Nellis/Nelles Family and the Manor at The Forty
The history of the Nelles Manor starts long before the house was built, and parts of the story are older than the Niagara Region itself.
The first inhabitants of the area were the Indigenous people of the region, who prospered from the Niagara Peninsula’s rich lakes and forests. The native group known to reside in this area were termed the Neutral Indians, which was a confederacy of Iroquoian tribes. The discovery of a grave site and settlement found just minutes from the Nelles Manor in 1976, it is now commonly accepted that the Neutrals’ resided in the area up until the mid-1600s.
The Nelles family emigrated from France to Germany to England, and then were originally given land in the New Jersey area by the Queen of England at the time, Queen Anne Stuart. After hard times there they were able to purchase land in the Mohawk Valley – upstate New York. Being loyal to the British trouble arose for them at the time of the American Revolutionary War, so they were forced to flee from this land to Upper Canada in 1783. It was at this time that Joseph Brant graciously provided them with land, and they could start settling into their new home in Upper Canada.
As with many families at the time of the American Revolutionary War, the Nelles family was split into factions, with some in strong support of the Crown, others in strong support of the new American effort and eventual government. Henry Nelles and most of his immediate family felt strong support and affinity for the Crown (the British Empire). Henry fought with and for the British during the war, along with his son Robert, just a teenager when the American Revolution started. These efforts in the war led to a break with many parts of their family in New York, but also led to some very strong ties to the Crown and to many of the native groups and peoples, including a strong friendship with native leader Joseph Brant.
After the war, Henry and son Robert, who had fought directly for the British during the American Revolution, were not allowed to return to New York State. Due to their wartime activities, their property and holdings in New York State were confiscated. With the rest of the Nelles family staying in the Mohawk Valley, Henry decided to move his family to the British territory of Upper Canada. Henry and Robert had received land grants from the Crown as compensation and reward for their efforts in the war. The Nelles family became what are now known as United Empire Loyalists (UEL). This led directly to the settlement and building of the Nelles House at The Forty – later changed to Grimsby. Even though the 1700s seems like ancient history to some, the Nelles family was considered to be immigrants when they first came to the area. They were fortunate to be connected to and respected by the Mohawk tribe, so were also given land on the Grand River by Joseph Brant, Chief of the Mohawk.
After crossing the Niagara River at modern day Queenston, Ontario, Robert and his brothers boated along the edge of Lake Ontario from the mouth of the Niagara River to find a place to settle. They explored until they came to Forty Mile Creek. The name derived from the thought it was forty miles from the mouth of the Niagara River. Here they built a small cabin for shelter. From here they were able to make a trail to the land given to them on the Grand River near present day York, Haldimand Region. The whole family moved to York but the lands of The Forty called to Robert and his brothers.
The Nelles Manor was built from 1788 until 1798 by the Nelles family and ship builders, who would’ve been contracted by Robert Nelles himself. He and his brothers also built mills and other family homes. There land holdings were quite extensive from the escarpment to the lake. Overtime they were divided among family members or sold to new settlers.
The Nelles Manor was built after the Nelles’ settled at The Forty, but well before the American invasions in the War of 1812. The house was fully built and lived in by the Nelles family by the time the Americans declared war on the British. The Niagara Peninsula became a gateway for American fighting forces to work their way from the American frontier on the East side of the Niagara River as they reached for Burlington, York, and eventually Kingston. Thus, Nelles Manor actually was occupied by British and local militia during the War of 1812, but on at least two occasions were also occupied by American forces that had moved up from Niagara. Robert was away fighting and the Elizabeth and family were left in at the Manor.
Grimsby is part of the world famous Niagara Region. This region is itself part of the much larger “Golden Horseshoe” that surrounds the western end of Lake Ontario and forms a rough horseshoe shape.
The Niagara Region offers many more options. Most notably, the world famous Niagara Falls tourist area is just down the road from Grimsby, only a half hour drive away. Almost as famous is the Niagara wine region, which includes Grimsby. This wine region has been growing for decades but is world –renowned for its ice-wine, and sports some 200 wineries within 45 minute drive of Grimsby.
The Town of Grimsby itself offers a number of points of interest and historical sites. Grimsby is located on Lake Ontario, and the towns focus has always been towards the lake. Originally called “The Forty” after the milestone of the local creek from the Niagara River, today Grimsby is a thriving small town of 30,000 inhabitants.
Grimsby is blessed with having four Ontario Heritage Trust plaque sites. The Nelles Manor is of course one of the four. The others:
- St Andrews Church – located literally just down the street from the manor, St Andrews Church first congregation was in the 1700’s. The current church building on site dates back to 1825. The graveyard is well maintained, and has a large number of historically important grave markings for local people. The land for this church was originally donated by Colonel Robert Nelles.
- The First Town Meeting, 1790. The first town meeting in Ontario was held in Grimsby in 1790. This marked the beginning of local self –government in what was to become Ontario. The site of this town meeting is right next to the manor on the property where the town museum sits
- Neutral Indian Burial Ground – Discovered in 1976, this burial site dates from approximately 1650. After study, all the remains were re-interred,
In addition to the plaqued sites above, Grimsby offers:
- Grimsby Beach and the Painted Ladies – this is the famous Grimsby Beach area by the lake. Originally a Methodist camp and meeting ground, the lots here were originally tent sites that were later built on to as very small lot cottages. The area is frequently found in photos of the Province due to the beautiful colors used on the areas cottages.
- Grimsby Town Museum – Right beside the Nelles Manor sits the Grimsby museum. Check the Grimsby town site for events and exhibits.
- Grimsby Downtown – still vibrant and well used, Grimsby downtown is packed with shopping, restaurants, and through the summer a local farmers market every week.