DARLING, JOHN, businessman and office holder; b. 23 March 1769 near Ridgefield, Conn., son of Joseph Darling and Mary Street; m. early in the 1790s Elizabeth Canby, widow of Samuel Birdsall, and they had six children; d. 23 Feb. 1825 in St Johns (St Johns West), Upper Canada.
After his father’s death in 1780 and his mother’s remarriage in 1786, John Darling entered a period of legal wardship. In 1789 he settled in the Niagara peninsula where he came under the influence of Benjamin Canby, a local entrepreneur. Darling boarded with Canby and his widowed sister Elizabeth Birdsall and, if not actually employed by Canby, was at least able to observe firsthand his numerous business activities in the 1790s. In 1792 Canby erected a sawmill on the Twelve Mile Creek in an area known as the Short Hills; this location was the future site of the village of St Johns. The following year he moved to Queenston and leased the ferry service to Lewiston, N.Y. In 1794 he operated a tannery and by mid 1795 had constructed a saw- and grist-mill above the falls at Niagara. Selling his mills in 1799, Canby acquired the 19,000-acre Dochstader Tract in Haldimand County and went there to found the township and village of Canboro.
Darling’s career is inseparable from the history of St Johns and the five township lots (each 100 acres in size) over which the village ultimately extended. Land records indicate that, although Darling eventually owned four lots outright and part of a fifth, the lots were not patented until after 1800. He received a patent to one in 1816 and had purchased 318 of the remaining 400 acres in 1813. In land petitions written in 1808 and 1809, he claimed, however, to have purchased 400 acres, which included at least three of the aforementioned lots, from Canby in 1790. Moreover, some of these petitions are supported by certificates from such local notables as Samuel Street* and Robert Hamilton*, attesting to the fact that Darling had built his various mills on these properties.
Certainly Darling brought youthful energy and experience to St Johns. He took over Canby’s sawmill and by 1808 had built a grist-mill and a fulling-mill. Thereafter, he also operated a tannery. His next two initiatives set him apart from other pioneer businessmen and millers, and thrust St Johns for a time to the forefront of industrial development in the peninsula: by 1813 he had constructed a woollen factory and by 1817, and doubtless even earlier, he had established an iron foundry. Each initiative was significant in its own right; together they were unique. He also ran a butchery, selling mostly beef and pork; the pigs it slaughtered were probably his own and fed on mash from yet another Darling enterprise, a distillery. His businesses were well integrated: Darling’s whiskey, for instance, was sold in barrels apparently made in his own cooperage. Darling offered settlers a range of agricultural services as well, including teaming, the rental of oxen and land for grazing, and the sale of hay, straw, and root crops. His retail store sold a wide range of goods from spades to tea and featured such innovations as the rental of glass panes. His customers were distributed through the peninsula eastwards from the Grand River in the southwest and Ancaster in the northwest. Existing records indicate that he was more an enterprising and practical man than an accomplished bookkeeper, but it is clear that by 1820 his total operation was well in place and, on the evidence, his business peaked in 1824.
John Darling was barely active in political and civic affairs; he held office only once, in 1815 as a township assessor. He was, as Samuel Street described him, a “sober, industrious, and useful Inhabitant.” Remembered as a man of cheerful disposition, he was a freemason and a Presbyterian.
For a brief period Darling’s enterprises exemplified the potential, and the limits, of harnessing waterpower for manufacturing purposes. In relative terms he made a significant contribution to the development of St Johns and the economy of the peninsula. As he himself said, he had built his milling complex “at a great expence when that part of the Country was a Wilderness, thereby inducing other Valuable Familys to settle in that Township.” His death in the winter of 1825 was followed almost immediately by the fragmentation of his businesses. In a sense, his passing presaged the demise of St Johns as a leading pioneer industrial centre. In 1829 the Welland Canal bypassed the village and gave rise to more vigorous and lasting communities. When the railway also bypassed the area in the 1850s, St Johns went into eclipse and years later was deserted.
MTL, Samuel Birdsall, autobiography, 1862 (typescript, 1928) (copy at St Johns Outdoor Studies Centre). Niagara South Land Registry Office (Welland, Ont.), Thorold Township, deeds, lot 111, instrument no.690. “District of Nassau; letterbook no.2,” AO Report, 1905: 334. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1929:99, 138. Gwillim, Diary of Mrs. Simcoe (Robertson; 1911). “U.C. land book C,” AO Report, 1930: 131. E. H. Darling, “John Darling of St. Johns, U.C., a pioneer industrialist and his day-book, 1768–1825,” OH, 40 (1948): 53, 57, 61.