Chatham, one of the oldest communities in western Ontario, was founded in 1794. John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, originally planned Chatham as a military settlement. The military function did not develop, however, and settlement was slow until the 1830s. The names Kent and Chatham, given by Simcoe, are after the county of Kent, England, and in honour of the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt the Younger.
Lumbering was the first industry in Kent County. Once the land was cleared Chatham developed as a marketing centre for the surrounding agricultural area. Chatham became a town in 1855, but only became responsible for its own management in 1879, when it formally separated from Kent County.
In the 1850s, Chatham was a centre of anti-slavery activity and one of the northern stops on the Underground Railroad that brought fugitives of slavery to Canada. Descendants of thousands of these formerly enslaved people are an integral part of the local population. Buxton National Historic Site, 19 km south of Chatham, recalls the history of the Underground Railroad and what was then known as the Elgin Settlement. This Black settlement was founded in 1849, and descendants of some of its early settlers still live there.
Economy and Labour Force
As the largest community of Chatham-Kent, Chatham, continues its role as a marketing and retail centre. The administrative functions of the municipality are also centred in Chatham. Automotive manufacturing and supporting industries represent a large part of municipality's economic activity. Post-secondary education includes a St. Clair College campus and Ridgetown College, which is affiliated with the University of Guelph.
There are two provincial parks within Chatham-Kent's boundaries: Wheatley and Rondeau. A piece of Carolinian forest is preserved in the Clear Creek Forest. At the mouth of the Thames River is one of Ontario's oldest lighthouses. In October, Chatham's Heritage Days celebrates life along the Thames in the early 19th century.
Some of Chatham-Kent's personalities include folk singer Sylvia Tyson, baseball great "Fergie" Jenkins (both of Chatham) and country and western singer Michelle Wright (of Merlin).