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Dundas Valley Historical Society
Ontario, Canada
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The Spencers of Dundas

by Gerard Middleton
This article is the text of the April, 2004 presentation given to the Dundas Valley Historical Society. Reproduced with permission of the author. .

Update: The Descendants of Robert Spencer (Family Tree, pdf, 2 pages)

Introduction: who the Spencers were and how I became interested in them

My interest in the Spencer family began when my colleague, John Drake, drew my attention to a grave in the Dundas cemetery. The inscription reads: J. Winthrop Spencer, Geologist, 1850-1921. John asked if I knew anything about him. I knew a little, because he was a prominent geologist, a pioneer in the study of landforms (so a geomorphologist) who had written a book about Niagara Falls in 1907 (published, on contract, by the Geological Survey of Canada). It turned out that Spencer was born and buried in Dundas, though he spent most of his life working in the United States, and his father was a pioneer mill-builder in Dundas. The extended Spencer family included several people with interesting Dundas connections.

Photo of inscription on J. Winthrop Spencer's gravestone

Robert Spencer (?1733-1823), United Empire Loyalist

The patriarch of the Spencer family was Robert, Sr. According to an interesting series of articles, published in the Norwich Gazette in 1889 (and supplied to me by Helen Brink of Greensville), he was born in Ireland about 1733, and emigrated to America with his father when he was only three years old. In 1761, at Stone Arabia NY, he married Catherine Sternburg (aka Van Sternberg) whose father lived in the German immigrant community along the Mohawk River, near Schoharie. Robert and Catherine settled on a 200-acre farm nearby, and had six children: Jacob, Abigail, Elizabeth, Sarah, Robert Jr., and Adam. In 1776 he left to serve in the British Army, an action that led to the maltreatment of his family by his neighbours, who supported the Revolution. The family took refuge in Montreal. Robert served eight years as a private in Butler's Rangers, and after his discharge went to Stamford (now Niagara Falls, Canada) and was joined there by his family. He was listed in the register prepared for Lt. Governor Simcoe in 1785, as being married with three sons and two daughters, all older than ten years.

(For more on Butler's Rangers, see

One source (based on the Upper Canada Land Petitions) claims he was given 100 acres in 1797, and 200 acres more later, as well as 350 acres as family lands. An early map, probably dating from 1797 (reproduced in F.J. Petrie, 1977, History of Stamford Township Hall 1874-1974. Lundy's Lane Historical Society, p.7) shows his lots as no. 61, just west of the Whirlpool, and no. 101. Lot 100 is assigned to Robert Spencer Jr., presumably his son. A "partial redrawing" of this same map, which is more legible, was reproduced in an anniversary book, published by the Stamford Presbyterian Church, in 1984.

Catherine was drowned tragically in the Niagara River. Sarah married John Frohlick: they took over the original farm, and Robert Sr., and Abigail continued to live with them. Jacob left following an unhappy love affair. Robert Jr. and Adam took up 200 acres in Stamford, which they shared until Adam married Ann Corwin, in 1798 or 1799. After this Robert Jr. moved to Pelham, where he married Sarah Rice: his later history is told in the Norwich Gazette article. In later life Robert Sr. went to live with them until he died in 1823, aged ninety.

The main characters in the Dundas story

Adam Spencer (?1775-1815) was the son of Robert Sr, and was married in about 1798 to Ann (aka Annie) Corwin. The Corwin family were also Empire Loyalists who had settled in Stamford: They had ten children: Robert, Elizabeth, Catherine, Sarah, Joseph, Benjamin, Abigail and her twin James, Alexander, and Ann. According to the Norwich Gazette article, Adam died in Stamford "from drinking cold water, while very warm. One of his legs became diseased [and] was amputated, but he died soon after." In his will, he left 100 acres to each of his sons. Of the ten children: three sons played an important role in the development of Dundas: Joseph, Benjamin and James.

Joseph Spencer (1806-1851) came to Dundas with his younger brother Benjamin in 1828. He married Eliza E. Coe (1807-1876), probably after arriving in Dundas. He built the "Gore Street Grist Mill" in 1834, on or close to the site of the present District School. The mills were gradually improved and expanded in 1851 by the construction of the Gore Paper Mill. The family home was close by, though the exact location is in some doubt. According to Woodhouse, Joseph died July 19, 1851, when he fell from the roof of one of the mills while trying to close a skylight during a thunderstorm. The 1851 map shows the location, as well as the newly constructed railway line. The road passing to the south of the mills was (and is) King Street.

