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lambton county
malcolm cameron
carousing
lake huron
Sarnia: How It All Began
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For thousands of years the native people of North America roamed the vast forests hunting and gathering and pursuing their way of life long before the white man ever reached their shores. When the first white men came to this continent and began moving west and they made arrangements with the native people and used them as guides and trading partners. For the longest time the land which encompasses the city of Sarnia and Lambton County now stands, was uncharted wilderness occupied by the Ojibwa, Chippewa, and Potowatami tribes. In the Seven Years War these peoples fought against the British. But a few years later they fought with the British during the War of 1812.

So how did the city of Sarnia ever come to be?

When the first French settlers first arrived in the area they paddled north from Detroit and arrived in the area just south of where Lake Huron empties into the Saint Claire River. They made arrangements with the local tribes and received permission for the peaceful use of their lands. There were a motley collection of shacks on the eastern bank of the river just below Lake Huron. A second wave of immigrants arrived in the 1830's. There were farmers from England, Weavers from Scotland, along with a handful of retired military types. It was generally said that there was a lot of drunkenness and loud carousing especially in the area of Sarnia Village.

The fledgling community was beginning to mature as more and more people arrived to settle this land. Among them was one John Raeside Gemmill, who decided that he would like to publish a weekly newspaper, so with the backing of one Malcolm Cameron he began his publishing career. Today, 160 years and 6 name changes later the Observer is one of the oldest businesses in Lambton County. It immediately became a hit with the population. Within a month the paper had become so popular that one in every twelve people subscribed. There was a great rivalry between his paper and that of his competitor, Alexander Mackenzie, who operated a publication called the Lambton Shield. Ironically it was the Lambton Shield that assured the success of Gemmill's publication.

A war of words erupted when Mackenzie accused Gemmill's benefactor of land jobbery. Cameron sued and Mackenzie was found guilty and convicted of libel. The court costs and fine totaled 170 pounds, a princely sum in those days and it silenced The Shield forever. Despite that defeat Alexander Mackenzie continued in politics and had huge success. He went on to become the second Prime Minister of Canada.

By the mid 1860's Sarnia became a bustling little community. Citizens were becoming boastful over the discovery of oil in nearby Petrolia and Oil Springs, the arrival of two new rail lines, The Great Western Railway in 1858 and The Grand Trunk Railway in 1859, plus a visit from the Prince of Wales. During this period there were rumors of an impending raid by the Fenians who were a mysterious group of Irishmen in the United States dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland by attacking British colonies in Canada. The Fenian raid was to take place on the upcoming March 17, St. Patrick's Day. Well the day came and went and no raid took place although the Fenians did attack along the Niagara River and points east resulting in the death of 9 Canadians. This attack leading to the defense of our country went a very long way to bring about Confederation the following year.


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