You’re in Riverdale Park in 1812, surrounded mostly by trees and open land with the Don River rushing by, when a man approaches.
“Red coat or blue coat?” he asks.
Depending on who that man is, there certainly would have been a right answer and a wrong answer. After all, if you were a male
between the ages of 16 and 65, you were enlisted in the militia and fought for the British.
But on the night of May 29, 2012 another man asked the same question in Riverdale Park.
“Red coat or blue coat?” he asks, with a smirk.
This man is Gerald Whyte, president of the Riverdale Historical Society, and he’s referring to which cookie you would prefer — a soldier with red icing or a soldier with blue icing. This time, there’s no wrong answer.
As attendees munched away at their bits of history, Guylaine Petrin, a genealogist and reference librarian at York University’s Glendon Campus, spoke about a different bit of history involving Riverdale during the War of 1812.
Her presentation was titled “Treason and Passion in Riverdale.”
The story begins with the Kuck family, who had come to Upper Canada from England, where the patriarch of the family, Gerhard, was a successful chemist. While they originally settled in Etobicoke, they soon moved into Riverdale after purchasing a property owned by John Cox, and ran the inn found there.
That location is on Broadview Avenue directly across from Riverdale Park, and the home built there in 1807 still stands today. It is the oldest residence in Toronto still used as a residence, and is known as John Cox Cottage.
The Brown family owned the plot of land beside the Kuck’s. These plots were 105 hectares in size, and were long and narrow, as they spanned from Danforth Avenue down to Lake Ontario.
There were two children in the Brown family: Matthias and older sister Catherine.
“Catherine Brown was married twice — at the same time,” Petrin said. “I promised bigamy and there’s lots of it here.”
Before war was declared, Catherine married Valentine Efnor, had a child with him, be left by him, “befriended” the local constable Joseph Farnum, and had a child with him. Before the war ended, Brown and Farnum had a second child together.
Brown and Farnum claimed to have been married in 1811, but Petrin finds it unrealistic since Brown was still married to Efnor, who was still alive. That and the place the pair claimed to have been married was destroyed by fire — along with all of its documents (and owner).
In 1814, Efnor also returned, coincidentally just after Brown’s parents had died, leaving their estate behind. As a woman, she did not have much right to inherit the estate, but still being legally married, her husband certainly did.
Efnor’s return certainly marked much drama, but not much fanfare. Petrin said Efnor was essentially bullied away by Catherine’s brother Matthias and a few other men.
During the war, Matthias and Farnum are believed to have deserted the British in order to fight for the Americans. Both of their names appear on a muster roll in July of 1813 with the regiment of volunteers for the Americans. Matthias is actually believed to have fought for the Americans at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
Sometime after the war, Matthias made his way back to Riverdale, and was living — secretly — with his lover, Mary Kuck, who in 1812 had been made a widow following the death of Gerhard.
This means Matthias was essentially hiding out in John Cox Cottage as a deserter.
It didn’t last long.
In 1815 he was caught and found guilty of treason and jailed but later escaped from custody. As a result, Mary Kuck lost her licence as an innkeeper.
“It was not a good thing to have a deserter be arrested in your house,” Petrin quipped.
Of course, Kuck and Matthias likely had a long-standing affair, given Kuck’s willingness to hide a deserter who had not been seen since near the outset of the war, Petrin believes.
“Let’s read between the lines: [Matthias] hasn’t seen her for two years, but knows she’ll hide him,” Petrin said. “I have a feeling their affair started well before 1813.”
Petrin then continued with the rest of the lives of those involved. Most interestingly among them, Catherine Brown, who for the rest of her 99 years, asked for pardons from, petitioned and launched lawsuits with the government in Upper Canada. Though Petrin has not found where Brown is buried, she certainly has the evidence of when she died, she said.
“I know when she died because there was a lawsuit after her death,” she said, to much laughter from the more than 60 people in attendance.
In her closing remarks, Petrin said generally family histories are usually interesting only to those who are descendants, but on occasion some stand out.
“I find genealogy limiting (because of that),” she said. “But sometimes you find stories that want to be told.”
And so the story of how Riverdale was the site of treason and of passion, was told.
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