From pirates to Pontiac, the history of Sandwich is unique and vibrant

From pirates to persecuted slaves finding freedom through the Underground Railroad, Sandwich, which was founded in 1797, is steeped in a rich and vibrant history that is kept alive by community historians and street murals.
The bricks on Sandwich First Baptist Church were made from the clay of the Detroit River by the free and runaway slaves that worshipped at the congregation. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

From pirates to persecuted slaves finding freedom via the Underground Railroad, Sandwich, which was founded in 1797, is steeped in a rich and vibrant history that is kept alive by community historians and street murals. Below are some highlights.

Sandwich First Baptist Church

One of the stops on the Underground Railroad was in Sandwich. The church was built on Peter Street in 1851 by former slaves from the southern United States. It was originally built as a log cabin on Hill Street, but a growing congregation meant more space was required.

Sandwich First Baptist Church

5 years ago
Duration 2:27
Historian Lana Talbot talks about how people have seen and heard things that can't be explained in the church that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

"We were known for being the refugee home society with Henry Bibb and his wife Mary Bibb," said Lana Talbot, historian at Sandwich First Baptist Church.

Some pieces from the 1851 build still survive at the site today. She said the original floor is below the current one and the wainscoting is original. 

"The bricks outside were made from the clay in the Detroit River," explained Talbot. "Each family, if there were seven in a family, you can see the two large bricks with the five small in between to represent the families."

The wainscoting is still the original wood from the construction of the church in 1851. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Back when the Underground Railroad was running, the church even offered hiding spots. Talbot believes the trap door is near the front entrance, where there's a four-foot drop under the floorboards.

"There would be blankets, because we would never know how long the bounty hunters would be in the area," she said.

If members of the Essex Regiment saw bounty hunters they would fight to keep the slaves seeking freedom in Canada safe, even shooting at the bounty hunters, Talbot added.

Mackenzie Hall was built in 1865 by Canada's second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie and his brother. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Mackenzie Hall

The Sandwich landmark was built in 1865 by Canada's second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie. According to Peter Berry, the harbor master of the port authority and a Sandwich historian, Mackenzie and his brother built the hall, which was the court house for the region until the 1960s. The warden of the prison even lived in it.

"If fell into disrepair over time," said Berry. "A group of community activists came together with the local law community to resurrect the hall."

Mackenzie Hall is now a community centre in Sandwich.

Gibbet Hill

The corner of Mill Street and Sandwich Street was called Gibbet Hill. Berry said the court would hang convicts by their neck and then put them in iron cages until their bones where white. That practice was stopped in the 1860s, by the sheriff of the day.

"The smell was too much to take in the summer," said Berry. "The legend is the sheriff rode up on his white horse and stole the gibbets in the middle of the night and hid them, so they could stop that practice."

Pirates were often hung by the river to warn them of what their fate could be. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)


Berry said Sandwich boasts 400 years of pirate history. As the area was colonized, there was money to be made by moving things across the river illegally.

"There were lumber pirates that would go through and strip government islands of all their lumber and go sell it in trade," he said.

Pirates were often hung by the river to warn others of what their fate could be if they dared to take part in similar criminal activities.

St. John's Cemetery

The oldest surviving gravestone is from 1793, which predates Sandwich Township. The man buried beneath it was born in Amsterdam, New York, now known as New York City. Berry said the stone also represents 12 different people buried in the cemetery.

"The graveyard has thousands of people, even though you're only seeing about 500 stones," he said.

The story of L.S. James Silk

5 years ago
Duration 2:04
Peter Berry talks about L.S. James Silk. He's buried in St. John's Cemetery in Sandwich.

Among the saddest stories is of a toddler who died from teething. There are also many who have served in the military buried there. Berry is using documents found in the Leddy Library to find all of those who served. Flags fly beside the grave stones of those who served.

Many of the stones were vandalized in 2004 and many more have been lost to nature.

"Nature just swallowed them up as they fell over," Berry said. "Leaving them in the ground, they'll just turn to dust and we'll never find them."

The oldest grave at St. John's Anglican Church is from 1793 and marks the final resting place of 12 people. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Three Fires Confederacy

According to local writer Daniel Lockhart, the Three Fires Confederacy would gather centuries ago in the area that is now Sandwich. The Confederacy refers to the three councils, consisting of the Potawatomi, the Odawa, and the Huron nations. He said it was a way for the nations to get together. 

"They would discuss who gets to hunt what and when," he said.

The gatherings were also a time for members of different tribes from across the region, from both sides of the Detroit River, to meet up and trade furs and other items.

Chief Pontiac

Chief Pontiac may have walked the streets of Sandwich. Lockhart said Pontiac staged his initial council fire before the Siege of Fort Detroit on Peche Island. He said Pontiac visited the Huron nation and asked for help fighting the Americans.

"They said something like, 'Nah we're good, we don't want to fight them,'" said Lockhart.

Burial sites

Decades ago, the river functioned like a modern highway so Indigenous  people would build their homes near the water where they would have better hunting grounds and better soil. Lockhart said Indigenous people have lived on this land for at least 15,000 years, and burials would have taken place in Sandwich by College Avenue.


Stacey Janzer was born and raised in Essex County. Self-described Canadian treasure. She currently works as a video journalist at CBC Windsor. Email her at