Friday, December 10, 2010

Creative non-fiction and our history

Originally posted April 19th, 2010 by Davus Publishing

From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley’s Upper Canada. 
David Richard Beasley. -
Davus Publishing. 388 pages. Illustrations $15.95 softbound

The central character of this story, Richard Beasley, was indeed a man of some prominence in the years just before and the decades after the creation of this province. A descendant has cast his ancestor’s biography as a personal narrative—a drama with famous players indeed: Richard Cartwright, Major John Butler, Chief Joseph Brant and Isaac Brock as well as Family Compact members John Strachan and John Beverley Robinson along with radicals Robert Gourlay and William Lyon Mackenzie. Readers who enjoy fictionalized scenes with imaginatively created dialogue, all based on extensive research, will welcome this volume and its fresh approach to an important historical period.
OHS BULLETIN, December 2008


  1. May 3, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I love Canadian History; and have read from “Bloody Beginnings”.

    I found it to be meticulously researched, fast paced, well written. It ties together the stories of some of our most compelling and influential Ontario historical forefathers. It reminded me of how brutual and cheap life and liberty is in a time of war (and particularly civil wars and wars of independence). It re-enforced my conviction that the sins of our past are still being re-enacted around our world of today.

    Congratulations to David Beasley, on a job ‘well done’.

  2. May 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Keith Simpson’s opinion is valued highly by me. He is one of Canada’s foremost lawyers and set a Supreme Court precedent.

  3. May 4, 2010 at 7:59 am

    “Bloody Beginnings” did for me what an education couldn’t. I could never quite grasp the Family Compact and its hold on democracy in a young Canada. In this book I travel on familiar roads to familiar places, albeit on foot or horseback, and listen to familiar people tell their own stories and their frustrations with the British Administration. Alongside this drama is the undercurrent of those fleeing the “freedom” of a young America. Choosing sides in the War of 1812 was a complicated affair and one clearly told by Mr. Beasley. With the anniversary of the War of 1812 nearly upon us, I recommend “From bloody Beginnings” as an excellent primer.

  4. May 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Frank Woodcock is the kind of reader that I hope to reach—a person of intellectual curiosity and good judgment.

  5. Permit me to comment on Ronald Staggʼs review of my From Bloody Beginnings:Richard Beasleyʼs Upper Canada (Ont. Hist Autumn 2009). I understand criticisms from academics as I have written a dissertation and know the restrictions it requires; this book was not a dissertation. I did not write a biography but a history from Richardʼs viewpoint, backed by facts, as I made clear. Much of the first part of the book deals with the American Revolution to explain the backgrounds and principles of the characters who developed Canada. The political stands, actions of disaffection and war taken by Beasley, Cartwright, Simcoe, Brant et. al. cannot be understood without knowing this background. I wanted to weave a comprehensive story with all its parts, none that were gratuitous or without significance to the whole. I take Staggʼs point that the story of the battles of the War of 1812 comprised a “compressed” section, that, by the way, Richard was involved in intimately, and just mentioned the battles outside his Niagara purlieu. But I hope I gave a comprehensive picture when writers of other articles and books on the War deal with individual battles, except for John Richardson and Pierre Berton. As I am an “authority” on John Richardson, having spent many years writing about him, I refer readers to his poem “Tecumseh” and other of his writings which describe the skinning of Tecumseh [and the questionable denial by Indians in my publication Major John Richardsonʼs Short Stories]. But the point of this slight reference to Tecumsehʼs skinning was to reflect what everyone believed, couched in the same sentence as the flight of the general and his staff from the Battle of the Thames, all of which had an affect on the populace. Likewise, references to Yonge Street and Baldwin were not made up. If Arnold did not command the assault on Quebec, who did? [Readers read Kenneth Robertsʼ Arundel]. As for everyone not agreeing with Richardʼs view of politics, that
    should be evident from the great opposition he faced and suffered from. —David Beasley

    1. I started a project to research my family roots (William and Robert Baldwin) back in 2007 and retrace (or recreate/dramatize) their first 60 years in Upper Canada. I call this project (a series of teleplays) "Settlers' Footprints" and bought your book "From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley's Upper Canada" as soon as I discovered it. I never devoured nor read a historical book so quickly!
      Your narrative about the American Revolution (or civil war amongst Loyalist and "rebels") is quite eye-opening (unlike so much of the propaganda we were fed as students). Richard's life as a fur-trader, trapper with the various tribes in Upper state NY, is also fascinating. I enjoyed the stories about Joseph Brant. Reading them made me want more.
      You made Richard's first impressions of the doctor (William Warren) to be a "bit of a snob" - and this made me smile as it is in keeping of everything I have researched about him. My story was already headed in the direction of showing how the country shapes the men, of how they became influenced by Loyalist & native ideals/values- even if it was a slow process back then.
      Naturally, the struggles Beasley endures against Claus (of Native affairs), the ruling powers, and the later years with Gourlay, are what really interested me. I also enjoyed the bits about his struggle with MacNab, Robinson, Strachan and the Family compact. Your elaboration on Baldwin's and Dr Rolph's attempted to seek justice for George Rolph's tar and feathering is sad yet revealing (of how corrupt the state of affairs got back then).
      My logline for "Settlers' Footprints" is to show how the Baldwins became involved in the Reform movement so your book provided excellent glimpses into a world so poorly researched. It gave me more "grist for my mill."
      You've inspired me to push on and read more Pierre Burton. I would like to get your book on John Richardson some day.
      Thanks David!
      James Baldwin (Great X4 grandson of Robert Baldwin)

