Life in Rural Ontario During the Late 19th Century: Hardship or Prosperity?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 19
Support Materials 2 (Briefing Sheet)

Roots of Conflict in Biddulph Township

Historians do not agree about the root causes of the conflicts that grew up amongst neighbours in Biddulph Township between 1840 and 1880, but no one disagrees that the township was plagued by crimes, violence and hatred. There are three different, but related, explanations for the conflict that ended in the horrific massacre of the Donnellys. Some historians explain the massacre by arguing that the conflicts that escalated into mass murder were the result of ethnic and religious differences brought from Ireland, where centuries of religious conflict, poverty and oppression had pitted Catholics against Protestants. Other historians argue that the cause was less about religious differences than it was about a tradition of lawless violence that religious differences had created. Still others argue that the root of the problem related to land ownership. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

Religious Hatred
Religious conflict in Ireland had originated with Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of that country in 1695. His decision to settle wealthy English Protestants in Ireland created a class of powerful Protestant landlords who extracted huge rents from the poor Irish Catholics who farmed their land. Many of the English landlords did not even live in Ireland, and thereby did not maintain their lands, or care for their tenants in times of hardship as had been the custom. The Irish Catholics were even denied the right to own land. Eventually they lost even their customary right to farm “common” lands (lands that were used by everyone in common to raise livestock or crops). Without customary forms of economic support, and with ever higher rents, Irish Catholics were driven into ever greater poverty. Many were forced to rely on potatoes as their only source of food.

In the mid-eighteen century (around 1750) a secret society called “The Whiteboys” was created by poor Catholics to exact revenge on the wealthy Protestant landlord class for the suffering the Catholics endured. The Whiteboys insisted that members swear an oath that they would have no contact with Protestants; they were not to trade with them, work with them willingly, or even talk with them. As time went by, the Whiteboys not only terrorized Protestants, but any Catholics who associated with Protestants, killing their livestock, burning their houses and barns, and even resorting to murder. Those Catholics who associated with Protestants, or who objected to the reign of terror and violence of the Whiteboys, were called in Biddulph Township “Blackfeet” (for more detail on this term and its origins, see In the 1850s, Biddulph Township held an almost perfect balance of Whiteboys and Blackfeet. As you might suppose from the term “Black” Donnelly, James Donnelly patronized both Catholic and Protestant businesses, and he even made a financial donation to the building of the local St. James’s Anglican Church.

A Culture of Lawless Violence
Other historians have examined the history of religious violence in Ireland – violence that was particularly intense around Tipperary – and do not deny that violence was originally sparked by the terrible injustices that Protestants inflicted on Catholics from the time of Cromwell’s conquest of 1695 until Irish Catholics were “emancipated” in 1829. They argue, however, that by the time Irish Catholics, including the Donnellys, moved from Tipperary to Biddulph Township, Ontario in the 1840s, differences between Catholics and Protestants were less important than the culture of violence that defined Irish Catholic society. Religious differences and religious tolerance were simply excuses, these historians argue, for secret societies like the Whiteboys to impose their own “laws” on their neighbours. The culture of violence was based on the decision of secret societies to take the law into their own hands, convicting and sentencing those who disobeyed them. They were, in other words, vigilantes .

Conflict over Land
Still other historians argue that issues related to land ownership were to blame for the numerous acts of violence to people and property within the community. In Biddulph Township, like other areas of Canada in the nineteenth century, it was in part the promise of land ownership that had encouraged thousands of families to leave their native country. For many peoples arriving in Canada in the nineteenth century, it was no longer possible in their native countries to own land, due to a variety of economic and political factors. Canada, however, had an abundance of land that was cheap by any standard. Canadian laws regulated how land was to be purchased, and often it dictated what settlers had to do to their lands in order to buy it at cheap prices. But sometimes these laws were not followed, and some settlers, like the Donnellys, did not legally purchase their land before living on it. And laws were not always applied equally to all purchasers. Some historians argue the feuds in Biddulph Township were related to questionable practices relating to land.