Note: This is a chapter
from this book which is included to give the visitor an idea of what pioneer
life was like. You may wish to try to find a copy of this book as it makes
PIONEERING IN KENT, and
throughout Upper Canada, was a tale of hardships difficult for a later
generation to picture. True, the land was a free grant, or cost at most two
or three shillings an acre; but it was wrested from the forest by the
laborious toil of men women and children eking out a bare existence.
The pioneer home was a mere shanty of
logs and bark, quite often without window or door, with a deerskin hung over
the entrance and a chimney to let out smoke and let in light. A pioneer’s
tools were an axe, a large hoe, an auger and a sickle; or, if better footed
than ordinary, he might have saw, spade, wooden plow, plow shares, ox-yoke
and chain. The housewife worked with a skillet, a pot, a spinning wheel, a
set of cards for wool, a log cradle and a sugar-trough for bread-tray. Corn
and vegetables grown in the stump-pitted clearing were supplemented by
fishing and hunting. A pittance of money or additional goods might be earned
if the pioneer worked away from home, on the older farms or at Detroit. If
he did, the women and children were left to fend for themselves for months
at a time.
Life in the bush held little romance
and was not for timid folk. The deep silence of the woods at times grew
unbearable. Between mosquitoes and the smoking punk used to deter them, the
summer nights were a continuous penance. The visits of Indians, sometimes
bold to audacity, always mysterious, were dreaded. Danger from wild beasts
was ever present.
Wolves were a terror in the land; and
at certain seasons no woman’s life, much less a child’s was safe on the
trail after nightfall. Even in daylight, sheep were in constant danger, and
after dark all young stock had to be penned. The nights were often made
hideous by the unearthly howling of the wolves as they prowled about the
enclosures, or tried to stampede belated cattle. These defended themselves
by forming in circle, the calves inside, presenting a chevaux de
frise of lowered heads and
horns to their ravenous enemies.
So destructive were the
wolves that, quite early, a bounty was paid, a "wolf scalp warrant" to the
value of $6 being issued for each wolf-scalp taken. A memorandum in the
books of John Dolsen, J.P., of Dover reads: "1834, April 25, issued to
Archibald Thomson one certificate for wolf scalp; May 19, issued certificate
for five scalps (and on same date) certificate for two scalps killed on
18th. C. Cartier says that Thomson has killed 23 or 24 wolves in all
up to this time this year."
And, in 1842, a sensation resulted
when Daniel O’Reilly, a Chatham magistrate, was charged with signing wolf
scalp certificates in favor of Adam Snider and using them to pay certain
private debts. O’Reilly’s version was that Snider brought in wolf scalps, he
issued the certificates in due course, and accepted them in payment for land
sold to Snider. But suspicion long lingered that the scalps were fictitious.
The pioneer’s first task was to
provide shelter. His weapon was the axe. The surrounding forest offered
abundant building material. If wise, he copied and improved on the log
cabins of his predecessors, felling trees of the proper dimensions and
cutting them into logs of suitable lengths. With these he contrived a
one-story cabin, whose single room had perhaps ten by twelve feet in floor
space—largely because logs any longer than twelve feet were beyond his
ability to handle unaided. On the front, thicker logs were used, so that by
the time the last tier was placed, there was sufficient slope from front to
back to provide fall for a roof. Poles were laid cross-wise; and these
covered with bark, opened out and piled two tiers deep. Additional poles,
superimposed on this bark and tied to those underneath with basswood thongs,
ensured, without nail or bolt, a roof strong enough to defy any gale, and
tight enough to keep out rain and snow.
Basswood logs, split as evenly as
possible, were used for floor and door. For the floor they were trimmed on
one side with the axe, for the door on both sides. The cracks between the
logs were chinked with splinters of wood; then plastered with mortar
contrived of clay and ashes, the latter a fair substitute for lime. The
window—there was but one—if ostentatious might have two small panes of
glass; usually a single pane; quite often oiled paper took the place of
glass. Many cabins had no window at all.
This primitive shanty, usually
contrived single-handed, served the settler and his family for their first
summer. Often it served for years, where the farmer was more concerned with
clearing land than with home comfort. A house large enough to meet the
requirement of his settlement duties came later. In this undertaking, the
entire settlement co-operated. The logs for the walls, hewn with a
broad-axe, were hauled to the site by oxen; and, in contrast to the rude
"notch and saddle" corners of the first shanty, were built up into neat and
perpendicular "dove-tailed" corners by expert axe-men.