  6. I have read a book of John Richardson's writings that I bought from you and I find it interesting in showing how a contemporary of Tecumseh's and Brock's revealed a time of radical change through new settlements and 'war'( more like skirmishes in our area, now Essex). I really appreciated your introduction to the book and I can see that I need to read more of your works.
    Thank you for your passion for Canadian history. In my small way, I'm trying to get early history across to younger readers through my own researched novel, An Unexpected Friendship Amherstburg 1846. Matthew Elliott's wife is one of my characters.Now I'm working on the 1790-1814 period so I thank you for your help. Jane Buttery

  7. I wish to comment briefly on the review of From Bloody Beginnings by Jason Schaaf of the Duchess Community College in New York State which appeared in the Hudson River Valley Review [posted among the reviews on my web site]. He comments largely on the part dealing with the American Revolution and says little about most of the book dealing with the rise of Upper Canada, which, as an American, probably has little interest for him. My comment concerns his view of "creative non-fiction." He wrote: "From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley's Upper Canada is categorized by its author as "creative non-fiction," the well-researched and historically accurate, but fictitious, memoirs of the author's great-great-grandfather." How can a thing be historically accurate but fictitious? This is a problem that creative non-fiction advocates must deal with. The conversations and some of the meetings between the principals are "created." But they reflect what the principals were doing and thinking at the time. For instance, the meeting between Henry Beasley and his old friend Abraham Yates in Cartwright's former Inn in Albany in 1791 catches the thinking of both men and centres on the journalistic and essay writings of Yates critical of the US Congress and the direction that post-Revolutionary America is taking. This is not fictitious; rather it is documented. I make the distinction between historical fiction and creative non-fiction this way—historical fiction is when the characters come first whereas in creative non-fiction history comes first. This is not to say that my historical fiction is not based on fact; indeed, it is researched and reflects actual events as much as possible; but some characters will have to be created such as in Sarah's Journey when I describe Sarah's escape through Ohio; there I had to make up characters because none would have been mentioned by Sarah in her lifetime for fear they would be killed; but I did research the route and other escapes and drove over the likely route to see the lay of the ground. Creative non-fiction is really not fictitious, though historical fiction may well be.
    One other comment—the book used Richard Beasley as a centre to hold the story together; it is not about him. The idea came from Somerset Maugham who wrote that when he wrote The Razor's Edge the book did not work, was too diffuse, until he devised a central character who knew and could relate the deeds of the other protagonists and thus hold it all together. [Herbert Marshall played the movie role] Richard's lifespan covered the period; he knew all he characters and was involved in much of the action; thus he was a natural to tell the story—actually the history of Upper Canada.

  8. No likeness of Richard Beasley seemed to have been preserved until Olga Worline of Denver, CO. saw a couple of Charlotte Hills Beasley's floral watercolours online with her CHB signature. The same signature was on a charcoal drawing of an old man in her possession with the number '63. I concluded that the drawing was of Richard Beasley done by Charlotte in 1863 from another representation long after Richard's death. I put it on the cover of From Bloody Beginnings: Richard Beasley's Upper Canada. The drawing is 11 3/4" x 15 3/4". Ms. Worline had it evaluated at $7,000. She wishes to sell it -[].

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  10. Who Were The First Settlers at the Head of the Lake?

