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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Arch-i-text: A collective sigh of relief over the Wilderness
The Wilderness, depicted in this 1911 painting by Owen Staples, is a significant part of Niagara-on-the-Lake's cultural heritage landscape. Toronto Public Library Digital Archives

As Richard Harley reported in this newspaper last week, it appears as though an agreement has been reached for the conveyance of full title for the Wilderness to the Niagara Foundation.

A collective sigh of relief was shared by everyone passionate about heritage preservation in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

All of us have watched this iconic property over the past few years of legal wrangling around its ownership and prayed that some settlement could be arrived at so that the historic buildings and lands might be restored and preserved.

But, aside from the buildings — which we’ll get to later — what makes the Wilderness so important to our cultural heritage landscape?

In begins with the huge Balm of Gilead tree, so tall it was used as a navigational marker for ships plying the waters of Lake Ontario, that grew here.

In the spring, Indigenous peoples would come and gather the resinous coating of the tree buds to treat snow blindness, a practice that continued into the colonization period when the location became a meeting place to receive gifts from representatives of the Crown.

By 1796, the four one-acre lots that comprise today’s property were patented to David Deamud, James Whitten, Joseph Adnams and Robert Pilkington (an aide to Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe).

In short order, Pilkington acquired the other three titles and, in 1799, transferred ownership to Ann Claus — payment for which was effected by the exchange of Indigenous Six Nations land to Pilkington.

Why would the Six Nations underwrite this transaction as a gift to Ann Claus?

That story starts much earlier and with Ann’s father, Sir William Johnson, who was responsible for negotiating the historic Treaty of Niagara in 1763.

This treaty between the Crown and 24 First Nations — with over 2,000 Indigenous signatories — included acceptance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which set the constitutional structure for the negotiation of treaties with the Indigenous inhabitants of large sections of Canada.

The proclamation legally defined the North American interior west of the Appalachian Mountains as a vast Indigenous reserve, a fact which significantly contributed to the unrest amongst the land-hungry and moneyed interest in the Thirteen Colonies, fuel that lead to the Revolutionary War.

Johnson was seen by Indigenous peoples as a friend and ally.

So too, did Ann’s husband, Col. Daniel Claus, through his role as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, in his words and deeds establish a similar reputation amongst the Six Nations as a “friend and ally.”

In the culture of the Six Nations, women were the shepherds (very loosely read, “owners”) of the land and held, at least, an equal status to their men, it would be seen as reasonable and expected that a gift of land to the daughter of Johnson and widow of Claus be given in appreciation of the service given their people by her men.

And, as an aside, please note that no Indigenous peoples have traditionally entertained the concept of land ownership.

It was a European notion that the earth could be chopped into small bits and “owned” by an individual, company or nation.

For the Indigenous people, a geographic territory was the space required to support the tribal community and cultivated land was apportioned accounting to the yield (grown and hunted) necessary to feed and house their families.

Thus, four acres within the context of late 18th-century Niagara old-growth forest and meadows, would be seen by the Six Nations as a very generous allotment for a single family.

The first house on this property, likely a brick Georgian, which was lost during the American burning of Niagara during their withdrawal in 1813.

However, Ann’s son, William Claus — who also served as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in the family tradition — undertook to rebuild the family’s home on this property in 1816 and 1817.

Now, the long, rambling house you see today is a product of seven separate builds — six in the 19th century and one in the late 20th century.

So, let’s follow the evolution of the dwelling over time.

It is my belief that William Claus’ original vision was to create a five bay, single storey with sleeping loft above, Regency Cottage but, for reasons unknown today, elected to do this in two separate builds.

Westerly portion of the cottage, constructed of brick was completed and occupied by William and his wife, Catherine, in 1816 presenting an asymmetrical three-bay facade with the entry door in the easterly bay.

The following year, 1817, the eastern portion of the cottage, again using brick, was built and resulted in a five-bay presentation with the main entry slightly off-centre (to the east) under a uninterrupted hip roof.

Although constructed of different materials, in 1817 the Claus house facade would have looked similar to the circa 1817 J. Butler House, now located at 285 Simcoe St.

Then, in 1820, William expanded the footprint of the house to the rear, by adding an extension which likely housed a separated kitchen.

While William passed away in 1826, his wife, Catherine, was responsible for the next expansion of the house sometime during the years of 1835 and 1840 when a northerly wing was added possibly to increase main floor bedroom space.

And, while this was the first wood framed addition, she followed her late husband’s practice of coating the exterior with incised stucco to unify the presentation.

By 1850 the title of the property had passed to Walter H. Dickson and, under his auspice, an addition to the west was built — again, wood framed and coated with incised stucco.

Catherine Lyons (nee Claus) bought the property from Dickson in 1860 and, circa 1870, caused the last significant 19th-century wood-framed, incised, stucco-cladded southern wing — projecting towards King Street — to be built.

From the 1878 sale of the property by Lyons’ grandsons to Thomas Ince, the footprint of the house remained stable — although there were likely renovations that altered the house’s elements, interior layout and finish components by various owners — until the 1990’s when a rear gallery was added along the south side of the building.

Just like the house, the landscape transitioned from old growth Carolinian forest to the more cultivated woodland seen in Owen Staples’ “The Wilderness” 1911 painting with featured planted trees and shrubs spotted here and there.

Since that point, second growth from the original forest has reclaimed much of the property.

The Niagara Foundation has pledged to “preserve the significant attributes of the land and buildings comprising the Wilderness” and, based on that organization’s exemplary work in the past, I have no doubt they shall achieve glowing success in this endeavour.

That said, the foundation will require active support from the citizens of our fair town and I’d urge everyone to contribute, in any way they can, to underwrite that success.

Your children and grandchildren will thank you for it.

In closing, let me ask: did you ever wonder why William Street deadends at Regent?

You can thank Ince, who owned the property from 1878 to 1881 and managed to secure the patent for the unopened William Street road allowance, thereby ensuring the original lands remained intact. 

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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