Amherst Island History

Amherst Island History

Amherst Island Map from the Frontenac - Lennox - Addington 1878, Ontario Published by J. H. Meacham & Co. in 1878

Amherst Island Map from the Frontenac – Lennox – Addington 1878, Ontario Published by J. H. Meacham & Co. in 1878

Amherst Island – from Wikipedia

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Amherst Island is located in Lake Ontario, 10 kilometres (6 mi) west of Kingston, Ontario, Canada and is part of Loyalist Township in Lennox and Addington County. The Island is located about 3 kilometres (2 mi) offshore from the rest of Loyalist Township and is serviced by an automobile and truck ferry from Millhaven. The island measures over 20 kilometres (12 mi) in length from Bluff Point in the southwest to Amherst Bar in the northeast and over 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) at its widest point. The island is about 70 square kilometres (27 sq mi) in size and is one of the largest islands in the Great Lakes.


Amherst Island was known by the French as Isle Tonti, after Henri de Tonty, who accompanied La Salle during his explorations. The island was later settled by United Empire Loyalists and renamed Amherst Island in 1792 by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe in honour of Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, who was commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. At the same time, Simcoe named the archipelago for the victorious Generals at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham: Wolfe Island, this one, Howe Island, Carleton Island and Gage Island.

Amherst Island was originally inhabited by the Mohawks and in 1788 was granted by the Crown to Sir John Johnson, who had lost most of his possessions in the War of Independence. In 1823, Sir John’s daughter, Catharine Maria Bowes, gained control of the island and legend is that she later lost it in a card game in Ireland. What can be documented is that in 1827 Mrs. Bowes was in financial trouble and gave a power of attorney to the Stephen Moore, 3rd Earl Mount Cashell, who purchased the island from her in 1835.

Mount Cashell’s interest in Amherst Island was both profit-oriented and humanitarian. Financially, he hoped to reap large returns on his investment by settling the island with industrious immigrants who would clear and cultivate the land, thereby improving its value and providing him with a steady rental income. But his vision extended beyond pecuniary ends. Inspired by the evangelical belief in human improvement, he thought that by encouraging emigration from Ireland to Canada he could help solve the overpopulation of his homeland, create a prosperous, loyal farming population in the new world, and strengthen the Empire through a transatlantic grain trade. Mount Cashell became a leading spokesman of these views in North America.

Mount Cashell brought settlers out from Ireland giving them seven-year leases at nominal rent and requiring them to make certain improvements each year. He financed the establishment of a general store, maintained the church and glebe, provided the resident land agent with a home, and divided the island up into individual farms with a large section reserved for timber. Families from the barony of Ards, Co. Down, began arriving in the 1820s. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s their numbers swelled as friends and relatives continued to arrive, but by the 1860s the movement had subsided. Why they happened to be from the Ards, property not owned by Mount Cashell, is unclear. Settlers who arrived in the early years moved straight onto the land while those arriving after 1850 seem to have worked for friends before renting land. By 1841, the community had three schools and a population of over 1,000 people. The majority of families were Presbyterian, 5-6 were Church of England, 10-12 were Roman Catholics and only a few were Methodist. Most settlers lived in shanties or one-storey log houses on rented land, although some had purchased their property from Mount Cashell.

While Amherst Islanders prospered from the grain trade in the 1840s, their landlord fell upon hard times. The famine in Ireland hurt Mount Cashell badly. Distressed Irish tenants and declining rents placed a heavy burden on a landlord who was already in debt because of lavish living and beleaguered by an untrustworthy agent’s embezzlement. In 1848, he mortgaged Amherst Island. Several more mortgages followed on his Canadian properties, and in 1856 his creditors foreclosed and Amherst Island was sold at public auction for much less than its market value to Robert Perceval-Maxwell (1813-1905). Many of the current residents of the island are descendants of those early settlers.

Amherst Island at mid-19th century was a mixed economy of farming wheat and barley, fishing in the Bay of Quinte, sailing the Great Lakes, and shipbuilding at the local yard of David Tait. Soon, however, the shipyard closed when local forests were depleted; sailing declined as railways won out over water transport; and crop farming gave way to more stable, mixed dairy farming. As the economy changed those who could not make the transition left, and those who remained behind managed to purchase and expand their farms.

In all this, R.P. Maxwell and his agent were the primary financiers, establishing the agricultural society and a cheese factory, promoting improvements, and financing loans and mortgages. Throughout these years, the Ards emigrants did very well. Many became proprietors, they held prominent positions in the community, and the Island became well known for its ‘Irishness’. John Watson, from Portaferry, called his pub on the Island the ‘County Down Inn’. The stone fences that lined the land were modelled after those on the Ards.

1935 Assessment Roll Township of Amherst Island

1935 Assessment Text for Distribution

1857 Perceval Map of Amherst Island

1857 Perceval Map of Amherst Island – Alphabetical List of Landowners