      Having just read the latest Loyalist Trails and the item about the 2013 Loyalist Conference, "At The Head of lake Ontario"  I wish to point out to Loyalist Trails readers and author Jean Rae Baxter that Robert Land arrived at the Head of the Lake after Richard Beasley and possibly others. Marjorie Freeman Campbell in A Mountain and a City places Robert Land living in Niagara Falls on property later known as Lundy's Lane when Richard Beasley was trading as a merchant at the Head of the Lake. Richard Beasley's tombstone behind Christ Church Cathedral states that he was the first settler at the Head of the Lake; he died in 1842. Land died in 1818, just after Hamilton was formed as a county capital from the village The Head of the Lake. An historian detective such as Robin McKee might ask why the first settler appellation was given by the Land family to Robert  when at the time such a distinction would not have occurred to any of the other early settlers. I suggest that the Lands, who were Tories and allied themselves in the early days with the governing oligarchy, sought ways to distinguish themselves. Richard Beasley led the Reformers and suffered at the hands of the oligarchy; by the time he died the Reform movement was becoming the political power in government. Were the Beasley family and the Anglican Churchmen correcting the record by stating for posterity that Richard Beasley was the first settler at the Head of the Lake and/or was there some political motivation to it? Richard Beasley, who arrived in the province in 1777, lived 36 years in the Head of the Lake and was chiefly responsible for its development; he lived 24 years in its changed name of Hamilton; he was one of the main movers in having the town recognized over Dundas as the county capital and in its choice of name [Robert Hamilton had been his mentor and partner in the fur trade and Robert's son, George Hamilton, after whom the town was named, was a close friend and strong ally in the reform movement].  In my book From Bloody Beginnings; Richard Beasley's Upper Canada, I narrate Richard Beasley's fur trading days, his work in the commissariat at Fort Niagara during the Revolution and his partnership with Richard Cartwright as a merchant in the Fort in the days when Robert Land was runner of dispatches for John Butler from the Fort to Loyalist spies in the Mohawk Valley.
    The children of Richard Beasley and Henrietta Springer were all born at the Head of the Lake whereas Robert Land's children were born in New York State. It may have been important to the Beasley children to affirm their father's distinction, since the Head of the Lake settlement was all they knew and their father's many accomplishments had been attacked and maligned by the Tory oligarchy all through his life and brought to a head by the Rebellion shortly before he died. The first settler controversy has been an amusing diversion for decades, but it is of small importance in the political struggles  determining our civil liberties that were fought in those early days. I hope Robin McKee can put the controversy to rest for good. 
                David Richard Beasley

  11. The following letter I wrote to the Hamilton Spectator Letters to the Editor but it was not printed for some reason known only to the Editor.

    re: Brits say Sir Allan’s Dundurn is no Castle. Spectator April 1, 2014.

    The term “castle” has a different meaning in America than in Europe that perhaps the Queen and her advisors do not know. “Castle” is an American-Indian term applied to a central gathering place or village with a palisade. Canajoharie Castle, for instance, was the main Mohawk village in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Joseph Brant grew up there and in near-by Tiononderoga, referred to as Lower Castle as distinctive from the Upper Castle. Tiononderoga was the site of Fort Hunter where Richard Beasley was born and grew up. Richard’s closeness to Brant is demonstrated in my From Bloody Beginnings, and when Richard built his second home on Burlington Heights, largely from money earned selling parts of the Six Nations Reserve in co-operation with Brant and the Mohawks, he gave it a grand appearance. [MacNab used his great front doors for his Castle and built on the foundations of Beasley’s home which must have equaled it in size but of different architecture] It became a stopping point for notable visitors to the area for decades. Moreover the Six Nations made their annual meetings on Burlington Heights where the Neutrals had met before them. Richard’s mansion may have been referred to as a castle or gathering place. MacNab, of course, had pretentious ambitions and may have seen the word “castle” in European terms by the time he bought the place in 1832, but the word still carried its North American meaning. I think Canadians should honour their history and refuse to have it overridden by imperialistic interpretations. Sincerely yours, David Beasley

  12. On perusing my notes for a new project I came across en entry from the Canadian Illustrated News published in Hamilton in 1860—p.12: George Hamilton Mills was born in Hamilton on Nov 20, 1827. His father, James Mills, was the son of a United Empire Loyalist and came from the states in 1793, accompanied by the late John Wilson of Grimsby. In those days he encountered but one white resident, Colonel Richard Beasley, in this locality, then unknown as Hamilton.
    Readers of From Bloody Beginnings may recall the attack on Richard Beasley by the oligarchy for his support of Robert Gourlay's reform movement in 1818 when he chaired meetings in Ancaster and elsewhere. The kangaroo trial Richard endured was provoked intentionally by Adjutant-General Coffin and Major Simons by inferring that Governor Gore had replaced Richard as commanding officer of his York Regiment with Simons. I cite two letters bearing on that matter.
    Samuel Jarvis, Secretary to the Administrator, to James Fitzgibbon, Asst Adj-Gen., 18 May 1818, "The Administrator asks that you transmit to this office without delay a commission now lying in the Adjutant-General's office appoint Richard Beasley Colonel of the 2nd Regiment of Gore Militia/ formerly 2nd York Militia."
    Richard Beasley, Barton, to Major Hillier, 29 December 1818, commenting on a letter in the Phoenix from Coffin to Simons "commanding officer 2nd Gore" :" I am commanding officer since 1809 and a commission signed by Governor Gore before departing the province was left in charge of the Adjutant-General, and having received a letter from Samuel Smith, Administrator of Province dated 19 May 1818, a copy of which I enclose." Richard adds that he was not conscious of an act taking command from him and asks for an investigation "to be made public." After promising that he could defend himself and have witnesses, then forbidding them to speak and making the charges public, Coffin ruined his reputation in the eyes of succeeding generations.

