The King’s Mills in Niagara-on-the-Lake (1784-1794)

Hi all, it’s been a while since my last post so it’s time I give an update on my research!

Things are slowly coming together here; my data set is growing and my analysis of Niagara’s early economy continues to develop. I’ve made a few ArcGIS map drafts now, and I’ll post the latest one here in this blog so you can see what I’ve been working on. Keep in mind that these maps are continually developing and still need fine tuning, but they’ve been useful so far in revealing a few things about local development that I hadn’t really considered before.

Continuing with the Servos accounts that I had written about in previous posts, I wanted to visualize these patterns of local exchange, specifically in the markets of lumber and flour which were two of the province’s main staple products during the 19th century. For the sake of brevity I’ll only discuss Niagara’s wheat economy in this blog post. Because this analysis investigates a span of only one decade (1784-1794), the results are somewhat limited; my conclusions are tentative as I continue to collect data for the next two decades. This analysis, albeit narrowly focused, reveals valuable information about Niagara’s early economy. By looking at this market I considered some of the questions commonly discussed in Canadian economic history such as:

  1. Agency, or the question of who held power within society, and how was it manifested? What does this map tell us about the choices made by farmers in Niagara, the level of British investment or the influence of merchants?
  2. What does the quantity of product and its movement through the region reveal about Niagara’s skilled labour force, reaction to market fluctuations, or the overall demand for the product? Who was involved in this supply chain and how?
  3. What was the impact of geography on settlement and rural trade patterns?


This map is a projection of the data found in Volume 1 of Niagara miller Daniel Servos’ account books, recording transactions at the King’s Mills in Niagara-on-the-Lake from the years 1784-1794. For more info on Servos and the King’s Mills, see my last post. I created an Excel spreadsheet with the name of the customer, their township of residence, the quantity of flour they had milled, and its value in shillings. Then, using historical maps of Niagara townships I determined the location of the individuals’ farms and entered the appropriate X and Y coordinates into the spreadsheet.

This method is time consuming yet rewarding, one of my main issues being the fact that not every account can be accurately pinpointed. Some names are indecipherable, some don’t appear in any maps, censuses or archival references, and some owned multiple pieces of land in different townships. These X and Y coordinates are the result of weeks of research and provide a general picture of farm locations in Niagara with a few possible outliers, which can’t be avoided when dealing with incomplete amalgamations of sources.

The GIS contains a few historical maps of Niagara townships in the late 18th century, a modern soil map, the flour and lumber sales per year, and the peninsula’s very first saw & grist mills. If you click on the arrow on the left side of the map a legend will appear and you can toggle the layers for each of the years to see who interacted with Servos at the King’s Mills, what they were selling, the quantity, price, and where their home farm was located. I’ve embedded the map below, but it is easier to work with from the ArcGIS Desktop App if you click on this link:

Map Analysis: What Does it Mean?

Communities in Niagara were centered around saw and grist mills as an economic junction where production and consumption took place. Historian Joshua MacFayden talks about this concept in his book on Canada’s 19th century flax industry, saying that a flax mill was “a place where former slave owners, Unionists, and escaped slaves worked together, not equally, and not exactly cheek by jowl, but together.” [1] The Servos accounts show a similar union of people from all walks of life; ex-slaves like Peter Long, prominent Mohawk women like Molly Brant and merchants like Samuel Street and Robert Hamilton intersected at the King’s Mills, forming a web of social and material interactions.

The King’s Mills brought people together from within Niagara township, but the map shows that for the first few years people had to travel great distances to mill their wheat and corn. In total, 65% of the 179 people that held an account with Servos between 1784-1794 lived within 10 miles of the mills. You can see this more clearly by clicking on the King’s Mill Buffer in the legend. The other 35% came from other parts of the Niagara peninsula, spanning as far west as Grimsby and as far south as Fort Erie and Port Colbourne. The escarpment didn’t prevent people from bringing their crops down to the King’s Mills, and some of these journeys would take 2-3 days. Why was this the case?

