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The Narrative of Gordon Sellar
Chapter V - Seeking for Land


Leaving Mr Auld and Mr Brodie to see to the unloading of the baggage, we followed the master up the brae to the street that faces the lake, and entered a tavern. While waiting for dinner he told us of his experience in Toronto, not all, for he added to it for a week afterwards, but the substance of his complete story I will tell at once.

The morning after his arrival he went to the office of the surveyor-general, and found several in the waiting-room; three he recognized as having come with him in the steamboat from Kingston. Like himself they all wanted land. Talking among themselves, an Englishman, who said he had been in Toronto four days, declared he had got sick coming to the office; he had thought there would be no difficulty in getting a lot and going to it at once, but found it was not so. The money he had to carry them to their new home was going in paying for board of his family. Unless he was assigned a lot that day, he would cross to the States.

All were eager to get their lots at once; Canada invited emigrants yet, when they came to her door, there was no hurry in serving them. The master asked the reason, and got a number of answers. One was that there was too much formality and redtape, another that the officials were above their business and treated emigrants as if they were inferior animals, but the reason that struck the master most was that given by the emigrant who said this was his fourth day, which was, that if an emigrant had any money they wanted him to buy land, instead of giving him a government grant. While they were talking the headman of the office walked past them, accompanied by a gentleman in military uniform, and went into the inner room. Both gentlemen were speaking loudly. ‘Yes,’ said the surveyor-general, ‘we are building a future empire here, and would like more recognition from the Home government of our services. We are doing a great work with imperfect means.’ ‘Ah!’ exclaimed the officer, ‘what do you need?’ ‘We need more money and more officials to direct the stream of immigration.’ So they went on gabbling, while by this time there were over fifty of us in the waiting-room and round the door outside. Getting tired, the master asked a clerk who was passing in to see the surveyor, to tell him there were a number of emigrants wanting lots and if he would be pleased to help them.

We heard the message given and the reply ‘I am engaged with Colonel Rivers, and cannot possibly see them today; go and take their names and the places where they are staying.’ So we gave our names, said the master, and came away sick at heart. While waiting in the tavern at a loss what to do a man came into the barroom and asked if he was Mr Anderson. He had heard he wanted land and could introduce him to a party who would supply him at a reasonable price. ‘I have not come all the way from Scotland to pay for land; I expect to get a lot on the governments conditions.’ You can get such a lot, replied the stranger, but when you see it you would not take it. All the government lots are in the back country, and often wet or stony. What you want is good land and near a market. He talked on, trying to persuade the master to go with him and make a purchase, but he said he would take time to think over what he had told him. The stranger pressed him to come to the bar and have a treat; the master said No. After he was gone the master asked the tavern-keeper if he knew the man. ‘Oh, yes, he is a runner for the big bugs who have land for sale.’ ‘How came he to know I wanted land?’ ‘Were you not at the surveyor - general’s office this morning and left your name? There is a regular machine to get all the money out of you emigrants that can be squeezed.’ The landlord said nearly all the desirable land was held by private persons, who had got large grants under one pretence or another and who were selling it for cash, when the emigrant had any, or on mortgage if he had none, for if he failed in his payments they got the lot back with all the improvements the emigrant and his family had made.

After dinner the master took a walk, and passing along the street the thought struck him that he should call at the post office, for there might be a letter from Scotland. Asking a gentleman to direct him to the office, the reply was he was going that way and would show him. ‘You’re a Scotchman,’ remarked the gentleman, ‘What part are you from?’ From Ayrshire. ‘That is my native county.’ So they talked until the office was reached. Standing at the door, the master told him of his perplexity about getting land. ‘Ask if there is a letter for you,’ directed the stranger. There was none. ‘Now come with me and I will try to find out some way to help you.’ They entered a large store, opposite the market-place, of which the gentleman was owner. The place was crowded with customers waiting their turn to be served. Taking him into a cubby-hole of an office he asked the master to speak frankly, to tell him how much land he wanted, what money he had, and the number of his family. When he had learned all, Mr Dunlop, for that was his name, said, ‘You may give up your notion of getting land for the fees. All the good land, so far surveyed, is in the hands of our gentry, who live by selling it; or of speculators. The lots the surveyor-general would give you would be dear for nothing, they are so far away. You want to be as near the lake, or a town or village as you can manage, so that you can buy and sell to advantage. Many who go on remote lots have to leave them after undergoing sufferings no Christian man or woman should endure. I am busy now; come back at four o’clock and I will find out what can be done ’

