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Tombstone Tales – Joseph Matthias Sanders

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A young nine-year-old lad in our Pioneer Graveyard, who died 155 years ago, represents a family who up to that distant past had glorious beginnings.

Young Andrew Frederick Sanders most likely succumbed, in 1858, to one of the dreaded diseases which ravaged so many families back then, like typhus, diphtheria or tuberculosis.  Fortunately none of his other siblings died with him.

We are going meet Andrew’s great-grandfather John Dennis, a Quaker and Master shipbuilder, like his father before him. After the United States revolution he moved his family to York (Toronto), Canada, where we was commissioned to build ships for His Majesty’s navy on the Great Lakes. His most notable achievement was the HMS St. Lawrence, built by 200 shipwrights in less than 10 months. With 112 guns she was the largest ship to sail on the Great Lakes and served in the War of 1812.

John received a land grant on the Humber River for previous ship work he had done. He never used the land and eventually his step-daughter Elizabeth McLaney and husband Mathias Sanders built a small cottage there, in the little village of Thornhill about 1797. Matthias was the son of German immigrants and also worked in the shipbuilding industry.

In their cottage they raised six children and were quite prosperous until the war came. Matthias was a private in the 1st York Militia and was in the Battle of York, Apr 27, 1813, when the United States ships blockaded the Toronto harbour. British General Sheaffe and his officers decided to blow up the main magazine on the waterfront below Government House to prevent the Americans from gaining their powder and ammunitions. The fuse was lit, but Matthias was in the powder magazine attempting to remove a portable magazine from behind one of the 12-pound guns. He had no idea it was going to blow up.

It was spectacular, when it did.

“At this instant the ground shakes and the world turns dazzling white. A prodigious roar splits the ears of the attackers as a gigantic cloud spurts from the blazing magazine to blossom in the sky. Debris bursts in all directions; great chunks of masonry, broken beams, gigantic boulders, rocks and stones. This terrifying hail pours down upon the attackers, covering the ground for a thousand feet in every direction, killing or maiming more than 100 men, striking off arms and legs, crushing chests, decapitating bodies. One man, Ely Playter, had an appallingly close–up view, and miraculously, was untouched. He sees Matthias Sander’s leg smashed to a pulp. He sees the oldest volunteer of all, the doorkeeper of the legislature, John Basil, struck twice in the head and knee.”

Most of the British casualties, remarkably low, were militia who didn’t know the magazine was to be blown up. That day, York was lost to the Americans.

Astonishingly, Matthias did not die in the battle. His leg was amputated but became infected and he died at his home on May 25. That left Elizabeth with six children, the youngest just over one year old and the oldest about 14, and with no income. She applied for and received a widow’s pension.

Three years later Elizabeth married again to a shyster named Dr. John Toledo Elrod, who had been born in the USA. Almost eight years later Elrod disappeared and Elizabeth discovered he had a wife alive and well in the United States. He took her for almost everything she was worth but her land. She petitioned government to return to the Sanders name and had to take in boarders to survive.

Matthias & Elizabeth’s youngest son, Joseph Matthias Sanders, was born three months before war was declared against Britain in 1812, a year before his daddy died. In his will Matthias left lots to each of his children, who remained in the area, marrying and raising their families.

What brought Joseph to Tillsonburg? We don’t know. It is possible they arrived in Dereham as early as 1846, but it is not until the purchase of Thomas Hardy’s land, called the Tillsonburg Park (near the fairgrounds) by Mrs. J.M. Sanders in 1856 that we start seeing the Sanders name listed in the Directories, Gazetteers and later in the town tax collection rolls.

Joseph owned a lot of property and appeared to be active in the community. He died at 69 years and had a very large funeral procession which showed the town’s admiration.

There is a very good chance that some of the Sanders in Tillsonburg today could be directly related to either Joseph Matthias or his brother Henry. Some of the families marrying into the Sanders were the Darrows; Armstrongs; Smiths; Darroughs; Hayes; Northways; Whites; and Wards.  Are you one of those? Give me a call at 842-9416 to find out.

The original cottage homestead in Thornhill, where Joseph Sanders was born, was called Crinklewood named after a place in England. It was expanded and sold several times over the years and still stands today, and still includes the original cottage section. It is open for tourists; I feel a road trip coming on!

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