150 Years of Forgetting about the Tenant League – Part 2
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
In Part 1 we saw how the Leasehold system on Prince Edward Island throughout the mid-1800s created an imbalance of power between tenants and their absentee landlords. A number of legal movements and acts, from the Eschaet Movement of the 1830s to the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill of the 1860s, were unable to sufficiently answer the Land Question. This resulted in the formation of the Tenant League on May 19th, 1864, and by March 10th of the following year the Island’s government was beginning to meet an emboldened resistance.
The Charlottetown Parade
On March 17th, 1865, exactly one week after Deputy Sheriff James Curtis’ expedition to Fort Augustus, Tenant League supporters poured into Charlottetown for an organized march through the city. Outside of the May 19th conference a year earlier, this was the largest public demonstration by the Tenant League to date, with estimated attendance numbering five to six hundred people. They crossed the ice-covered Hillsborough River from Southport on Lot 48 and had no qualms with demonstrating before Province House, the police station, and city hall. The parade was in a celebratory mood, led by a musical band and waving flags with inscriptions like ‘Vox Populi’, ‘Tenant Rights’, and ‘Free Land for All’. They made a notable stop before the business of Benjamin Davis, a well-known assemblyman and radical who made the opening, League-supporting speech to the Charlottetown Literary and Debate Society’s January 20th meeting.
Though much of the day passed without incident, in one moment the government’s perception of the rally changed and threw a single League member into the limelight. As the parade reached the north-east corner of Queen and Grafton, location of the Apothecary’s Hall and today the Confederation Center of the Arts, Deputy Sheriff James Curtis, who had been monitoring the parade, spotted a familiar face. He pushed through the crowd and attempted to arrest one Samuel Fletcher, a tenant of Alberry Plains, Lot 50. What made Samuel Fletcher especially important or noteworthy to Curtis is still not known. He was exactly two years in arrears and his name appeared on a number of petitions and that day he was carrying a tin trumpet, the League’s adopted symbol. Fletcher was clearly a supporter of the League but that only made him one among many that day and his circumstances were certainly not unique. Maybe Curtis had attempted to serve a writ to him in the past and recognized his face in particular, seeing a chance to arrest a proven rent evader. Maybe the circumstances of the parade finally got to Curtis who became fed up and decided action needed to be taken. Whatever the reason, the attempted arrest did not go well. Curtis seized Fletcher, who immediately resisted and a brief struggle ensued. Fletcher punched Curtis in the face and was able to break free as members of the crowd joined in, pummeling Curtis and knocking him to the ground. Another officer, Justice of the Peace Theophilus DesBrisay, attempted to intervene but Fletcher swung his tin trumpet at the Justice’s head, a ‘blow I narrowly escaped’. DesBrisay lost his footing and Fletcher ‘escaped in double quick time up the street.’
The rest of the parade continued without incident but Samuel Fletcher’s evasion of the police soon became a symbolic rallying point for the Tenant League. Fletcher was seen as the proto-typical Leaguer, the everyman who defied legal authority in the heart of Charlottetown and won. He made the Deputy Sheriff and Justice of the Peace look clumsy and foolish and the Executive Council itself toothless before the League’s efforts. Unfortunately for Fletcher, this made him a visible target for those government officials and a lightning rod for justifications on cracking down on the League. He would be continually harassed by the government, ‘hunted day and night by the constables’ as one League member put it.
Calling the Posse Comitatus
The proximity of the resistance to James Curtis in Fort Augustus and the scuffle during the Charlottetown Parade put government officials on edge. It was clear something had to be done, but there was hesitation on what exactly that something was. Calling up the Posse Comitatus, an archaic form of marshaling men from the county to suppress riots, was considered as the only major option, but it was an option that some expressed doubts over. A primary concern was that many of the men called upon would not answer or be ineffective as agents for government in support of legal officials, as their loyalties would lay with the League and not the city. As well, the members of the council saw themselves between a rock and a very large, imposing hard place. On one side they feared alienating themselves from the electorate, not wanting to be seen as heavy-handed or cracking down on a popular protest numbering in the thousands even by their estimates. On the other was pressure from the British government itself, which would not take kindly to them letting an open revolt boil out of control, and the thought of forced military occupation, with potential for even greater disaster, was certainly on their minds. The job of threatening a calling of the Posse Comitatus then was left largely to the main Tory political strategist; William H. Pope.
