History of the Municipality

The history of the Municipalité du Canton de Shefford has been profoundly marked by war and international crises. Among the first to make their mark were the many Loyalists who settled here during the War of Independence.

To discover all of the subtleties of this heritage, read on; you’ll see to what extent the area’s heritage is reflected in its culture and architecture.

A History Shaped by International Crises


The history of Shefford Township has a curious genesis. The final spark of an inferno that began in Europe, few monuments or traces of its origins remain – at least not on Shefford territory.

Initially a haven for American families exiled for their continued allegiance to the British Crown, or simply for their lukewarm acceptance of the institutions of the new American republic, Shefford Township and its urban centre, Waterloo, would gradually lose their English Protestant base.

Today, the area is mainly inhabited by francophones, whose connection to the land, to industry and to commerce is very different from that of their predecessors.

Shefford Township is currently experiencing the final disintegration of the institutional culture that was the legacy of the original Loyalist colonists. It is not so much the institutions that have been lost, but rather the cultural expectations regarding these institutions.

But let’s get back to this strange history in which Frederick II of Prussia, Beaumarchais, Napoleon, Madison, and the patriot Nelson all play a role.

The European Scene

In the 18th century, a string of major historic events swept Europe and North America: among them, the Seven Years War, the British conquest of French Canada, and the American Revolution. The humble village of Shefford grew up in the space of just 50 years, the outcome of European rivalries.

In 1733, Louis XV, King of France (1715-1774), embroiled his country in a series of armed conflicts, which initially had at stake the control of the throne of Poland.

An able soldier and politician, Frederic II, the Great, King of Prussia, (1712-1786), used the endless power struggles that marked the century to pursue an expansionist policy, annexing Silesia in 1741.

In 1756, France declared war on Prussia, with Silesia as the backdrop. Prussia allied itself with England. Initially, the battles of the Seven Years War were confined to the continent. From precipitate retreats to mad attacks, the French troops exhausted themselves following Frederic II. Seeing their weakness, England decided to strike a fatal blow against its old enemy by attacking its colonies, which included Québec.

The Conquest

For French Canadians, the Seven Years War would be known as the British Conquest.

France’s navy was no match. England won the war on the seas. Québec surrendered in September 1759 and fell under British control. A peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Paris, was signed in 1763. After that, France’s only remaining North American holdings were the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

British colonial rule was generally flexible. French law remained in force, and freedom of religion was proclaimed.

However, the local merchant class suffered a setback. Commerce was now oriented towards British business networks. The import and export trade, and industry in general, passed into the hands of the English-speaking minority. The only economic sector still open to Québec’s French-speaking elite was the retail trade.

The Québécois rallied around their religious institutions, which, in terms of land use, translated into communities that developed around a central core consisting of a church and presbytery. A largely agrarian society, the Québécois found this mode of development to be a harmonious way of occupying the land, with the support of a nearby moral and spiritual authority.

The new masters of the land settled near the ports, near raw materials processing sites, such as mills and distilleries, and in larger towns where commodities could be traded. British social structures overlaid those of French Canada, although the contours did not match, nor did the land use. While the Québécois relied on the village for survival, the English sought mainly to establish themselves near an exploitable natural resource.

Shefford did not exist yet; the question of land use therefore did not arise, since the area in question was virgin territory traversed only by Indian bands.

This point is fundamental to understanding Shefford in 2001. Indeed, when the Loyalists finally settled here 30 years after the Conquest, land use and development would be completely uncharacteristic of the Québec landscape.

The American Revolution

The Seven Years War was costly for all sides. England needed to replenish its coffers and turned to the colonies for this purpose. There were 13 distinct colonies on the territory that would eventually become the United States of America. The ever-increasing taxes on consumer goods exasperated the colonists. The Boston Tea Party marked the break between the colonials and the mother country. The American nation began to take shape and to demand its independence.

A prolonged war thus began in 1775. The Continental Army led by George Washington challenged the British forces commanded by Lord Cornwallis.

Clans began to emerge within the American population. Those in favour of maintaining the colonial status were forced to take up arms with the British. They were the Loyalists. Their destiny would be intimately tied with the conclusion of the War of Independence.

The American rebels were short on weapons, munitions, as well as troops. A colourful French playwright, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), author of Le barbier de Seville and Le mariage de Figaro, served as a front for Louis XVI to funnel arms and supplies to the new American republic.

French troops also lent the rebels a hand. In October 1781, while Lord Cornwallis was camped at Yorktown awaiting fresh troops and supplies in order to conclude his long march to victory against the Continental Army, he saw in the distance, not British reinforcements, but the French fleet. Washington positioned his small army on the high ground and laid siege on the British positions. The British counterattacks were ineffective and cost numerous lives. Surrounded, Cornwallis surrendered.

The Loyalist Diaspora

England’s defeat was to have terrible consequences for the Loyalists. They were forced to abandon their lands and property and go into exile. Over 32,000 Loyalist Americans fled New York for Nova Scotia. Another 13,000 were known to have headed for Québec. Canada would thus take in nearly 50,000 refugees. At the time, Canada’s population was just over 70,000. The British authorities had to find land for these newcomers.

