Sackville: Puzzling over Mill RIGHTS?


A series of 250th Anniversary articles for the Tantramar Heritage Trust
by Paul Bogaard


Harper map
When, in July of 1762, the Committee authorized to organize the Township of Sackville and distribute shares began its work, it began by marking off three divisions or villages: Upper and Middle Village were separated by the Upper Mill Creek, and similarly Middle Village was separated from Westcock by the Lower Mill Creek. What do we know about these mills?

The minutes actually say “the boundry of the Middle Village to begin at the Old Mill Dam at the Upper Mill Creek,” so clearly there were remnants of an old mill dam which must have been Acadian. For the New England planters re-settling the area and setting about to re-use both upper and lower milldams, and perhaps the mill foundations, these represented special resources for the whole community.

Land was reserved for these mills and their head ponds, on what might otherwise be productive land. Along with mills, shares of land were set aside for public wharves, for the support of ministers, and other lots to help support early schools. In all these cases the land set aside was to be held in common, owned by the whole township. In the special case of mills, a “right” or “privilege” could be granted to a family willing to invest in gristmills and sawmills, but the land remained the Township’s.

Fast forward from 1762 to the 1770s: in The White Fence #45 Al Smith wrote an article about Yorkshireman Christopher Harper sailing to Cumberland in 1774 and buying a house and farm near the Fort. He returned with his family in ’75 but already in ’76 found himself in the thick of the Eddy Rebellion. The rebels burnt down the Harpers’ new home.

Al writes: “The Eddy Rebellion ended on November 30, 1776, when the patriots were routed by recently-arrived British forces. Presumably, Harper rebuilt on the site below Fort Cumberland but shortly after 1783 he sold the property to loyalist Gideon Palmer who had married his daughter Catherine. The Harper family moved to Middle Sackville where he had obtained title to the lands of Elijah Ayer. In 1780, Christopher Harper had obtained a judgment in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia against Capt. Elijah Ayer who was on the side of the rebel forces and allegedly involved with the burning of his farm at Fort Cumberland. He was awarded £585 to satisfy the judgment and was levied against the Ayer’s property holdings of lots 53, 54, 55 in Sackville Township; that property included the mill pond.”

Elijah Ayer, Sr. was a New England planter who had settled in the area more than ten years earlier. His grants of land were in Cumberland, and as he was reputed to be the captain of a schooner – and helped to ferry the rebels – his locating in Cumberland makes sense.

His son Elijah Jr. received a share in Sackville Township, #58 in division C, and while this does not contain the mill rights, it is right next to it. And there is a record that another son, Nehemiah Ayer had the “Mill Right & Town Prvilege” transfered to him, but that must have been not long before Christopher won his case against Ayer. The earliest document we have records: “That Simon Mayson be admitted to one Share in the Upper Village and also to be accommodated with Land for a Saw mill and Grist Mill, and also to have the Liberty to Bond or flow as much Land as is necesary for Sd mills.” That seems to be where this complicated sequence begins.

This case looked like it had the potential to be a wonderful and illuminating story of Sackville’s founding, but the records we had been relying on seemed only to create greater confusion.

And then we found the earlier work of R. Ernest Estabrooks. Deeply in love with local history (he was an Estabrooks, afterall!) he collected important documents now held by the MtA Archives. It includes a Deed dated 1770 transferring from Nathaniel Mason to Elijah Ayer his dwelling, a gristmill and º of a sawmill on Upper Mill Creek PLUS the “privileges of the Pond”. (#55, Ω #57 & Ω #61, and others). This confirmed that over the first ten rather confusing years Mason family ended up with the mill rights, and also that Elijah Ayer, Sr. began buying up property in Sackville across the Pond from his son, and with it the Mill privileges associated with the headwater to drive the mills.

The bigger surprise was all the Memorials or petitions Ernest had collected. There was one from Christopher Harper in 1796 asking that his confiscated lands and mill rights (which he had gained at Elijah Ayer’s expense) be protected from others attempting to purchase lots nearby. And, there was in the same year a memorial from “most of the inhabitants in Sackville” which opposed Harper’s request!

In 1807 there seems to have been yet another petition from Harper, this time asking the NB government to clear up this decades-long confusion, and grant him clear title to all the lands he is claiming around the Mill Pond, and to drop all the “privileges” talk and grant him the mills and millpond outright.

This time in opposition there was an even grander petition, signed by over 50 leading citizens, laying out an extensive argument why the lands associated with the mill privilege, namely the land flooded by the mill pond, was always land held in common . . . that this should be acknowledged and the disputed land repurposed for a common use. Loyalists, Yorkshiremen and Planters all banded together to argue on historical grounds that the original grant of Sackville made provision for lands held in common, particularly for schools, ministers, public wharfs and mill rights . . . and even extending to the common rights held by the township for those lands never granted to anyone.

There is no confusion whatsoever as to what the Government in Fredericton did. They squashed all this New England-style “township” nonsense and awarded everything to Harper. It was clearly his victory, and hopefully a final vindication of the homestead he lost defending against the Eddy rebels 30 years before.

But for our historical appraisal of early Sackville as a growing community, the verdict is quite different. For the almost 50 years since the original “reservation” of Sackville as a Township, and particularly for the 46 years since the Township Committee first began distributing land, the New England-style ideal had been established that certain lands would be held in common, for the common good, and would not be allotted to any individual family.

In the first instance, according to this petition (and the only historical record to make this clear), the mill rights were not even granted to one prospective mill operator, but granted to six or eight who would share this opportunity and responsibility. Within a few years this resolution proved unworkable, and the mill rights of the Lower Mill Creek (as discussed in our previous article) came into the possession of the Tower brothers. And on the Upper Mill Creek, what had been shared out amongst several seems to have been consolidated into the hands of the extended Mason family. From there it was transferred to the Ayers, by Deed, confiscated by the Harpers, and entered finally into private ownership. The Harpers eventually sold it all to the Morice and Humphery families who operated these mills for most of the 19th century.


Tantramar Heritage Trust | Sackville 250