Southampton's early history was a time of identity crisis, and with a connection to an early Arctic mystery story.
The first permanent non-native settlers, Joseph Spence and William Kennedy, at the town of Southampton did not arrive there until 1848. However, they were not the first non- native visitors to the area. That region, north to the "Fishing Islands" near the present-day community of Oliphant, was a frequent destination for fishing fleets from the Goderich and Detroit areas. There had also been several visits by fur traders and missionaries to that locale dating back to the earliest dates of French exploration in the region.
Spence and Kennedy had retired from the Hudson Bay Company and taken up residence in the Kingston area. The lure of profits from the fishing industry and trading furs with the natives led them to venture into the Saugeen area. They travelled to Lake Simcoe where they purchased a canoe. They paddled the Severn River to Georgian Bay, and on to Owen Sound. Here they stored their canoe and walked the trail which connected the native villages at Newash and Saugeen. Certain that this region held a prosperous future for them, they returned to Owen Sound, where they purchased supplies, loaded their canoe and paddled to Colpoys Bay where they traversed the portage route to Lake Huron.
Upon their arrival at the mouth of the Saugeen River the two men built a log house on what would one day be Huron Street in Southampton. At the end of the summer, they returned to their homes in Kingston. The next year, 1849, they returned and purchased the Goderich-based, Niagara Fish company from 'Tiger' Dunlop and his partners. In 1850 Spence's wife left Kingston to take up permanent residence on the shores of Lake Huron.
Unfortunately, the fishing business was not a successful endeavour for the two men and they parted company. Spence purchased the schooner Sea Gull and began a business sailing from port to port along the Lake Huron shore. Meanwhile, Kennedy began an adventure which would etch his name in the history of Arctic exploration. He became involved in the various attempts to discover the fate of the Franklin expedition. (Ironically, Franklin and some of his crew had also passed through this area a few years earlier and purchased canoes and supplies from local natives on their way to find the North West passage.)
Soon after Spence and Kennedy had established themselves on the site of Southampton, other settlers moved to the area. Their new neighbours included Alex MacDonald, John Maclean, Joseph Gilbert, Peter Brown, John Cook, James Lambert, and Thomas Lee. Also, among the early pioneers to Southampton were three shopkeepers, Richard Hill, Robert Reed and James Calder.
Not unlike other pioneer settlements, this new community endured many years of identity crisis. Although the town site had been named Southampton by James Price, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, after the British seaport of that name. Perhaps it was Price's hope that one day this Southampton would rival the other in terms of greatest as a port facility. The Department of the Post Office named the postal outlet Saugeen, and the port of entry was called Saugeen. Consequently, the two names were often interchanged causing much confusion, and perhaps consternation for the inhabitants.
In 1890, the name of the post office was changed to Southampton, and five years later the port of entry, the same name ending four decades of confusion over the name.
Many sources were used to gather the information used in this article. In particular, Pierre Berton's book, The Arctic Grail provided the information about William Kennedy and his quest to find the Franklin Expedition.
A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the February 6, 1998 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.