John T. Williston House is located within Miramichi‘s Historic Water Street District. It was completed in 1824, making is one of the oldest buildings in existence in the area. Built by mason Andrew Currie in 1824, the building represents a good example of homes built for prominent citizens in the Georgian style.
This home has also served as a civic building. Following the Crown’s purchase in 1872 and subsequent renovations, it housed the Customs House and Post Office and Dominion Savings Bank. The building was rescued from decades of neglect in 1982 when a group of concerned citizens in partnership with the three levels of government secured and restored it to its present state. It was designated Protected in 1999 under the Historic Sites Protection Act of New Brunswick.
Probably John T. Williston’s greatest claim to fame was that he became involved in the “fighting elections” of 1843.
A prominent and popular businessman, he decided at the age of 51 to run for the House of Assembly.
In those days elections had a tendency to be pretty wild and woolly since there was no secret ballot until 1852.
The voting was carried out at various places in the county on different days. Whether or not a man was successful in casting his vote depended on which side he was on and how many of the other candidate’s supporters were on hand to protect the interests of their own man. It appears that a great deal of intimidation was used.
On December 1, 1842 the House of Assembly was dissolved and William Odell called for the election of a new Assembly to be returned by January 14, 1843.
On the Miramichi the contestants for the two seats were Alexander Rankin and John Ambrose Street, both from the north side of the river (and both long-time members) and newcomer John T. Williston of Chatham. Rankin was not expected to be defeated and as it turned out he was re-elected until 1852, a total of 25 years. Therefore, the contest was really between Williston and John Ambrose Street.
After pre-election violence which included broken windows and doors and other damage to the stores and houses of the various factions, John T. Williston was declared victorious over Street on January 8, 1843.
Mr. Street did not take his loss lightly and demanded a scrutiny. All through January and February there were accusations by Street and his supporters written in the Chatham Gleaner. Finally, the bickering and skirmishes ended for the time being whcn 45 people wrote to Fredericton stating that they had been forcibly prevented from casting their votes for Street. Williston’s seat was declared vacant in March and a by-election was called for July 17th.
Now the fighting began in earnest. John T. Williston was supported by Joseph Cunard and his employees and John Ambrose Street was supported by Alexander Rankin and his employees. It was the north side of the river against the south side.
The 300-strong Williston party is reported to have arrived at the Newcastle Court House on voting day intending to intimidate the Opposition but the Rankin men were forewarned and forearmed. They threw rocks which they had concealed underneath sods. The Cunard party was finally overpowered and fled in three different directions. The first group cut through the woods, coming out that night at Lamont’s Mill; the second group came out the next day at Millbank and the third group ran to the wharf to board the steamer St. George. The Street supporters were in hot pursuit, throwing pieces of coal. So Captain Graham steamed down to Chatham with his passengers, the decks of the vessel covered with coal.
Up to 40 persons were injured in the incident and James Ryan, a respected tarvern owner, died of injuries, leaving a widow and ten children.
When polling day arrived in Chatham. it is said that Cunard had a force of about 1,000 men while Rankin had 500. Because of the strength of numbers, election day was uneventful and an uneasy truce was declared. John Ambrose Street was declared elected and remained a member of’ the House of Assembly until 1850.
Following the fighting election the county was in a state of anarchy and confusion. Communcation was cut off between Newcastle, Douglastown and Chatham and the hostility continued for many years.
No elections were held on the Miramichi for some time. If more than four candidates offered (the county was allowed four members after the fighting-election), all but four would withdraw on the eve of the election, thus going in by acclamation and preventing a repetition of 1843.
John T. Williston eventually served in the House of Assembly, being elected in 1850. He was defeated in 1854 and the same year he was appointed Deputy treasurer of Customs, a position he held until his death in 1865.
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