John Galt: the Finding and Founding of Guelph

Sketch of John Galt

There are certain benefits to having a novelist found your city. First of all, you can count on him or her to write a gripping story of your town’s origins. This is definitely true of Guelph, whose founder, Scottish novelist John Galt, told the story of the city’s beginnings in his autobiography. And told it, I might add, with dramatic flair!

It is April 23, 1827. Galt and several accomplices set out from the town of Galt (named after you-know-who) for the plot of forested land soon to be Guelph. Unfortunately they soon lose their way in the woods, and then it begins to rain.

According to Galt, they are now wandering up and down like two babes, with not even the comfort of a blackberry, the heavens frowning and the surrounding forest sullenly still.” Eventually, they happen across a lone cabin in the woods, home to a Dutch shoemaker, and he helps orient them and point them in the right direction.

When they finally find the appointed spot, they assemble for the ceremonious felling of the first tree. It’s an awe-inspiring event, yet one that also inspires a feeling of guilt at disturbing the tranquility of their surroundings:

The tree fell with a crash of accumulating thunder, as if ancient Nature were alarmed at the entrance of social man into her innocent solitudes with his sorrows, his follies, and his crimes.

I do not suppose that the sublimity of the occasion was unfelt by the others, for I noticed that after the tree fell, there was a funereal pause, as when the coffin is lowered into the grave.

It all sounds like a rather somber affair. Yet, this reverence for the majesty nature seems an entirely fitting for a city that today often defines itself by its environmental initiatives.

The mournful mood doesn’t last long though. It is soon broken by Galt’s accomplice William “Tiger” Dunlop, who “pulls out a flask of whiskey” and drinks to the new town. Also classic Guelph!

In the following pages of his autobiography, Galt concedes that “it may appear ludicrous to many readers, that I look on this incident with gravity.” Yet, he remains steadfast in his belief that Guelph is a city “fated with a high destiny.”

If only Galt were alive today! He’d see how prophetic (not ludicrous) his words really were.

Posted by Dawn Owen on August 1, 2015