  13. When I was a boy I recall seeing the stone with a bronze tablet commemorating the United Empire Loyalists and Richard Beasley. When I wondered what had happened to it, no one at the Dundurn Museum could tell me and one former worker there said it did not exist. The Rev. Mel Bailey left me his research on Richard Beasley including a newspaper clipping about the dedication of the monument. There are two photographs of the distinguished men and women present with the following inscription: "Scenes in Dundurn park yesterday morning when the granite boulder and memorial table were unveiled. In the upper picture. Sir John Gibson is seen reading aloud the inscription. In the lower, those who took part in the ceremony, including descendants of Col. Beasley, mentioned on the tablet, are seen." There also was another clipping [like the first undated but one I remember seeing in the Spectator in the late 1940s] of a boy, Norm Matheson, and his mother, descendants of Richard Beasley admiring the tablet on this huge rock with Mrs Bryce Mundie, curator at the Dundurn Castle Museum. To remove such a boulder must have taken great effort. One cannot help wondering whether the wish to honour MacNab and his castle meant excluding all other vestiges of the historic figures who built the place and its grounds. I have a photograph of a fairly large memorial sign erected at Dundurn honouring Richard Beasley from, I believe, the 1970s but that monument too has disappeared. If anyone can explain these disappearances I would be glad to hear the explanation.

    Friday. June 10, 1796.- The sand cliffs on the north shore of Burlington Bay look like red rocks. The beach is like a park covered with large spreading oaks. At eight o'clock we set out in a boat to go to Beasley's at the head of Burlington Bay, about eight miles. The river and bay were full of canoes; the Indians were fishing; we bought some fine salmon of them. When we bad near crossed the bay, Beasley's house became a very pretty object. We landed at it, and walked up the hill, from whence is a beautiful view of the lake, with wooded points marking the line of shore and Flamborough in the background. The hill is quite like a park, with large oak trees disposed, but no underwood.
    NOTE.--The location of this point of land was on the north shore of the lake, east of Burlington, Ont.
    Richard Beasley was an Indian trader. He was the first settler at the "Head of the Lake". He —owned land now known as Dundurn Park. It is stated by the Beasley descendants that the house of Richard Beasley was west of the present site of Dundurn Castle and that the building was afterwards incorporated in the present Castle, but this is not at all likely as the first dwelling must have been built of logs. The so-called Castle is a substantial residence, built of brick and well proportioned. The late Senator Mclnnes, the last owner, informed me that the stone building at the western part of the Castle, now used as a gymnasium, was built prior to the main structure. It shows indications of having been incorporated in the main building. The descendants of Beasley's family- state that Richard Beasley moved to his house at Dundurn immediately after his arrival at Hamilton, or more properly speaking, Barton Township, and that his sons, Richard, George, David C., and Henry Beasley were born in the house. The latter in 1793. Without documentary evidence it is believed that Richard Beasley's, the U. E. Loyalist's first house, was at Dundurn, and that his elder sons were born in a house on this site.
    Saturday 11th. . We walked two miles on this park, which is quite natural, for there are no settlements near it. Beasley's, the Indian Trader can scarcely be called such, trading being his only occupation, but the country appears 'more fit for the reception of inhabitants than any part of the Province I have seen, being already cleared . . . I was so pleased with this place that the Governor stay'd and dined at Beasley's.

  15. Recently I visited Dundurn and found the boulder with an inscription to Loyalists and Richard Beasley behind the fence by the parking lot. I shall try to show the photograph of long ago when the rock was dedicated, elsewhere on my web site. Sir John Gibson, Lieutenant-Governor, who is seen reading the inscription, was my maternal grandfather's uncle. and his close friend.

  16. An interview with Sophia Beasley, daughter of Henry Beasley and granddaughter of Richard Beasley, appeared in the Toronto Daily Star on May 14, 1927 when she was 87. She stated that the front wall of Richard Beasley's home was incorporated into Dundurn Castle. We know that the large doors of the castle were taken from Richard Beasley's home, thus the imagined drawing of Beasley's home before MacNab turned it into his Castle is not remotely representative of it. Sophia whose second husband was the colourful Moses Springer said that her uncle Captain J. B. Dennis, who was in charge of Brock's funeral, claimed that Richard Beasley separated Isaac from Chief Joseph Brant in the famous confrontation in Beasley's Inn. She added that Richard Beasley was presented with a jewelled sword by George !!!, which General Brock mentioned in an order signed at Fort George on August 26, 1812—which I have not been able to verify.