Nova Scotia took in most of the contingent. A society of exiled Loyalists began to take shape. The sheer demographic weight of the new arrivals led to political conflict in Nova Scotia. The territory was divided in two and the Loyalists were allowed full control over the territory that became known as New Brunswick.

In Québec, the British authorities feared that confrontations would arise if large numbers of Loyalists settled in French Canadian communities. Governor Haldimand therefore directed the newcomers to settle in Upper Canada, which would later become Ontario. At the time, the territory was considered part of Québec and was subject to French law as well as to the classic seignorial system. The new settlers were dissatisfied with this legal system, which did not allow the individual as much initiative.

To avoid further friction with their rebellious neighbours, the British avoided populating the border areas with Loyalists. As a result, Loyalist settlement of Shefford territory was deferred a few years.

John Savage

Captain John Savage was one of those forced to flee the United States after Cornwallis’ surrender. As he himself tells it, he was a volunteer with the Loyalist forces. He was captured and imprisoned in Albany. He escaped and rejoined the army at New York. He was captured again and finally released at the end of the conflict. He moved to Caldwell’s Manor, which is now Noyan, in the Upper Richelieu.

The border between the Upper Richelieu and the United States was not definitively set until 1842. It is therefore not surprising that Savage complained about being harassed by Col. Ethan Allen, a famous American soldier and politician who, until his death in 1789, fought to gain independence for Vermont (independence within the new American republic). Savage refused to swear allegiance to the United States and was pressured to leave the area on several occasions.

He headed for West Shefford, today Bromont, where he settled in 1792, before he actually had approval, since his land grant did not come through until 1801.

In those days, exiled Loyalists could petition to occupy Crown land. They had to demonstrate that they had suffered losses as a result of their loyalty to the Crown. They also had to put together a group of colonists to swear allegiance and promise to develop the land granted to them. The leader of the group (John Savage) was granted certain lands by the government, and others by his associates. In return, it was his responsibility to open roads, build mills and oversee the township, at his own expense. The system was not part of the traditional seignorial system, but the structure was the same.

The Charter of the Township of Shefford was finally signed by Robert Shore Milnes, Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada, on February 14, 1801. By then, Savage and his companions had already surveyed the township, opened a road to Saint-Jean, and another to Sutton.

The worst enemies of Shefford‘s early settlers were minuscule, namely the mosquitoes and black flies. The area was infested and many people suffered real torture. Less constant, but very dangerous, wolves were a major problem for farmers.

The nearest post office was in Vermont. The closest village worthy of the name was several days’ walk. Harvests were small and barely enough to meet local needs. The farm markets had very little to sell. The tiny colony was struggling.

The Napoleonic Wars

In a curious reversal of fortune, it was a European event that would trigger a lucrative market for the colonists of Shefford. In 1806, Napoleon organized a blockade of England at the same time as the United States declared an embargo. The British were therefore forced to turn to Canada for the lumber and potash necessary to operate their industries. Prices climbed. So much so that it was definitely worth the two-week trip to Montreal to deliver the potash that was produced by burning the trees felled during land clearing operations.

The road from Shefford to Montreal was long and perilous; crossing the river was very much subject to the whims of nature and passing boats.

Napoleon was therefore an economic windfall for the inhabitants of Shefford.

The War of 1812

The Napoleonic Wars took a lot out of the British Navy. It became difficult to find enough volunteers to crew their ships. They began to hunt down deserters and even resorted to press-ganging on occasion.

The British fleet patrolled the Atlantic in search of merchant ships headed for France. They boarded American ships regularly, ostensibly to search for deserters.

These actions aroused American public opinion. On June 12, 1812, U.S. President James Madison declared war on Great Britain. Invading Canada was part of the agenda.

But the American army was unprepared and ill-equipped. On the British side, it was difficult to justify a concentration of troops in North America when demand was so strong in Europe.

Canada’s defence therefore fell to the militia and to the regular Canadian troops. Theoretically, the Americans had a much larger population and army to draw on. In reality, the number of experienced and properly armed soldiers was around 12,000.

Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 allowed 14,000 British soldiers to be dispatched to Canada. Their plans thwarted, the Americans agreed to end hostilities in 1814.

In 1805, John Savage captained the 2nd Battalion of the Eastern Townships Militia. Our current research gives no indication of whether they took part in any battles. But one thing is for certain, these former American soldiers must have been on high alert.

The Patriot Rebellions

The Patriot Rebellions began in 1837. Galvanized by Papineau, armed groups began to organize in order to beat back the British military which had been called in to restore order.

The military defeat was swift. Dr. Wolfred Nelson (1791-1863) was among the rebels. After beating Gore’s troops at Saint-Denis on November 22, 1837, he attempted to flee to the United States.