On returning to the store at that hour he found Mr Dunlop had been called away, but had left a letter, which he was to deliver. With some difficulty the master found the house. There was a man and woman sitting in the shade on the stoop. Reading the letter he was asked to sit down. The master described the man as short and thin and well up in years, but wiry and active. His wife was comely for her years, with a placid expression. In reply to his first question, the master addressed him as Sir. ‘Use not that word again; all men are equal before God; use not the vain distinctions by which so many try to magnify themselves and set themselves apart from their fellows.’ The master was taken aback. The wife explained that they were Friends, whom the world named Quakers, and that their yea and nay meant what they expressed; they desired directness and sincerity in speech. Both took much interest in what the master told them, for they kept questioning him until they learned how he came to leave Scotland and of the voyage. They were struck by his account of the ship grounding off Newfoundland and the wife remarked ‘Thee did well to give thanks to Him who saved you.’ The address of Mr Kerr they asked for, and the master promised to get it. ‘He has suffered as we Friends have and still do, for we have no voice in the government of the country and can hold no office.’ A girl came to the door who said supper was ready. The master rose to leave. ‘Nay, thee must break bread with us; thee art a stranger in a strange land,’ said the wife, as she took hold of his arm. The evening passed too quickly, for the master enjoyed his company. On rising to go, the Quaker told him he had a block of land he had taken for a bad debt. ‘And what is the price you put on it?’ asked the master. ‘I do not sell in that way. Thou must see the land and if it suits thee, come back, and I will tell thee its price. Thee take breakfast as early as they can give it, and you will find a man whom we call Jabez waiting to lead thee where the land is.’

Next morning as the sun was rising over the lake, the master overheard a man in the barroom asking for him, and hurried from the table. He was tall and gaunt, with a set mouth that spoke of decision of character. At the door were two saddled horses and in a few minutes they were trotting up Yonge street. When they had to slow down, on account of the road becoming full of yawning holes, Jabez had much to say about backwoods farming. He had not the personal experience of a settler, but had seen much of backwoods life and had known scores who had tried it. ‘Not one in five succeeds,’ he said, ‘some fail from not having money to feed their families until enough land is under crop to maintain them, others from going on stony or sandy lots that yield only poor crops, and not a few from going where it is marshy and fever-and-ague prevail. Many go into the backwoods who have not the muscle for its hard work or who will not be content to live on pork and potatoes, until they can get better, yet even they might do had they perseverance and self-denial. The Scotch and the North of Ireland people, accustomed to hard work and spare living, seldom fail.’

They were riding past much land in bush, generally without a strip of clearing. Jabez remarked the curse of Canada was giving land to people who would not go to live upon it, who had no intention of clearing it, but held it to sell. A deal of that land you see was given as grants to old soldiers. A colonel could claim 1200 acres, a major 800, a captain 600 acres, and a private 100 acres. Not one in twenty who drew their lots meant to live on them, and of the few who tried most of them failed and left. Speculators had their agents round taverns and stores ready to buy soldiers’ tickets, and got transfers for a few dollars, sometimes for a keg of whiskey or a hundredweight of pork. If you want to kill a country, deal out its land as grants to old soldiers. It does the soldiers no good and keeps back settlement, for the grants they got are left by speculators unimproved, to the hurt of the genuine settlers, who want roads opened fences put up, and ditches dug. You will find out this yourself when you begin to clear a lot. This giving away land to soldiers is well meant, but soldiers won't go on it and it is just a way to make speculators rich. No man should get an acre from the government unless he binds himself to live on the land and clear it. On the master saying he was told much land was got by politicians, Jabez grew warm in denouncing them. Whatever party was in office, used the land as a means of bribery. They bought the support of members by grants of land and, when an election came round, got the settlers to vote as they wished under threats of making them act up to the letter of their settlement duties or offering back-dues and clear titles in return for their support. No candidate opposed to the government can be elected for a backwoods county.

With such talk Jabez relieved their journey until they came to a side-road, which was a mere bridle-path. Up this they turned, passing through solid bush. It was a bright, hot day in the clearings, but under the trees it was gloomy and chill, with a moist odor of vegetation which was grateful to the master, and this was his first experience of the bush. Fallen trees, which lay across the track, their horses jumped, as they also did on meeting wet gullies. Jabez said the path had been brushed by an Englishman, rumored the son of a lord, who had bought the block of land intending to stay on it. That was the only improvement he made. He came late in the Fall and society in Toronto was more agreeable than felling trees. He bet on horse-races that took place on the ice and spent the evenings at cards. In the spring his money was gone; had to sell his land to pay his debts, and returned to England. On reaching the end of the bridle-path the horses were hitched. Jabez searched among the brush until he found a surveyor’s stake. Placing a compass on top of it, he cut with his jack-knife three rods which he pointed. He pushed two into the soil on either side of the stake, and went ahead with the third. Posting the master behind the first, he told him to keep the three in range and to shout to him if he stepped on either side. Producing from the bag behind his saddle a hatchet, he went forward, cutting down the brush where it blocked his straight course. When some hundred yards away; he cried to the master to come on, it was all right. On joining him Jabez pointed to a scar made in the bark of a maple. ‘That is the surveyor’s blaze, made five years ago. I was in doubts where to find it, for the weather has blackened it. We are all right now, and will find another farther on.’ So they did, several more, though they were so faint only the trained eye of Jabez could detect them. As he came to each tree, he used the hatchet to make a fresh blaze, while any branch that obstructed the view between the blazed trees was lopped off.

