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The Narrative of Gordon Sellar
Chapter VI - First Days in the Backwoods


Our freight, as Jabez termed it, filled three wagons and started up Yonge street. A fourth wagon came to the door of the tavern for the women and children, I being left to help them. We were told to stop at Mr Dunlop’s store for supplies that had been bought. He came out to see us and in a minute was thick in talk with the women about Ayrshire. On the team starting he declared meeting them was like a visit to Scotland. The driver pointed out to us how straight Yonge street was; runs forty miles to Lake Simcoe straight as the handle of my whip. It was a jolty, hot drive but we enjoyed it hugely; everything was new to us and we were all in high spirits at the prospect of our long journey being about to end and in coming into possession of our estates, about which there was no end of jokes.

Mrs Auld was in doubts as to what name they would give their hundred acres, while Mrs Brodie settled on Bonny braes for hers. ‘But we have not seen a hill since we left Montreal,’ remarked the mistress. ‘I dinna care,’ rejoined Mrs Brodie, ‘Bonnybraes was the name of the farm we left and it will make the woods homelike.’ When we spied at a distance several men standing by the roadside we gave a shout of joy and were soon reunited. The laughing and talking might have been heard half a mile away. Jabez now took the lead. As the wagons arrived he had caused them to be unloaded under a clump of hemlocks, the chests and packages being arranged to make a three-sided enclosure. In front he had started a fire, over which, slung from a pole resting on crotched sticks, was a pot, and soon the mistress was preparing supper. It was dark before we had settled for the night, which was so warm that sleeping under the trees was no hardship. Jabez covered the dying fire with damp litter, the smoke of which kept off the mosquitos, which pestered us dreadfully.

In the morning Jabez was the first to be stirring. Giving me two pails he directed me to go to a house I would find a bit down Yonge street to get water, and, if they had it, some milk. The house I found and also the well, but how to draw water out of it I knew not. There was nobody stirring until my awkward attempts to work the bucket brought a man out. I told him who I was. ‘You are an emigrant and this is the first sweep-well you have tried to work. Well, now, you have got to learn.’ and he showed me how simple it was. He was much interested when he heard of our party and of their camping out. ‘Stay a minute till I tell mother. Coming back to the door he cried to me to go on with the water and he would fetch milk after a while. The porridge was ready when he and his wife appeared with the milk. He called his wife mother, which we thought strange. She was a smart, tidy woman and was soon deep in advice to our housekeepers about bush ways of doing things and bush cookery. After they had gone their children, three in number, came shyly round and watched us with open-eyed curiosity.

Jabez was in haste to get us moved to our own location, and to do so had provided two oxsleds. Taking charge of one and Sloot of the other they dragged the first loads over the hush track, all the men, except the master, following. On returning for a second load, Jabez reported Brodie and Auld were pleased with the land and that Allan and the children were having a wash in the pond. How to get grannie through the woods concerned the master. Jabez solved the difficulty by making a comfortable couch on his sled, on which she rested, with the master on one side, Robbie running alongside-of the ox, and myself following. So slowly and carefully did the ox step that grannie was little discomposed. On stepping from her rude conveyance, she gazed in wonder on the pond and the forest that encompassed it. ‘This is our new farm,’ shouted Allan in her ear. ‘A’ this ground and the lakie?" ‘Yes,’ answered Allan. An thae trees?’ ‘Yes,’ replied her grandson, father is laird of it all.’ She stood for a minute or two as if dazed; and then a light came to her face as if she had suddenly comprehended it all. She stepped to the master, and laying her hands on his shoulders said, ‘You have been a good and true son and weel you deserve to be a laird.’ Seeing a black squirrel jump from tree to tree Robbie darted off with a shout of glee.

Jabez cut a number of poles, and with them and blankets made two roomy tents, which were to give shelter until shanties were built. Before sites for them could be picked out it was necessary to divide the 400 acre lot. Brodie and Auld were to get each a hundred acres and they were agreed in choosing the portion of land that lay south of the road and included the pond. The master, as I found later, would have liked that part for himself, but willingly agreed to their choice. The next point was to divide the 200 acres between Auld and Brodie. Covered equally with heavy bush there was no apparent difference, yet a division had to be made. Jabez, seeing that one waited on the other to decide, cut two twigs and held them out between his fingers. ‘The man who draws the long one, gets the east half, and the short one the west.’ Brodie drew the long bit of stick and Auld the short. It was agreed to raise Brodie’s shanty first, as he had young children, and the Aulds could stay with them until their own shanty was ready. Brodie selected the spot for his home, and we began at once to cut the trees that stood upon it. Saturday evening Jabez and Jim returned to Toronto to stay over Sunday. The weather had been warm with two showers and camping was no discomfort beyond the inconvenience to the women. There was no complaining, for we were all in good spirits, buoyed up with the prospect of future prosperity, and determined, if hard work would ensure it, we would not spare ourselves. Our tasks for the week were ended and we gathered on the site of Brodie’s house, sitting on the felled trees. It was a calm night with soft air, the moonbeams making a pathway of light across the pond. None seemed inclined to speak, just wanting to rest and enjoy the peaceful hour. It was Alice who broke the silence by starting to sing, and song followed song, all joining when there was a chorus. It was a strange thought that came into my mind, that for all the ages these woods and lakelet had existed this was the first time they had echoed back our Scottish melodies. When Alice started Ye banks and braes o’ bonny Doon, we helped in the first verse, but as the scenes we had left rose before our minds voices quavered, until all became silent, tears flowed, and Mrs Auld was sobbing. 'This wont do,’ cried the master, ‘we have come here as to a land of promise and there must be no looking backward. We go forward. Alice, start the second paraphrase and then to bed.’

