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A Lawless Place?

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medium_horse.jpgIn the early 19th century, there were no police, courts, or prisons in the Eastern Townships. The region was a distant frontier, far from the cities of Lower Canada. In theory, the law was enforced by part-time magistrates living in the scattered settlements. In times of emergency, the magistrates were assisted by the local militia. There were too few magistrates, however, and the only cases they were allowed to try were those involving minor disturbances or lawsuits involving a few dollars. Before the District of St. Francis was created in 1823, with a court at Sherbrooke, cases involving a lot of money or crimes of any kind had to be tried in courts in Montreal, Three Rivers, or Quebec City.

Going to Court:
If a resident of the Eastern Townships was owed $100 by someone, and the person refused to pay the money back, the debtor had to be sued in court in one of these three cities, depending on what part of the Townships the person resided in. The countryside was rugged, and roads were little more than muddy cart-tracks. A trip to the city took days, and travelling was expensive and difficult. There were also the usual lawyers' fees, court fees, and other expenses to contend with. The whole process was costly and time-consuming, and instead of bothering with it, many people simply gave up.

When a crime was committed, a warrant for the suspect's arrest had to be signed by a magistrate. If a magistrate could not be found, a militia officer would suffice. The suspect then had to be apprehended and taken all the way to the jail in the city to await trial. Many prisoners escaped en route.

Crime along the Border:
Especially lawless were the settlements along the American border. Not only were there no police, courts, or prisons, there were no customs officers to patrol the border either. This meant that smuggling was common. It also meant that dangerous criminals, like cattle thieves, bank robbers, or murderers, could cross in and out of Canada as they pleased. Criminals fleeing Canadian justice had merely to cross the border into the United States; and those from the States could take refuge in Canada just as easily. Law-abiding people complained that the Townships were home to a class of good-for-nothings. In 1822, wealthy Sherbrooke resident William Bowman Felton painted a grim (though possibly exaggerated) picture of the situation, emphasizing the threat to private property:

"The Townships are exposed to the influx of a transitory and immoral class, liberated from the Gaols of the neighbouring States, smuggling or escaping from their creditors, or the pursuit of the Laws of their Country... every facility is afforded to ill disposed persons to plunder and to escape from the Townships. That such events are of daily occurrence, particularly the stealing of Horses; and that very frequently persons detected in such crimes are liberated by the injured party, sometimes without compensation...[the] passing of Counterfeit Bills is a common and almost unheeded offence... in almost all the instances of committal... prisoners... escape on the Road."