Meet Margaret Simpson, Bay of Quinte region’s first licensed female tavern owner. She was an official slinger of ale and whiskey from a time when simply crossing the threshold of any local watering hole without a male escort likely raised eyebrows. The fact that Margaret actually owned and managed such an establishment might just make her one of the area’s first feminists!
Open for business near the end of the 18th century, Simpson’s Tavern ran a booming operation right where the mighty Moira River meets the Bay. Well known as a gathering place for everything from social affairs and military recruitment to masonic lodge meetings and political rallies, the tavern soon morphed into a popular town hub.
“One of the most important meetings held at Mrs. Simpson’s was for the choosing of the name “Belleville” for our fair city,” local resident Lois Foster acknowledged in an article written for the Belleville and Hastings County Community Archives. And Lois ought to know: Margaret is her great, great, great grandmother.
TWISTS AND TURNS
But Margaret’s road to success followed some pretty wild twists and turns according to Lois. Enticed by promises of free land, Margaret and first husband John R. Russel had gambled on an Atlantic crossing and left their native Scotland in 1791. Who could know tragedy would follow soon afterwards?
Margaret’s feet had barely touched North American soil when John died. And while the widow and her youngest children likely found shelter with a male relative already established near Napanee, single parenthood in a brand new land must have been tough.
Perhaps things improved when Margaret married second husband, soldier James Simpson, in 1793. But when Simpson’s own petitions for land near Carrying Place went unanswered, the family opted to move to Meyer’s Creek (renamed Belleville in 1816.) By that time Margaret’s own brood had grown to six, and also included a son from James’ first marriage.
Constructing a log house and tavern on leased land, the family set up shop at the mouth of the Moira in 1797. And though Margaret faced widowhood when husband number two died five short years later, the tavern business continued to thrive. Eventually local authorities allowed anyone who had built in the area to take possession of the land for a fee and the Simpson family finally became property owners in the newly christened town of Belleville.
Margaret carried on with tavern life for quite a while, eventually selling the business to her youngest son George in 1822. A second nearby Simpson enterprise, a large Georgian-style inn built in 1820, sold to the Wallbridge family in 1825 and remained a Belleville landmark for 150 plus years.
Though no trace of either inn or tavern stands today, Margaret herself is not so easily forgotten. Shattering glass ceilings long before the term had even been coined, she was clearly a woman ahead of her time. History buffs interested in checking out this early feminist’s old stomping grounds can visit the log house monument at the intersection of Front and Dundas Streets, right alongside the beautiful Moira.