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History of Sandwich

Early First Nations History and The French Period

Before Europeans arrived, the land along the Detroit River was home to the four First Nations tribes that made up the Huron or Wyandotte Confederacy – Ottawas, Potawotamis, Wyandots and Chippewa – the so-called Neutral Nations.

As early as 1640, Jesuit missionaries, French explorers and fur traders, such as Etienne Brulé, and the hardy voyageurs from Montreal were commonplace along the river. In 1701, Lord Cadillac and his soldiers planted the fleur-de-lis on the North side of the river, declared the territory for France and built Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Detroit). Here, they established the first European settlement in the Windsor-Detroit area.

The Church of Rome established the Mission of Our Lady of the Assumption Among the Hurons on the south shore of the Detroit River in 1728. Supported by the Neutrals, it became parish of Our Lady of the Assumption in 1767, ministering to both the Huron converts and the ever-growing number of French colonists. The area known as Petite Côte (present day LaSalle), below la Pointe de Montréal (where the Ambassador Bridge now stands), was comprised of narrow undeveloped farms granted to 27 or 28 French families (the first being Louis Gervais) in 1749. France governed the settlements on both sides of the water before The Seven Years War, but in 1760 British troops captured Fort Detroit. The fleur-de-lis that had flown over the military base was replaced with the Union Jack. Britain defeated France in 1763 and immediately absorbed most of New France into its already considerable empire.

Early British Rule

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, the price settled on was £300-worth of food and other provisions. Although surrounding lands had been surveyed for French farmers, this 436-hectare  (1078-acre) triangle had remained in the hands of the Hurons and other native peoples.

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 selected for them 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 19th, 1812. Under General William Hull, the 4th Regiment and the Ohio Militia invaded Upper Canada on July 12th, at Sandwich Town – the first Canadian territory to be invaded following the declaration. Their first act was to post proclamations of horror which would befall residents who did not throw off their "British shackles and embrace American liberty."

Quick-thinking General Isaac Brock had his men march out the front door of François Baby’s mansion, around to the back door, through the house and out the front door, several times. General Hull was duped into believing that his troops were vastly outnumbered. Tecumseh’s warriors and British soldiers crossed the Detroit River to cut off Hull’s supply line, not once but twice. Rattled, Hull retreated to the safety of Fort Detroit less than a month after his siege of Sandwich Town.

General William Henry Harrison succeeded where Hull had failed. Not only did he capture the town, he commandeered 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. Only two homes were spared.

When peace came in 1814, people slowly drifted home. The Crown compensated them for their losses. Sandwich Town 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

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 slaves 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 Town’s name was shortened to Sandwich, and was granted town status in 1858. New neighbours sprang up along the south side of the river.  Windsor (inc. 1854) was nearest but still separated from Sandwich by a forest. Walkerville (inc. 1890) was a private city owned by distillery baron Hiram Walker. Ford, also known as East Windsor (inc. 1904), was home to 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 – with countless reports of healings that occurred. 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. Loyal to the citizens of Sandwich, His Worship Art Reaume, the 24-year old Mayor of Sandwich – on the job for only eight days – refused to leave office until forcibly removed from Sandwich City Hall by police constables.

Canada entered World War Two on September 10th, 1939. Windsor’s many factories hummed around the clock as workers built weapons of war for King and Empire. 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.​​​