John T. Williston: The Original Owner

John T. Williston, the original owner of the stone house on Chatham's Water Street, was born in Bay du Vin in 1791, the son of John Bailey Williston. He was of Loyalist descent and was the grandson of George Williston.

In 1824 he bought the property on Water Street and it is believed his house was built the same year by stone mason Andrew Currie. J. T. Williston was married to Eliza Munsey and the couple had at least three children and probably more.

Williston was a prominent businessman who in 1824 was in partnership with William H. Richardson. By 1833 the partnership was dissolved and he joined his brother Phineas in a partnership which lasted for three years. It is thought that J. T. Williston was also a lawyer.

In 1836 he started a water sawmill at Black Brook (Loggieville) which he sold to Alexander Fraser in 1849.

John T. Williston's name is mentioned in connection with the formation of the Chatham Fire Company in 1824. A fire engine was purchased at this time and four years later the first engine house was built.

He was a "fireward", along with such prominent men as Francis Peabody, Joseph Cunard, Christopher Clarke, Richard Blackstock and William Letson. Apparently one of the duties of a fireward was to inspect all the stoves in a community. In an issue of the weekly "Gleaner" in 1835, a reader questioned whether the firewards were carrying out their duties of "inspecting all the stoves, etc. "

As the restoration of the Williston house progresses, it is not difficult to imagine the beautiful and spacious home the Willistons enjoyed from 1824 to 1865. The building is thought to be the oldest residence in Chatham.

In 1860 there was a bad fire in Chatham. The Williston house escaped but the barn burned along with ten other buildings to the southeast of the Williston house in the area bounded by Water, Duke and George Streets. When one reflects on the methods of heating houses and cooking in those days as well as the unsophisticated modes of fire protection, it is easy to see how a fire could raze a whole section of the town.

Involved in "Fighting Elections"

Probably John T. Williston's greatest claim to fame was that he became involved in the "fighting elections" of 1843.

A prominent and popular businessman, he decided at the age of 51 to run for the House of Assembly.

In those days elections had a tendency to be pretty wild and woolly since there was no secret ballot until 1852.

The voting was carried out at various places in the county on different days. Whether or not a man was successful in casting his vote depended on which side he was on and how many of the other candidate's supporters were on hand to protect the interests of their own man. It appears that a great deal of intimidation was used.

On December 1, 1842 the House of Assembly was dissolved and William Odell called for the election of a new Assembly to be returned by January 14, 1843.

On the Miramichi the contestants for the two seats were Alexander Rankin and John Ambrose Street, both from the north side of the river (and both long-time members) and newcomer John T. Williston of Chatham. Rankin was not expected to be defeated and as it turned out he was re-elected until 1852, a total of 25 years. Therefore, the contest was really between Williston and John Ambrose Street.

After pre-election violence which included broken windows and doors and other damage to the stores and houses of the various factions, John T. Williston was declared victorious over Street on January 8, 1843.

Mr. Street did not take his loss lightly and demanded a scrutiny. All through January and February there were accusations by Street and his supporters written in the Chatham Gleaner. Finally, the bickering and skirmishes ended for the time being whcn 45 people wrote to Fredericton stating that they had been forcibly prevented from casting their votes for Street. Williston's seat was declared vacant in March and a by-election was called for July 17th.

Now the fighting began in earnest. John T. Williston was supported by Joseph Cunard and his employees and John Ambrose Street was supported by Alexander Rankin and his employees. It was the north side of the river against the south side.

The 300-strong Williston party is reported to have arrived at the Newcastle Court House on voting day intending to intimidate the Opposition but the Rankin men were forewarned and forearmed. They threw rocks which they had concealed underneath sods. The Cunard party was finally overpowered and fled in three different directions. The first group cut through the woods, coming out that night at Lamont's Mill; the second group came out the next day at Millbank and the third group ran to the wharf to board the steamer St. George. The Street supporters were in hot pursuit, throwing pieces of coal. So Captain Graham steamed down to Chatham with his passengers, the decks of the vessel covered with coal.

Up to 40 persons were injured in the incident and James Ryan, a respected tarvern owner, died of injuries, leaving a widow and ten children.

When polling day arrived in Chatham. it is said that Cunard had a force of about 1,000 men while Rankin had 500. Because of the strength of numbers, election day was uneventful and an uneasy truce was declared. John Ambrose Street was declared elected and remained a member of' the House of Assembly until 1850.

Following the fighting election the county was in a state of anarchy and confusion. Communcation was cut off between Newcastle, Douglastown and Chatham and the hostility continued for many years.

No elections were held on the Miramichi for some time. If more than four candidates offered (the county was allowed four members after the fighting-election), all but four would withdraw on the eve of the election, thus going in by acclamation and preventing a repetition of 1843.

John T. Williston eventually served in the House of Assembly, being elected in 1850. He was defeated in 1854 and the same year he was appointed Deputy treasurer of Customs, a position he held until his death in 1865.

(Acknowledgements: York Regional Library, the Old Manse Library, N. B. Archives and writings of James Fraser, Colleen Thompson and Brian Kenny.)

(Northumberland News, February 1, 1984)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.