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Thursday, March 30, 2017


"We are the children of many sires, and every drop of blood in us in its turn betrays its ancestor."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have dabbled with genealogy on and off for the better part of 15 years and always thought that it would be fun to discover that one of my distant ancestors had been knighted or awarded an English Lordship.  It's a harmless enough  fantasy that has actually happened -- to some other people.

There is something unique in genealogy research.  You never know what nugget of information lies hidden on the next page of journal text or what may suddenly explode on your computer screen with an unsuspecting click on a keyboard.  That's probably what is so fascinating about it and what keeps us coming back. 
While some of those "nuggets" can be in the form of an exhilarating surprise discovery, others can be a heart-stopping, knock you to your knees revelation, the like of which you hope never rears its ugly head in any of your research. 

In piecing together information for The Wright Story, I was making great strides until one of those worse-case scenarios stopped me in my tracks like I had never been stopped before.  My stomach did a major flip-flop when the words "...possible convict ship immigrant"  lashed out at me like a boxer's left hook to the solar plexus. 

"Can't be," I gasped.  "Has to be a mistake...This only happens to other people." Stopping momentarily to catch my breath, I hastened to do a double check and then the terrible truth with verification of what I had uncovered...My Great-Great-Great Grandfather Henry Wright who immigrated to the New World from England in 1763, was a "convict". 

I pinched myself...Regretfully, I wasn't dreaming.  My first impulse was to turn off my computer and walk away from my paper-strewn study thinking that I would be well-advised to simply put an end to the project. Finito!!!  For crying out loud...I'm 79 years old and I found myself wondering what my late parents would think.  I poured a cup of coffee and sat down in the living room to rationalize the unexpected, shocking discovery.

The newspaper man in me recognized that while I was faced with an extremely bad news personal situation, it was still a good story, reflective of some of the injustices of our world 300 years ago.  I also knew enough about the character of Wright male stock to suggest that Henry was by no means a bad man and that I owed it to him to tell the truth all these years later. It was the (W)right thing to do!

This is Henry Wright's story:

I do not know the details, but how criminal could a 13-year old boy be?  That's right, the tender age of 13.  For what could very well have been an impulsive adolescent act, young Henry (and possibily his younger brother James) was sent on an epic journey across the Atlantic and into the unknown. In being sentenced to what was known as "transportation", he joined the ranks of thousands of others who could tell a similar story. Transportation to the American colonies constituted a major transformation in the lives of the people who received this punishment -- a transformation so profound that they probably never could have conceived of what was in store for them before it actually happened to them. 
British transportation convicts America bound,
including small children like Henry Wright.
In 1717 Britain passed the Transportation Act. This law established a convict bond service as punishment for various offences in the form of penal transportation to the British colonies in North America and Australia. Paupers, petty thieves and criminals were sentenced to a seven-year convict bond service in the colonies. More serious crimes, including rebellion, were punished by a 14-year convict bond service sentence. Britain, it seems, had a rather cruel and unjust way of ridding itself of what in those days were considered young undesirables and law breakers.  First it was the offshore transporting of convicts, then it was the despicable shipment of thousands of British Home Children to hospices and boarding homes in other countries, primarily Canada and the U.S.  

The British government did not designate destinations for transportation convicts, but instead contracted merchants to ship them out. "Planters" in those colonies paid well, plus the merchants could pick up valuable return cargo (i.e. tobacco) while they were there.  The term "plantation" was applied to the large farms that were the economical basis of many of the American colonies. The labor supply from Africa (slaves) was expensive and farmers relied on indentured servants for labor. Transport convicts were bought cheaply from the merchants at the ports of landing. To encourage settlement of the colonies, the Crown granted land to colonists who paid for workers and other settlers under a headrights system.  So everyone made money off the backs of convicts shipped to the colonies.

Through some exhausting research, I have been able to determine that Henry was the first of two sons (James the other) born to John (1730) and Mary Wright (1732) who were married at St. Michael's, Derby, Derbyshire, England. To date, I know nothing more about John and Mary and the conditions under which they lived at the time.  Be that as it may, for some juvenile misdemeanor, young Henry was uprooted from his childhood home in Plumstead, Kent and, after an ocean passage of three or four miserable months, he was dumped ashore in Port Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late summer of 1763. It is not known where Henry actually served his seven-year transportation sentence, but it was likely on a penal colony work farm in Virginia or Maryland.
Research through thousands of reference books containing ships' passenger lists, genealogical registers and other official records led to the discovery of early Wright immigrants to the New World. Above is an extract from the reference book containing Wright immigrants, in this case Coldham, Peter Wilson, English Convicts in Colonial America.  New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1976 (Vol 2: London).  Here you see the name "Henry" (Wright), the port of entry or area of settlement and the page number where the name was found.  
As noted in the above passenger list for the year 1763, a James (Wright) appears just below Henry's name, leading me to accept the strong possibility that he was the younger brother, by perhaps a year or two.  The two boys could well have been swept up by a constable for some perceived minor misdemeanor and quickly sentenced to transportation by an insensitive judge commited to riding British neighborhoods of low class citizens, especially children.  I continue to search for any record of James Wright surviving his sentence. 

