Burning the Church: High Drama and Elusive Truth in Local History

Wilford Fisher was apparently quite the bastard!  When we talk about the legacies of our prominent political leaders we often find that history is kind to them.  Time and perspective smooths out the rough edges and forgives many sins.  Even Richard Nixon can find his way into a conversation as the hapless victim of ambition, technology, and circumstance.  This trend does not seem to hold up on small island communities like Grand Manan. And it certainly hasn’t done anything to spare Wilford Fisher.

While he was of good Loyalist stock like many of the islanders themselves, Fisher was born on the mainland at St Andrews, New Brunswick in 1786 and did not come to Grand Manan until age 18.  Though a recipient of minimal education, Fisher did learn to read and write—skills that, at the time, gave him distinct economic and political advantages over many on the island.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, dearth of educational opportunity was often lamented as the root of island poverty, social discord, and economic underdevelopment.  Royal Navy commander James Robb, sent by the Crown to monitor the conduct of the fisheries in the region in 1840 reported on the generally wretched state of the islanders and attributed much of the problem to lack of educational opportunities.  When Moses Perley surveyed the area a decade later for a similar purpose he too touted education as a critical need, but observed dramatic improvements.

In the 1830s Fisher had managed to parlay his skills and connections into a successful smoked herring business, an island store that outfitted many of the local fishermen, and a prosperous merchant house.  He was also awarded command of the island battalion of the Charlotte County militia and served as Magistrate and Commissioner of Roads.  Despite his success, it appears that as his influence grew on the mainland, his respect among the islanders waned.  By the mid thirties he was feuding with John Dunn, the pastor at St Pauls church in Seal Cove as well as Cochrane Craig and Church Meigs, who, along with Fisher himself and William MacIntosh, served as the four island magistrates.  Their cooperation in establishing and upholding law and order was all that stood between the residents of this remote island and a lawless band of ruffians.  These four also authored much of the official correspondence between the island and the colony—making Fisher among the more visible characters to posterity.  Unfortunately, most business required the input of at least two of them, and Fisher was running short of allies.

The exact order of affairs in unclear, but resentment grew amongst island fishermen who didnt see much need for militia drilling.  At several points there was open resistance among fishermen to being called to muster in the name of protecting an island that didnt strike them as being of any great geopolitical import.  Plus, in an age when tensions between the US and Great Britain provided the backdrop to most military preparations, and the eastern border between Maine and New Brunswick remained largely unclear, Grand Manan was more intimately tied, through commerce and kinship, to Maine, despite its loose administrative linkage to New Brunswick and the largely invisible umbrella of the British Empire. Diplomatically speaking, the islanders may have had the best relations with the likeliest aggressors of any British subjects on earth!

Problems also arose between Fisher and John Dunn, who, beginning about 1830 was the rector of St Pauls Church.  Keith Ingersoll has posited that the two may have come into conflict over access to timber lands on the island.  Fisher, with a budding commercial interest in shipbuilding and the economic and political power to wield his influence largely unchecked, sought access to lands that were technically allocated for the upkeep, supply, and support of the church.  Dunn further maligned Fisher for meddling in vestry elections in an effort to steer church policy into compliance with his own economic interests.  Soon there was open feuding between two of the most powerful members of the community—such that when the church went up in flames in October 1839, an effigy believed to be Dunn swinging outside, Fisher was believed to be the center of a conspiracy.  Fortunately for Fishers neck, if not his reputation among islanders, he was tried for arson in the shiretown (his hometown) of St Andrews and not on Grand Manan. The mainland jury acquitted Fisher of arson almost immediately, there not appearing to be much in the way of tangible evidence against him.  The speedy acquittal did little to satisfy islanders. In 1840 Fishers battalion refused to muster and was, for a time, in open mutiny against him.  Several island contractors appear to have conspired to accuse Fisher of misusing his authority in the doling out of road contracts, testifying in nearly identical depositions that Fisher had neither asked for nor offered receipts for transactions made with public funds in his capacity as roads commissioner years earlier.  While repeated efforts to impugn Fisher in an official capacity through petitions and complaints to mainland authorities seemed to cause little stir, they certainly seem to have emboldened island sentiment against him.

Keith Ingersoll wrote the entry on Fisher in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (available here) and the Grand Manan Archives holds collections that compile Ingersolls correspondence and copies of the documents he used in preparing it. Ive read many of Fishers petitions to the House of Assembly in Fredericton on behalf of the island—those that relate to my work on the management of fisheries—and neither Ingersoll nor I have succeeded in finding anything conclusive in the documentary record that implicates Fisher in the burning of St Pauls Church.  Lets face it, it was an era in which Fisher himself controlled much of the paper exchanged on the island and almost all of it that reached the mainland.  Nonetheless it remains one of the most notorious crimes ever committed on Grand Manan, and the island perspective seems every bit as resolute as it was in the fall of 1839.  When, after reading through Ingersolls files on Fisher I asked the archivist and a volunteer who were chatting in the office who, in fact, burned down the church, archivist Ava Sturgeon gave a coy smile and a shrug.  The volunteer said, flatly, that it was Wilford Fisher.  When I countered that there doesnt appear to have been much evidence then or now to implicate Fisher, other than that folks just didnt care for him, she replied, somewhat chillingly, “Oh, he did it.”

Lest any return trips to the island require a fake nose and glasses I wont seek to acquit or condemn Fisher any more than Ingersoll did.  Ill merely offer his case as one that reminds us that when dabbling in the spaces between local history and whatever we may construe to be its opposite, to be ever humble in our quest for truth.  Often the act of research breeds a sense of entitlement to answers that arent always there.  Was Wilford Fisher actually a bad guy who sought out an island community that he could subjugate and bend to his will, who met resistance to his intentions with violence and revenge?  Or was he an ambitious guy from away who, through a mix of personal traits, actions, and the assumptions of neighbors, just never won the trust of the community and became an obvious lightning rod for disdain and jealousy?  Or is his curious legacy and the two centuries of venom that surround him of some other making entirely?

Perhaps my biggest problem with the work I do is that I dont see how I can tell a story about the management of fisheries on Grand Manan in the nineteenth century that doesnt include St Pauls Church—it speaks to the social discord and problems of magisterial authority and law enforcement that characterize this and many other coastal and island communities of the time, to say nothing of being among the most famous events in the history of the place.  And if clarity and truth are so evasive in such a tiny vignette of a remote island community, what does that say about my prospects for the larger story?