At first it was out of necessity. The map shows that in the years 1784-1789, Servos had a few customers come to NOTL from Clinton and Grimsby Townships, but they stopped coming by 1790. This was because at first there were no other gristmills in the peninsula for the settlers of these districts to use, and thus they had no other options but to travel the far distance. Once the mills on the Thirty and Forty Mile Creeks were built in 1789, Servos no longer saw those customers.

The King’s Mills brought together people from different townships within the Niagara district, forming social connections that spanned regional boundaries. When Grimsby farmer Jacob Glover came to Servos with wheat and corn, he left with a milled product but also brown sugar and rum. [2] Servos also charged him for one night’s lodging, making rent income a byproduct of his milling enterprise. People who brought pine logs to Servos would leave the mills having also bought flour for their families. The exchanges in these early days are not terribly complex, but they show the formation of a greater community in the Niagara peninsula… one that did not discriminate based on class, gender or ethnicity. The map forces us to think of these people spatially and take into account the unique transportation challenges many faced.

I plotted the other mills that appeared in Niagara between 1783-1792 onto the map as well. According to Surveyor General D. W. Smith, there were 14 sawmills and 10 gristmills in the Niagara peninsula in 1792. [3] I added an escarpment layer to the map and when activated we can see that 15/24 of the mills were built atop the escarpment. While this natural feature was in many ways an impediment to transport, the settlers were still able to harness its natural power to their benefit.

Like the King’s Mills, these other mills interspersed throughout the Niagara region each functioned as a hub of socio-economic activity for their individual townships. Burch’s Mills at the top of Niagara Falls serviced the entire Stamford & Willoughby townships. We can see in the map that the King’s Mills only had two customers from that area, even though Stamford and Niagara Township bordered one another. Both the King’s Mills and Burch’s Mills annually serviced the same 10-40 families within a 10-mile radius during this first decade, creating invisible lines that formed distinct communities.

Loyalist settlers required permission from the authorities if they wanted to build a mill, but half of the mills in this first decade were built without permission. Having multiple options for milling in these communities fostered competition, exemplified in Niagara Township as there were three different families operating mills on the Four Mile Creek by 1792. If you turn on the 1784 Niagara-on-the-Lake map layer and the Secord Mill buffer, you’ll see that the northern half of the Niagara district interacted with the King’s Mills more so than the lower half.

What this means is that the Secord Mills were likely taking those customers. If you turn on the Secord Mill Buffer and turn on all of the flour sale layers post-1787 there are only eight customers living within a 3-mile radius of the Secord Mills that chose to have their products milled at the King’s Mills. The other 80% of the King’s Mill customers in the Niagara district came from the northern half. Servos’ accounts show between 11-44 customers using the King’s Mills in the first decade of settlement. This doesn’t seem like very many people, especially since some of them only came to the mill once or twice in a year, but the Secord Mills could have been getting the same number of annual customers which would mean there was actually a lot more business going on in Niagara at this time than the account books suggest. Since I don’t know of any Secord account books in existence to support this hypothesis, I am making an assumption through the map projection that they provided a significant contribution to the settlement at Niagara, especially for a few years when the King’s sawmill was out of commission.

Having three different millers (Servos, Secord & Lutes) operating in this small area within the period of a decade show the population growing at a pace that required more than one miller to process the amount of wheat, corn, and lumber being brought in. Competition is a good thing because it pushes each person to produce the best quality outputs and offer fair prices to consumers. These milling developments in Niagara indicate rapid growth, accessibility, and allowed each person to make their own choice when investing in the economy.

ArcGIS maps are useful to spatial histories in their ability to combine elements of geography and history. Topographical studies of the Niagara region including field surveys and remote sensing are generated by modern researchers but can also apply to historical analyses. For example, if you turn on the 1989 Niagara soils layer it provides another dimension to this study. How did the quality of farmland affect settlement?

