Lieutenant-Colonel Mahlon Burwell 1783-1846
“Monday, 21st May 1827. Surveyed the line towards Lake Huron, Six Miles and thirty chains — were as industrious as possible, but were not able to make our way through a cedar, Black Ash, Pine and Hemlock Swamp, in the centre of which we encamped without shelter, and it rained in the night. One of the men caught a fever to day.”
This diary entry was written by Mahlon Burwell, a man who became intimately familiar with the vast wilderness of southwestern Upper Canada in the years between 1809 and 1832. He was Deputy Surveyor of Upper Canada, laying out roadways and settlement lots, including the city of London, in deep forests, often under harsh conditions.
“In most cases he went into the woods without even a tent, and when it rained the men peeled bark from the trees and made a rude shelter of it. But as the bark will not always peel, it would happen that the party had to lie down without any covering…There was no allowance of tea or coffee with the [government] rations of flour, pork and peas”.1
Mahlon Burwell (1783-1846) was “tall of stature and dignified in appearance”.2 He was the son of Niagara area Loyalists from New Jersey, Adam Burwell and Sarah Vail. Despite being self-educated, Mahlon got his surveyor’s license about 1807 at age 24 and his first government commission in 1809. His instructions were to survey and lay out a road that would connect the Talbot Settlement with roads further east leading to the Niagara Region. Because of his meticulous work, Burwell was asked to continue the road west to open the area for settlement. This long route from the Niagara River to the Detroit River is what is now known as Highway 3, or the Talbot Road. By August of 1811, the road reached Howard Township in Kent County but work had to be halted due to the War of 1812 and couldn’t be finished until November of 1816.
Ironically, the settlement roads that Burwell built facilitated the movement of the enemy through southwestern Upper Canada. Once Britain lost control of Lake Erie in September of 1813, the Americans’ plan was to destroy the settlements in southwestern Upper Canada by raiding homes, burning mills and crops, and stealing horses, thereby ruining the economy and preventing the British from getting supplies for their forces. Raids on Port Talbot were relentless. Especially targeted were Colonel Thomas Talbot, founder of the settlement, and Burwell, now Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Regiment Middlesex Militia. In April of 1814, he wrote to Colonel Talbot, who was at Long Point at the time, urgently asking that the skiff be brought back to Port Talbot so that he could get his family to safety before he was called out. Later in the summer Burwell was taken prisoner.
“Tuesday August 16th, 1814. I was made Prisoner at my own House having just recovered in some measure from the Fever Ague. I was lying on my bed when the Indians came & made me a Prisoner, Plundered my House of everything they could carry away, & what they could not carry, destroyed.
“An Indian upon being informed that I commanded Militia in this place was anxious to Tomahawk me but was prevented from doing so by Captain John Walker who commanded the expedition and also by an Indian Chief by the name of Montour who had a subordinate command. They forced me away from my family with a few other prisoners, and marched us to Point Patrick where we tarried all night.
“All the Prisoners except myself were pinioned as soon as it became dark to prevent them from getting away.
“I was excused on account of ill health and was allowed a Horse to ride. They lent me a Blanket to sleep on.”
He was taken to the mouth of the Thames River, from there across Lake Erie to Ohio and overland south to Camp Bull in Chillicothe, where he remained a prisoner until December 22nd. Three weeks after Burwell was taken, Port Talbot was invaded again. This time by General McArthur, accompanied by Andrew Westbrook, a Talbot Settlement traitor, with an army of more than 700. They completely plundered the village: mills, houses and barns were burned; crops and livestock were destroyed; and the stored flour was ruined. Burwell’s home, business and barns were burned. His young wife and two small children escaped and fled home to the Niagara Region. When Burwell was released on pledge in December of 1814, he went east into Pennsylvania then north to the south shore of Lake Erie, joining his family in Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was 31 years of age.
Burwell and his young family returned to Port Talbot after the war. Living with them were Burwell’s parents and younger brother. They built a new house nearby in 1815, which is still standing. Here, Burwell and his wife, Sarah Haun, raised their seven boys and two girls:
- Isaac Brock
- John Walpole
The first two children were born during the war. Isaac Brock was named after General Isaac Brock who died just before his namesake was born. He was a toddler when the Burwell home was destroyed. Alexander died tragically at two and a half years of age when he fell into scalding water. His father tried to rescue him and was badly burnt.3
Though he received extensive land grants in payment for the surveying, Burwell was not content to make it his sole life’s work. In an age of patronage, he found support in Colonel Thomas Talbot, who had tremendous influence as founder of the huge tract called the Talbot Settlement. Burwell’s early commissions as Deputy Surveyor and Lieutenant Colonel were due to the favour of Talbot. Burwell was elected several times to the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada. In 1814, he was appointed to arrest those suspected of high treason during the war.
By 1828, just a few of his appointments included: justice of the peace, by which he had control of all civil and military appointments in Middlesex; registrar of lands for Middlesex; coroner for the London District; post master and customs collector at Port Talbot. For all these positions he was remunerated. His particular interests were education, and the integrity of the magistracy. Though he was criticized for being a supporter of the establishment, he was able to act independently and made appointments of reform minded men when they seemed the best people for the job. After the Rebellion of 1837 Burwell’s influence waned and he retired in 1842.
In 1830, on one of the numerous land grants he received in lieu of cash, he laid out the plan for the village of Port Burwell on Lake Erie. Here he set up a company to develop the harbour and export timber from the area.
Mahlon and Sarah Burwell were buried in St. Stephen’s Anglican Church cemetery, just across the road from their home near Port Talbot, on property that they had left on which to build the church. Their children made lives for themselves in politics, business and farming.
Local lore remembers Mahlon Burwell as bigger than life. There is a legend that Burwell brought two pear seeds back from his captivity in Ohio and they became the foundation of his orchards.
For more information on the Talbot Settlement on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, see the following Veterans elsewhere on this site and linked here:
- Colonel Mahlon Burwell by Archibald Blue, director of the Bureau of Mines, Toronto, 1899.
- Edward Ermatinger, Life of Talbot
- Note to the Surveyor General Ridout (Dec. 20th, 1817) written to explain delay in reporting a survey in Westminster.
Veteran SummaryMahlon Burwell
Lieutenant Colonel, 1st Regiment Middlesex Militia
Place of Birth
Pequannock Township, Morris County,, NJ, USA
Place of Death
Port Talbot, ON, CAN
Died on: 25 JAN 1846
Reason: Old Age
Location of Grave
St. Stephen's Anglican Church Cemetery, Dunwich/Southwold Townline
Iona, ON, CAN
Latitude: 42.663644N Longitude: -81.355517