I have seen many a fine Sabbath morning but none to me like that one which was our first in the bush. The serenity of air and sky, the solemnity of the woods, the stillness sweetened by the song of birds, struck even the children, who were quieter than usual. After breakfast and things were tidied up we had worship. The master read selections from the closing chapters of Hebrews, and his prayer was one of thankfulness to the Hand that had preserved us on our journey and brought us to a quiet resting-place. Mrs Auld heard the children their questions and had a lively time in scolding and coaxing them by turns to never mind the squirrels but attend to what she was saying.

The dinner things had been cleared away when a visitor came out of the woods. He had a red, flabby face, framed in a thick whisker turning grey. The chief feature of his dress was a long surtout, that had been part of a gentleman’s dress-suit in its day and a shabby tile hat. Addressing the master with deliberate ceremony, he told how he had heard of new-comers and felt it his duty to welcome them and tender his services. He had been four years in Canada and his experience would be of high value in directing them what to do. Growing voluble he pointed out what he considered were the mistakes we had already made, ending with a plump proposal that, for his board and a certain money consideration, he would take the direction of the settlement and guarantee its immediate prosperity He paused and asked for a drink. Mrs Auld handed him a dipper. Smelling it, he said experience had taught him the prudence of never drinking lake water without its being qualified by a few spoonfuls of whisky. ‘If you will be so kind,’ he said to Mrs Auld, ‘as to bring your greybeard, I shall have pleasure in giving a toast to your new settlement.’ ‘Whisky! cried Mrs Auld, ‘there’s no a drop to be found here.’ Turning to the master he said, ‘This will never do; you will need bees to raise the shanties, to chop, and to fallow, and not a man will come unless there is whisky and plenty to eat. A keg of Toronto’s best will be to you a paying investment.' The master, who had remained silent, carefully measuring the stranger, now spoke. ‘I thank you for your advice, as to your help we do not need it, for, as you see, we are strong in ourselves.’ The Englishman, for such he was, grew angry. ‘You unmannerly Scot, you will have cause to regret scorning my services. I never had such a reception, for in the poorest shanty they greet you with a cup of welcome.’ So saying he disappeared. In telling Jabez of him next day, he said the master had done well to come out squarely. Bees had grown to be a nuisance and a loss. When they heard of one, drinkers would travel ten miles to attend and others came just for the sport of the day. The settler would run in debt to lay in a stock of food and whisky. Out of the crowd that would come several would not do a hand’s turn, but drink and eat; part would work during the forenoon and then, after dinner, join in the talk and drinking; while the remainder would put in a faithful day’s labor. It often happened that bees ended in quarrels, sometimes in fights. A settler, Jabez said, would do better to use the cost of drink and food in hiring labor.

In the afternoon the women began writing letters to Scotland, using the tops of chests to rest the paper on. The sheets were crossed and recrossed, for postage was high, fifty cents the half ounce. Allan and I walked into the bush to see what it was like. The trees were all large and well set apart with little underbrush. Fallen trees and decaying logs abounded. Whether it was jumping or going round these that caused us to lose our way I cannot say, but after a long walk we failed to sight the pond. We made a fresh start and tried another direction without success. ‘We are lost, for sure,’ exclaimed Allan. Putting his hands to his mouth he let out a yell that startled the crows from a tree-top. We listened, there was no answering sound. Then he whistled long and sharp. Again no answer. Jabez had pointed out to me that the north could always be known by more moss growing on that side of trees, and I decided we had been travelling in that direction. If we could have got a glimpse of the sun we would have known for sure the points of the compass, but the foliage of the tree-tops prevented a ray getting through. We walked smartly, as we thought southwards, when Allan again yelled with all his might. Strange to say, an hillo came from the woods on our left and quite close to us. We hurried in the direction of the sound and came out on a small clearance with a shanty in the middle. A well-made young fellow stood at the door. ‘Lost your bearings, eh?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ answered Alian, ‘and glad you heard my yell.’ He led us into the shanty; the table was spread for supper and a man and woman were seated ready to begin ‘These two fellows are Scotties, new-come out, and got wandered' was our introduction. Responding to a hearty invitation, seats were found and we helped to dispose of the dried venison and bread that was on the board. ‘Did you ever taste coffee like that?’ asked the woman as Allan passed in his tin for a second supply. ‘That is bush-coffee and better than the store stuff. It is made from dandelion roots and I will tell your folk how to make it.’ They were Americans and had led a wandering life, for the father was a trapper. Game becoming scarce from growing settlement on the American side he had crossed into Canada and had spent the last two winters round lake Simcoe. ‘There is no hunting after February’ he said, ‘for every critter then begins nursing and the fur is not worth paying for, so we came south and took this shanty, setting to work to make axhelves and shingles, there being ready sale in Toronto. We move back to the lakes in the Fall.’ I asked him about the shanty. He replied that it was not his nor did he know whose it was ‘Like enough some poor emigrant drew the lot and after breaking his back with hard work in making a clearance, found he could not pay the price and just lit out. You will find deserted shanties everywhere in the bush left by families who lost heart.’ He showed much interest in our coming and we had difficulty in getting him to recognize our location. It was not until I mentioned the pond that he recognized the spot. 'Why, you aint much over a mile to go.’ When we were about to start the whole family got ready to go with us. ‘The sun won’t set for an hour yet, and there is good moonlight,’ said Simmins, for that he told us was his name. ‘Did you never get lost?’ I asked. ‘That is a foolish question to ask of any body born in the woods for they never lose their sense of direction.’ He advised me to carry a compass and take its bearings in going and follow them in returning. Suddenly Mrs Simmins burst into song. It was a hymn, sung in a style I never heard before, but have since at many a camp meeting. Her voice was strong, rising to a shriek at high notes. The husband and son joined in, enjoying it as much as she did. In telling me of the alarm felt at our not returning to supper, Alice said they sat fearing something had befallen us, and that, if the night set in, we might be lost and never be found alive, when suddenly they heard from the depths of the woods the words