1851 map of Dundas

Views of the Mills can be found in Olive Newcombe's "Picturesque Dundas Revisited," published by the Dundas Historical Museum. In the photo reproduced on p. 157, she remarked that "One of the Fisher family lived in the house at the [west] end of the Mills." This was probably originally the Spencers' home (it was listed in the census as on King Street). Spencer's Creek was named after the family.

Joseph had five daughters: Hannah Margaret (1833-?, married James Green, in 1864); Ellen (1835-1857); Martha (1840-1913, married Andrew Oswald); Anna (1842-1928, married Peter Warren); and Elizabeth (1844-1927, never married). Another daughter, Elizabeth C. died in 1831, 22 days after her birth. This daughter and an infant son (born 1846) were both buried in the Old Union Cemetery. The last child was Joseph William, born March 26, 1851, shortly before his father died.

Joseph was elected in 1842 to represent West Flamboro; besides the mills he owned a farm in that township. When he died his property was valued at 2600 pounds (about $10,000, or roughly half a million in modern currency). The will made special provision that his children should be given a good English education.

The mills were sold in 1851 to Robert Spence, who in turn sold them to John Fisher in 1863. It seems that Robert Spence allowed Spencer's widow, Eliza, to continue living in the family home. At about the time that John Fisher bought the mills, she moved into a house on Hatt Street. After her son had completed his education at the Dundas Highschool, they moved to Hamilton.

Benjamin Spencer (1808-1895) came with his elder brother Joseph to Dundas, where he was "engaged in the lumber and grain trade." His first wife Eliza (1815-1836) died not long after he arrived in Dundas, and some time later he married Mary Ware (1817-1913) a native of the Kingston region in Ontario. Benjamin had at least ten children.

He was active in Dundas politics, being elected Justice of the Peace, Councilman, and member of the County Council. According to Clare Crozier, Benjamin was probably the first superintendent of the Methodist school built in 1832 on Ogilvie Street, Dundas (now the site of the Public Library). Crozier has a copy of a letter from Benjamin in 1891, describing how the school was organized. According to that letter, Benjamin left Dundas in 1854.

His career in Iowa is described in "Clinton County History." For more information on this volume, see

He settled first in Maquoketa "engaged in the mercantile business" then moved to Clinton County, where he was a Justice of the Peace and a member of the County Board. In 1869 he was elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives.

James Spencer (1812-1863) was born in Stamford, during the War of 1812, together with his twin sister Abigail. He was "converted" to Methodism under the ministry of Ephraim Evans in 1830 (all of the children of Adam Spencer appear to have been Methodists, though the family of the eldest, Robert Jr., later became prominent Quakers).

James' life is described in an article by G.S. French in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. See and search for Spencer.

He attended the Upper Canada Academy, and became a candidate for the Methodist ministry in 1838. From that time until 1842 he served as a circuit rider in several circuits, including Ancaster and Dundas. He became a tutor at Victoria College, Cobourg in 1842, where he was assigned to teach English, and was not a successful teacher. He was given leave by Egerton Ryerson to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study science. On his return he was offered only a probationary appointment, which he indignantly declined, preferring to serve again on the circuit, where he served Dundas, Toronto, Nelson and Guelph. In 1851 he was elected Editor of the Christian Guardian, and was re-elected each year until 1860.

He married Sarah Lafferty (1818-1892) of West Flamborough in 1843: they had at least nine children. An infant child, born in 1846 was buried in the Old Union Cemetery. James died October 9, 1863 and is buried in Paris, Ontario, with his wife and one of his daughters, Sara (1862-1947). After his death his wife arranged to have a collection of his Sermons published, together with a 20 page appreciation of his life as a minister by Rev. W. S. Griffin (a copy can be seen in the Research Collections at McMaster University).