Cornelius McBrayne, Botany’s first
post-master, thus describes an old-time house raising:
"The logs were cut and hauled on the
ground and about the middle of October they would have an old-fashioned
house-raising. An invitation was given to about twenty men from the old
settlement, and with the help they had among themselves would have enough.
The invitation was looked upon as general, and some twenty-five or
thirty were ready and glad of a
chance to assist. A good supply of handspikes, mulays and skids, with the
bark peeled off, were provided beforehand, so that there would be no hitch
when operations commenced in the raising.
"It might be well here to explain what
a ‘mulay’ is as a great many people had never seen them. The head is in the
shape of a crescent, or exactly like a new moon put upon the end of a pole,
by which the men would push the logs up the skids. It answers the same
purpose in raising a log building as the pike poles of today do in the frame
"As soon as the log reached the top it
was ‘spotted’ — a chip taken off
the heaviest end and turned over. This would keep it from rolling while the
men on the corners prepared the ends to fit the logs below.
"There would always be a race to see which party would
get its end up first. The men on top would stand back a few feet and stick
their axes in the top of the log laid down, and thus prevent the rolling log
from crushing their toes. Sometimes the cutting at the corners would be
rather deep, and cause the log to ‘ride’, as it was called; then it would be
turned up and some taken off so it would rest firmly on the corners, and at
the same time have as small a crack as possible.
"During the time the corners were being prepared, those
on the ground had a chance to discuss any matters of public or private
interest; and such as the general news of the neighborhood was given and in
like manner received. After the walls were raised to a height of about seven
or eight feet, the beam plates were laid. The beam plates are two side logs,
somewhat larger than the other logs of the building, with grooves cut for
placing the beams which support the floor above. Three or four rounds are
placed above the beam plate, the first rib, and then the roof is commenced.
A straight grained oak is selected and cut in lengths for clap boards, which
when nailed together make a very good roof."
Like the house, the inside furnishings were almost all
homemade products of the settler’s skill and craftsmanship although at times
these were not of a very high order. The bed was a one-leg structure, built
into a corner of the house, the sturdy log walls doing duty for the other
three legs. The "springs" were poles, or basswood planks. The earliest
mattresses were of hemlock boughs; later, corn husks or rye or wheat straw;
still later, sewed in a tick, wild fowl feathers, especially duck and geese,
easily obtained every autumn. Sometimes the skins of wild animals served as
sheets and coverlets.
An indispensable feature of the pioneer dwelling was the
open fireplace. An opening was cut in the log wall at the far end of the
cabin; and here was erected a crude, box-like structure of stone with an
open front. This rendered a three-fold service—cooking, lighting and
heating. The wide fire place was large enough to take a backlog four feet
long and a foot through. A few stones, or sometimes round green stick, did
duty as andirons. Every night in cold weather a backlog would be "walked in"
and placed in the wide chim- ney; this, with a forelog and some split wood
ensured a rousing fire through the night.
The chimney above the fireplace was contrived of clay and
straw, kneaded and rolled to such a consistency as to handle firmly and stay
when placed between the upright poles which formed the skeleton of the
chimney. A rod of iron, if such could be procured, was put in, on which to
hang the pots. A later improvement on this was the "crane", set in the jamb,
which could be swung out, the pots hung on it, and then turned back over the
The light from the fireplace was generally sufficient for
work done after dark. The men employed their evenings making axe handles to
replace those frequently broken in felling trees and splitting wood: it was
customary to have a few extra handles for quick replacements.
Sometimes the men would mend the children’s shoes, or contrive hickory
brooms for the housewife. She, in turn, spent her evenings in spinning,
knitting, patching clothes, darning socks, or in other of the many duties
falling to her lot.
As a distributor of heat in very cold weather, the
fireplace was too efficient. The complaint was common that you were seared
on one side and frozen on the other. Still, by frequently turning, one did
Clothing was home-made, and usually woollen homespun.
Even where a settler could conveniently obtain from a trader the cloth
required to stand the rough usage of bush life, it was so dear that few
could afford the price. Many old country immigrants brought with them
quantities of linen; but sooner or later the great majority were clothed
with the products of their own toil. Hand cards, spinning wheels and hand
looms, operated by the women-folk, transformed the wool shorn from the
settler’s own flocks into cloth. Spinning was a by-occupation of the pioneer
women: but weaving was done by weavers, either men or women, who had to take
their pay in farm products.
As soon as the settler’s clearing was large enough, a few
sheep would be kept to provide clothing for the family. The shorn wool was
first washed to free it from dirt, and picked by hand in readiness to be
carded. This was done by means of two hand cards, which worked it into rolls
ready for the spinner. The old-fashioned spinning wheel converted these
rolls into yarn. The older women used a smaller wheel, operated by foot, so
that they could work sitting down; but the younger women and girls used a
large wheel, spun around by hand.