In my research, I read that in 1723, James Bell grabbed a book from a London bookstall and started to run, but he was chased by several witnesses and was discovered hiding in a dog kennel. As punishment for his crime, Bell was loaded on a ship and sent to colonial America, where he was sold at auction as an indentured servant for a seven-year term. This could well have been Henry and James Wright's story too.

Anthony Vaver writes about James Bell in his book Bound With an Iron Curtain and tells the stories of other petty thieves and professional criminals who were subjected to this unique punishment, and in bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

A rare report on British convict transportation of the day, spoke of the poorest felons, who were kept in chains in the hold of the ship, in filthy conditions, poorly fed, and subject to life-threatening diseases. Many of them died on the voyage to the colonies. Of those who survived, the conditions of their servitude were frequently as bad as the voyage ever had been. William Eddis, a young Englishman who visited Maryland between 1769 and 1777, noted in a September 1770 letter that, while laborers were often victims of abuse, convicts made especially easy prey since they were "marked with the 'stamp of infamy.'" For that reason, he stated, if the convicts survived their servitude, most of them returned to Great Britain, while a few (like Henry Wright) who had learned to behave honestly moved to distant, less-populated areas and started anew while hoping to escape their pasts.
Convicts confined in the hold of a ship.
Today, historians of convict transportation to America have determined that of the 585,800 immigrants to 13 colonies during the years 1700-1775, about 52,200 were convicts and prisoners (nine percent of the total). During these same years, slaves by far constituted the largest group of immigrants (278,400; 47%), followed by people arriving with their freedom (151,600; 26%) and indentured servants (96,600).  Almost three quarters of all the people arriving in the American colonies during this time period did so without their freedom.
British convict transportation ship.

Not to cast family aspersions, but it is also interesting to note that English Convicts in Colonial America, Vols. 1 & 2  show that between 1663 and 1774 a total of 86 British "Wrights" were sentenced to transportation.  Of that number, 33 were females. The majority of males were young (some as young as nine years of age), not necessarily hardened criminals or organized gang members, but members of the working poor class.

Having completed his grueling penal term in about 1771, a now 21-year-old Henry somehow ended up in Rutland Township, Tiogo County, Pennsylvania where, as fate would have it, he soon met a local German immigrant girl, 20-year-old Mary Christine Klingensmith, daughter of Daniel and Anna (Reitenauer) Klingensmith.  The enamored pair married in 1772 and quickly had the first of 11 children the following year.  Henry was obviously making up for lost time.

He continued to work on farms in the small rural Pennsylvanian community and the Wright family grew at a rate of one child every 16 months or so. By 1788, and after the birth of baby No, 10, Henry obviously became disenchanted with unsettled conditions in Pennsylvania following the American Revolution.  Like many others who remained loyal to British roots, he began to look favorably on an exodus movement to Upper Canada and a new settlement on the north shore of Lake Erie from the Detroit River to the site of present-day Kingsville.  The purpose of the settlement in Essex County, was to protect the frontier from American raids and to continue good relations with Indians in the Ohio Valley and the western Great Lakes region.
Map showing the New World and its colonies in the 1790s.  Note: The proximity of Philadelphia to Port Detroit and the possibility of an overland route travelled by Henry Wright as he made his way into Canada.

The lure of free Crown land in Upper Canada was just too great for a man now in his 40s and having spent his formative years laboring in a penal colony. The decision was made to pull up stakes and with 10 children in tow, Henry and Mary joined civilian refugees from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New York on a long trek to Fort Detroit in Michigan. The grueling, physically taxing journey must have taken many months. There were virtually no roads or settlements for most of the trip and family goods were carried on the backs of pack horses.
Map showing the location of Malden Township
and Colchester South and North. 
Having eventually crossed the Detroit River in 1790, the designated "Loyalists" waited for lots in the new Colchester South settlement by renting farm plots from large landholders on Grosse Ile and Hog Island.  Henry and his family settled for two years on a Grosse Ile tenant farm held by the Macomb brothers who owned the island.  The Wrights left soon after, however, when it was realized that the island was not part of British North America. The next move was to the Big Creek area of Malden, where records show Lot 40 on Concession 4 being assigned to Henry.  Then again, we find "Henry Wright, a native of Old England" (as noted in land records) obtaining Crown Lots 76 and 77 in Colchester in 1792.  It has been documented that the initial lots were "slivers" of land backing onto the river and lake while block parcels were subsequently awarded more inland as the settlements grew.

