johnwood1946

New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Fire of October 7, 1825 – Beyond the Miramichi

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By JohnWood1946@hotmail.com

 The Fire of October 7, 1825 – Beyond the Miramichi

There were a large number of fires in New Brunswick on October 7, 1825, and they are collectively called the Miramichi Fire because the Miramichi watershed bore the worst of the destruction. The fire spread beyond the Miramichi, however. Furthermore, there were other fires on the exact same day and it is no mistake to refer to all of them as the Miramichi Fire.  

An account of the ‘Great Fire on the Miramichi’ was given in a recent posting in this blog, and concentrated on the Miramichi River. This posting fills in some details of the same day in Fredericton and on the Oromocto River. 

It was October 7, 1825, and there had been no rain since July. Temperatures were in the eighties every day and, on that day, winds were from the southwest. Government House had burned to the ground a month earlier and smoke could now be seen to the north as the Miramichi fire burned its way down the Nashwaak valley. At 11 AM, fire was reported on the south side of the river near Thomas Baillie’s estate, called the Hermitage, just outside of town. The fire department was dispatched, but messengers were sent to call them back to fight house fires that had now broken out in town. The fire department returned to find several houses ablaze but before they could respond to them the whole of King Street went up in flames and everything along King was burned from Carleton Street to Westmorland Street. Seventy buildings were destroyed or about one third of all of the dwellings in the city.

Governor Douglas was not only concerned for the city, but had to deal with the disaster in the rest of the province as well. His first acts were to establish a fund and to seek subscriptions to help the afflicted, and to send to Quebec for emergency food and clothing.

No sooner had a good part of Fredericton been destroyed when smoke could be seen downriver from the city. The flames were making their way toward the Oromocto.

The exact extent of the fire on the Oromocto is unclear. According to one report the fire stopped at the Oromocto and remained on the west side of the main river and its south branch until it reached the Bay of Fundy. This description is not precise enough, since much of this territory was still being logged years later. There was also more than one fire, as we shall see.

There was much destruction at Rusagonis. One Mersereau family lost two daughters, Hannah and Hester, plus a baby. This must have been the family of John Van Horne Mersereau and his wife Hannah Webb. The house was destroyed and a slave also disappeared. It was October, of course, and they managed to install a floor in the cow shed and lived in it over the winter.

In another household, a Smith family lost both their home and their barn. A new barn was started and that is where they spent the winter. A slave tried to rescue a Mersereau child from the same house, and took to the river for refuge. Neither of them was ever seen again.

Another building to burn at Rusagonis was a slave house. This building had been put up by a Smith family in the 1780s and was a relic by the time of the fire.

The Rusagonis stories include several references to slaves. There certainly had been slaves in New Brunswick and, by 1825, it was still legal to own them. No slaves were reported to be in the province in 1822, however, although we cannot know if the report was correct. Slavery was not finally abolished throughout the British Empire until 1834. So, in 1825, there were people living in Rusagonis who are remembered as slaves. They may have been slaves or labourers who had once been slaves. In any case, if a person had been a slave and was still living on a corner of his former master’s lot and was beholden to him for that corner and for employment, then fancy distinctions between slave and labourer would not have seemed very meaningful.

Another fire started in min-afternoon on the same day from a cooking fire at a logging camp on Yoho Stream. The fire proceeded on a three mile wide path toward Tracy where only women and children remained; all of the men being away logging. It is remembered that Martha DeWitt, the wife of John (Black Jack) Nason prepared to save her house with the help of her sons Isaac, age 11, and John, age 9.They fitted the house with extra ladders and filled buckets of water which Martha used to wet down the roof and to put our embers. The house was saved through these efforts. The people took to the river, including a Mrs. Thomas who poured water over her day-old baby to save him from the heat. Mary Phillips, wife of Solomon Tracy, put the woodsmen’s payroll money in a box, and it too went into the river.

Jeremiah Tracy II’s mill had been built only that year, but it and all of the sawn lumber was now destroyed. The fire then proceeded toward Hartt’s Mills (now Fredericton Junction) destroying everything in its path. The people gathered at Thomas Hartt’s house which, according to legend, became such a center of activity that it was known thereafter as the Beehive. The fire stopped only a thousand feet from that house.

About twenty houses and barns were burned on the Oromocto River and the Rusagonis Stream, according to one account.

Governor Douglas’s fund for the relief of the victims raised money from all over New Brunswick and from Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada, Bermuda and Britain. A Commission was established to distribute the funds and they made their report the following year. Losses of over £193,000 were recorded on the Miramichi; over £26,000 in Fredericton and about £5,000 on the Oromocto. The Oromocto claims were by 24 farmers for whom the Commission had special regard. “The Commissioners are clearly of opinion that of all the classes of sufferers, depended upon the cultivation of the soil for support, are deserving of the most favourable consideration. Persons of this class beginning in the wilderness, have accumulated their means under sever privations, hard labour slow degrees, and the fruit of years of patient industry is swept away from them in an instant. They have now the same labourious process to go over again, under circumstances of infinite disadvantage, arising from the very deprivation which has caused their ruin.”

When the Commissioners spoke of ‘classes’, they referred to five categories of sufferers who they thought were especially deserving. These were farmers, labourers, lumberers, mechanics, widows, and single women. They were trying to be fair and just, but those classes must have included most everyone. Claims had to be sworn under pain of perjury and claims of less than twenty pounds were not entertained because it was assumed that they would already have received that much help. There was also no compensation for the loss of timber.

References:

Report of the Commissioners, for ascertaining the losses occasioned by the late Destructive Fires, Fredericton, 24th June, 1826.

Fisher, Peter, Notitia of New Brunswick, for 1836, and extending into 1837, Henry Chubs, Saint John, N.B., 1838.

Atkinson, Christopher William, A historical and statistical account of New-Brunswick, B.N.A. with Advice to Emigrants, Anderson and Bryce, Edinburgh, third edition, 1844.

Fredericton Firefighters Museum Online.

Boyle, Lowell, Remembering Rusagonis, a Glimpse into New Brunswick’s Past, published by the author for the Rusagonis History Club, 2006.

DeWitt, Katherine and Norma Alexander, Days of Old, A History of Fredericton Junction, Sunbury West Historical Society, Inc., 1987.

Phillips, Miriam L., Facts and Folklore, Tracy and Little Lake Area, published by the author, 1985.

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Written by johnwood1946

July 11, 2012 at 9:45 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. My grandmother told me many stories about this fire, how her gradmother had burn marks from a tree falling on her. She lived in Douglastown.

    Clara MacLeod

    November 11, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    • Thank you Clara. Yes, it was a great tragedy and an important part of our history.

      johnwood1946

      November 11, 2013 at 4:06 PM


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