Island History

Early Visitors and European Settlement

Prior to European settlement Amherst Island had been frequented by Indigenous peoples who called it Ka8enesgo. This translates to big, long island. The island was known to be inhabited seasonally by Indigenous peoples, but doesn’t appear ot have been permanently settled.

Amherst Island was call Isle Tonti by the French after Henri de Tonty. Henri de Tony was Lieutenant to Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle during their explorations of this region of what is now Ontario. By 1792 Loyalists had started to settle in the region and the island had a significant population by 1835.

The island was renamed Amherst Island by Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe on 16 July 1792, in honour of Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst. Amherst had been commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Simcoe was renaming the islands of the area to commemorate British Generals of the Seven Years’ War. The same was done with Wolfe and Howe Islands.

In 1788, the island was granted by the Executive Council to one of their own Sir John Johnson, who had lost his father’s extensive New York Colony possessions to the revolting colonies. In 1823, Sir John’s widowed daughter, Catharine Maria Bowes, gained control of the island estate from her disinterested father. She sold numerous conversions of life-leases to freehold ownership to avoid the looming Wild Land Tax, 1824. By 1827 Mrs. Bowes was still in financial difficulty and granted a power of attorney to the Stephen Moore, 3rd Earl Mount Cashell, who purchased the balance of the Island Estate outright from her in 1835. Individual freeholders already owned and farmed nearly 4,000 acres, approximately one quarter of the Island, predominantly, but not restricted to, the First Concession.

Agricultural Development

Mount Cashell aspired to establish an estate, and reap large returns on his investment by the settlement of the Island with industrious tenants, mostly from his homeland in Ireland, who would continue to clear and cultivate the land, thereby improving its value and providing rental income.

Mount Cashell issued the settlers seven-year leases at a nominal rent and requiring them to make certain improvements each year. Families from the Ards had begun arriving by the 1820s. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s their numbers swelled as friends and relatives continued to arrive. But by the 1860s the movement had subsided. Settlers who arrived in the early years moved straight into leases while those arriving after 1850 often laboured for friends before renting existing leases. By 1841, the community had three schools and a population of over 1,000 people. The majority of families were Presbyterian, followed by Roman Catholics, Church of England, and recent Methodist converts. These Irish immigrants lived in either shanties or one-storey log houses on their leased land.

The famine in Ireland hurt Mount Cashell badly. Distressed Irish tenants and declining rents placed a heavy burden on a landlord who was already in debt because of lavish living and bad business partnerships. In 1848, he mortgaged Amherst Island. Several more mortgages followed on his Canadian properties, and in 1856 his creditors foreclosed and Amherst Island was sold at public auction to Robert Perceval Maxwell.

Amherst Island at mid-19th century was a mixed economy of farming wheat and barley, fishing in the Bay of Quinte, sailing the Great Lakes, and shipbuilding at the local yard of David Tait.

In all this, Robert Perceval Maxwell and his agent were the primary financiers, establishing the agricultural society and a cheese factory, promoting improvements, and financing loans and mortgages. Throughout these years, the Ards emigrants did very well. Many became proprietors, they held prominent positions in the community, and the Island became well known for its ‘Irishness’. The stone fences that lined the land were modelled after those on the Ards.

In the 19th century, Amherst Island evolved into a flourishing agricultural community. Its fertile soil was ideal for farming, leading to the establishment of numerous homesteads and farms. Sheep farming, in particular, became a hallmark of the island, known for its high-quality wool. This agricultural prosperity attracted more settlers, resulting in the creation of schools, churches, and other community institutions that fostered a strong sense of community.

Modern Development and Conservation

Throughout the 20th century, Amherst Island maintained its agricultural traditions while embracing modern development. Its natural beauty and tranquility attracted artists, writers, and those seeking a peaceful retreat. Today, the island balances growth with conservation, striving to protect its natural habitats and historical sites for future generations.

Community Life

Amherst Island is celebrated for its strong community spirit and vibrant local culture. Annual events and festivals, such as the Amherst Island Wooly Bully Races and the Christmas Bird Count, bring residents and visitors together. The island’s community-owned restaurant, The Back Kitchen; its all-volunteer radio station, and various clubs and organizations play essential roles in maintaining this close-knit community.

A Living Legacy

Amherst Island stands as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its inhabitants. From its Loyalist settlers to its modern residents, the island’s history is a mosaic of experiences and cultures. Honouring its past while looking to the future, Amherst Island remains a vibrant and welcoming community, cherishing its unique character and natural beauty.

Explore Amherst Island and experience the timeless charm that makes this island a truly special place.

For more information, please visit Amherst Island’s Neilson Store Museum & Cultural Centre.