History of Sandwich

What is Sandwich?

The Sandwich frontier was part of the Western District. The Western District was named in 1792 (containing the counties of Essex, Kent and Suffolk) and by 1800 was divided into 6 townships: Rochester, Mersea, Gosfield, Maidstone, Sandwich and Malden. The township of Sandwich included what is now the City of Windsor and area. The village of Sandwich was established in 1797 within the township of Sandwich (It was incorporated as a town in 1858). In 1861, the township of Sandwich was divided into East Sandwich township and West Sandwich township (East Sandwich township was subdivided in to East Sandwich township and South Sandwich township in 1893).


Early First Nations History and the French Period

Before Europeans arrived, the land along the Detroit River was referred to as Wawiiatanong by the Indigenous populations. The area surrounding it is the traditional territory of the Three Fires Confederacy: Ojibwe/Chippewa, Potawotami, and Odawa (Ottawa). Many other Indigenous groups have called this area home, such as the Huron (Wyandot) and the Attawandaron (Neutral).

As early as 1640, French explorers, fur traders and voyageurs from Montreal were commonplace along the river. The first known European to travel the Detroit River corridor is Jolliet in 1669, followed by Dollier and Galinee and LaSalle. In 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his soldiers planted the fleur-de-lis flag, proclaimed the territory for France and built Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Detroit). Here, they established the first European settlement in the Windsor-Detroit area. Upon his arrival, Cadillac invited Indigenous groups such as the Huron (Wyandot) to establish villages in the area.

The Jesuits established a mission referred to as the Mission of Our Lady the Assumption Among the Hurons on the south shore of the Detroit River in 1728 near la Pointe de Montréal (where the Ambassador Bridge now stands). It became the parish of Our Lady of the Assumption in 1767, ministering to both the Huron converts and the ever-growing number of French colonists. It is the oldest continuous parish in Ontario. The area known as Petite Côte (present day LaSalle), was comprised of narrow undeveloped farms granted to 27 or 28 French families (the first being Louis Gervais in 1749). Prior to 1760, France governed the settlements on both sides of the water, but the French and their Indigenous allies were defeated by the British and their Indigenous allies in the Seven Years’ War. The fleur-de-lis that had flown over the military base was replaced with the Union Jack.

Early British Rule

Displeased with British rule, Indigenous people in the Detroit River area rebelled against them in what is commonly referred to as Pontiac’s War or Pontiac’s Rebellion. Under the leadership of Pontiac, Indigenous groups laid a 6-month siege to Fort Detroit from May 9 to October 31, 1763.

Peace was threatened again when thirteen unhappy colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, but Upper Canada remained loyal to the Crown. Fort Detroit was far from the battle lines. Forgotten in the Treaty of Paris that brought peace to Britain and the freshly minted United States in 1783, Britain continued to control the upper Great Lakes from Fort Detroit. The territory on the north side of the Detroit River was finally ceded to the United States under the conditions of the Jay Treaty in 1796. Details of that treaty specified that those who chose to remain British subjects had twelve months to move to the south side of the river.

When Detroit gained its independence from British rule in 1796, British authority moved across the river and Sandwich became the Legislative seat of government of the Western District of Upper Canada (Ontario) by royal decree of King George III. Court sessions, once held in Detroit, were moved to l’Assomption where a small house was converted into a jail. The shift of authority brought numerous British loyalists to Sandwich.

(Hon.) Peter Russell was chosen to execute the King’s command. Instructed by Lord Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada to peaceably acquire land from the Hurons, he purchased from the Hurons the remaining 1,078 acres of land allotted in the Huron Church Reserve of 1790 for provisions worth £300.

Surveyors laid out the town on a three-street grid that ran parallel to the Detroit River. Cross streets started on the riverfront. Each one-acre lot offered sufficient space for a home and outbuildings, a garden, horses and livestock. Russell named the main streets after himself and his English homestead, Bedford. The intersection of Brock and Bedford (now Sandwich Street) was set aside for the courthouse and jail, St. John’s Anglican Church, a school and a public meetinghouse. These institutions constituted the Four Corners of Freedom, rights guaranteed by the Crown to every Canadian. The Loyalists who came to settle the area were primarily professionals and skilled tradesmen; their new properties were selected through a lottery. Folk prospered and Sandwich Town flourished–until the ill winds of war blew hard throughout the land.

The War of 1812

Citing a list of grievances, the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Under General William Hull, the 4th Regiment and the Ohio Militia invaded Upper Canada on July 12, east of the town of Sandwich, the first Canadian territory to be invaded following the declaration. General Hull used The François Baby House (which was under construction) as his headquarters. Their first act was to post proclamations of horror that would befall residents who did not throw off their "British shackles and embrace American liberty."

In August of the same year, British reinforcements, under General Brock arrived in Sandwich, and General Hull retreated to Detroit. Tecumseh’s warriors and British soldiers crossed the Detroit River to cut off Hull’s supply line. Hull surrendered Detroit to the British and was later court-martialled for his actions. There is also a story recorded that the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh attended a dinner in late September 1813 at the home of Jacques (James) Baby, the Duff-Baby House at 221 Mill Street.