The wool was stretched and twisted into yarn by walking
backward from the wheel for the full length of the room. Homes which could
afford it sometimes hired girls to do the spinning. Three skeins of yarn,
composed of fourteen knots of forty threads around a homemade reel of a
certain size, constituted an acceptable day’s work. For spinning eighteen
skeins, a week’s work, a girl was paid one dollar, including board. To spin
three skeins a girl traveled a trifle over six miles, half that distance
backward. Every thread was gone over with the fingers after being drawn out,
to give it the required even twist. An expert spinner could complete four
skeins a day, adding materially to the distance she traveled, and then say
she was not tired.
For a fancy piece of dress goods, the wool was spun into
a fine quality of yarn, about three skeins to one pound of wool. The wool
was colored to suit the fancy; and, with the artistic selection and blending
of colors, woven in plaids, checks, stripes or any selected pattern, some
striking effects were achieved for the wives and daughters of the more
aristocratic families. The women folk vied with one another in designs to
suit their fancy: but the mere men had to be content with coarser yarn, to
ensure a heavier cloth which would stand rough usage.
For coloring their cloth and yarn, the early settlers had
to provide their own dye-stuffs. Butternut brown, very durable, was made by
boiling the bark of the butternut tree or the outer hull of the nut itself
in water. Brown was also obtained by boiling sumach bobs. The blossoms of
the golden rod yielded yellow; and the bark of the soft maple, boiled and
with copperas added, gave a deep black.
At times, clothes would be made from the cloth as it came
from the weaver; but for winter wear the cloth was put through the process
of "fulling." This was done by placing it in a tub of luke-warm water with
plenty of soap, where it was trampled, hour after hour, by barefoot boys and
girls. By this means the cloth was shrunk and made much thicker.
Sometimes fulling bees were held. The web of cloth, well
soaked in soapy, tepid water, was placed on a strong table. The neighbors
gathered for the bee took their places around the table, gripped the web
simultaneously with their hands, and brought it down with a thud. This
pounding went on for perhaps two hours, with occasional intervals when the
folk paused to rest and the web was treated with a fresh supply of
soap and water. Every now and then the web was shifted in position, so that
the strong might alternate with the weak, and the web receive an equal
degree of pounding throughout. To produce an equal shrinkage in every square
inch was an operation requiring art and skill; hence the bee usually
produced better results than the haphazard "tub and children" process.
Eventually the web was hung out to dry; and at long last the capable and
resourceful housewife was able to convert it into clothing.
To the housewife, likewise, fell the task of supplying
straw hats for the family. She selected the straws by hand from the wheat or
rye fields before the grain had quite ripened. Cut with the scissors, the
straws were spread out in the sun to bleach. This done, they were tied in
bundles and stored till winter gave leisure for plaiting them into braids
about a half inch in width. These braids the housewife wetted and bent into
the required shape as she sewed them together by hand. Come spring, she had
at least one straw hat for every member of the family: which might mean a
dozen or more hats made every winter.
In the earliest days, the wide fireplace provided the
sole illumination for the cabin at night. A piece of rag set in a saucer of
oil had the advantage, that it could be moved to any part of the room. Coon
oil was chiefly used; and settlers kept a good supply on hand.
The tallow candle came later. Its production was simple
but tedious. The wicks were dropped into melted tallow; then with drawn;
then dipped again after the adhering tallow had cooled. process was
repeated, time after time, till the candle was of proper size. A block of
wood, with a hole in the centre, served as candle stick.
Eventually, moulded candles came into general use. Metal
moulds, capable of making three, six or even eight candles at a time, became
standard equipment in the pioneer home, greatly curtailing the labor of
candle-making. They looked better than the tallow dip, though they gave no
Paper, ink and pens were likewise home-made. The inner
bark of the birch tree, divided and subdivided till it was thin and pliable
as papers could be written on with ink very nicely. Ink was sometimes made
by dissolving gunpowder in water. The ink mostly used was made by boiling
soft maple bark, and adding copperas and a little sugar. Such ink, quite
black, cost about a cent a gallon, and was for many years used in the
schools. The pen was whittled from a hickory stick, about the size of a lead
pencil, sharpened four square, with grooves running back from the point and
widening as the square widened. Quill pens, also used, could be made by
anyone with a sharp knife.
