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- Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 23/31 -


It is no wonder that we were often awed by their intellectual profundity, nor that they gave our youthful brains an impetus which sent them bounding through the severe curriculum we had to face.

The narrow-minded and unyielding policy of George III., as every one now admits it to have been, brought about the American Revolution, and gave birth to the American Republic. As always happens in every great movement, there were two sides to this question, not only between Great Britain and her colonists, but among the colonists themselves. One side clamoured boldly for their rights, and, if need were, separation. The other side shrank from a contest with the mother land, and preferred a more peaceful solution of their difficulties. A moderate degree of liberality on the part of the British Government would have appeased the demands of the malcontents, and another destiny whether for better or worse, might have been in store for the American people. But those were days when the policy of the nation was stern and uncompromising, when the views of trade were narrow and contracted, when justice was untempered with mercy, and when men were bigoted and pugnacious. Protracted wars consumed the revenues and made many draughts on the national purse, and when the trade of the colonies was laid under contribution, they refused the demand.

The Government, true to the spirit of the age, would not brook refusal on the part of its subjects, and must needs force them to comply. The contest began, and when, after a seven years' struggle, peace was declared, those who had sided with the old land found themselves homeless, and rather than swear allegiance to the new _regime_, abandoned their adopted country and emigrated to the wilds of Canada and the Eastern Provinces. Two results grew out of this contest: the establishment of a new and powerful nationality, and the settlement of a vast country subject to the British Crown, to the north, then an unbroken wilderness, now the Dominion of Canada, [Footnote: This has been changed. When the paper was written, the Confederation of the Provinces, if it had been thought of, had not assumed any definite shape. It followed eight years after, in 1867.] whose rapid strides in wealth and power bid fair to rival even those of the great Republic.

The history of our country--I am speaking of Upper Canada--remains to be written. It is true we have numerous works, and valuable ones too, on Canada; but I refer to that part of history which gives a picture of the people, their habits and customs, which takes you into their homes and unfolds their every-day life. This, it seems to me, is the very soul of history, and when the coming Canadian Macaulay shall write ours, he will look in vain for many an argosy, richly freighted with fact and story, which might have been saved if a helping hand had been given, but which now, alas! is lost forever.

It can hardly be expected that I should be as familiar with the early scenes enacted in this part of the Province as those who are very much older. Yet I have known many of the first settlers, and have heard from their lips, in the days of my boyhood, much about the hardships and severe privations they endured, as well as the story of many a rough and wild adventure. These old veterans have dropped, one by one, into the grave, until they have nearly all passed away, and we are left to enjoy many a luxury which their busy hands accumulated for us.

As a Canadian--and I am sure I am giving expression, not so much to a personal sentiment, as an abiding principle deeply rooted in the heart of every son of this grand country--I feel as much satisfaction and pride in tracing my origin to the pioneers of this Province--nay more-- than if my veins throbbed with noble blood. The picture of the log cabins which my grandfathers erected in the wilderness on the bay shore, where my father and mother first saw the light, are far more inviting to me than hoary castle or rocky keep. I know that they were loyal, honest, industrious, and virtuous, and this is a record as much to be prized by their descendants as the mere distinction of noble birth.

It has been said that love of country is not a characteristic of Canadians; that in consequence of our youth there is but little for affection to cling to; that the traditions that cluster around age and foster these sentiments are wanting. This may be to a certain extent true. But I cannot believe but that Canadians are as loyal to their country as any other people under the sun. The life-long struggle of those men whom the old land was wont "to put a mark of honour upon," are too near to us not to warm our hearts with love and veneration; they were too sturdy a race to be lightly over-looked by their descendants. Their memory is too sacred a trust to be forgotten, and their lives too worthy of our imitation not to bind us together as a people, whose home and country shall ever be first in our thoughts and affection.

"Breathes there a man with soul so dead Who never to himself hath said 'This is my own, my native land?' Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned As home his footsteps he hath turned?"

Is there any place in the world where such marvellous changes have taken place as here? Where among the countries of the earth shall we find a more rapid and vigorous growth? Ninety years [Footnote: The reader will bear in mind the date when this was written.] ago this Province was a dense and unknown forest. We can hardly realize the fact that not a century has elapsed since these strong-handed and brave-hearted men pushed their way into the profound wilderness of Upper Canada. Were they not heroes? See that man whose strong arm first uplifts the threatening axe. Fix his image in your mind, and tell me if he is not a subject worthy the genius and chisel of a Chantrey. Mark him as he swings his axe and buries it deep into a giant tree. Hark! how that first blow rings through the wood, and echoes along the shores of the bay. The wild duck starts and flaps her wings; the timid deer bounds away. Yet stroke follows stroke in measured force. The huge tree, whose branches have been fanned and tossed by the breeze of centuries, begins to sway. Another blow, and it falls thundering to the ground. Far and wide does the crash reverberate. It is the first knell of destruction booming through the forest of Canada, and as it flies upon the wings of the wind, from hill-top to hill-top, it proclaims the first welcome sound of a new-born country. And did these men of whom we have been speaking make war alone upon the mighty forest? Did they find their way alone to the wilds of Canada? No: they were accompanied by women as true and brave as themselves; women who unmurmuringly shared their toils and hardships, who rejoiced in their success, and cheered them when weary and depressed. They left kindred and friends far behind, literally to bury themselves in the deep recesses of a boundless forest. They left comfortable homes to endure hunger and fatigue in log cabins which their own delicate hands helped to rear, far beyond the range of civilization. Let us follow a party of these adventurers to Canada.