Then let our songs resound
And every heart be love;
We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground
To fairer worlds above.

Distance mellowed the harshness of the voices and the words sounded like a message from heaven. Their distress was that neither Allan’s voice nor my own was distinguishable. Glad they were when we emerged from the trees and joined them round the fire that had been made to blaze as a guide to us. Our visitors made themselves at home at once. 'Why do you call your son Sal?’ asked the mistress, ‘that is a girl’s name.’ The reply was, ‘His Sunday name is Salvation Simmins; we call him Sal for short.’ ‘And your husband addresses you as Jedu; what name is that?’ ‘I was a girl of sixteen before I was baptised, and the preacher gave me the name Jedutlian, because I was the chief musician.’ ‘Jeduthan was a man, the friend of David.’ ‘Bible don’t say he was a man, and for years and years I was the chief musician at the camp meetings. Guess it was the same in David’s time as in ours—the women did the heft of the singing?’ Then she began singing, husband and son helping. ‘Why don’t you all sing?’ she asked, ‘aint you got religion yet? My, if you heard Elder Colver you would be on your knees and get converted right away.’ The mistress said they did not know the words of the hymns she sang, when she became curious to hear us. Alice struck up Come, let us to the Lord our God, and we all joined. ‘Whew!’ exclaimed Mrs Simmins, very pretty, but that aint the stuff to bring sinners to the penitent-bench—you have to be loud and strong. Ever hear a negro hymn? No, well we will give you one, 'Whip the ole devil round the stump.’ As they sang they acted the words. We parted with mutual good wishes, the mistress remarking, after they left, that God spoke in divers ways and their presentation of His truths, though rude and wild to us, doubtless suited the frontier population among whom they had lived and did good. ‘The ax before the plow, the ox-drag before the smoothing harrow,’ added the master.

On Jabez appearing next morning he had six bags of potatoes on the ox-sled, which were for seed as well as eating, and said he had left a load of pine-boards to be hauled through the bush to floor the shanties. They now had to decide what kind of shanty they wanted. The cheapest, he told us, for all, men, women, and children, had gathered to hear about the building,—was a house twelve feet by twelve, with basswood staves for flooring or the bare soil, an opening that served both as door and window, with a blanket to keep out the cold, basswood scoops or elm bark for the roof, in which a hole was left to let out the smoke. There were many such shanties, but living in them was misery. From that sort they varied in size and finish, all depending on the settler’s means. With $25 a good deal could be done. Size and finish were agreed on, it being understood the master, who had most money, would have a larger house. This being decided. Mr Brodie set to work to dig his cellar and I was sent to Simmins to see if he could supply shingles for the three shanties and to ask Sal if he would hire until they were finished. I took the compass and found their clearance without trouble. In returning Sal, who carried his axe, blazed the trees, so that it would be easy to know the way. The following morning his mother accompanied Sal. She came to show how they made bread in the bush, and had brought a dishful of bran-risings. Explaining what yeast was and how to treat it, she set a panful of dough. When the mass had risen, she kneaded it, and moulded it into loaves. The
bake-kettle having been warmed, the loaves were placed in it, and when they had risen enough, she put the cover on, and planted the kettle in a bed of glowing embers. The bread was sweet and a welcome change to the cakes made on the griddle or frying-pan. We had more than bread that day. Mrs Simmins pointed out plants, like lambs quarter and dandelion, whose leaves made greens that added relish to our unvarying diet of pork. How much more she taught I do not know, but her visit was a revelation to our women-folk. Grannie was delighted with her singing because she could hear it.


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