Pope at the time was seen as an opportunist, a “win-at-all-costs” politician with no love lost between him and a large number of Islanders. For his sole electoral win he campaigned on a platform of ‘Protestant rights’ which he claimed were threatened by Roman Catholic ‘pretensions in educational matters.’ For eighteen months, starting in 1861, he inflamed sectarian tensions to clinch victory in the 1863 election, and by 1865 was an ardent supporter of Confederation, just another dark mark against him for Islanders. To Pope the law was the law and he was determined to ensure that resistance would be futile. He called the Tenant League an ‘illegal organization’ and its recruitment methods and solicitation of funds ‘terrorism.’ Pope was aggressive yet keenly logical and persuasive in his efforts to deter members and potential supporters from the League. He wrote an article, circulated among the province’s papers, not attacking a caricature of the League but explaining how such resistance was doomed to fall,
One officer, or a dozen, may be driven from a settlement, but, depend upon it, they will return with a force sufficient to enable them to execute the law; and those who oppose them will in the end be worsted.’
While some in the council saw the posse comitatus as potentially being compromised by League supporters, Pope understood this as well and sought to use the posse as punishment for those same people, threatening fines and imprisonment for those who did not show,
‘It is … proper that those who have encouraged the Tenant League in their unlawful designs, should be called upon to assist the Sheriff to overcome the evils which they have assisted to create. If some fifty or sixty persons shall be weekly called upon by the Sheriff, and required to proceed with him, to the neglect of their business, and at their own cost, and very great inconvenience, the country will very soon discover that the Tenant League is a much greater evil than they at first imagined.’
Thanks to Pope’s standing with the governing party and overall reputation at the time, very few doubted his ability to follow through on his ideas.
On March 22nd Lieutenant Governor George Dundas issued a proclamation commanding officials and ‘all other loyal subjects’ to bring the ‘offenders’ to justice, without specifically mentioning tenants or the Tenant League itself. The proclamation was circulated widely in the press and then following day the premier, James Pope, stated in the House of Assembly that,
‘The laws, … must be obeyed, and if there is not force enough in this Island to cause them to be respected, we will have to …. procure assistance from abroad. The last shilling in the Treasury will be expended to maintain their supremacy.’
The following day the clerk of the Executive Council wrote to the Sheriff ordering him to call on the posse. With events escalating, many residents of Charlottetown realized they could be called upon to act, and there were a number of public meetings and lawyer consultations held in an attempt to sway the government from their course, but to no avail.
The Posse Marches
On Friday, April 7, 150 residents of Charlottetown assembled in Southport, across the river from Charlottetown, with the intention of moving out to Vernon River in Lot 50 and with the express purpose of arresting Samuel Fletcher. His high visibility compared to other rent resistors made his capture imperative and the path to his homestead led the posse directly through the heart of Tenant League territory, where prominent leaders like George Adams and Alexander McNeil lived. Included among the posse was John Ross, editor of Ross’ Weekly, who years later wrote a detailed account of the events of that day. He described how a large part of the “infantry” were comprised of those sympathetic to the Tenant League’s struggle, while those on the “cavalry”, or riding on horseback and in wagons, were ‘largely composed of proprietors, their agents, and friends, who were anxious to see the rebel [Fletcher] caught.’ The mixture of individuals on both sides of the issue may have been an effort by Morris to give the posse a sense of impartiality, but it was the collection of League sympathizers which seemed to confirm Pope’s threat; that the outing was intended as a punitive measure. Other facts suggest this was the case as well. Those who arrived were not given an itinerary beforehand and came unprepared for the long trek into the rural countryside during a time when the roads were almost entirely mud and conditions were still poor. Morris also stopped twice at George Adams’ tavern in Vernon River, to and from Fletcher’s farm, and on the way back called the roll of those on horseback, impressing their authority at a key League meeting spot. On the way back to Charlottetown, those on horseback passed the rest coming up the road on foot, who were told to continue to the tavern before turning back for the city.
