York’s Founding Fathers – Oak Ridges

Some emigrants were not meant to struggle with the hardship of pioneer life. Such is the man who founded the village of Oak Ridges. The Frenchman was too ingrained in the ways of his homeland and could not handle the changes that would come before him. I am pleased to introduce you to Joseph-Geneviève, Comte de Puisaye.

Joseph-Geneviève was born on March 6th, 1755 in Mortagne-au-Perche, France. He was born to a minor aristocrat, Andrè Louis Charles de Puisaye, a high court judge. His mother was Marthe Françoise Biberon de Coméry. Joseph-Geneviève was the last child born to the couple.

It was assumed that the young Joseph would enter the seminary like his siblings did. At the age of nine, he was sent to the Collège de Laval, and then to the Collège de Sées. He finally entered the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Paris to continue his religious studies.

Joseph-Geneviève would not make a good member of the seminary. His elders noticed that he did not have the passion that is needed to be a member of clergy. His lack of enthusiasm let the superiors come to the conclusion that this was not to be de Puisaye’s vocation. At the age of 18, he left the seminary and joined the French Army. This was the year 1773.

It would be through his maternal grandmother that de Puisaye would obtain the commission of 2nd lieutenant in a cavalry unit in February 1775. They would be positioned on the German border although there was no conflict at the time. In 1779, Joseph-Geneviève became a Captain in the Régiment de Lunan. The problem with this is that the company did not exist. He was disillusioned with peace time soldiering. He decided he would leave the French Army.

It was strongly advised that de Puisaye secure the Order of Saint Louis before he leaves the army. To obtain the medal of St. Louis, de Puisaye purchased a colonelcy, an honorary position with the King’s Guard. The Order of St. Louis was medal for chivalry and a reward for soldiers. De Puisaye would retire to his home town of Mortagne-au-Perche between 1781 and 1782.
The next five years were to be the best of Joseph-Geneviève’s life. He was happy to be in his hometown. He was treated as his social status required. Class structure was still a strong factor in France during this time. Nobility was granted extra privileges that were not provided to the lower class.

On June 19th, 1788, Joseph-Geneviève marries Louise Le Sesne. She was the only heir to the Marquis de Ménilles. From this marriage, de Puisaye obtained an estate in Pacy-sur-Eure in Normandy. The couple would live between this estate and the city of Paris although he had other properties.

Shortly after the marriage, France’s economic state became dire. In July 1788, a large hailstorm destroyed the crops. The peasants grew impatient. They were slowly starving. That winter was severe making prices higher for staples like wheat. People were used to eating bread, but now it cost almost all their wages to get a loaf.
King Louis XVI did what he could. He suggested a tax on two classes; the Church and the nobility. This did not sit well with the clergy or the nobilities. Joseph-Geneviève was very involved with the drafting of the cahier de doléance, or the list of grievances for the nobility of Perche. De Puisaye was nominated by his peers to attend the Estates General in Versailles. He was at Versailles in May 1789. While in attendance, he fully supported a constitutional monarchy. He sided with a moderate republican party called the Girondins.

On July 14th, 1789, the people of France had rioted and stormed the old city prison, The Bastille. The French Revolution had begun.
Daughter Josephine Louise de Puisaye was born in 1790.
Joseph-Geneviève position on reform enabled him to be elected a Commander of the National Guard in the Evreux district in 1790. De Puisaye would go to no further meetings. He would not be re-elected.

A ruthless and radical democratic party called the Jacobins had outlawed the Girondins in 1793. De Puisaye is now disillusioned and turned against the revolution. This policy caused De Puisaye to become a counter-revolutionary in the Revolution.

In July 1793, De Puisaye was commanding an advancing Norman army when he was surprized by the opposing army. His nearby estate at Pacy-sur-Eure was destroyed in the raid. De Puisaye escaped to the woods near Pertre in Brittany. He would gather with others of like mind and they would become anti-Jacobin guerilla fighters. Other French royalists also joined him.
Joseph-Geneviève and his ambition were brave, noble and selfish. De Puisaye wanted to be in control of all the guerilla fighters. By chance, De Puisaye intercepted messages from England addressed to other Royal forces. De Puisaye would write England back. Joseph-Geneviève was accepted easier than other French royalists. His proposals highly impressed the British government. In return, the government sent money and arms to De Puisaye.

De Puisaye began writing manifestos calling for the French government troops to desert. He also wrote to the population to rebel. Again, he was showing Britain that he was the leader, responsible for desertion and rebellion.

Joseph-Geneviève wife Louise de Puisaye would die in 1795.

Joseph-Geneviève would travel to London, England in 1794. He was there to arrange for the uprising by landing France via the sea. In June 1795, six thousand royalist troops landed at the Baie de Quiberon. De Puisaye was recognized by the troops as the leader. Yet, the French Princes gave the official command to Comte d’Hervilly. Now the royalist fighters were under divided command. This forced the fighters to retreat. De Puisaye would board a ship back to England. He claimed that he was saving the official documents.