Thus by their own ingenuity, and at the cost of tedious
and patient toil, the pioneers provided themselves with these amenities of
civilization. If they could not have what they wanted, they invented
substitutes. or did without. Even with the advent of trading posts and
itinerant peddlers, the settler was still handicapped by the lack of ready
money; practically all trade was by barter, and quite often the hardworking
settler had little more than enough for his own needs.
Under such conditions, the manufacture of black salts, or
pearl ash, was a godsend, however improvident it may have seemed to a later
generation. For this, ashes were gathered from the fireplace, or from the
fallows where the logs had been burned to get rid of them. The ashes of
hardwoods, and particularly of the elm, yielded the most black salts.
The ashes were gathered into leaches, over which water
was poured. The water, passing through the ashes and collected in vessels
under the leach, formed lye. This lye was boiled in large kettles till the
last of the liquid had evaporated and only the solid or "black salts" was
The making of black salts was yet another of the pioneer
housewife’s many chores. The pearl ash was in great demand for soap making;
and was one of the first crops for which the settler could get ready money.
So the leached ashes from the burned logs became "the
father of potash, the grandfather of pearl ash, the great grandfather of
saleratus, the great-great grandfather of soda, and a distant ancestor of
the baking powder of the present day."
Food commonly consisted of cornmeal (occasionally flour)
and vegetables with such game as the settler could kill. Tea, sugar and meat
were luxuries, tea being seldom used except on Sundays. Cook stoves were
unknown, the baking being done in small Dutch ovens or ovens made of mud; a
rod was stretched across the chimney from which a chain with a hook carried
the bellied pots, sufficient for all culinary purposes. Hand-carded,
hand-spun, hand-woven and butternut-dyed woolens formed the better clothing;
sheep and deer skins, linens and linseys were the every-day wearing apparel.
In the absence of grist-mills, corn and grain were ground with hand mills or
pounded in mortars shaped out of the heads of tree stumps, the being
separated by the children’s lungs or on sheets blown by
Self denial and frugality reigned. Cash, if available,
was barely sufficient to pay taxes or the very small land installments.
Products that would realize cash were carefully hoarded. Barter was the
general mode of exchange, farm products or labor being given in return for
the small household necessities.
Long trips to "The Store" were made for the simplest
commodities; one day a roll of butter to buy a pound of salt, again two or
three eggs for a darning needle. Long pedestrian trips were frequent. An old
man from the Longwoods walked to Fields’ blacksmith shop in Harwich to have
his plowshare laid, returning the same day, a distance of fifty miles. A
bushel of salt cost eighteen of wheat, a yard of cotton one bushel, a pound
of tea $2 or $3, and sharpening plow-irons 62½ cents.
Travel was mostly on foot. A new settler seldom possessed
a horse, and few roads were usable for wagons. As late as 1842, there were
only 25 wagons in Kent and Lambton. For farming and logging operations, oxen
were generally employed; for the new settler they were the only draught
animals. The stone boat—a tree crotch boarded over—was at once his wagon and
carriage. Roads, save in favorable seasons, were almost impassable. As late
as the 1840s it was not uncommon for the Royal Mail stage, with its four
horses, to get thoroughly mired. A few of the more prosperous settlers may
have owned horses; a few had riding horses, the ladies riding astride; but
"shanks naggie" was the popular form of locomotion.
Marriage couples, often accompanied by a train of
friends, traveled long distances to the nearest minister. A Raleigh yeoman
and his fiance walked the entire distance to Detroit and back, sleeping over
night in a hollow log to resume their journey in the morning. A Romney man,
en route to Chatham on a similar errand, ferried his bride-to-be over a
Harwich swale on his shoulders.
Jurymen from Howard and Orford, often from sheer
necessity, walked the long distances to and from the court at Sandwich,
receiving neither pay, food nor accommodation, save the paltry 25 cents for
each case on which they served.
But, if journeys on foot were inescapable, there were
compensations or ameliorations. The doors of most houses were never barred;
the wayfarer was welcome. In winter, on the main lines of travel, in the
taverns and in many farm houses, great fires were built and banked upon
retiring, to accommodate the needy and impecunious who might come during the
night; the morning light often revealing many arrivals curled up on the
floor, sleeping soundly before the comfortable hearth. Even where charges
were made they were modest—meals 12 1/2 cents, bed or lodging the same, and
five cents for a gill of whiskey.
At first, social intercourse was exceedingly limited. A
visit from a distant neighbor (there were none near) was a rare and welcome
break in the uneventful monotony of wilderness life. But, as the scattered
clearings edged closer to one another, social amenities, became possible. In
the backwoods, the popular "dance" required little preparation beyond the "fixins"
which the boys generally provided by means of coon hunts, a coon skin being
a cash commodity at the store.