On his way to the border, he stopped in Shefford. He was quickly spotted, tracked and arrested by the local militia. Exiled to Bermuda, he was soon back on American soil, namely in Burlington, where the leaders of the Patriot Hunters (Frères Chasseurs) were preparing to invade Canada.

Wolfred’s brother, Robert Nelson, organized the short-lived invasion. It was all over after a few skirmishes near Lacolle and Odeltown. Nevertheless, Lower Canada’s only declaration of independence was delivered by Nelson on Québec soil.

During this political crisis, the Town of Waterloo served as refuge for many of both the French and English-speaking merchant class.

The Civil War

The American Civil War (1861-1865) gave rise to new fears. Because Great Britain had sided with the South, it was now feared that the veteran armies of the North would be unleashed on Canada.

The idea of a Canadian Confederation quickly gained support as a political means of addressing the American threat. Militias were again formed. The 79th Battalion of Shefford (Highlanders) was formed in 1872 and joined ranks with the 13th Scottish Light Dragoons, which was created in 1866 and demobilized in 1936.

The Loyalist Decline

While Shefford’s first colonists were farmers, the second wave, which arrived around 1810, consisted of businessmen and industrialists. An urban centre developed, Waterloo, offering opportunities for the lumber trade. However, this growth dynamic had nothing to do with agricultural development. Waterloo developed its own economy on Shefford Township territory, but without it being a consequence of the development of the township per se. The two waves of American immigrants occupied overlapping yet distinct areas. The pre-revolutionaries lived in the rural areas and the post-revolutionaries, in the town.

In 1840, the population of the Eastern Townships was two-thirds English-speaking, with a growing proportion of Americans closer to the border. Despite the differences between the Loyalist, American and British-born populations, there was an appearance of unity based on language. To the French Canadians, they formed a single Anglo-Protestant block, with its own institutions and lifestyle.

There began a francophone migration, punctuated by economic crises that forced them to look for new land or for factory work. The Eastern Townships territory had been fully colonized. Some Loyalist families began a reverse migration, seeing opportunities in the colonization of the American Midwest.

The relative proportion of Loyalists within the total population would continue to decline from that time on.

Integration of the Loyalists into English Canadian society caused a cultural shock. The Americans brought with them an individualistic and egalitarian culture that contrasted sharply with the hierarchical sense and the centralization of power practiced by English-speaking Canadians.

As industry developed in Waterloo and Granby, it provided a nearby market for agricultural products, bringing greater wealth to the settlers who had chosen farming. However, the agrarian world remained separate, with its own municipal structure and religious practices that identified with the churches.

Despite the passage of time, the population movements, industrialization, and demographic changes, certain of the cultural traits of the first Loyalist settlers live on.

  • Each family is autonomous and responsible for its own survival.
  • Mutual aid is a matter for individuals, not institutions.
  • Incurring debt to carry out community projects is frowned upon.
  • True freedom is a function of land ownership and personal autonomy.
  • Religious and public institutions hold power because they have the moral support of the people, not because of their physical structures and bureaucracies.

The Shefford landscape is marked by this cultural reality. In fact, the township’s landscape is entirely a product of the culture. No public square lined by a church, town hall and educational institutions. The tree cover on the mountain has been preserved. Residential development, with some exceptions, has followed a low-density model. Municipal facilities are modest and almost always involve community participation.

A World That Is Disappearing

As we have seen, Shefford Township’s growth dynamic is rooted in the fallout from historic events, which left behind a pre-industrial society that was not truly British, nurtured as it was by a culture unique to the American settler-explorer. This society was unaffected by slavery or its consequences in 1860.

Somewhat removed from the dominant civil society, the Shefford Loyalists adapted to the modernization brought by Waterloo’s industrialization, but were not assimilated by it.

Still, urban pressures are doing their work. Demand for construction of row housing in areas where the natural landscape has been preserved and property taxes remain low has found a choice location in Shefford. What is being developed and marketed is the Loyalist legacy.

A first episode of urban densification is setting the tone for changes to come. Row houses are incompatible with the idea of autonomous families. Communal facilities are needed to offset the weakness of personal resources. The concentration of residential populations also requires public water systems, a necessity that, until now, had been handled by each Townshipper family.

The municipal institution is thus taking on greater importance. The residents now expect and demand that the municipality adopt a more urban approach, one modelled after the more dominant modern structures. Traditional Loyalist thinking will not survive such a movement.

Still, the residential development that has marked Québec in the last 30 years remains limited in Shefford territory. Measures have been taken to prevent any concentrations that would be too demanding in environmental and fiscal terms. Growth is constant, but it is the result of city dwellers who come looking for a more “natural” lifestyle after retirement. If such a place still exists, it is thanks to the Loyalists of Shefford Township. We are now witnessing the birth of a Loyalist land preservation movement, which calls for the practice of certain Loyalist cultural traits. Thus it is that the Loyalist legacy is now shared by families of diverse origin, and Loyalist virtues are now practiced both in French and in English.

This history was compiled by Gaétan Nadeau, 2001.