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The Narrative of Gordon Sellar
Chapter IV


Our curiosity as to how our boat was to get up the rapid was soon satisfied. Along both sides of the boat ran a stout plank, to which were securely fastened a row of cleats, about two feet apart. The crew gathered at the bow, each man holding a long pole with an iron point. On the order being given by the conductor, who held the helm, two men stepped out and took their place on the planks, one on each side, and dropped the iron points of their poles into the river, until they struck bottom. Then, pressing the end they held against their shoulders, pushed with all their might. As the boat yielded to their thrust, they stepped backward down their planks, making room for another man in front, until there were four on each side of the boat, pushing with their utmost strength. As the men who first got on the planks reached the end, they jumped aside and made their way to the bow to begin anew the same operation, of dropping their poles into the water, tucking the head of them into the hollow of their shoulders, and, leaning forward, push as they did before, receding step by step, the cleats giving the needed purchase to their feet. The current was swifter than any midstream, yet the boat was pushed slowly up until we reached the entrance to a, canal, smaller than that at Lachine, for it was only feet deep and so narrow that the crew jumped it when they wished to cross. It served the purpose; however, of enabling the boat to pass the worst part of the rapid, where it foamed in great billows.

Quitting the canal the swift current was again met and the setting poles again put into use. Our lads were eager to try their hands, but a few minutes was enough, their shoulders being too soft for the work. Those of the crew were calloused almost like bone, but even to them it was hard work, for the sweat rolled down their faces, as they struggled along the planks bent double. On reaching the next rapid, Treffle asked all who could to get out and walk along the bank, as the boat was drawing too much water. Robbie wanted to go with us, but grannie clung to him. ‘Should the boatie cowp, who-would save him gin I was na at hand?’ she asked. To help the crew, we pulled at a towline until she got to another small canal. As we went on, we had the excitement of watching boats pass us on their way to Montreal, shooting the rapids. They were heavily loaded, mostly with bags of flour, yet ran down the foaming waters safely.

To us boys, was more exciting the passage of rafts, for they splashed the water into spray. Having overcome that rapid, we all got on board, and the crew had an easier time in pushing along until we got in sight of a church perched above a cluster of cottages. The mistress asked Treffle how they made the passage before the small canals were cut where the rapids were most dangerous. He explained, that at the first rapid all the freight was unloaded and conveyed in carts to the landing-place on lake St Francis, while the empty boats were poled and towed close alongside the edge of the bank, avoiding the boiling water. In those days the boats were lighter and sailed in companies, and their crews united to take them up one by one.

The village, the Cedars, was to be the resting-place of the boatmen until next day, and scattering among the houses, where a few of them had their families, they left the boat to the passengers. Treffle led the way to houses where provisions could be bought and at prices so low that the women wondered. Saying nothing so good to make men strong, he bought for the mistress a big piece of boiled pork, which, sliced thin, we enjoyed either with bread or our ship-biscuit. We watched the baking of bread. It was fired in queer little white plastered ovens set in front of each house, looking somewhat like beehives placed on top of strong tables. The ovens are filled with wood, which is set on fire, and when the oven is hot enough the wood is raked out, the loaves shoved in, and the door shut. We youngsters gathered round one on seeing the woman was about to open it. When she drew out the first loaf, with a fine crust and an appetizing smell, we could not help giving a cheer, it was so wonderful to us. We went back to the boat with a lot of food, to which was added fish, bought from a man as he landed from his canoe, which we fried. That evening we had the best meal since we left home, and at night had plenty of room to sleep, for the air being hob a number of us slept beneath the trees.

We safely got past the fourth and last of the rapids, floating out of a little canal into a large lake. The wind was still in the west, so we had to keep tacking, and it was afternoon when we passed Cornwall and steered for the south side of the St Lawrence. Allan was pointing out to Grannie what was British and what was American; she remarked, on comparing the houses on the two banks, ‘That gin Canadians wad build houses of wood, they ocht to hae the decency to paint them ’ On nearing the landing-place at the foot of the rapids, Allan pointed to a group of people and told her they were Yankees. She shook her head, she did not believe him, they were too like our ain folk to be Yankees. The Soo is the longest rapid of the St Lawrence measuring nine miles, but is not nearly so wild as those we had passed, having fewer waves and intervals of smooth water. There was no canal to help in getting to the head of it, and it was beyond the strength of our crew to push the boat up with setting-poles. There was a towpath along the U. S. bank on which stood three yoke of oxen. A stout cable was hooked to their whiffle-tree and they started. On getting fairly into the strength of the current the crew dropped their poles into the water, and it was all men and oxen, strained to the utmost, could do at times to stem the sweep of the mighty tide. It was slow work but we won to smoother water and the boat tied up for the night.

