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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 5

Journey from Cobourg to Amherst.--Difficulties to be encountered on first settling in the Backwoods.--Appearance of the Country.--Rice Lake.--Indian Habits.--Voyage up the Otanabee.--Log-house, and its Inmates.--Passage boat.--Journey on foot to Peterborough.

Peterborough, Newcastle District.
September 8, 1832.

We left Cobourg on the afternoon of the 1st of September in a light waggon, comfortably lined with buffalo robes. Our fellow travellers consisted of three gentlemen and a young lady, all of whom proved very agreeable, and willing to afford us every information respecting the country through which we were travelling. The afternoon was fine--one of those rich mellow days we often experience in the early part of September. The warm hues of autumn were already visible on the forest trees, but rather spoke of ripeness than decay. The country round Cobourg is well cultivated, a great portion of the woods having been superseded by open fields, pleasant farms, and fine flourishing orchards, with green pastures, where abundance of cattle were grazing.

The county gaol and court-house at Amherst, about a mile and a half from Cobourg, is a fine stone edifice, situated on a rising ground, which commands an extensive view over the lake Ontario and surrounding scenery. As you advance farther up the country, in the direction of the Hamilton or Rice Lake plains, the land rises into bold sweeping hills and dales.

The outline of the country reminded me of the hilly part of Gloucestershire; you want, however, the charm with which civilization has so eminently adorned that fine county, with all its romantic villages, flourishing towns, cultivated farms, and extensive downs, so thickly covered with flocks and herds. Here the bold forests of oak, beech, maple, and bass-wood, with now and then a grove of dark pine, cover the hills, only enlivened by an occasional settlement, with its log-house and zig-zag fences of split timber: these fences are very offensive to my eye. I look in vain for the rich hedge rows of my native country. Even the stone fences in the north and west of England, cold and bare as they are, are less unsightly. The settlers, however, invariably adopt whatever plan saves time, labour, and money. The great law of expediency is strictly observed;--it is borne of necessity. Matters of taste appear to be little regarded, or are, at all events, after-considerations.

I could see a smile hover on the lips of my fellow travellers on hearing of our projected plans for the adornment of our future dwelling.

"If you go into the backwoods your house must necessarily be a log-house," said an elderly gentleman, who had been a settler many years in the country. "For you will most probably be out of the way of a saw-mill, and you will find so much to do, and so many obstacles to encounter, for the first two or three years, that you will hardly have opportunity for carrying these improvements into effect.

"There is an old saying," he added, with a mixture of gravity and good humour in his looks, "that I used to hear when I was a boy, 'first creep* and then go'. [* Derived from infants crawling on all-fours before they have strength to walk.] Matters are not carried on quite so easily here as at home; and the truth of this a very few weeks' acquaintance with the _bush_, as we term all unbroken forest land, will prove. At the end of five years you may begin to talk of these pretty improvements and elegancies, and you will then be able to see a little what you are about."

"I thought," said I, "every thing in this country was done with so much expedition. I am sure I have heard and read of houses being built in a day." The old gentleman laughed.

"Yes, yes," he replied, "travellers find no difficulty in putting up a house in twelve or twenty-four hours, and so the log-walls can be raised in that time or even less; but the house is not completed when the outer walls are up, as your husband will find to his cost."

"But all the works on emigration that I leave read," replied I, "give a fair and flattering picture of a settler's life; for, according to their statements, the difficulties are easily removed."

"Never mind books," said my companion, "use your own reason. Look on those interminable forests, through which the eye can only penetrate a few yards, and tell me how those vast timbers are to be removed, utterly extirpated, I may say, from the face of the earth, the ground cleared and burnt, a crop sown and fenced, and a house to shelter you raised, without difficulty, without expense, and without great labour. Never tell me of what is said in books, written very frequently by tarry-at-home travellers. Give me facts. One honest, candid emigrant's experience is worth all that has been written on the subject. Besides, that which may be a true picture of one part of the country will hardly suit another. The advantages and disadvantages arising from soil, situation, and progress of civilization, are very different in different districts: even the prices of goods and of produce, stock and labour, vary exceedingly, according as you are near to, or distant from, towns and markets."

I began to think my fellow-traveller spoke sensibly on the subject, with which the experience of thirteen years had made him perfectly conversant. I began to apprehend that we also had taken too flattering a view of a settler's life as it must be in the backwoods. Time and our own personal knowledge will be the surest test, and to that we must bow. We are ever prone to believe that which we wish.

About halfway between Cobourg and the Rice Lake there is a pretty valley between two steep hills. Here there is a good deal of cleared land and a tavern: the place is called "Cold Springs." Who knows but some century or two hence this spot may become a fashionable place of resort to drink the waters. A Canadian Bath or Cheltenham may spring up where now Nature revels in her wilderness of forest trees.

We now ascended the plains--a fine elevation of land--for many miles scantily clothed with oaks, and here and there bushy pines, with other trees and shrubs. The soil is in some places sandy, but varies, I am told, considerably in different parts, and is covered in large tracks with rich herbage, affording abundance of the finest pasture for cattle. A number of exquisite flowers and shrubs adorn these plains, which rival any garden in beauty during the spring and summer months. Many of these plants are peculiar to the plains, and are rarely met with in any other situation. The trees, too, though inferior in size to those in the forests, are more picturesque, growing in groups or singly, at considerable intervals, giving a sort of park-like appearance to this portion of the country. The prevailing opinion seems to be, that the plains laid out in grazing or dairy farms would answer the purpose of settlers well; as there is plenty of land that will grow wheat and other corn-crops, and can be improved at a small expense, besides abundance of natural pasture for cattle. One great advantage seems to be, that the plough can be introduced directly, and the labour of preparing the ground is necessarily much less than where it is wholly covered with wood.