In the "front clearings," though, preparations were more
elaborate, involving a resort to the "Corners" for nankeen knee trousers and
vests at 67 shillings (York currency), scarlet and swansdown vests at 50
shillings, dancing pumps at 24 shillings, calico for gowns at $1 a yard;
cambric for waists and scarfs at $3 a yard, besides numerous ribbons,
"silver lace bows and hair bands," and the like. Then to the strains of
fiddle or bagpipes, played by some Celtic Pat or Sandy, perched on high in a
convenient corner, dance after dance in endless round continued far into the
early morning hours. The only interruptions were the frequent visits of the
male dancers to an adjoining room to investigate the merits of Dolsen’s corn
juice or peach brandy, with now and then resultant breaches of the peace
when the escort home of some forest belle was disputed.
The pastimes like the surroundings were rude and wild.
Coon hunts, cock-fights, rifle matches, wrestling and fisticuffs, and,
later, horse racing, provided diversion. At such events, whiskey was ever
present. Nor was its use confined to the cross-roads; it formed the social
beverage alike of yeoman, merchant, squire, judge and parson. "Drunk as a
squire" was a true if not a complimentary saying. The drinking habit cropped
up at every barn raising or other gathering. Even at funerals "drinkin’
under the dead" was a common observance. At the funeral of a prominent
official who died at "Sally Ainse" on the Thames, even the parson had to be
propped up by friendly hands while he read the service, his practiced tongue
giving no evidence of his paralyzed limbs.
Entries in a lower Thames merchant’s day book are
eloquent of the times. "Ebenezer Wilcox, to 3 gallons of whiskey for
Parson’s dance; Hezekiah Wilcox, to 2½ gallon spirits for Gibson’s funeral,
32s. and for share of H. Ball’s dance, 10s and Thomas Williams, for egg nogg,
6s ‘because he was afraid to fight’."
Schools were few, poorly attended, and, on an average,
open only six months a year. In time they were assisted by the district and
the government according to the number of pupils and length of time open;
but the burden fell chiefly on the settlers, who took turn about boarding
the ill-paid Dominie in their homes. As late as 1840, a baker’s dozen of
preachers sufficed for the spiritual wants of the community, the tying of
marriage knots and the christening of the resulting olive branches. Doctors
were rarer still: but the babies came into the world without their
assistance and, strange to say, with astonishing
success. Except on special occasions, sick settlers still drenched
themselves with salts at 37½ cents per dose, or had recourse to "a vomit" at
similar cost. A common and popular medicine was sulphur at four shillings a
The lakes and rivers were the great highways of the
pioneers. Close to them the first settlements were made; and when eventually
settlement worked inland, long distances and lack of time and money
prevented systematic road work.
From early times, the Indian
had traveled the wilderness; but the Indian had no wheeled vehicles. Till
the white man came, he lacked even the horse. Overland, he followed a
winding course, taking advantage of high ground and skirting tricky swamps
and difficult hills. The earliest pioneer roads—mere bridle paths—in many
cases followed these Indian trails. Over these bridle roads, men, on horse-
back or on foot, toted their grist to the least distant mill; or, with wives
and families, went to visit their neighbors on the great occasions of
births, marriages and funerals, or to attend the rare religious services,
held in a log church or school or oftener in the most commodious cabin. Road
improvement consisted simply in clearing away fallen timber or underbrush,
with perhaps a trifle of widening. Surviving stumps quite frequently dotted
Winter improved these bush
trails. Then the ground, mucky in spring and fall, froze hard, and snow,
which the forest prevented from drifting, leveled the surface. As late as
1862 a text-book writer grew ecstatic:
"It is impossible to
overestimate the importance of the frost and snow to the people of Canada,
or to place any money value upon them. That which most Europeans have
deplored as the only drawback to this country is in truth the source of its
rapid prosperity. The operations of agriculture or commerce do not
necessarily require perennial communication with a market. As there is but
one crop of grain or lumber in the year, it is sufficient if once in the
year an opportunity is afforded to transport it, and this Canada possesses
in a higher degree than any other ‘more favored clime’.
"In the dead of winter, when
all agricultural outdoor operations have ceased, the farmer after having
threshed his grain, can sally forth to any market he may select even if
distant one hundred miles or more and combine other business or pleasure in
the town with that of the sale of his products. He can go anywhere while the
snow lasts for all roads are alike; and he can take as large a load as can
be transported by the same power on the best wheel roads of Europe."