For such a show of force however, the posse achieved none of its goals that day. Riding out of town one land agent on horseback wrote how ‘banners floated with Tenant League mottoes from various places, … & every fellow had a trumpet in his hands which they blew as we passed along.’ In Vernon River another rider described how,
‘a grotesque battery had been erected, which was composed of several pieces of old stove pipe pushed through as many pieces of old board, behind which stood the gunners, with wooden legs, straw bodies, paper faces, and night caps, etc., etc.’
And when the assembly arrived at Fletcher’s farm, Fletcher himself was nowhere to be found, having already been made aware of their slow advance. They returned to Charlottetown late in the day tired, frustrated, and empty-handed.
The Posse Comitatus quickly became something of a local legend to be endlessly mocked and ridiculed. Various press at the time described it as ‘nothing but a farce’, ‘a most gigantic farce’, and ‘burlesque’. Famous Vernon River poet John LePage wrote a sixteen octave poem entitled the ‘The Calling out of the Posse Comitatus”, another anonymous poem published in the Herald called ‘March of the Posse Comitatus’ exists, and students of St. Dunstan’s College put on a ‘side-splitting comedy’ show called ‘The Posse Comitatus’.
To his credit William Pope agreed with the farcical description of the day, stating,
‘Sam Fletcher was an insignificant individual. He is now the hero of the hour; and the ease with which he has turned his back upon the concentrated force of the county, … [has] thereby covered it with ridicule.’
However, he was quick to lay blame elsewhere, first on Attorney General Edward Palmer, then on Sheriff John Morris, stating either one of them had originally come up with and pushed for the posse in the first place. He believed Morris should have called out more of Fletcher’s neighbors to serve than of residents of Charlottetown.
‘the sublime farce of the posse comitatus, … set the whole country in a roar of laughter from East Point to West Cape. This ridiculous parade of empty authority on the part of the Government did more than anything else to increase the baneful influence of the Tenant Union.’
-Anonymous letter to the Examiner
Pope was right about one thing. Fletcher was an insignificant individual before the Charlottetown Parade, and the resulting fallout from Curtis’ decision that day haggard Fletcher for years to come. Though he could rely on the protection of his fellow Leaguers for a while, as the movement was cracked down on over time, so too was his determination to stay. After five further attempts at capturing him, Fletcher fled in 1867 and eventually died in 1870 in Taunton, Massachusetts, surrounded by his family. However he felt in those heydays of 1865 and on, he likely found insignificance more to his liking.
Among the many significant dates PEI chooses to celebrate and which are already listed, May 13th, 1865, could potentially be the most significant of them all. It was on that date that estates of the Cunard family, Laurence Sulivan, and Reverand James F. Montegomery were put up for sale, and in the case of the Cunards and Sulivan, no more leases were offered. Together these estates accounted for well over 20% of the properties on the island. The reasons for the sudden shift in policy was different for each. The Cunards and Sulivan, represented by the land agent George W. DeBlois, likely were seeing the writing on the wall, and the leasehold system as ultimately untenable. Sir Samuel Cunard had been one of the proponents of the earlier Fifteen Years Purchase Bill, itself an effort to quell possible agrarian unrest, and his shift to not offering any more leases could be seen as an attempt at protecting his assets in a deteriorating situation. Cunard was able to see both the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill and now the Tenant League as a rising tide and was seeking to get out on his own terms instead of a possible compulsory sale, with unfavorable terms, in the future.
For Montegomery the reasons were, officially, more personal. He had just recently been inducted into the church and his first cousin gave sworn testimony stating that ‘he did not wish to hold land where there was so much disturbance, and so much ill-feeling.’ The Montegomery estate was offered to its tenants at a very low price, much lower than what was prescribed in the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill, with full remission of arrears as long as the full rent of the present year, and subsequent years until the transaction was completed, were paid. As well Montegomery, adhering to conventional landlord wisdom at the time, offered all his land to the tenants in one lump purchase, stating ‘to sell separate farms is very disadvantageous for me; as in the event of many being sold, there would remain only the skeleton of a property which would be troublesome and expensive to manage.’ Why the land was offered at such a low price remains a mystery, though his first cousin testified that Montegomery ‘was ignorant of the value of the land, never having been there’ and that ‘he is pretty wealthy and it was not a matter of moment to him. He is otherwise independent.’ It was stated that Montegomery potentially received about half of what he could have sold the land for.