All Ontario land belonged to the Crown after Britain gained control over France. To obtain Crown land, early settlers petitioned the Governor or his executive council. The petitions often include information on the petitioner's family and his military service. Only rarely do they tell where he came from. They do not give the location of the land he received.

Over the course of the next 40 or 50 years Land Registry records show Wrights -- Peter, Philip Jr., William, Arthur, and Salathiel -- also being granted lots by the Crown. I have yet to discover the location and land records for Great Grandfather Ebeneezer's farm and hope that while still able I will have an opportunity to visit Essex and its rural area. There is a lot registered to E and E Wright, perhaps that could be Ebeneezer and his youngest son Erie.

Once settled, and after an almost 10-year break from child bearing, Mary gave birth in 1799 to her 11th (and final) child at 48 years of age. Henry had little better than 10 years on his land when he fell ill and passed away in 1813. Mary survived him by another 19 years, no doubt living with one or two of her adult children on the family homestead; possibly her second oldest son Philip who was destined to become my great-great grandfather, or youngster son Henry Jr.

From the Botsford family records, I have learned that Henry Jr. jointly settled a "back" farm at Lot 25, Concession 3, Malden with Daniel Botsford in 1831.  The lot was later divided into two farms and the south property became Henry Jr.'s homestead.  By the early 1830s the original farms along the waterfront were all occupied and the back concessions began to open up, one of the first being the lot claimed by Henry Jr. and Daniel.  Henry would eventually be elected the first reeve of Malden Council in 1850.

I cannot help but wonder if Henry Sr. was ever able to make contact with his folks back home in England...Probably not, given the fact that the advent of a transcontinental postal service and telegraph messaging were many years down the road.

Little would Henry and Mary dream that in 200 hundred years, four generations removed, a Richard Kenneth Wright would care enough to trace their pioneering footsteps with respect and new-found eternal appreciation and admiration.  

Philip Wright, born to Henry and Mary in 1775, helped out on the family farm and moved quickly to acquire next-door Crown property on Concession 1 of Colchester South, Lot 75, prior to marrying his first wife Jane Anna Dowler, daughter of Irish immigrants Robert and Rebecca Dowler. Sixteen-year-old Jane Anna gave birth to a daughter, Anna (McCormick) in 1797 but may have died of complications soon thereafter (documented dates from several sources are extremely contradictory and confusing).  It is not known who raised tiny Anna (1797-1865) after the death of her mother, perhaps her grandparents, Rebecca and Robert Dowler.  It would appear that Anna was nurtured sufficiently to grow up eventually marrying into the McCormick family and having several children of her own.

Philip married again in 1801, this time to Delilah Malott of Grosse Ile, Mich., daughter of French immigrant parents, Joseph and Sarah Malott, tenant farmers on Grosse Ile. Remarkably, Philip was 11 years senior to the 15-year-old Delilah who gave birth to their first child when she was still 16. In that time period it was not unusual for young girls to be married by the age of 13 or 14 and if women were not married by the age of 25, it was socially humiliating. I suppose that the parents of young maidens did not object, because it would mean one less mouth to feed.

Philip and Delilah would go on to have nine more children, including my great grandfather Ebeneezer Wright in 1818.

Under the Upper Canada Militia Act of March 16, 1808, all males between the ages of 16 to 60, capable of bearing arms, were ordered to enroll in the militia company in the area in which they lived.  The Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Pay Lists, show great-great grandfather Philip Wright as a member of the Essex Light Infantry Regiment under the command of a Col. Reynolds. Henry Wright Jr. also signed up as a private in Captain Caldwell's Company of the 1st. Regiment, Essex County Militia.

The Upper Canadian militia were organized into Regiments, based on the "ridings" of each County, such as the 1st and 2nd Essex Militia based out of Essex County, Ontario. Normally in Upper Canada, militia units would meet once a year to receive minor military training. They would wear their own clothing and many armed themselves with their own weapons. At the instigation of Major General Isaac Brock, commanding in Upper Canada, each regiment formed two "flank companies", consisting of one captain, two subalterns, two sergeants, one drummer and thirty-five men, who were prepared to train six times per month. They were not paid, but were exempt from Jury duty or arrest in any civil case.
Depiction of soldier fighting Indians, War of 1812.

