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GUEST COLUMN: The indomitable Anna Mitton embraced ‘Rapids’ life

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Tom St. Amand

The letter he received from his wife in the spring of 1834 must have shocked

A portrait of Anna Maria Penrose Mitton. Born in 1754, she sold off the family's extensive holdings, left the metropolis of London, England and crossed the Atlantic by sail at the age of 80 to begin a new life in "The Rapids," population 44.
A portrait of Anna Maria Penrose Mitton. Born in 1754, she sold off the family’s extensive holdings, left the metropolis of London, England and crossed the Atlantic by sail at the age of 80 to begin a new life in “The Rapids,” population 44.

Commander Richard Vidal, one of Sarnia’s founders.

The plan had always been for his family to join him at “The Rapids,” but he hadn’t known his wife, Charlotte, was selling off all their valuable property in London, England before setting sail.

Nor is it known if Charlotte informed him that his mother-in-law, Anna Maria Penrose Mitton, was also making the voyage.

But make it she did.

Anna Mitton, for whom Mitton Street was named, was a “sport,” her great-granddaughter Charlotte Nisbet Vidal would later recall.

And that would be an understatement. Crossing the Atlantic typically took a month in those days and when she arrived at the future site of Sarnia in July of 1834 Anna Mitton was 80 years old.

What roads existed were dirt paths through forest and swamps and often impassable. Her lifestyle couldn’t have prepared her for “The Rapids.

But she was hardy—pioneer tough.

Born Anna French in 1754 in Exeter, she was the second wife of William Mitton Esq., a prominent London lawyer. The French’s were part of the court circle and prestigious enough for their daughter’s 1816 wedding to Richard Vidal to be announced in the London Times. When Mr. Mitton died in 1818, he bequeathed a handsome sum to his wife.

Anna had been widowed 16 years when she made the move to Upper Canada. She had known sorrow —three of her five children died before the age of eight — and she was deeply attached to Charlotte and her children. Family was paramount.

Still, Anna must have felt some trepidation leaving her city of more than one million people for “the bush.” From her West London home, she would have walked the crowded streets of Notting Hill and attended St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Rapids in 1834 was a straggling village whose 44 residents clustered mainly along the river on the east side of a single dirt path – the future Front Street.

The Vidal residence and its outhouses and garden were just south of what is now London Road. Now, Anna’s walks took her to the solitary wharf on the St. Clair and past the hamlet’s two stores and two taverns.

She would have visited the nearest place of worship, the Wesleyan Methodist Mission Chapel on the native reservation, at the end of what would become Devine Street.

But by all accounts, Anna embraced her new surroundings. In his diary, Capt. Vidal mentions a boating expedition to the Black River included “Grandma and the children.”

Now in her early 80s, Anna spent hours sailing or canoeing with her grandchildren and son-in-law. She loved being with her family, doing anything, as one relative noted, “that would help out or please [them].”

The indomitable Anna Mitton died on Nov. 3,1838 at the age of 84. As no graveyard yet existed, four soldiers carried her coffin to the only sacred groundaround: an enclosure by the river at the native mission. There, Mrs. Mitton was interred and became the first white adult buried in Sarnia.

A plaque in All Saints' Anglican Church dedicated to Anna Maria Penrose (French) Mitton.
A plaque in All Saints’ Anglican Church dedicated to Anna Maria Penrose (French) Mitton.

Her son-in-law later honoured Mrs. Mitton by naming one of Sarnia’s oldest streets after her. Her grandson, Alexander, a future Senator, also recognized his much-beloved grandmother by erecting a plaque in her memory at All Saints’ Anglican Church on Vidal Street, which is still on display.

Tom St. Amand is a retired high school teacher in Sarnia

 

 

 

 

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