Another reason why the King’s Mills received fewer customers from the southern portion of Niagara township could be because it contained poorer soil than the north. There are a multitude of soil types in the Niagara peninsula ranging from sand to hard clay, and there are not many places where someone couldn’t grow a crop… especially the hardier crops like corn, wheat, rye, and buckwheat. One would think that Niagara-on-the-Lake would be prime farmland, being known for having a microclimate conducive to growing tender fruits. However, there are parts of Niagara-on-the-Lake that have hard clay soil (indicated as light and dark green areas), especially in the southwestern portion, that make crop growth more difficult than in other areas. Hence why the land is now home to the Niagara airport and not another vineyard! I think that extending this analysis another two decades will really indicate whether soil was the issue in that part of Niagara, pushing people to engage in other forms of labour or to sell the land and move further west.

Some historical maps of Niagara provide hints of what the soil was like. If you turn on the 1818 Francis Hall map layer, it shows the Louth/western Grantham area as “Black Swamp.” There was a distinct lack of customers from these areas throughout this entire period, which might have been intensified by land drainage issues. These lands on the Lake Ontario shoreline are described in primary sources as being extremely wet; people tried methods of building dams and digging trenches to dry out the ground. Elizabeth Simcoe even wrote that the Iroquois trail that ran along the bottom of the escarpment, now known as Hwy 8, was often obstructed. [4]

“The Governor thinks the country will derive great benefit by opening a road on the top of the mountain (where it is quite dry) from Niagara to the “Head of the Lake,” [Burlington] instead of going a most terrible road below, full of swamps, fallen trees, etc.”

When studying rural economies it is important to understand the geographic factors that affected settlement. In Niagara we know that the escarpment hindered north-south transportation, but historical & modern maps can show the greater extent of these issues. A snowball effect took place as wet land meant poor road construction, which meant limitations on transportation, which meant people often only went to the King’s Mill in the wintertime, which meant it was important to build good quality sleighs and own healthy oxen, but also that participation in the economy was limited by geographic features. One’s wealth and status did not matter; the playing field was leveled by these shared obstacles. Living near to a mill or waterway was a huge advantage, and these early lessons learned by Loyalist settlers formed the framework for roads that we still use today. Historian Andrew Burghart says that in Niagara the towns created the roads, not vice versa. [5] He means that although the Iroquois trail was formed by Indigenous peoples that hunted and traveled through Niagara, it was not always a viable route for a settler economy that relied on the movement of wagons with heavy bulk goods like grains and lumber. Therefore, north-south roads developed along the creeks in response to the needs of the new settlers.

The map also shows that it took at least ten years for a farm to become well-established in Niagara to the point where it could produce beyond subsistence and sell flour in bulk to merchants. Isaac Horton’s accounts provide a good example of these static numbers over the years, as he had 355lbs of flour milled by Servos in 1787, 394lbs in 1791, and 241lbs in 1794. There was a gradual rise in the number of customers at the King’s Mills per year, from eleven people in 1786 to thirty in 1793. The number of customers tripled within a decade, as did the amount of flour being milled, but the growth was not exponential. The price of a counterweight (112 lbs) of flour in 1793 was worth half of what it was worth in 1786. This meant that even though people were milling around the same quantity of flour each year, they were actually earning less as time went on.

It’s also noteworthy that during the “hunger winter” of 1787-88, Servos milled more flour than he had in previous years. Although first-hand accounts mention a poor crop yield that season, the famine cannot be completely attributed to a lack of food in Niagara. Rather, this was the year that the British government stopped sending rations to the area, resulting in a winter of rough adjustment for the Loyalists.

King’s Grist Mill Annual Figures

YearNo. of CustomersFlour Produced (cwt)Average Price per Cwt (s)Value of Flour Milled (£/cwt)
179444Incomplete Data29.7Incomplete Data
Data gathered from “Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. MS 538. Archives of Ontario

The ArcGIS map also hints that a large portion of the Niagara peninsula was still uninhabited by 1794, which slowed development. Although the entire peninsula had been surveyed & assigned to settlers, and many 100-acre plots had even changed ownership, much of the land in these districts were owned in bulk by retired officers of the British military. Surnames like McNab, Bradt, TenBroek, Butler, and Hare are seen often, some of them owning 1000-2000 acres. According to a 1783 census there were 46 families living in the district of Niagara with each family owning one or two 100-acre plots but each family cultivated only an average of 10 acres per year. If families could only improve that small amount of land, that means that hundreds of acres along the Lake Ontario shoreline were not being used.