Between 1749 and 1885, both Essex and Kent militia were raised from time to time for specific tasks such as local defense of the garrison against First Nations in 1763 and expeditions into the frontier in 1778-80 during the American Revolutionary War. After that the militia took on a more formal battalion structure and in 1794 border tensions required their mobilization for combat in what is now Ohio.

During the War of 1812-15, the garrison at Fort Amherstburg was strengthened with the call out of the Regiments of Essex Militia and Kent Militia. After a brief incursion into Essex County the Americans returned to the safety of Fort Detroit. A combined force of Essex and Kent militia, British regulars, other Upper Canada militia and First Nations crossed the Detroit River and forced the surrender of Fort Detroit. A portion of the Prize Pay List for the 2nd Regiment of Essex Militia from this capture presently hangs in the Tilston Armoury, Windsor. For the next year the British and the militia of Essex and Kent fought in Michigan and Ohio. By June 1813 with their fighting done and farms in need of care the Essex and Kent militia regiments were dismissed home. Following the decisive American victory in October 1813 near Moraviantown in Kent County, many continued to fight in the Niagara region as the Essex and Kent militia or volunteered with other units.

The Essex and Kent volunteers mobilized for the Patriot War of 1838 and fought battles at Amherstburg, Fighting Island, Pelee Island and Windsor. At the time there were three regiments in each of the Essex and Kent militia. The Patriot War was the last time that Essex and Kent counties were invaded.


I cannot begin to imagine the hardships faced by two generations of Wrights and their broods as they established homesteads on Colchester South land over a 20-year period. The constant threat of American invasion from the south only compounded a difficult life. Their will, strength of spirit and fortitude are to be admired by those of us who have followed. 
Pioneer woman making bread.

Pioneer Loyalists like the Wrights used what the wild, virgin land provided.  The essential tool was the ax.  When a family of settlers arrived at the spot where they planned to make their home, they began chopping saplings and trimming poles to build a lean-to. Between two forked trees they laid a crosspole. With the help of horses they rolled up a log, which was banked with dirt to form a low back wall. Then they laid poles, slanted upward, from the back log to the crosspole. The sloping roof was covered with bark and branches. The ends of the lean-to were walled with shorter poles and pickets. This was the pioneers' "half-faced camp." It always faced south, away from wind and rain. In front of the open side they dug a fire pit. Logs smoldered there day and night, giving warmth and protection.

This served as a temporary home while the pioneer family prepared ground for their first crop. A real clearing took months of work, but a "deadening" could be done quickly. A few ax cuts were made in the tree trunks so that sap could not flow up to the branches. Soon the leaves withered, allowing sunlight to reach the damp soil. Seed corn was dropped into ax cuts in the ground. The crop from that crude planting provided food for the first winter.

Before winter came, the pioneer family hoped to have a small clearing and a snug cabin. The forest was the settlers' enemy—it had to be destroyed to create their fields. At the same time, it was their friend—it gave them logs for their cabin, fuel for their fire, rails for their fences, wheels for their wagon, and a frame for their plow.
Early settler's home.
Notched logs formed the cabin walls of settlers' new living quarters. A ridgepole at the peak supported lighter roof poles, and a bark thatching made the roof complete. Logs, split into flat-faced planks called puncheons, were used to make the cabin floor. Two openings, a window and a door, were sawed out with patient labor. Typically the first doorway covering was an old quilt weighted with a log; later a board door would be hung on leather hinges. The first window covering was greased paper, which turned away wind and water and admitted a dim light. 

To pioneer people, "book l'arnin'" was less important than learning to use an ax and a plow, a loom and a spinning wheel. But as settlements grew, parents wanted their children to know the three R's. In crude log schoolhouses, shelves fastened to the wall served for desks and the students sat on three-legged stools. They used charcoal to write on hand-smoothed writing boards. Later came slates and slate pencils. A slate, wiped clean after each lesson, could be used for years.

They were still using slate boards when my mother and father started school in Dresden, circa 1905.

I strongly suspect that the first three generations of Wrights on Canadian soil received little in the way of formal schooling. The first to reach academic heights may well have been Thomas Wright, born 1788, the youngest son of Henry and Mary.  Thomas not only attended high school in nearby Sandwich but he was a qualified land surveyor and civil engineer. He was no doubt the first to leave the family farm and was a long-serving and celebrated treasurer of Essex County.

