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Pioneer Life in Zorra

To the early settlers of Western Canada a volume on pioneer life requires no introduction. We paint in glowing language the courage of the soldier who made long marches and endured hardships to maintain the honor of his country, or to advance her interests either for conquest or defence; and yet we forget that similar qualities were exercised, even under less favorable circumstances, by the pioneers who entered the forests of Ontario within the present century. The soldier had the stimulus of his companions, the flaunting of flags, the beating of drums, the example of his officers, and all that sentiment could do to urge him forward even at the peril of his life. The pioneer had no such stimulus. He often went single-handed into the deep forest; he had to separate himself from friends and neighbors, to endure perils by night and by day, to live on the scantiest fare and in the most depressing isolation; and yet in spite of all these disadvantages he never relaxed in his determination to make himself self-sustaining, or even more, if a kindly Providence would only so favor him.

The early settler was no knight-errant, no speculator in margins, no waiter upon Providence, but, as a rule, a man of indomitable energy, courage, physical endurance, and with confidence that seed-time and harvest would in due time bring him reasonable prosperity. No better stuff stood beside Nelson on board the Victory. No better stuff climbed the heights of Alma, or charged the dervishes at Khartoum.

The Ontario pioneers (and I am speaking now particularly of those who settled the western counties) left the old home as a matter of choice, except perhaps a few who might have been evicted because their landlords wanted the paddocks they occupied for other purposes. The great majority of them, however, felt that in the land of their fathers their sphere was circumscribed, and if their position was to be improved at all, and provision made for their families, they must seek homes abroad. This was particularly the case with the settlers from Scotland. True, they may not have expected the hardships they subsequently endured; but what were hardships to them so long as they had a free home, their families around them, and the prospect of independence within their reach? In the old land they were tenants; in the land of their adoption they were landlords—owners in fee simple of the soil they tilled. It was theirs to improve; it was theirs to bequeath to their children after them; and this one fact was a silver lining to the darkest cloud that hung over them.

Notwithstanding this, it is almost impossible to over-estimate the hardships endured by the early pioneers. There is a great deal of romance cast around the log house of the settler, with its open, glowing fire-place, generous hospitality, and its unsophisticated simplicity of manners. The novelist likes to speak of the hollyhocks that nodded lazily beneath the window, as if to remind one that hope still blossomed within; of the wild rose or honeysuckle that climbed over the unhewn walls, as if to show the sympathy of nature with the plainness of the architecture. That is the romantic view of the pioneer's first home. But to those who know some of the realities of pioneer life, the log house too often furnished but scant shelter from the pitiless rains of autumn or the tempests of winter. Its hospitality was frequently taxed far beyond the comforts of its owner, and its open fire-place was too often insufficient for the fullest enjoyment of life, either by night or by day.

Sixty years ago a thousand or more such homes could have been seen amid the forests of the west. How came it about that the same district is now dotted with homes—one might almost call them mansions, so beautiful are they in design and so attractive in appearance? How came it about that the forest path over which the settler carried supplies to his family on his back, is now an easy highway for the traveller and pleasure-seeker? How came it about that the ploughshare and the reaping machine now move freely where once stood the giants of the forest? How came it about that happy villages occupy the camping ground of the Indian? Is it not because the pioneer stretched forth his strong arms against the natural obstacles of those early times, and with a stout heart resolved to bring them under the influence of intelligence and civilization? And can it be possible that we, who see the changes wrought at such tremendous cost of energy and toil, can forget the sturdy qualities of those by whom these changes were brought about?

It is said that the Pilgrim Fathers of New England were the sifted wheat of the early colonists, and that to them the United States owes the vigor of its national character. In many senses of the term the pioneers of Ontario were chosen men—sifted wheat. As a rule, they were men with a fair education; but even where this was denied them, they had a high sense of the value of education as a preparation for the duties of life. Accordingly, we find that wherever there was a settlement, were it ever so small, there was a school house; and although the school master of those days would not rate very high, judged by the standards of modern education, he was honored because of his calling and the responsibilities of his office. Being obliged to accept the hospitality of his patrons in lieu of the full wages to which he was entitled, he had the opportunity of carrying the torch of learning, flickering though its light may have been, from house to house, and no doubt often stimulated the pioneer to a greater interest in the education of his children. Though books were few in number they were eagerly read, and when a newspaper found its way, by a weekly mail, to the homes of those who could afford such a luxury, the work of of the school master was still further strengthened and the interest of the pioneer quickened. As years went by, some member of the family would venture out into the world to seek a professional career. His example became the object of admiration far and near, and so the native ambition, sometimes of many fathers, but more frequently of the mothers, was aroused to see that the honor of the family was similarly maintained. In many a home luxurious ease and ordinary comforts were abandoned that the nascent genius of some embryonic Mansfield, or Candlish, or Simpson, might be developed.