General William Henry Harrison succeeded where Hull had failed. After the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813, the British began retreating towards Chatham-Thamesville area and Harrison was able to take the town of Sandwich, commandeering homes and buildings that suited his military needs. He turned St. John’s Anglican Church into a stable for his horses. When the tide turned in favour of the British, Harrison retreated. His final command was to torch the town, and it went up in flames.

When peace came in 1814, people slowly drifted home. The Crown compensated them for their losses. The town of Sandwich rose from its ashes to be bigger and better. Sandwich Street bustled as merchants and tradesmen got back into business.

Sandwich in the 19th Century

Slavery was legal and not uncommon in the region (and Canada) under both French and British rule. Numerous French and British settlers, and even Indigenous people were slave holders of both Black and Indigenous or "Panis" slaves. With the passing of Canada’s Anti-Slavery Law (1793) and the Emancipation Act (1833), which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, Black refugees began making their way across the Detroit River and the Windsor/Sandwich area became an important terminal on the Underground Railroad. (Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834.) Anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 and more made the perilous journey to freedom via the Underground Railway. Countless formerly enslaved people took their first step onto free soil in Sandwich Town and the population burgeoned as a large number chose to make the town their home.

The 19th century was an era of urban growth and development in Sandwich. Mills, harness shops, taverns, newspaper offices and hotels were established. As the area sprung to life, the intersection at Sandwich and Mill became the town’s commercial hub. Sandwich was granted town status in 1858. Windsor, incorporated (as a village) in 1854, was the nearest neighbour. Further east stood Walkerville (incorporated as a town in 1890), a private town owned by distillery baron Hiram Walker, and Ford City, later known as East Windsor (incorporated as a village in 1913), home of the automaker of the same name. Collectively they became known as the Border Cities.

In 1854, the Great Western Railway line arrived in Windsor. Prior to its arrival, Sandwich boasted a population substantially higher than Windsor’s, but with the new rail lines, conditions began to change. Settlers began concentrating around the Windsor area and Sandwich experienced a gradual economic decline.

However, the American Civil War (1861-1865), became the source of an unexpected economic boom in Sandwich. The town’s merchants and manufacturers benefited greatly as American orders for local goods and resources rose to unprecedented levels. Another unexpected boom came from the sulphur springs, accidentally discovered when geologists drilled for oil in 1864. Rich in healing properties, the water was as good a find as oil. Taking advantage of nature’s bounty, the luxurious Mineral Spa Springs Resort and a posh bathhouse were built between John B and Chappell Avenues. For fifty years, the spa catered to hundreds of thousands who came from every part of North America in hopes of being cured of their ailments. Many hotels were built to serve the growing tourism industry. Vast salt deposits were discovered nearby, and mining began in 1893 through a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway. More than a century later, Canadian Salt Company, Limited is still in operation, producing the nation’s most popular table brand: Windsor Salt.

Sandwich in the 20th Century

The Ambassador Bridge opened in 1929, a vital trade link between Canada and the United States. The engineering marvel was made possible by the use of cantilever trusses as the main pillars. Suspension cables, high over the Detroit River, supported the centre span. While citizens expected a river of cash to flow across the bridge, they were in for a rude awakening – the Great Depression also began in 1929. It slammed the Border Cities hard. Thousands of heavy industry and manufacturing jobs disappeared. Long-established firms shut their doors as the economy dried up. One out of every three people in the local labour force was unemployed. To save taxpayers’ dollars, the Provincial Parliament in Toronto passed a bill to streamline municipal governments. The Border Cities of Sandwich, East Windsor and Walkerville were amalgamated into the City of Windsor in 1935.

Canada entered World War Two on September 10, 1939. Windsor’s many factories hummed around the clock as workers built weapons for the war effort. More than 25,000 men from Essex County put on uniforms to fight for freedom and the Canadian way of life. For Windsor and its citizens, post-war peace brought nearly three decades of unprecedented prosperity. Sandwich was left out as folks moved away to new subdivisions. An increasing number of storefronts and homes stood empty, a mute testimony to the community’s proud history as the birthplace of Windsor. In 1963, a new courthouse was opened in downtown Windsor, and in 1974 a new Essex County Civic Centre opened in the town of Essex. With the exodus of the court and county offices, the Sandwich courthouse was left vacant.

Alarmed at the rapid decline of Sandwich, a group of concerned citizens rallied to rescue their beloved neighbourhood from its sad plight in the early 1980s. Many historically significant buildings, such as the Duff-Baby mansion, Mackenzie Hall and the Sandwich Post Office were restored. As well, the Sandwich Heritage Conservation District came to effect on October 19, 2012. A number of plaques highlighting the area’s rich history were installed, and a number of murals illustrating historical figures and events were painted on buildings around the neighbourhood. The Sandwich community began a gradual renaissance, which continues today.