Fenians: A Threat

Tensions Arise with Boats in the Bay 

The threat of an attack by Fenians was very real in Upper Canada in the 1860s and this was especially true in port communities like Owen Sound. 

There's a huge fleet of boats in the bay! In the summer of 2019, news that there was a large number of boats in the bay would hardly be cause for concern. After all, there could be a fishing derby underway. However, in 1866, the news of an armada of vessels in the bay had a far different impact on the citizens of this area! 

It was a sunny Sunday morning in April 1866 as the local citizenry made their way to the various churches in the area. As greetings were exchanged, talk probably focused on one of two topics. The Fenian War and the warm spring weather. However, the light-hearted nature of the day would not last long. 

In Leith, a small community near Owen Sound, and the future birthplace of Tom Thomson. The Reverend Alexander Hunter was conducting services at the Leith Presbyterian Church when a man appeared at the door. He quietly approached one of the members of the congregation and whispered a message to him. He then disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. After a moment's contemplation, the parishioner arose, and approached the pulpit. Beckoning to the minister, he conveyed a whispered message to the pastor. 

The congregation must have wondered what was going on. But they did not have to wait long to find out! Reverend Hunter returned to the pulpit and announced that a fleet of Fenian vessels had been spotted off the west shore of the bay near Griffith Island. The impact of this news probably brought a quick end to services in the little church. Members of the Leith militia immediately left to gather their arms and uniforms. Others headed home to contemplate what should be done next. 

It was not long before the militia had formed ranks in the centre of the village and started their march to Owen Sound to defend the harbour. This action was necessary because the Owen Sound militia had been dispatched, along with the Meaford brigade, to Sarnia to protect the border against raids by the Fenians. The defense of the port of Owen Sound was in the hands of the Leith militia and other volunteers. 

The news of a force of Fenians heading their way, had an immediate impact on the citizens of Owen Sound. Families rushed to their homes to collect their valuables. The women and children climbed the west escarpment and, with their belongings, sought refuge in the caves. Meanwhile, the men who had not left with the militia, along with young boys, took up their arms and headed to the harbour. Here they were joined by the militia from Leith. After consultation, the militia and volunteers were deployed to locations from which the community and the harbour could best be defended. 

All day long, the defenders nervously kept watch on the horizon, waiting for the first sight of the Fenian armada. Meanwhile, at Leith, the situation had taken almost a festive air. Curiosity had overcome fear and anxiety. Instead, the citizens of that community, who had not marched with the militia, took up positions along the shoreline and watched the vessels on the far shore. 

In Owen Sound, the tension mounted all day. By nightfall, the attack by the Fenians had still not come. Nervously, some of the citizens returned to their homes, and the militia returned to Leith. Still, a watchful eye was kept on the horizon. The next morning, a collective sigh of relief most likely was heard and a bit of embarrassment felt in the community, when it was learned that the "armada" had been nothing more than a few fishermen holding a regatta! 


The information used in this article came from many sources. However, Reminiscences of North Sydenham by Allan Ross and Georgian Bay, the Sixth Great Lake by James Barry were of primary importance.

A version of this article appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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  1. History Articles
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  3. Fenians: A Threat