Joseph William (Winthrop) Spencer (1851-1921) was born March 26, 1851 in Dundas, and is buried in the Dundas cemetery, though he spent much of his life in the United States. He was christened Joseph William, but later replaced William with Winthrop, because he believed he was related to the famous Winthrops of Massachusetts and Connecticut, but he always signed his name "J.W. Spencer." He was educated at the Dundas Union School, which was built in 1856. By 1864 the school had 240 pupils, and in 1866, John Howard Hunter (1839-1910) became headmaster. He taught the young Joseph chemistry, and encouraged his interest in that subject and natural history. Hunter had an interesting career, ending as director of the Brantford School for the Blind: a biography is given in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Some time before 1864, Joseph moved with his mother to a house in Hatt Street, and after he had graduated from highschool in 1867 they moved again to Hamilton and lived in a house on Hess Street between Napier and York. Joseph began to work for T. Bickle & Sons, who ran a drug and chemical retail and wholesale store at 13 King Street (see

He probably met several people interested in geology at that time, perhaps through the Hamilton Association. They included Lt. Col. Charles Coote Grant (1825-1914), a noted amateur fossil collector and self-taught paleontologist, and David Francis Henry Wilkins (1846-?), at that time a teacher of music. Wilkins was interested in geology, acted as assistant to Spencer, and graduated from McGill a year behind him. He was later active in the Hamilton Association, and published several papers on geology. The last information I have been able to discover about him is that he was Headmaster at Beamsville High School in 1890.

In 1869, Joseph Spencer inherited one fifth of his father's estate, and two years later he matriculated (i.e., passed the entrance examination) at McGill University. He graduated from the new Applied Science program (set up by Bernard Harrington in 1871) in 1874, with first class honours in Geology. His main teachers were Harrington and John William Dawson, Principal of McGill, who was one of the two greatest geologists that Canada has produced. On graduation, Joseph travelled to Manitoba to work for the Geological Survey of Canada as field assistant to Robert Bell. For the rest of his life he corresponded with Dawson, who played the role of a surrogate father, and with Bell, who played the role of an elder brother.

In 1875 Joseph published his first paper (about Hamilton geology), but he was unable to find work as a geologist in Canada so he travelled to the Upper Peninsular of Michigan and worked as assistant to Luther Emerson, a mining engineer and surveyor in the copper mines.

In 1876, his brother in law Peter Warren died in Hamilton, and his mother was also very sick (she died at the end of the year, leaving Joseph about $2000). Joseph started to apply for work as a science teacher in Ontario highschools: he probably also returned to Michigan to carry out further studies.

Historical illustration of Hamilton Collegiate Institute

In 1877, he was appointed science teacher at Hamilton Collegiate Institute (shown in the illustration above), and lodged with the Headmaster, George Dickson, at 37 Bay Street N. That year he sent in his thesis on the Michigan copper deposits, and applied for a doctorate degree at the University in Göttingen, Germany. He visited Germany that summer, passed his examinations (probably conducted in Latin and English, as Joseph knew little or no German!) and obtained his doctorate in Geology. He was only the second born Canadian (after Harrington) to obtain such a Ph.D.

In 1880, he left Hamilton, to become Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at King's College, Windsor, Nova Scotia. His later career involved appointments in Missouri and Georgia, and many years as a geological consultant in Washington D.C. He made many significant contributions to the geological history of the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls, as well as many studies in Mexico and the Caribbean. His best known work was a book on Niagara Falls, the result of a study prepared under contract from the Geological Survey of Canada, and published by them in 1907, at the time when power stations were being constructed on both sides of the Niagara River.

On April 15, 1896, Spencer married Katherine Sinclair Thomson in Toronto: her family was prosperous, and her brothers later founded a law firm in Toronto. The family were Baptists, and though Spencer had been raised as a Methodist, he became an Anglican (probably under the influence of Rev. James Carmichael, who was active in the Natural History Society of Montreal while Spencer was a student at McGill, and later became Rector of the Church of the Ascension in Hamilton). It was apparently a happy marriage, though there were no children.

James Carmichael has an entry in the Dictionary of Hamilton Biography, and the Church of the Ascension still stands: see

In 1918, Spencer donated his library and collections to the University of Manitoba. The following year, the University awarded him an honorary degree. Spencer moved to Toronto and bought a house, but died there before he could move in. He is buried in the Dundas cemetery, along with his father, mother, and sisters Ellen, Martha Oswald, Ann Warren, and Elizabeth. After his death, his wife donated further funds to the University of Manitoba, which now awards a gold medal (the Winthrop Spencer Medal) for excellence in geology.

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