In the summer of the year 1795 or thereabouts, a company of six persons, composed of two men and their wives, with two small children, pushed a rough-looking and unwieldy boat away from the shore in the neighbourhood of Poughkeepsie, and turned its prow up the Hudson. A rude sail was hoisted, but it flapped lazily against the slender mast. The two men took up the oars and pulled quietly out into the river. They did not note the morning's sun gradually lifting himself above the eastern level, and scattering his cheerful rays of light across the river, and along its shores. All nature seemed rejoicing over the coming day, but they appeared not to heed it. They pulled on in silence, looking now ahead, and then wistfully back to the place they had left. Their boat was crowded with sundry household necessaries carefully packed up and stowed away. At the stern are the two women; one, ruddy and strong, steers the boat; the other, small and delicate, minds her children. Both are plainly and neatly dressed; and they, too, are taking backward glances through silent tears. Why do they weep, and whither are they bound? Their oars are faithfully plied, and they glide slowly on. And thus; day after day, may we follow them on their voyage. Now and then a gentle breeze fills the sail and wafts them on. When the shades of evening begin to fall around them they pull to shore and rear a temporary tent, after which they partake of the plain fare provided for the evening meal, with a relish which toil alone can give, and then lay them down to rest, and renew their strength for the labours of the morrow.

They reach Albany, then a Dutch town on the verge of civilization. Beyond is a wilderness land but little known. Some necessaries are purchased here, and again our little company launch away. They reach the place where the city of Troy now stands, and turn away to the left into the Mohawk river, and proceed slowly, and often with great difficulty, up the rapids and windings of the stream. This rich and fertile valley of the Mohawk was then the home of the Indian. Here the celebrated Chief Brant had lived but a short time before, but had now withdrawn into the wilds of Western Canada. The voyageurs, after several days of hard labour and difficulty, emerge into the little lake Oneida, lying in the north-western part of the State of New York, through which they pass with ease and pleasure. The most difficult part of their journey has been overcome. In due time they reach the Onondaga River, and soon pass down it to Oswego, then an old fort which had been built by the French, when they were masters of the country, as a barrier against the encroachments of the wily Indian. Several bloody frays had occurred here, but our friends do not tarry to muse over its battle-ground, or to learn its history.

Their small craft now dances on the bosom of Ontario, but they do not push out into the lake and across it. Oh no: they are careful sailors, and they remember, perhaps, that small boats should not venture far from shore, and so they wind along it until they reach Gravelly Point, now known by the more dignified name of Cape Vincent. Here they strike across the channel, and thence around the lower end of Wolfe Island, and into Kingston Bay, where they come to shore. There were not many streets or fine stone houses in the Limestone City at this time; a few log houses composed the town. After resting and transacting necessary business they again push away, and turn their course up the lovely Bay of Quinte. What a wild and beautiful scene opens out before them! The far-reaching bay, with its serried ranks of primeval forest crowding the shores on either hand. The clear pure water rippling along its beach, and its bosom dotted with flocks of wild fowl, could not fail to arrest the attention of the weary voyageurs. Frequently do they pause and rest upon their oars, to enjoy the wild beauty that surrounds them. With lighter hearts they coast along the shore, and continue up the bay until they reach township number four. This township, now known as Adolphustown, is composed of five points, or arms, which run out into the bay. They sail round four of these points of land, and turn into Hay Bay, and, after proceeding about three miles, pull to shore. Their journey it would seem has come to an end, for they begin to unload their boat and erect a tent. The sun sinks down in the west, and, weary and worn, they lay themselves down upon the bed of leaves to rest. Six weeks have passed since we saw them launch away in quest of this wilderness home. Look at them, and tell me what you think of their prospects. Is it far enough away from the busy haunts of men to suit you? Would you not rather sing--

"O solitude, where are the charms Which sages have seen in thy face? Better dwell in the midst of alarms Than reign in this horrible place."

With the first glimmer of the morning's light all hands are up and at work. A small space is cleared away, trees are felled, and in due time a house is built--a house not large or commodious, with rooms not numerous or spacious, and with furniture neither elegant nor luxurious. A pot or two, perhaps a few plates, cups and saucers, with knives and


Life in Canada Fifty Years Ago - 23/31

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