site, the individual posted a notice on the internet expressing concern that a pioneer burial site was being disturbed. This post resulted in a flurry of activity on social media (see posts on the Lost Lambton, Found! Facebook page) and a backlash from local residents. One group erected a sign and a roadside memorial commemorating the Victoria Methodist Episcopal Church that once stood on the site.

Broken monuments at the site,
published in The Independent, Oct. 23, 2014 p. 1.
The Cemeteries Regulation Unit of the Ministry of Government and Consumer Affairs was contacted. Spokesman Stephen Puddister was quoted in The Independent urging caution about the site: "The presence of broken and discarded monuments does not necessarily mean there are burials under the monuments. It is not unusual to find old, discarded monuments throughout Ontario."

Many local residents remain concerned about how this site has been treated.

What can we learn from the records at the Lambton County Archives about this mysterious burial ground?

According to our land records, Bennajah Doan granted the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church a small portion of land on Lot 28, Concession 10 on June 14, 1965.[1] The small church folded in approximately 1892.[2]

The Brooke Township Women's Institute Tweedsmuir History has the following reference: "Keith Houston has the cemetery fenced in and has never ploughed it. It is on his property. Most of the headstones were removed. There are only about 1½ left there."[3]

Some accounts from local historians have also supported the presence of a cemetery. Helen Clark of Chatham grew up in the area and remembers talking about the site with other local residents: "A number of years ago I also talked with a person … She found only a partial stone amongst the overgrowth, with a portion of a name - 'Peter McDerm....' During the past 2 years I have been compiling a community history on many of the early pioneer families and have done further research on the McDermid family. I really feel that Peter McDermid was buried there, but have no documentation to support that conclusion."

We can confirm from the OGS cemetery transcriptions that at least two bodies were moved from "Victoria Church cemetery" and interned in Alvinston Cemetery. These were the bodies of Thomas Styles (d. May 18, 1888) and Sarah Styles (d. May 19, 1886).[4] One of the key questions in this debate should be: if some bodies have been removed, are there other bodies that remain buried at this site or have all the bodies been removed?

Keep an eye on the news to see if more developments are published as this story continues to unfold.

[1] Brooke Township Land Abstract Book B p. 292. The landowner is also referred to as "Benjamin."
[2] Sara L. Campbell, Brooke Township History: 1833 - 1933 p. 113.
[3] Brooke Township Women's Institute Tweedsmuir History, "From the United Church Archives, Toronto, ON." Supplied by Catherine Watson.
[4] OGS Cemetery Transcription, "Alvinston and St. Matthew's Roman Catholic" p. 58.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

¡Hola! Lambton

When you think of Lambton County's nineteenth century oil boom, do you think of exotic beaches, palm trees and sunshine? Probably not! Would you be surprised to hear that at least one newspaper in sunny Mexico City was reporting on our local oil industry in the 1860s? The international appeal and impact of our local oil history is truly astounding!

Reporter Felix Foucou wrote for The Two Republics, an English-language newspaper that was distributed in Mexico City. It was published between 1867 and 1900. Between October 1869 and January 1870 Foucou published a series of chapters exploring the international oil industry. He traveled to North American oil fields including Petrolia, and provides an overview of our local oil boom and a firsthand account of his visit here.

Foucou's account of the travel by plank road from the railhead in Wyoming to Petrolia is both 
visceral and amusing: "Our journey was one series of shakes and jolts. The logs of wood, shaken night and day by the heavy teams laden with barrels of oil, were all out of place, leaving great holes... the calash [light carriage], knocked out of the plank road by a great heavy wagon, was plunged up to the nave of the wheel in the mind. My 'Compagnons de Voyage' jumped to the ground in the twinkling of an eye, I did the same, but my boots, come from Paris, were truly microscopic and insufficient for an oil man." (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)

He also provides a description of mealtimes for the Petrolia oil men: "… I heard about a hundred steam-engines whistle; it was midday the hour for the second breakfast. The white smoke disappeared amongst the derricks and the trees which surround us; the machines stopped, and I saw, pouring forth, from all sides of the forest, the oil men of Petrolia making their way to the various hotels of the place… it is necessary, above all to keep the human machinery in working order, subject as it is there, to a severe moral and physical strain." (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)

One of his Foucou's most interesting experiences involved venturing into the oil field with an "oil smeller" or "diviner," an individual trained to identify land rich in oil: " Having come to a little bit of land whose proprietor accompanied us, [the oil smeller] took notice of where he was, and then commenced walking slowly towards the Southwest, holding in each hand one of the branches of the magical implement: it was a little hazel-rod in the shape of a V… our sorcerer therefore walked on holding the two branches with great force; the top of the V was upwards and continued in this position for several minutes, when I saw it suddenly bend towards the breast of the operator, who immediately stopping us affirmed that in this same place, they would find at a depth of 400 feet a vein of petroleum…" (Two Republics, November 13, 1869 p. 1)

This story was featured prominently on the newspaper's front page from October, 1869 to January, 1870, indicating a strong Mexican interest in the international petroleum industry. Even all those years ago, Lambton County's oil story garnered international recognition. Foucou provides a great summary of the industry's impact when he notes, "Such was the commencement of a business, whose importance the Americans so laconically describe by the two significant words: mammoth business." (Two Republics, October 23, 1869 p. 2)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Preserving Historical Documents: Caring for your family documents at home

Preservation at Home

Many family documents, photos, letters, and diaries are passed down from generation to generation. You can help to preserve your own family documents by properly storing and safely handling them in your home.