A poster by an Irish tenant union. Irish rent resistance throughout the 1800s gave precedent and inspiration to PEI’s own Tenant League
The role the Tenant League played in the sale and purchase of the estates is both clear yet indirect. Certainly their movement created the atmosphere on the Island in which the sales were seen as pertinent and wise moves by their landlords. If it were not for the commotion caused by the League, Cunard and Montegomery may not have had that extra little convincing needed to get them to sell. Indirectly, many sympathizers and central members of the League played key roles in negotiating the sales with their respective lots and tenants. There’s no question that the conditions of the sales aligned with League doctrine, that is the sale of land directly to the tenants without government assistance and on fair terms, and while the deals were not struck under the Tenant League brand, their influence and presence was felt throughout. Eastern Queens, where the sales occurred, was a hotbed for League activity and many of those tenants who came together to agree to the sale were no doubt either sympathizers or direct activists for the cause. On Lot 34 for example, while a resolution was passed stating that the arrangements had been made ‘not directly under the auspices of the Tenant Union’, the mover of the resolution was David Lawson, a member of the League’s Central Committee, and the secretary for the meeting was John Bassett, a League activist from Lot 22. Both gave opening speeches for the meeting and were directly involved in the negotiation there. Thus while some distance from the League brand was required to appease the sentiments of landlords like Montegomery, the goals of the League were being filled either way.
The Battle of Curtisdale Bridge
Where there was no sale of estates, resistance against rents and serving of writs continued. On May 27th there was a much publicized about arson which destroyed the barn of landlord John Archibald McDonald on his property on Lot 36. The arson saw significant controversy and debate over the Tenant League’s potential role, with a substantial 500 pound reward posted for information leading to a conviction, and it turned some sympathizers like Edward Whelan against the cause. On July 3rd it was reported that Deputy Sheriff James Curtis had been repulsed by a mob on Lot 31 in western Queens County. On July 4th the Central Committee for the League met and enrolled several new members, and two of its organizers, James Laird and Alexander McNeil, were making a ‘western tour’ soliciting funds and support. On July 15th Curtis returned to Lot 31 with an assistant to serve processes on William Large and George Clow, two tenants of adjacent farms in North Wiltshire, and to seize property if they resisted paying. The community was aware of Curtis’ arrival and moved to hide much of Clow’s property and in the end none of it was seized. However on their way back to Charlottetown, Curtis ran into Clow and other Tenant League members drinking and celebrating in a tavern,
‘Clow remained for some hours at a tavern enjoying himself, and in the mean-time a Ca. Sa.(a writ against the body) was placed in the hands of the High Sheriff [Dodd], who promptly and effectually executed it on the person of Clow, although the latter made a cowardly attempt to elude the officer by a race through some back yards.’
Clow would be the first Tenant League member to be successfully seized and imprisoned for his defiance.
Three days later Deputy Sheriff Curtis and bailiff Jonathan Collings, along with two other men, rode out to Lot 23 to serve debt writs to two tenants; James Proctor and Charles Dickieson. Lot 23, situated in the New Glasgow region, was comparably comfortable to other areas, but the tenants were subject to above average rents and short leases along with the normal issues with obtaining freehold. Curtis and Collings were aware they would likely meet resistance and were advised to proceed with caution by the estate owner. The only accounts that exists of the expedition are the sworn affidavits of Curtis and Collings and they agree on many of the major events.
They first met a man on horseback named John McLean on the road to New Glasgow. McLean recognized them and began to blow a tin trumpet as he followed close behind. Curtis knew this was a signal and it was confirmed when ‘the signal answered from farm to farm.’ The officers quickened their pace to Proctor’s farm in response. There, Proctor himself was nowhere to be found and his wife went to fetch him while they waited. After a ‘length of time’ they decided to seize a horse, wagon, harness, and saddle and began to move onto Dickieson’s farm.