Possibly true of the eastern
portions of Upper Canada, this description did not fit exactly the county of
Kent, where the "January thaw" had been, from time immemorial, a recurrent
phenomenon. And, with the felling of the forest trees, and the resultant
drifting of the snow, the advantages of the winter trails became even less
Over these trails the farmers
had been able to travel, and trans port goods, in horse-drawn home-made
sledges. The usual conveyance was the "jumper"—a wooden box on runners,
sometimes iron-shod, more often bare. Town residents sometimes used the more
elaborate traineaux or carrioles; thus Simcoe travelled down the Thames on
the ice in 1793. The winter roads enabled the settler to travel long
distances at little expense; since he, his family and his horses had to be
fed, anyway. As late as 1825, fully two-thirds of the crops in Upper Canada
were transported to market in winter.
The first Upper Canada
parliament, sitting at Newark in 1793, passed an act placing roads under
overseers to be appointed by the ratepaying householders at their annual
town meetings. Every person was required to bring tools and to work from
three to twelve days, and owners of carts and teams at least six days. At
first, ten days’ time was required from rich and poor alike; but when large
blocks of land, granted to favorites or held by speculators, stood in the
way of improvement, dissatisfaction at the road law which exacted no more
from the large landowner than from the tenant or laborer led to the days of
statute labor being based on assessment.
At the commencement of the
nineteenth century, from the eastern boundary of Upper Canada to the Detroit
river the sole land com- -munication was by a series of portage roads,
designed to fill the gaps where water transport was inconvenient, difficult
or impossible. In 1810 the navigation of the Thames to Lake St. Clair was
supplemented by the Baldoon Road, constructed by Lord Selkirk’s Scottish
settlers. In 1803 the government had opened the old stage road "the Tecumseh
Trail" along the south shore of Lake St. Clair to the mouth of Pike Creek;
but the roadbed was hard to keep in repair, and was ultimately submerged.
Private enterprise and
generosity, stimulated by necessity, helped. The Niagara Falls Canada
Constellation of September 13, 1799, gives us a glimpse of pioneer
roadbuilding from Oxford to the mouth of the Thames. The settlers, in one
year, at the expense of Thomas Ingersoll, cut and bridged a road from
Burford to La Tranche through a wilderness of between 25 and 30 miles.
Elisha Putnam of Oxford later, by subscription, continued the road to
Allen’s, in Delaware township. The subscription was insufficient to finish
the work, but the road was passable for sleighs.
started a second subscription to continue the road some fifty miles to the
Moravian grant. This provided a ten-foot wide roadway, with logs cut to
twelve feet. By 1799 Putnam had opened the road for half the distance. The
Moravians undertook to add a further seven miles, to provide a junction with
the "old road", giving a good wagon road to the mouth of the Thames,
ensuring for the coming winter communication with Detroit and not a day’s
ride without settlements. "Such is the enterprise of our western inhabitants
that 150 miles of road is made without the least allowance from government."
The quotation clearly
indicates there was already a road along the river, from Cornwall’s to the
mouth of the Thames.
In the Talbot settlement,
road construction, as distinct from surveys, was commenced in 1809 under the
direction of Colonel Mahlon Burwell, and the first sections were completed
in 1811. This highway was gradually extended, and eventually the two main
branches were completed from Fort Erie to Sandwich and from Port Talbot to
London. Talbot street soon became known as the best road in Upper Canada; it
was one of the first where corduroy was replaced by more advanced types of
In 1795 the entire revenue of Upper Canada, £900
sterling, left nothing for roads. In 1804, with growing revenues, £1000
could be appropriated. The amounts gradually increased; between 1836 and
1840 Upper Canada was to spend £100,000 on roads. Meanwhile, the War of 1812
had emphasized the need for better overland transportation facilities, and
during and after that struggle there was some improvement.
The first step was the laying of logs
crosswise of the right of way where it traversed swampy ground. Thus
originated the notorious "corduroy road" whose discomforts became a
tradition. One writer says: "Whole hecatombs of trees were sacrificed to
form a corrugated causeway of their round trunks, laid side by side, over
which wagons can be slowly dragged or bumped, any attempt at speed being
checked by immediate symptoms of approaching dissolution in the vehicle."
According to some writers, simple
ditching, to drain the right of way, would have solved the problem as
efficiently, and more comfortably. But for lack of tools or time, or both,
corduroy was preferred. Kent, with much swampy terrain, got its share: as
late as 1943, road work on Concession 3, Harwich, between the Centre Line
and the Mull Side Road, in Howard, between Concessions 5 and 6 and on the
Chatham-Camden town line uncovered logs, in perfect condition, probably laid
more than a century before. Some logs were as much as two feet in diameter,
though most were from ten to twelve inches. The logs were 12 to 14 feet in
length, and oak had apparently been preferred.