By keeping your documents in appropriate conditions, you can help ensure that they are preserved for generations.

Storage Conditions

Temperature extremes and fluctuations lead to degradation of documents. UV light from the sun or interior light bulbs can cause paper to degrade and ink to fade. To ensure that your documents last, keep them in conditions that are comfortable for people. A good rule of thumb is to keep your family documents in the central part of your home, where it is not too hot or cold, and not too dry or damp. 
  • Keep documents on the main floor (not in a hot attic or damp basement)
  • Keep the temperature between  15-21 degrees C (60-70 F) and 40-50% humidity
  • Ensure good air circulation
  • Keep away from light
  • Store flat in acid-free boxes, folders, or polyethylene plastic sheets (these can be found in stationary or art supply stores)
  • Keep like documents together (separate original papers, photos, and newspaper clippings from each other)

family photo in polyethylene plastic sheet and acid-free file folder
A family photo can be safely stored in a polyethylene plastic sheet or acid free folder.

Handling of Records

Treat your historical family documents with care. Don't do anything to the documents that cannot be reversed (such as writing on them, laminating, taping, or gluing them.) Avoid frequently handling your records which can expose them to wear and tear.
  • Don't eat or drink near records
  • Keep hands clean and dry (or wear white cotton gloves) since oil on skin can damage records
  • Use plastic paper clips instead of metal clips or rubber bands (which can rust or tear paper)
  • Don't put documents on permanent display (since light can damage them) and use copies for display purposes instead
  • Contact a professional conservator to repair or clean historic documents
gloved hand holding family photo
Ensure your hands are clean and dry when handling family documents or wear white cotton gloves to ensure skin oils don't cause damage.

Your Local Resource

If you have any questions, contact the Lambton County Archives. We may be able to assist you with storage suggestions or minor repairs. Remember that if you properly store and handle your family records today, they will be saved for your descendants!

Written by guest blogger Archivist Heather Lavallee.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Imperial City

Sarnia is celebrating its 100th year of incorporation as a city in 2014. There are numerous events, tributes, and celebrations occurring all year long and the Sarnia Centennial Celebration Committee is promoting many on their website. The Lambton County Museums department is also joining the celebrations! The feature exhibit at the Lambton Heritage Museum (LHM) this year is Sarnia: We Built This City which explores how Sarnia has changed, the challenges it has seen, and where the City is going in the future.
Incorporation Day flag
These flags were distributed to the crowds at the Incorporation Day Parade.

The Imperial City Exhibit

In partnership, the LHM along with the Lambton County Archives has created an exhibit titled The Imperial City at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. This exhibit explores the festivities surrounding Incorporation Day in 1914 and contrasts that scene with the parade of 1916 where Sarnia bid farewell to troops heading off to fight in the First World War. Both days saw an emerging city come together in celebration and support but for very different reasons. This exhibit can be seen at the Legislature in Toronto from April until July and we've provided a peek at some of the most interesting images and artefacts here in this post.
Imperial City exhibit
The Imperial City exhibit installed at the Legislature in Toronto.

Incorporation Day

On May 7, 1914 Sarnia became a city. The day was filled with celebrations and the crowd that gathered along Front Street gave a loud welcome to Canada's Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, and his daughter Princess Patricia. A small village sixty years earlier, Sarnia had grown into a major industrial, manufacturing, and transportation centre.
Incorporation Day Parade
Citizens of Sarnia welcome the Governor General and his daughter in open top carriages along Front Street.

 First World War

Just three months later Canada entered into the First World War. Soldiers from Sarnia would fight and die in the Somme, at Vimy and Ypres. The men and women who stayed behind worked in factories farmed, raised funds, scavenged resources and wrote letters to loved ones overseas.

Troops Leave for War

Sarnia residents bid farewell to their local 149th Battalion in the spring of 1916. Troops marched from the city hall square to the Grand Truck railway station amid much pomp and ceremony. Though the crowds cheered and waved flags, it was a heart-breaking moment for many who would never see their sons, husbands, brothers or friends again.

149th Battalion board troop train
Soldiers of the 149th Battalion board a troop transport train at Sarnia's Grand Trunk Railway station.

Written by guest bloggers, Lambton County Archives Archivist Heather Lavallee and Lambton Heritage Museum Assistant Curator Luke Stempien.