Local history: a woman in charge of drafting hydrographic charts in 1815

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Watching the naval officer standing in a dinghy entering Port Ryerse harbor in 1815, the teenage girl was struck. According to the family tale, she said to her friend, “This is the man I will marry. Within six weeks, Amelia Ryerse had indeed met and married sailor John Harris. When her husband was sent to Kingston, the new Mrs. Harris became an unofficial part of the staff running the investigation headquarters. The Harrises also became parents in Kingston.

Born in England, John Harris joined the Merchant Navy when he was just 12 years old. At the age of 21, Harris (b. 1782) was impressed by the Royal Navy. Rising through the ranks to proficiency (the level of warrant officer), he “was responsible for the maintenance, equipment and navigation of the ship and was to note and describe the features of the coasts which had not yet been recorded on maps,” Eldon House Historical Site and Gardens (EHHSG) said.

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Assigned to Sir James Lucas Yeo’s fighting forces in 1813, Harris was a crewman under the command of Richard O’Connor on HMS Prince Regent, a 56-gun fourth rate frigate. (The fourth rank did not refer to quality. It indicated a ship of the line with between 46 and 60 guns.)

Built at the Royal Navy’s Kingston Dockyard, HMS Prince Regent had an overall length of 47.5 metres, a beam of 13.1 meters and a draft of 5.2 metres. The fully rigged sailboat had room for 280 troops. In December 1814, the Prince Regent was renamed HMS Kingston.

Harris bravely faced several confrontations in opposing American threats. When the British ship Magnet ran aground near Niagara, “there was a mad rush of troops with a field piece and sailors from the ships, including John Harris, to defend and save the schooner,” said Robert Malcomson in War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 12, November 2009. Evading capture, the Magnet was set on fire on August 5. Half an hour later, the ship exploded. “It was a surprisingly loud bang, which was seen and felt as far away as York.” Harris and his crew returned later to collect all usable rigging and cargo.

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A few days later, General William Drummond’s attack to retake American-held Fort Erie failed. A powder keg explodes. Twelve British soldiers are wounded, eight are missing and 13 are captured by the Americans. Seriously injured, Harris “returned to Kingston at the end of August and after three weeks in hospital joined HMS Niagara,” Malcomson said.

At the end of the War of 1812, the battle-tested sailor was assigned to a survey party led by Commodore Edward Owen. “One of his first assignments was to survey the north shore of Lake Erie for a shipbuilding site,” EHHSG said. On April 10, 1815, the surveyors arrived at Port Ryerse, Samuel Ryerse’s settlement. A United Empire loyalist, Ryerse received land at Long Point, on the shore of Lake Erie. Ryerse’s daughter, Amelia, was born there in 1898, and 17 years later her heart turned to her future husband.

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On June 28, 1815, John Harris and Amelia Underhill Ryerse were married. After a few days, the newlyweds resumed Harris’ hydrographic surveying duties.

In the fall, Captain William Fitz William Owen “announced that the scope of the business had been greatly expanded”, wrote editors Robin S. Harris and Terry Harris in The Eldon House Diaries: Five Women’s Views of the 19th Century (The Champlain Society 1994) and that “it has now been decided that there will be a thorough hydrographic survey of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron and the St. Lawrence River from Kingston to Montreal”. Kingston was chosen as the surveying headquarters for the work until 1816 and beyond.

Leading a 57-man task force across the ice of the river on February 1, 1816, Captain Owen began surveying the baselines in the Thousand Islands area. “Over the next 69 days, approximately 300 miles (approximately 480 kilometers) of baseline were surveyed in an area approximately 80 by 30 miles (129 by 48 kilometers), with some 10,000 angles and bearings recorded,” said Paul G. Cornell in “Owen, William Fitz William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, 1985.

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“In weather that reached -20 F, work took place ‘every day in succession except the Sabbath from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.’. The team received extra pay, twice the rum rations and more clothes. It was dangerous work – the captain fell through the ice and nearly drowned. Four valuable horses were lost in similar events.

Demanding exacting standards, the captain’s work represented “the beginning of accurate naval surveying in Canada,” Cornell said. A stone house in Kingston became the UK Hydrographic Office and a temporary residence for officers. Amelia Harris joined her husband in the hydrographic office “and instilled a special note of domesticity into their society, fondly remembered in the officers’ correspondence of later years”, Cornell said.

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The young bride was a respected part of the investigation team. Given the title of Deputy Assistant Marine Surveyor and Astronomer, Amelia Harris performed mapping duties as well as housekeeping. On one occasion, her husband wrote her a letter instructing her to prepare a draft oil paper map, encouraging her to say that “you must be very particular in placing these dots on the map…we are counting on you to send it as soon as possible,” the Eldon House Diaries editors were quoted as saying. (Harris also kindly mentioned that he wishes he could still be with her.)

Considered well-educated, organized and with excellent communication skills, Amelia Harris was naturally intelligent and adept. When she was young, there were few opportunities for extended education, but that did not prevent her from acquiring the elements of a good schooling. His calligraphy was beautiful, his handwriting still visible in his many treasured diaries.

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The Harrises started their family in Kingston, with the birth of their first son, William Edward Owen Harris, on August 18, 1817. That year, military orders sent Captain Owen to England. “On September 1, 1817, Harris retired from the Navy with the rank of Captain, Half Pay,” the editors of Eldon House Diaries said. “The Harrises then left Kingston for Port Ryerse.”

Twelve children were born to the Harris family, but not all of them survived. In 1821 Harris was appointed Treasurer of the London District in Southern Ontario and much of the family moved to Eldon House in 1834. The Treasurer died in 1850 and his wife continued to focus on her family. Amelia Harris ensured a good future for her children. “His three sons were lawyers,” Cornell said, and his seven daughters married well.

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Built in 1843 by John Harris, Eldon House has been home to several generations of the Harris family. Donated to the City of London in 1960, the house received City Heritage Designation in 1977 as London’s oldest remaining house. Eldon House Heritage Site and Gardens takes visitors back to the charming Upper Canada of the 1800s. Visit EldonHouse.ca for more information.

Off Kingston, HMS Prince Regent was scuttled at the mouth of Deadman’s Bay around 1832. Nearby, the 42-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Princess Charlotte was also scuttled. The once heavily armed warship HMS St. Lawrence completes the Wrecks of the War of 1812 National Historic Site of Canada. The remains of the 112-gun first-rate ship lie in the shallow bay near the Tett Center for Creativity and Learning. The wrecks of the once dramatic three ships built in Kingston are a popular dive site.

Continually writing to family and friends, Harris kept notes of details to include in the letters. In mid-September 1857, the matriarch incorporated her notes into journals. In 25 years, a valuable document has emerged from everyday life in early Ontario. After a life of curiosity, adventure and love of family, Amelia Ryerse Harris died on March 24, 1882, at the age of 84.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston. Thanks to the staff of WD Jordan Rare Books & Special Collections at the Douglas Library for their kind assistance.

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