They were cut off at the New Glasgow bridge by a group of about twenty people on horseback and in wagons, some blowing trumpets while more rode in to join the crowd. Dickieson was among them, identified as a ring-leader by Curtis, and he swore at Collings as they approached, though Curtis ordered his men to give no reply. They were able to cross and continued several miles towards Wheatly River Bridge with the whole crowd on their heels, ‘the people … hooted and yelled after them, their numbers increasing as they proceeded.’ Dickieson was described as trying to incite people to rescue Proctor’s seized property. At one point Proctor appeared and was able to strike a deal with Curtis, arranging for his property to be returned later and receiving back his saddle. Proctor left but Dickieson continued trying to incite a rescue of the rest of the seizures, apparently convinced the officers would not put up much resistance. The insults and threats from the crowd didn’t cease until they reached the Old Rustico Road, where they slowly dispersed and appeared to let the officers on their way. At this point Curtis may have taken a different road to try and throw off the Leaguers, who were already moving on a more direct path to cut him off down the way. Curtis and his men proceeded slowly until they stopped for ten minutes at the Curtisdale hotel in Milton on Lot 32. When they came out they saw that League members,
‘had gone round another way and had stationed themselves on the bridge [over Curtis Creek, off North River] a short distance below Milton Church. …they placed a horse and cart across the … bridge, and another in the water at the side of the bridge, and ranged their horses in such a manner as made it utterly impossible for even a foot passenger to pass.’
There is no estimated number of the crowd assembled but there was enough to cover the bridge with horses and wagons while others armed themselves with sticks from nearby fences, all swearing and taunting the officers as they came to. Curtis, driving Proctor’s horse and wagon, approached the bridge first and reportedly said, ‘Gentlemen, please allow me to pass.’ League members refused until he handed over the seized property. One League member stepped forward and grabbed the bridle of Curtis’ horse which stopped it. It was then reported that Curtis descended from the horse and was immediately rushed by a number of people who hit him with large sticks over the head and body. He was beaten several times, one blow to his arm shattering the bone, and was hit in the head by a large stone which he swore was thrown by Dickieson. Though stunned and blinded by the blood running in his eyes, Curtis ‘ran at Dickieson and seized him by the hair of his head and held him; at the same time [Curtis] drew a pocket pistol and said he would fire.’ Collings reported a shot going off, wounding a League member. Under cross-examination Curtis said the pistol was unloaded.
A number of men surrounded Curtis and tried to free Dickieson. One approached and the Deputy Sheriff ‘struck him in the face with the pistol, and laid open one side of his cheek.’ The rest backed away and made off with Proctor’s horse and wagon, ‘yelling and hooting’ as they made for New Glasgow. Curtis, with Dickieson still in his possession, had another bailiff secure the prisoner in a wagon as they crossed the bridge.
‘…as soon as the people perceived that Dickieson had been arrested, they drew back a short distance, and prepared to make a rush for the purpose of rescuing him. But … [Curtis] stood on the bridge, and cocking the pistol, told them he would shoot the first man who came near him.’
That seemed enough to convince the attackers to back off. The bailiffs were able to wrap up Curtis’ arm, which ‘hung helpless at his side’ and made their way back to town where they locked Dickieson in the county jail.
Curtis and his troop left the countryside with nothing but a prisoner for their troubles, and though Proctor’s property was secured, it was just as much a hollow victory for the League. The Herald reported that ‘the Union repudiates the conduct of Dickieson in resisting the officers of the law.’ Ross’ Weekly condemned the violence but emphasized that there was only one side to the story. Pope’s Islander wrote that it ‘regrets that Dickieson should have so far forgotten himself as to behave in so ruffianly a manner; as hitherto we have always understood him to be a quiet and respectable man.’ By the following day the High Sheriff of Queens, Thomas W. Dodd, was writing to council officials that ‘I am … completely powerless to execute any Writs placed in my hands.’ When the Executive Council met on July 21st, three days after the incident, they worked quickly to respond. Warrants for arrest were issued, James Laird, justice of the peace, was removed from his position for his associations with the League, and the Board of Education was ordered to purge League members from the teachers’ ranks, firing them from their jobs and denying them their salary.
Incidents of resistance continued as the government worked. On July 22nd officers searching for persons assigned arrest warrants were non-violently harassed and in Fort Augustus a constable serving summons was forced to sign a pledge stating he would not act as a constable or serve legal processes. The one respite the Executive Council had at the time was that their problem was still largely rural. The disruptions were occurring away from the eyes of the capital, but seemingly getting closer with each incident. This last dam of calm broke through on Wednesday, July 26th, with Dickieson’s examination hearing in Charlottetown.