Political reformer Robert Gourlay’s 1822 Statistical Account of Upper Canada shows that this was still an issue much later, land speculators buying thousands of acres and letting them lay bare for decades. Governor Simcoe and other provincial leaders encouraged settlement in Niagara, but saw the danger of having so many families in the peninsula originate in the American colonies, despite their oaths of loyalty to King George III. Gourlay argued that for Niagara to prosper it required a larger unskilled labour force to work on the farms and heighten agricultural production, but the way in which land was initially distributed retarded the potential for success as it slowed road construction and isolated localities. [6]

In this analysis the ArcGIS map suggests that farmers were greatly impacted by their geographical location both on a large and small scale, and they made choices that facilitated growth during this first decade of settlement. The developments in local milling indicated settler agency. Farmers chose who to trade and work with, made land improvements and developed capital assets without always asking for government assent. They saw the potential that Niagara had to offer including the gravitational benefits of the escarpment, a moderate climate and plenty of space for growth.

Government rations were only handed out for the first 3 years, so the people supported themselves very early on, but were aided by the fact that their taxes were low and they didn’t have to pay for their land, received restitution from war loss claims, and some got half-pay as officers in the military. These benefits provided a foundation for the farmers to work with, however, they still needed money to purchase seed, pay for milling services and other farm help, as well as farm tools & miscellaneous household items. Since cash was scarce, this resulted in the debt economy for the first few years as people paid each other back mostly through exchange of goods and labour. The government also controlled the influx of people settling in Upper Canada and their initial distribution of titles for land. Some of these decisions created long-term challenges that effectively slowed progress until the mid-19th century industrial period.

Merchants were not making a profit off of the work of Niagara’s settlers quite yet. Robert Hamilton made a lot of money during this decade, but it was not because of his ties to the local market, rather his other enterprises with the portage and his connections to partners in Detroit and Kingston. Hamilton’s interactions with Servos in these ten years only indicate that Servos delivered 35 loads of unspecified goods to him between Feb-May 1787, earning a total of £3.5 for this work. If merchants were buying large quantities of flour from settlers, it would have showed up in Servos’ accounts as bulk sales in the credits section.

The typical narrative of economic historians for Upper Canada during this period focuses on the importance of either staple materials themselves or the economic relationships in forming our nation’s socio-political structures. Joshua MacFayden suggests a social constructivist approach regarding the flax industry where “all societies set out ‘paths and diversions’ to establish terms by which objects are circulated and exchanged.” [7] It certainly seems that Niagara in the first decade of settlement adhered to the latter theory as farmers exhibited this agency in many forms. We are not seeing specific products dominate the local market or societal classes form based on commercial links. As the analysis continues and flour production ramps up, I am interested to see how these patterns develop.

[1] Joshua MacFayden, Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil That Covered a Continent, (Monreal & Kingston: McGill-McQueen’s Press, 2018), 35.
[2] “Account Book Volume I 1785-1795″. Daniel Servos Records 1779-1826. No. 42. MS 538. Archives of Ontario.
[3] Ernest Cruikshank, Notes on the history of the district of Niagara, 1791-1793, (Welland: Welland Tribune Print, 1914), 49, accessed from Internet Archive,
[4] “The diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant-governor of the province of Upper Canada, 1792-6,” ed. J. Ross Robertson, (Toronto: W. Briggs, 1911), 319, accessed through Internet Archive,
[5] Andrew Burghardt, “The Origin and Development of the Road Network of the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, 1770-1851”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 59, no. 3 (1969), 435, accessed January 2020,
[6] Robert Gourlay, Statistical Account of Upper Canada, (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1822), 428, accessed from Internet Archive,
[7] MacFayden, Flax Americana, 18.