  • By the late 1880’s, Essex County had grown to include fur trading, logging, land clearing, farming, road building, railway development, saw mills and gristmills, railway stations and water ports. Another Wright offspring, Peter Wright Jr. of Gosfield South, son of Peter Sr. (1806-1855) and grandson of Henry, served as one of the early wardens of the county in 1888. 
  • The Historical Atlas of Essex and Kent Counties, 1880-1881, paid the following special attention to the Wright family.  "The Wright family is also deserving of mention for the conspicuous part played by its meembers in the general programs of progress in the locality of theLake Shore. They were among the first to locate in the township and from the date of their settlement to the present, this name has been closely connected with the advancement of its material interests...Mr. Henry Wright, now of Malden, a grandson of the original settler here of that name, occupied the office of Reeve of Colchester during a term of many years, and the present incumbent of the office is another of his family, Mr. Peter Wright."
  • At some point Peter's brother William Wright donated a portion of his farm, Concession 1, Lot 40, for the creation of the Iler Settlement Baptist (New) Cemetery, one of some 30 cemeteries now in the Essex area.

Once again, I have to give credit to great-great-great grandmother Mary and great-great grandmother Delilah who between them raised 21 children under extremely difficult conditions.  It stands to reason that those Wrights would grow into solid citizens making a major contribution to the development of the settlement and Essex County in general as the years have passed.  The following charts graphically illustrate the necessity of family teamwork and the food that fuelled hard-working bodies in those early days of life in the new Canada ...Our Home and Native Land.

Note monument made of white marble
slab, reflective of fine art and carving
techniques typical of the period

As best as I can determine, great grandfather
Ebeneezer (son of Philip and Delilah), was a quiet, unassuming type of individual who may have worked his farm along with several other Wright properties in the Colchester South area. He married Eliza Stockwell, also of Colchester South, November 12, 1841.  Eliza was of Dutch ancestry, the daughter of John and Polly (Botsford) Stockwell.  It is pertinent to note that John, very much an immigrant Loyalist, also served in the War of 1812 and the rebellions of 1837.  Ebbie and Eliza had five children, including my grandfather Wesley C. Wright (1852-1920).

Ebeneezer (1818-1900) and Eliza (1818-1881) are both buried in Erie Memorial Gardens, Colchester South, which was amalgamated with the Town of Essex in 1990.
Wesley Wright (1852-1920)

I think that it was Wesley's original intention to maintain family tradition by continuing to farm in Colchester South.  He married 18-year-old Mary Klie, February 9, 1875.  The circumstance are unknown, but Mary died within weeks of the marriage.

Again details are lacking, but five years later Wes married an Annie Furey, daughter of Dawn Township farmer Nicholson and Elizabeth Furey, October 14, 1879.  The couple first lived in nearby Bothwell before moving permanently to Dresden. They had two sons -- Owen Brice and Ebby Earl.  Annie passed away in 1894, leaving Wes a widower for the second time.

Spinster Louise Reddick, (1861-1932):
daughter of James and Elizabeth Reddick of Sombra, Louise came into Wesley's life a year or so later and they were married May 12, 1896.  My father Kenneth Wright entered the world in January of 1899. Wesley, a gentleman farmer of sorts, made a living as a financier loaning money and holding mortgages on a number of Kent and Lambton County properties.  He passed away in 1920 and Louise followed 12 years later. Wes, Annie, Louise, father Kenneth and mother Grace all rest in a family plot in the Dresden Cemetery.
Louise and Wesley Wright
Regretfully, I have never met another living, breathing Wright descendant outside of my own small immediate family circle and I am not likely to do so, yet somehow I feel that I know each and every one of them.  Even grandparents Wesley and Louise had passed on long before I was born in 1938, although I was raised in their heritage home in Dresden. Wesley and his wives Annie and Louise, Nelson and Harriet Perry (grandparents on my mother's side), and parents Grace and Ken Wright all died in that old home, circa 1860, on Sydenham Street. It was not uncommon for the deceased to rest in the family home for public visitation and the actual funeral service itself.  After my mother passed away, I sold the house and property. I don't go back there anymore...Just too many ghosts, I guess!  .

I talk about my parents and life in Dresden on another blog site "Father and Son Turn Back the Clock"  Also "The Perry's: My Other Half"

My dad, who attempted to do a little family research in the 1940s before the advent of computers, was not privy to Wright background much beyond his grandfather Ebeneezer. He did, however, suggest to me that Irish, English, German, Pennsylvania Dutch -- and even some Spanish -- blood flowed through our veins.  He may welI have known more than he told me. Nevertheless, I have been accepted into a Wright DNA Project, so in time we will determine the accuracy of his claim.

As a family and as a country, we've come a long way babe!  And just think, some of us would not be here today had it not been for an impoverished 13 year old boy committing a petty crime in England more than 250 years ago.

Life is like that.