Joseph Doucette, an Acadian, was later arrested for his attack on Sheriff Curtis at Curtisdale Bridge. He barricaded himself and his family on the second floor of his home and was supposedly shot in the leg. Read his account here
The Charlottetown Demonstration
Wednesday was market day in Charlottetown thus there was already a bustling crowd milling about downtown purchasing and selling goods. They were soon joined by a larger group of League supporters, estimated to be around one thousand by a number of sources including Pope in his account for the Islander and the acting administrator Chief Justice Robert Hodgson in his report to London. Dickieson was to be moved from the jail on Pownal Square to the city hall on the western portion of Queen Square for his trial, however the schedule had been leaked and the crowd gathered outside the jail waiting on his appearance. Pope and subsequently the government and its officers believed a rescue would be attempted and precautions were taken; Sheriff Dodd and twenty-five special constables were assembled and armed with loaded cavalry pistols and batons to act as escort for the prisoner. At around 2pm they stepped out and were able to walk to the city hall with no resistance, with the crowd gathered around and following them the whole way. Dickieson’s examination went without event. He was charged with ‘Riot, assault, and rescue’ initially, assigned a bail of two hundred pounds, and a future court date in January of the following year. Outside the court there was celebration from the crowd as the news of Dickieson’s bail posting was spread, and it was widely believed he would be freed that day. However, in court Deputy Sheriff Curtis presented a warrant for Dickieson’s arrest due to unpaid rent, dated July 17th, and Dickieson was re-incarcerated.
The news was met with shock and anger from the once jubilant crowd. When the constables began to move Dickieson from city hall back to the jail they were met by thrown stones and attempts at a rescue. The officers used their batons to hack a path through the crowd, striking many people. There were later reports of two shots from a pistol, possibly by accident or to scare off protesters. They were eventually able to reach the jail two blocks away, though eyewitnesses stated they would not have gone more than fifty more yards without losing control of the situation and their prisoner.
The reasons for the crowds aggression is as varied as those who made it up. There was a definite effort by League members to rescue Dickieson, and Samuel Lane was cited as one League leader who was purposefully enticing people towards that effort. Other reports stated that much of the crowd was already drunk by that time of day and looking for a fight. However it is largely the sudden reversal of Dickieson’s fortune, from potentially being released on bail to being imprisoned on a suddenly revealed charge, that most likely shifted the crowd’s mood. In either case, the short distance from the city hall to the jail, and the presence of armed officers as escort, likely ensured a win for the police and the Council that day. That night Hodgson assigned extra guards to the jail, magazine, and storage of weapons on loan from the British government, in case of any further attempts at rescue or uprising.
The effect of the demonstration on the psyche of the town and government should not go unnoticed. Charlottetown in 1865 had a population of around eight thousand people, and for a nearly thousand strong crowd to appear in its midst, and with such aggressive and rowdy intentions, would have shaken even the most aloof or unconcerned citizen. The only previous demonstration of this size was the Charlottetown Parade, which only had about half as many people in attendance and was largely a peaceful affair. The government had much to fear in the face of a largely unpredictable and well supported Tenant League, which could bring the resistance to their very doorstep with such ease. Would this be the sort of demonstration they see every time a League member was arrested? How could they respond to such a crisis close to home? And there was still the question of the collection of rents, an issue that was losing legitimacy as the weeks went by. The Charlottetown Demonstration marked a turning point in the government’s attitude, and brought about a sudden realization of how unmatched they were.
On August 1st, 1865, then Administrator Hodgson requested full attendance for a meeting of the Executive Council. He spoke of ‘the disturbed state of Queens County’ and referred to Sheriff Dodd’s earlier statement about his inability to serve writs. The councilors agreed troops from Halifax needed to be called in to restore order. While the Executive Council worked to purge League sympathizers from government ranks, Hodgson wrote to British Colonial Secretary Edward Cardwell explaining the situation.
In the early morning of Sunday, August 6th, 1865, 135 troops of the 16th Regiment of Foot, commanded by Major Thomas Tydd, disembarked in Charlottetown.
Continued in Part 3…
Robertson, Ian Ross. The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867: Leasehold Tenure in the New World. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1996. Print.