The religious character of the pioneer was also an important factor in strengthening his arm as he grappled with the difficulties of early settlement. He had not left his own land because he mistrusted Providence, but because he believed Providence was specially directing him as to his future course. The God that watched over him and his fathers in the land of his birth, he believed was present in the forests of Canada; and so with an unbounded faith he entered upon his daily labors. Until he was able to erect a church for public worship, he placed his humble dwelling at the disposal of his neighbors, and by his daily life and his devotion showed that he believed religion had its obligations as well as its comforts.

In maintaining his religious life, the pioneer was greatly aided (and I only speak of the Presbyterians) by the character of the early Presbyterian missionaries. With nearly all the ministers mentioned in this volume I was personally acquainted. I have heard them preach, sometimes in the forest, where parallel ranges of logs were the only pews, and the overshadowing trees the only shelter from the sun; sometimes in a barn, when no church was available; sometimes in a log church as primitive as the log house of the pioneer. I have heard some of them conduct an English service and others a Gaelic service. It is but natural, having regard to the emotional character of one's early life, that I should recall with more than ordinary enthusiasm the personality of the men and the vigor of their discourses. Even making due allowance for this, I think I am safe in saying that some of them were endowed with apostolic fervor, and with more than the usual gifts of eloquence. I fancy I can now hear the Rev. John Ross, in his peculiar penetrating voice, depict the future terrors of the unregenerate, till the blood was chilled with horror; and then in tones soft and soothing as a zephyr plead for the acceptance of the story of the cross. To hear him was to feel that he had lived near the Master, and that no life was worth living unless permeated with a sense of the great hereafter.

The Rev. Donald Mackenzie, of Zorra, was one whose personality I can also recall most vividly. I remember distinctly a sermon preached by him—it must have been in the early fifties—from that sublime passage in Isaiah: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength," etc., and I think I can still hear the tumultuous eloquence with which he set forth the glory of that strength and the overwhelming power it gave to those who possessed it. Mr. Mackenzie's delivery had one peculiarity. While in his exordium he was argumentative—speaking quietly and apparently hesitatingly—as he proceeded he gained strength as a river does in the multitude of waters that are poured into it. Step by step the volume became stronger as he approached the peroration—a peroration that was sometimes almost terrific in its earnestness and elocutionary force. When he reached the climax he suddenly ceased, as a Roman candle seems to explode when it has reached its maximum height, and then, in the quietest tones, as if exhausted nature could do no more, he uttered a short prayer.

The Rev. Lachlan McPherson was for many years minister of the congregation at which my father and family worshipped. He received the greater part of his education in Canada, and was, I think, licensed to preach by a Canadian Presbytery. Mr. McPherson was usually of a very calm temperament. He wore a sadly sobered look, and had the expression of one who gave himself much to meditation of a very solemn character. His disposition was by no means morose, however, for he enjoyed a joke and could tell a good story; but his manner was ordinarily reserved and serious. He was, moreover, a good Gaelic scholar, and as Gaelic was his mother-tongue, he had special aptitude as a preacher in the Gaelic language. His delivery was often characterized by those undulating cadences peculiar to the Gaelic and Welsh languages, and when he fell into this rapturous oratory he was very impressive. He was, however, in many respects more of a theologian than a pastor, and had a special affection for the doctrines of John Calvin and his disciples. Predestination and the formula of the Shorter Catechism were frequently his theme, and, as a consequence, he touched the hearts of his people less than he otherwise might. Nevertheless his sermons were stimulating and did much to keep alive the intellectual life of the people whom he served.

Of the others mentioned in this volume I need not speak in detail, though all partook more or less of the character of the men to whom I have already referred. Several of them served as superintendents of public schools as well as ministers of the gospel. All of them commanded the deepest respect of those to whom they ministered, and left on the generation they served the impress of their own religious constancy and earnestness. But they, too, like the pioneers among whom they labored, endured hardships, travelling on foot through the deep forests, and accepting, without a murmur, the scanty comforts of the pioneer's home. Their labors may not be recorded in large biographies, as is the work of such men as Guthrie and Chalmers and Wesley and Spurgeon; but their work is recorded in the lives they have comforted, the churches they have founded, and the example they gave to the community in which they lived. Well will it be for the religious character of future generations if they have many disciples.

In view, therefore, of the character of the pioneers whose early lives Dr. MacKay has here so vividly depicted, and particularly in view of the character of the missionary pioneers whose work like a golden thread runs throughout the narrative, I would commend this book to the people of Canada.

"Prominence is not necessary to true greatness." The pioneer had no prominence—he had, nevertheless, the elements of true greatness. The qualities which enabled him to establish a home for himself and his family, in the face of so many difficulties, are the qualities by which nations are built, good government established, and prosperity and peace made possible. To follow in his footsteps is a guarantee that Canada will grow in influence and power as one generation follows another.

GEO. W. Ross.

TORONTO, August 2nd, 1899.

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