Suddenly it grew lighter: they were again in the sunshine and before them was a sheet of water. It was too small to be called a lake; it was just a pond, set in the heart of the woods. The master was greatly taken with it and leaning over a log drank heartily, for the water was clear and sweet, though warm. ‘We may as well rest and take our bite here' remarked Jabez, producing from the pouch slung at his back some soldiers’ hard tack, with thin sliced pork between instead of butter. He explained it was hard to tell the quality of the soil in the woods, and many were deceived, especially as regards stones. The forest litter covers them, and it is only when the plow is started that the settler finds he has a lot that will give him many a tired back in trying to get rid of the worst of them. When you find big trees, maple or any other kind of hard wood, it is a sure sign the soil is rich, but if the trees are scrub or of soft wood it is certain to be poor. Pine is not to be relied on as indicating good land for the settler. The tallest and finest pines are often on the top of stony ridges.

Starting anew, they came to the streamlet that fed the pond and a short tramp beyond it Jabez spied another surveyor’s stake. ‘This is the western limit of Bainbray’s lot; between the two stakes he has 400 acres.’ He asked the master if he wanted to cross the lot lengthways and see the two ends, but he saw no need, for so far as he could judge the land was all of the same quality, ‘Supposing I buy the lot, how am I to get into it?’ ‘You will have to continue the bridlepath to where you place your house, and that is enough for an ox-sledge.’ ‘That means some work?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Jabez smiling ‘there is nothing to he had in the bush without hard work; it is hard work and poor grub.’

Coming back to the horses, they found they had finished the oats Jabez had brought, and were nibbling at the leaves within reach. On regaining Yonge street, the horses were watered at a tavern, Jabez dropping five coppers on the counter, the price of two drinks. ‘You are expected to drink when you stop to water a horse, but I want no whiskey, I prefer to pay for what the horse drinks.’ Arrived in Toronto the master said he would go and see Mr Bainbray after supper. Jabez asked him to remember that Quakers do not dicker, so if the price was too high for him to pay to come away at once.

The master found Mr Bambray reading a newspaper, told him he was satisfied with the land and would buy it were the price within his ability. The Quaker took from a desk a sheet of paper; pointing to the figures written on it he said, ‘I do not deal in land, believing it not to be agreeable with the teaching of the Gospel to make merchandize of what God intended for all his children. I do not consider it right to buy land you are not able or do not mean to make use of, but secure with a view to sell at an advanced price to the man who will cultivate it. These 400 acres were transferred to me for a just debt which the man could not otherwise pay. On this line is the amount of that debt, here are the legal charges paid by me in the transaction, and here is interest. The whole totals §472, which is the price.’ The master was surprised, for from what he had heard of the prices asked for land so close to Toronto at least double would have been sought. ‘My friends and I are able to pay that sum to you and we take the land.’ The Quaker moved not a muscle. Taking up a quill he wrote out a promise of sale, and was given a bank of Scotland note for ten pounds as surety. Inquiring what steps he would next take, the master was advised to secure the services of Jabez for a month at least. ‘Thee are ignorant of bush-farming and need an instructor, otherwise loss will befall thee and much trouble.’ Arranging for the final transfer of the land, the master sought out Jabez. He and two brothers carried on a cartage business. Jabez said there would not be more calls than his brothers could attend to until August, and he would go if he was willing to pay two dollars a day for himself and an ox-team. ‘That is settled,’ replied the master. ‘Now what is to be done first? ‘To cut out a sledge-road across your lot, so that you may get your freight in.’ To help he was to hire a man, and it was arranged to start at daylight.

Next morning Jabez appeared at the door of the tavern with an ox-team, and seated beside him in the wagon was a youth. ‘This is Jim Sloot, who can handle an axe with any man. You have that to learn, It is the axe that has made Canada.’ Arrived at the bridle-path that led to their lot, they had a day’s work on it brushing and prying off fallen trees. On reaching the lot master had bought, trees had to be felled to continue the path. These Jabez and Jim assailed, while master trimmed their branches off with a hatchet. On the evening of the third day they were in sight of the pond, when the master left, for the Kingston boat might arrive next morning, and he must be on hand to meet his family. How he met us I have already told.


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