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Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre​

33 Victoria Street North (in the town of Saugeen Shores)
Southampton, ON Canada N0H 2L0
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Captain John Spence

Home | Stories & Artefacts | Captain John Spence

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One of the earliest permanent settlers, and one of the most week-known, in the Bruce was Captain John Spence. Captain Spence was born in 1814, in the Orkney Islands, just off the north coast of Scotland. He served as a boat builder with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Ungava district (northern Quebec and Labrador) between 1838 and 1846. After retiring from the HBC, Spence moved to Kingston, Canada West. It was there that he joined another former HBC employee, Captain William Kennedy (1813-1890), in a plan to become traders and fishermen on Lake Huron.

Travel at that time could be arduous as roads were not well established. To get to Southampton, Spence and Kennedy travelled by steamer from Kingston to Toronto, from there took the stagecoach to Holland Landing at Lake Simcoe, from there a steamer to Orillia, then another stagecoach to Sturgeon Bay. In Sturgeon Bay they purchased canoes and travelled down the Severn River to Penetanguishene. From there they took a steamer to Owen Sound. From Owen Sound, they walked to Southampton, and finding it suitable for what they wanted, walked back to Owen Sound, loaded their canoes, and paddled up to Colpoy’s Bay. From there they portaged to Boat Lake and travelled down the Rankin and Sauble Rivers to Lake Huron and then paddled to Southampton.

Once in Southampton a cabin was built. The first winter both Captains returned to Kingston, however after that Captain Spence stayed in Southampton permanently, and became one of the first permanent settlers. In 1848, he and Captain Kennedy purchased the Niagara Fishing Company and obtained fishing rights from the Saugeen Ojibway for the Fishing Islands. Captain Kennedy left Southampton in 1851, commissioned with leading an expedition to find the Franklin Expedition which had been lost in the Arctic. The fishing business fell through around the same time that Kennedy departed, and Captain Spence took up coastal trade carrying cargoes between Lake Huron ports and as far away as Cleveland. Throughout his career he captained many ships including the Sea Gull (1852-1854), Forrest, Nemesis, Wanderer, and White Oak.

Captain Spence married Jane Harold in January 1850 and they raised a family of seven children. Once of age the children participated in the family business and expanded it. Sons Captain John, Jack and Harry engaged in a coastal trading and lumber businesses in the 1880s and 1890s. They also kept general stores in Pike Bay, Dyer’s Bay and Tobermory. The family schooners, Wanderer and Nemesis, were used in the trade of Hemlock bark taken from Pike Bay to Southampton, Port Elgin, or Goderich. The family also shipped Pike Bay cedar, used in paving the streets of Detroit, and brought a pay load of supplies in return for their general stores.

Captain Spence is also known through stories of lifesaving. One instance is that of the propeller New York, which sank in Lake Huron, twelve miles from shore between Port Hope and Sand Beach, October 14, 1876. The New York had left Cove Island laden with lumber and was towing the schooner Butcher Boy and barges Nellie McGilvra and R.J. Carney. A gale blew up and the tow rope between the New York and Butcher Boy was torn and the New York began to take on water. The captain and crew, for a total of 16, climbed into their lifeboat and were out in the open lake for five hours when Captain Spence and the Nemesis came to their aid. The Nemesis circled the lifeboat twelve times, risking both the ship and the crew of the Nemesis, before being able to come in contact and get the crew. Sadly, during this effort, one of the crew members fell between the two vessels and was drowned. The remainder of the crew were saved, though the New York was a total loss and the Nemesis had lost most her cargo of tan bark. The Butcher Boy, Nellie McGilvra and R.J. Carney survived the storm and landed in Port Huron around the same time the Nemesis did. In recognition of their heroism, Captain Spence was awarded a gold watch, and the crew members were awarded silver medals from the American government. Also, in recognition of his efforts, the village of Southampton awarded Captain Spence an engraved silver tea set.

To explore Captain John Spence in the online collection, Click Here

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Made from Bruce County logs and to original measurements, the shanty is a replica of the Kennedy brothers’ original shanty and represents the first