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Early Settlement

By 1793, 13 American colonies had revolted against British rule and many so called “British Empire Loyalists” were beginning to move from the United States to Canada.

The Governor of Upper Canada at that time, Lord Simcoe, wanted loyal pioneers and he offered 200-acre land grants on condition that “the grantee would clear five acres, build a house, and open the road across the front of his lot”.  

Lord Simcoe had spent time in Philadelphia and he was impressed by the pioneering ability of the Pennsylvania Germans, therefore, he advertised the land grant opportunity in Philadelphia papers.

To prepare for pioneers, Lord Simcoe had his British Surveyors divide the land in Markham into 10 north-south concessions at 1.25 mile spacing running from Yonge Street to the Pickering Town Line. Six side roads running east-west were created at 1.25 mile spacing running from the current Steeles Avenue to the Whitchurch Stouffville Line (Gormley side road). Each concession was divided into 200-acre lots.

Word of the available land spread and pioneer families such as Berczy, Reesor and others began to move to Upper Canada and the Markham area of the Rouge Watershed in search of land.

Russ Reesor recalled the following story about his forefather:

Peter Reesor travelled from Pennsylvania to Upper Canada on horseback around 1798 to assess the opportunities. In Upper Canada, Peter met a German army officer Frederic Baron de Hoen. This army officer had received land in Whitchurch for serving with a German regiment that helped British Forces to quell  the revolt of the 13 American colonies. 

Peter Reesor traded his horse and saddle to the army officer in exchange for 400 acres of land in Whitchurch. As Russ told it, Peter Reesor was a sharp businessman and he removed the horse's bridle before the final exchange. When challenged about this, Peter is said to have replied “we negotiated for the horse and saddle only, the bridle stays with me”. With that, Peter Reesor walked back to Pennsylvania, gathered his extended family together, journeyed to Upper Canada in 1804 in four Conestoga wagons, and settled in the Rouge watershed.

One of the first tasks of the settlers was to cut down trees to build a small log home, clear five acres of farmland, and open the road access, to meet the terms of their land grant. It must have been back-breaking work, felling thousands of three to four foot diameter maple and pine trees with only axes and hand saws and a team of horses. It was sometimes dangerous work, and Christian Reesor was killed by a falling tree in 1806, two years after his arrival in the Rouge area.

Many early settlers suffered great hardship and many died during the particularly tough initial years.   Despite the hardships, these pioneers persevered in the rapid clearing of the forest and the gradual removal of thousands of massive stumps in preparation for farming.

Initially, wheat was grown amongst the stumps in rough clearings for the settlers' own use. After a few years, enough land was cleared to grow surplus wheat and settlers would take their wheat to a grist mill to be ground into flour. At first they had to travel many miles to get their grain milled. However, by 1817, there were 12 water-powered mills on the Rouge in Markham. By 1840, there were 14 mills in the Rouge bottomlands in Scarborough and many more in Markham.

According to the book Markham, 1973 to 1900, edited by Isobel Champion:

Markham was fortunate in the many fast flowing (Rouge and Don) streams that caught the attention of William Berczy and other early arrivals (p. 115)... The stream (Rouge) was much fuller and faster flowing in those days (around 1800) ... the clearing of land went hand and hand with the construction of mills until the mid-19th Century; the building of railways, the planking of roads, and the building of settler's second homes combined to create a peak market for lumber (p.116).

The forests of the Rouge were first high-graded for large oaks and white pine, which were hewed into "squared timbers" and carried on wagons to Lake Ontario. Squared timbers were exported to help build the tall-masted sailing ships that were essential to trade and military (naval) power. The local square timber supply was abundant in 1817, peaked in 1825 and was almost exhausted by 1850.

By 1861, surveys show that more than two thirds of the forest cover in Markham, Scarborough and Pickering had been removed.

Some tall trees were cut for the masts of sailing ships and such trees were carried whole down the "mast road" between the Rouge and Little Rouge Rivers and along "hogs back". These full tree logs were supported by huge wheeled wagons at either end and they were hauled by teams of oxen or horses. The mast road reached the Little Rouge just below Purcell's Mill near present day Twyn Rivers Drive. From here the logs were rolled into the river and floated on rafts to Lake Ontario and then on to Kingston or Quebec City for use in ship-building.

In the latter half of the 1900s, smaller diameter trees were cut from remaining Rouge forests to be sawed into lumber at local mills (e.g. Simeon Reesor's mill) or burned for heating or fuel.

Today, Markham has less than 4% of its original forest cover. The clear-cutting, which took place around the lower Great Lakes at this time, created one of the largest new forest clearings on earth. The scale of this clear cut rivals the scale of the current clear-cutting of the Amazonian rain forest.

The soils within the Rouge River watershed are rich clay, silt and sand loams that have proven to be among the most productive farmlands in Canada.  Despite the hardships and the back-breaking work, many settlers, like the Reesor family, prospered and many of their descedents still live and farm in the Rouge watershed today.