Drainage, when it came, often left the
corduroy high and dry, whereupon attempts were made to cover it with earth.
Often the penetrating winter frosts heaved the logs through the earthen
covering. Eventually corduroy was superseded by the "dirt road," rudely
graded, excellent in midsummer and midwinter, but pretty sure, on the clay
soils of Kent, to become deeply rutted with the autumn rains and spring
thaws. In time, efforts were increasingly made to improve these dirt
roads—especially those subject to heavy traffic—by graveling. With good
grading and sufficient gravel, this made an excellent road; but too often
the local road authorities applied their gravel with a stingy hand.
Following the union of 1841, the
Municipal Act placed the roads of Upper Canada wholly under local control;
and the Assessment Act provided that every male between 16 and 60 was liable
to a minimum of two days’ statute labor, with longer periods according to
property assessment. The rate of commutation, 2s 6d per day, might be varied
by by-law, and later was doubled. Delinquents
who failed to work or pay could be imprisoned.
Roads must be not less than 30 and not more than 90 feet wide; and local
rates could be levied for local roads on petition of two-thirds of the
ratepayers representing one-half the assessed value.
So far as concerned Kent, this was the
system of road construction and administration in vogue for sixty years.
In 1832, Upper Canada was forty years
old. The Quaker, Benjamin Lundy, founder in 1815 of one of the earliest
anti-slavery societies in the United States, was keenly interested in the
success of the fugitive slaves who had found refuge there. His diary of a
mid-winter journey to secure first-hand information gives a vivid picture of
travel in the southwestern peninsula at that period.
Lundy crossed the Niagara at Queenston
on January 13, 1832, and about mid-day took the stage for Hamilton. All
inland travel in Upper Canada was by stage coach (so called), taverns and
stage houses at intervals furnishing meals and lodging to wayfarers and
providing fresh horses.
From Hamilton, junction of the routes
from York and Queenston, the stage ran daily in summer and tri-weekly in
winter as far west as Brantford, the mail continuing through to Detroit
thrice a week. The run often started before daybreak, and if the going
proved heavy, it was not unusual for passengers to make it easier by getting
out and walking, and even by "putting shoulders to the wheel" at bad spots
in the road. On this particular trip, there was plenty of snow and the
stage-box could be placed on runners, so the stage made satisfactory
progress, reaching Brantford the day after leaving Hamilton.
On the evening of January 16, Lundy
reached a stage house three miles south of London. Thence he journeyed on
foot through the village of London and beyond to the Wilberforce settlement
where, spending a couple of days sizing up the progress and prospects of the
negro colony, he found conditions encouraging and opportunities plentiful
for homeseekers to secure uncleared land to convert into fertile farms.
Returning to the stage house south of
London, Lundy resumed his journey to Detroit. Starting at 3 a.m. on January
22 the stage crossed a good bridge at Delaware to the north side of the
Thames, reaching Ward’s tavern in time for dinner. The same afternoon Lundy
came to New Fairfield village. After traversing the Indian Reserve, the
stage passed fine farms. A little before dark it reached Howard Bridge at
Arnold’s Mill where it recrossed to the south side of the river, Here was a
tavern, stage house and store, where the day’s journey ended.
Routed out before daybreak on January
23, the passengers resumed their journey about 4.30 a.m., the more
pretentious stage coach giving place to an uncovered sleigh. Traversing a
road along the south bank, the wayfarers came, 10 miles west, to McGregor’s
Mill, where they found a large mill, a store and a post-office.
The morning being cold, the passengers
were allowed to sit by a fire in the kitchen while the mail was sorted.
After a few minutes’ delay, they hurried back to the sleigh, and went on to
the little village of Chatham. It was now daylight, and they stopped for a
few minutes at a tavern and stage-house in the village. There was also a
store— apparently Stephen Brock’s.
From Chatham the travellers proceeded
five miles down the Thames to a tavern on the south bank kept by L. Goss.
Here horses were changed, and, the snow being pretty well gone, the sleigh
took to the river ice. The ice was strong, and good time was made. Lundy
records that the land bordering the river exhibited a dense population of
"French Creoles" and Europeans with a few Americans. He manifestly uses the
term "creole" in the New Orleans sense, as referring to a native-born
descendant of a settler from Europe.
A more graphic record is left by Mrs.