There would be one more attempt at invading by sea. On September 10, 1795 they preceded the plan to unite any remaining royalists, or Chouans, at Vendee, France. By this time the Chouans were willing to work with the Republican Government in France. De Puisaye headed back to England unsuccessful.

When he returned, he was met with hostility by the French community. He was unjustly being called a coward for the Baie de Quiberon conflict. His perceived leadership was now in jeopardy.
De Puisaye would go and marry a young housekeeper by the name of Susanna Smithers in 1797. This marriage was kept secret to many.

In December 1797, De Puisaye wrote to the Comte d’Artois, (the future King Charles X of France), asking him for the promised leadership. Joseph-Genevieve was told that the leadership was denied to him. De Puisaye promptly retired from the King’s army. His rank was Lieutenant-General.
There was talk among the British government that they would relocate the French Royalists to Canada. Yet, they were afraid of a large French migration. De Puisaye got wind of this idea and constructed a plan. He presented the scheme that could make the migration possible.

41 people would follow De Puisaye to the new country. They would be given all the rights as an American Loyalist. When the party reached Kingston in Upper Canada in late October 1778, they were left to fend for themselves. Their final destination was unknown to the group. The party did not want to settle near the French speaking communities. They considered themselves to be of higher status.

The administrator for Upper Canada named Peter Russell had chosen a site for the émigrés, as they were now called. It was located 15 miles North of York. This site was chosen because of its proximity to Lake Simcoe, the armed men could protect the town of York, and the government could keep track of the émigrés. Lots 51 to 60 on Yonge Street were designated to go to the émigrés.

The party decided to wait out the winter in Kingston. Meanwhile, De Puisaye would hurry to York to talk with the officials. He then took soldiers to the land so they would clear the land and build shelters. The settlement would be called Windham in honour of William Windham, the British secretary of War. By February of 1799, 18 framed homes were built. More of the landing party came at this time.

One thing the group hadn’t figured was the hardships that go with pioneer life. This took a toll on the group’s morale. The group had expected houses manned by servants and land ready to plant.

De Puisaye set off again in March to look for a settlement that was more favourable. He decided that he would move the settlement there. He did not get the proper authority to do this. De Puisaye would go on to buy a farm from an American Loyalist in Niagara. He would continue to talk with Joseph Brant for a large tract of shoreline near Burlington Bay. This would never happen.

The Government agents began to become suspicious. Many of the émigrés began to become disillusioned. With De Puisaye buying the farm in Niagara, the government thought that De Puisaye was planning to move his settlement to Niagara. The émigrés felt like they had been deceived and began to leave the settlement of Windham. By spring, De Puisaye was living in Niagara, but felt he was still the leader of Windham. He would send money and supplies to the remaining émigrés at Windham.

De Puisaye would go on to buy another farm and a house in York. Joseph-Geneviève would supervise projects in Niagara.

By 1802 there were 16 people left in Windham. The town was now called Oak Ridges. They found the ground hard for agriculture. The British government had paid for the émigrés to come to Canada but de Puisaye claimed that he used his own money to transport the group. In May of 1802, de Puisaye travelled back to England to get restitution. He had hoped to finally gather the position in authority over the émigrés. It was not to happen. De Puisaye would never return back to Canada.

Brother-in-law William Smithers would later return to Canada to manage de Puisaye’s properties. On February 1st, 1805, a sale was made to dispose of de Puisaye’s Canadian possessions. From 1803 until 1808, de Puisaye would publish his memoirs. He vindicated his military greatness by disparaging others. De Puisaye was also not welcomed back into France after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1814. France is where his daughter Louise Josephine still lived. He would never visit her there. He also claimed that he had friends in France he noted he had far more enemies there.

De Puisaye was always trying to collect the money back that he claimed he spent on the emigration. He would claim that the émigrés owed debts to him and would seek to recover them. During the war of 1812, he would claim compensation from England for damages caused to his Canadian properties.

Joseph-Geneviève would go on to write 8 volumes of his memoirs. When asked about his marriage to Susanna Smithers in 1816, he would say that he could not afford to have her living at his status. He thought that if she does not bear his name, she would be spared his circumstances.

Although he was of poor health, he continued to write friends. He was constantly was trying to bolster his lofty reputation to them. He would continue to write the government of England for his land patents in Canada.

He would die in December 1827 outside Hammersmith, London, England. De Puisaye had lived the life of an exiled French aristocrat. Still he remained jealous about his perceived rank and his authority in such exile.
When negativity from others enters, de Puisaye would become paranoid and used slander to destroy the dissenting views. Notwithstanding, De Puisaye had served the French Royalist cause well and he was very good at persuasion. His last days were lonely and dejected.

The town of Oak Ridges was moved up to Lake Wilcox with the introduction of the radial car. All that is left of the settlement of Windham is a church with a small cemetery behind it. There is a plaque describing the de Puisaye settlement. Of the original 40 settlers, only one stayed behind at Windham. All the other settlers scattered. Some went back to France and England. Some moved to the Niagara area where there is another plaque describing de Puisaye. The area is now part of the Oak Ridge Moraine and is protected for conservation.


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