It was hot when we entered lake St Francis, it was sultry now. Alongside us was a Durham boat like ours, but longer. It was packed worse than our own, men, women, and children huddled as close as captives on a slaveship, and like ourselves worn out with fatigue and facing the thunderstorm that we heard coming without covering of any kind. The quiet determination to endure much in the belief that we were coming to a country where we would better our condition sustained all in doing our best to make light of our trials. To a young woman, who was trying to get a fretful baby to sleep, the mistress sent me with a tin of milk and we had some talk. I asked if she was not sorry she had left the Old Land. ‘No, no,’ she replied, ‘we had no prospect there; here, with hard work we have the prospect of comfort and of depending on nobody for work or help.’ She kissed her babe and speaking to him said, ‘Yes, Willie, you will never know in this country what your mother came through.’ It was this hope that sustained us all.

There was only a small house in sight and the near bush was scrub, so we did not ask to go on shore and had to wait patiently, for the heat and mosquitoes kept us awake. The storm did not last long, but wetted all to the skin who could not creep under the decked parts of the boat. It brought great relief in freshening the air. The boatmen were astir before daylight, hoisting the sails, for the wind had turned to the north, as it often does after a thunderstorm. There were places, where the current ran so fast that setting-poles had to be used, but we got on well, and, by-and-by, sighted two towns—Ogdensburg and Prescott, the one bright and tidy, the other with a weather-beaten uninviting look. We rejoiced to see a small steamboat at the Prescott wharf. It was waiting for the stage from Montreal. A bargain was made to take our party to Kingston. On the boat we had met at the Soo coming in, she had too many emigrants for the steamer to take on board, but her captain agreed to tow her. The offer was made to let any of the women change boats, but none accepted. Like ourselves, they were travelling in families and feared to be parted. We were real sorry in bidding good-by to the crew of the Durham boat, for they had been kind and made companions of the children.

As one wee tot came up to her special favorite, she pursed her lips to be kissed; the Canadian took the pipe out of his mouth and gave the queerest cry of delight I ever heard. We could not speak to each other, but in the language of grimace and expression of countenance the French Canadian excels. The Montreal stage at last appeared, drawn by four horses, and on its passengers getting settled in the cabin, the steamer began her voyage. She was not like the steamboats of later days, which are houses built on hulls. She was just a good-sized barge with an engine and two paddle-wheels, which sent her along at a slow rate, all the more slowly on account of her towing the Durham boat. Our party crowded her fore deck and our baggage, piled on the freight she had when we got on, was higher than her paddle-boxes. We stopped three times to take on wood during the passage, reaching Kingston next morning, where we were to get a steamer for Toronto, but had to wait for her arrival.

She was a larger boat but of the same pattern as the one we left, having her cabins below deck. There were over a hundred emigrants, and we so crowded the steerage that we were packed as close as in the Durham boats. The prospect of being so near our journey’s end made us endure discomfort cheerfully I remember how the great size of lake Ontario impressed us all, having an horizon like that of the Atlantic. We had wondered at the width of the St Lawrence and at where all the water came from to dash down its rapids, but this great lake surprised us more, with its sea-gulls and big white painted ships bowling along. Mr Auld remarked the county of Ayr would be but an island in it, and Mr Brodie that you might stick Glasgow in a corner and never know it was there were it not for the reek. Many were the surmises as to how the master had got on, if he had got land, if he would meet us, and what our next move would be. The mistress shared in none of their anxiety. She was calm in her confidence of her husband’s ability and energy. She was convinced he had secured land and that he would be waiting on the wharf when the steamer sailed into Toronto. They were what every married couple ought to be—of one mind and one heart.

Our first sight of Toronto pleased us all, and we had a long view of it, sailing round the island before reaching the entrance to the harbor. Our eyes were strained as we came near the wharf in the hope of picking out master among the people who crowded it. All of a sudden Robbie shouted Father, and a man waved his hand, whom, as the boat drew closer in we all recognized. The sailors were still hauling the steamer into her berth, when Mr Brodie shouted ‘Have you got land?’ Yes was the reply. ‘Thank God!’ ejaculated Mr Brodie, and we all said the same in our hearts; the relief we felt only emigrants, after a weary journey, to a strange country can know. Pressing round the master, with Ruth in his arms and Robbie pulling at his coat tails, he said he had got land, not far from Toronto, and had secured carts to move us that day to take possession. First of all, he said, we will have dinner.


Here I stopped. It was my youngest daughter who insisted on my telling How I Came to Canada, and I had consented on condition she would write down what I said, for I am a poor penman and no speller. Recalling what had happened in my early life, and I did so generally as I lay in bed in my wakeful hours, I dictated to Mary as she found leisure. On reading over what she had written I had only one fault to find with her work—she had not taken down the Scotch as I had spoken it. She had put my words, so she said, into proper English. She protested against my halting in my narrative with the arrival at Toronto, and insisted I go on and tell of our life in the backwoods. I cannot resist her pretty way of pleading with me when she wants anything, for she is so like my sainted mother that I often start at the resemblance. To me, in her young face and figure my mother lives again. The agreement was to tell How I Came to Canada. To that I now add, How we Got On in its Backwoods.


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