Anna Jameson of a trip to Chatham following a visit to Colonel Talbot in
1837. Thirty-four years after its founding, Colonel Talbot’s demesne had
grown to 540,000 acres with an estimated 50,000 population. The original
Castle Malahide, burned by the Americans in 1814, had been replaced by a
more pretentious structure—"a long wooden building, chiefly of rough logs,
with a covered porch running along the south side." Talbot confided that for
sixteen years, in the early stages of the settlement, he scarcely saw a
human being "except the few boors and blacks employed in logging his land."
He himself assumed the blanket coat and axe, slept upon the bare earth,
cooked three meals a day for twenty woodsmen, cleaned his own boots, washed
his own linen, milked his own cows, churned the butter and made and baked
Leaving the settlement, Mrs. Jameson
proceeded to Chatham. The best—in fact the only—vehicle available was a
farmer’s cart. She sat on a seat strung on straps, a primitive species of
shock absorber. Talbot Street was then the best road in western Upper
Canada, so, as far as the Howard-Harwich town line, the going was not too
bad. There the cart turned north.
"The road," writes Mrs. Jameson, "was
scarcely passable; there were no longer cheerful farms and clearings, but
the dark pine forest and the rank swamp, crossed by those terrific corduroy
paths (my bones still ache at the mere recollection!) and deep holes and
pools of rotted vegetable matter mixed with water, black, bottomless sloughs
of despond! The very horses paused on the brink of some of these mud-gulfs,
and trembled ere they made the plunge downwards. I set my teeth, screwed
myself to my seat, and commended myself to Heaven—but I was well-night
"At length I abandoned my seat
altogether, and made an attempt to recline on the straw at the bottom of the
cart, disposing my cloaks, carpet bags and pillows so as to afford some
support—but all in vain; myself and all my well-contrived edifice of comfort
were pitched hither and thither, and I expected at every moment to be thrown
over headlong; while to walk or to escape by any means from my disagreeable
situation was as impossible as if I had been in a ship's cabin in the midst
of a rolling sea."
Just before entering the thicker
woods, a stop was made at wayside inn "to gain breath and courage and
refresh the poor horses before plunging into a forest of some twenty miles
"The inn," writes Mrs. Jameson, "the
only one within a curcuit of more than five and thirty miles, presented the
usual aspect of these forest inns; that is, a rude log hut, with one window
and one room answering all purposes, a lodging or sleeping place being
divided at one end by a few planks; outside a shed of bark and boughs
for the horses, and a hollow trunk of a tree disposed as a trough.
Some of the trees around it were in full and luxuriant foliage; others which
had been girdled stood bare and ghastly in the sunshine. To understand the
full force of the scripture phrase, ‘Desolate as a lodge in the wilderness,’
you should come here."
Mrs. Jameson’s driver followed the
creek road in Harwich:
"Turning the horses’ heads again
westward we plunged at once into the deep forest, where there was absolutely
no road, no path, except that which is called a blazed path, where the trees
marked on either side are the only direction to the traveler. How savagely,
how solemnly wild it was! So thick was the overhanging foliage, that it not
only shut out the sunshine but almost the daylight; and we travelled on
through a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and intermingled shade. There
were no flowers here—no herbage. The earth beneath us was a black, rich
vegetable mould into which the cart wheels sank a foot deep; a rank, reedy
grass grew around the roots of the trees, and sheltered rattlesnakes and
"The timber was all hard timber,
walnut, beech and basswood and oak and maple of most luxurious growth; here
and there the lightning had struck and shivered one of the loftiest of these
trees, riving the great trunk in two and flinging it horizontally upon its
companions. There it lay in strangely picturesque fashion, clasping with its
huge boughs their outstretched arms as if for support. Those which had been
hewn to open a path lay where they fell, and over their stumps and roots the
cart had to be lifted or dragged. Sometimes a swamp or morass lay in our
road, partly filled up or laid over with trunks or fallen trees by way of a
"As we neared the limits of the
forest, some new clearings broke in upon the solemn twilight monotony of our
path; the aspect of these was almost uniform, presenting an opening of
felled trees of about an acre or two; the commencement of a log house; a
patch of ground surrounded by a snake fence, enclosing the first crop of
wheat and perhaps a little Indian corn; great heaps of timber trees and
brush-wood laid together and burning; a couple of oxen dragging along
another enormous trunk to add to the pile. These were the general features
of the picture, framed, as it were, by the dark, mysterious woods."
Mosquitoes, thick in undrained
woodland and swamp, tormented the traveller. At length, the jolting cart
emerged into the valley of the Thames. "The first view of the beautiful
little town of Chatham made my sinking spirits bound like the sight of a