There are several settlers on these plains possessing considerable farms. The situation, I should think, must be healthy and agreeable, from the elevation and dryness of the land, and the pleasant prospect they command of the country below them, especially where the Rice Lake, with its various islands and picturesque shores, is visible. The ground itself is pleasingly broken into hill and valley, sometimes gently sloping, at other times abrupt and almost precipitous.

An American farmer, who formed one of our party at breakfast the following morning, told me that these plains were formerly famous hunting grounds of the Indians, who, to prevent the growth of the timbers, burned them year after year; this, in process of time, destroyed the young trees, so as to prevent them again from accumulating to the extent they formerly did. Sufficient only was left to form coverts; for the deer resort hither in great herds for the sake of a peculiar tall sort of grass with which these plains abound, called deer-grass, on which they become exceedingly fat at certain seasons of the year.

Evening closed in before we reached the tavern on the shores of the Rice Lake, where we were to pass the night; so that I lost something of the beautiful scenery which this fine expanse of water presents as you descend the plains towards its shores. The glimpses I caught of it were by the faint but frequent flashes of lightning that illumined the horizon to the north, which just revealed enough to make me regret I could see no more that night. The Rice Lake is prettily diversified with small wooded islets: the north bank rises gently from the water's edge. Within sight of Sully, the tavern from which the steam-boat starts that goes up the Otanabee, you see several well cultivated settlements; and beyond the Indian village the missionaries have a school for the education and instruction of the Indian children. Many of them can both read and write fluently, and are greatly improved in their moral and religious conduct. They are well and comfortably clothed, and have houses to live in. But they are still too much attached to their wandering habits to become good and industrious settlers. During certain seasons they leave the village, and encamp themselves in the woods along the borders of those lakes and rivers that present the most advantageous hunting and fishing grounds.

The Rice Lake and Mud Lake Indians belong, I am told, to the Chippewas; but the traits of cunning and warlike ferocity that formerly marked this singular people seem to have disappeared beneath the milder influence of Christianity.

Certain it is that the introduction of the Christian religion is the first greatest step towards civilization and improvement; its very tendency being to break down the strong-holds of prejudice and ignorance, and unite mankind in one bond of social brotherhood. I have been told that for some time drunkenness was unknown, and even the moderate use of spirits was religiously abstained from by all the converts. This abstinence is still practised by some families; but of late the love of ardent spirits has again crept in among them, bringing discredit upon their faith. It is indeed hardly to be wondered at, when the Indian sees those around him that call themselves Christians, and who are better educated, and enjoy the advantages of civilized society, indulging to excess in this degrading vice, that he should suffer his natural inclination to overcome his Christian duty, which might in some have taken no deep root. I have been surprised and disgusted by the censures passed on the erring Indian by persons who were foremost in indulgence at the table and the tavern; as if the crime of drunkenness were more excusable in the man of education than in the half-reclaimed savage.

There are some fine settlements on the Rice Lake, but I am told the shores are not considered healthy, the inhabitants being subject to lake-fevers and ague, especially where the ground is low and swampy. These fevers and agues are supposed by some people to originate in the extensive rice-beds which cause a stagnation in the water; the constant evaporation from the surface acting on a mass of decaying vegetation must tend to have a bad effect on the constitution of those that are immediately exposed to its pernicious influence.

Besides numerous small streams, here called "creeks", two considerable rivers, the Otanabee and the Trent, find an outlet for their waters in the Rice Lake. These rivers are connected by a chain of small lakes, which you may trace on any good map of the province. I send you a diagram, which has been published at Cobourg, which will give you the geography of this portion of the country. It is on one of these small lakes we purpose purchasing land, which, should the navigation of these waters be carried into effect, as is generally supposed to be in contemplation, will render the lands on their shores very advantageous to the settlers; at present they are interrupted by large blocks of granite and limestone, rapids, and falls, which prevent any but canoes or flat-bottomed boats from passing on them, and even these are limited to certain parts, on account of the above-named obstacles. By deepening the bed of the river and lakes, and forming locks in some parts and canals, the whole sweep of these waters might be thrown open to the Bay of Quinte. The expense, however, would necessarily be great; and till the townships of this portion of the district be fully settled, it is hardly to be expected that so vast an undertaking should be effected, however desirable it may be.

We left the tavern at Rice Lake, after an unusual delay, at nine o'clock. The morning was damp, and a cold wind blew over the lake, which appeared to little advantage through the drizzling rain, from which I was glad to shroud my face in my warm plaid cloak, for there was no cabin or other shelter in the little steamer than an inefficient awning. This apology for a steam-boat formed a considerable contrast with the superbly-appointed vessels we had lately been passengers in on the Ontario and the St. Laurence. But the circumstance of a steamer at all on the Otanabee was a matter of surprise to us, and of exultation to the first settlers along its shores, who for many years had been contented with no better mode of transport than a scow or a canoe for themselves and their marketable produce, or through the worst possible roads with a waggon or sleigh.

The Otanabee is a fine broad, clear stream, divided into two mouths at its entrance to the Rice Lake by a low tongue of land, too swampy to be put under cultivation. This beautiful river (for such I consider it to be) winds its way between thickly-wooded banks, which rise gradually as you advance higher up the country.

Towards noon the mists cleared off, and the sun came forth in all the brilliant beauty of a September day. So completely were we sheltered from the wind by the thick wall of pines on either side, that I no longer felt the least inconvenience from the cold that had chilled me on crossing the lake in the morning.

To the mere passing traveller, who cares little for the minute beauties of scenery, there is certainly a monotony in the long and unbroken line of woods, which insensibly inspires a feeling of gloom almost touching on sadness. Still there are objects to charm and delight the close observer of nature. His eye will be attracted by fantastic bowers, which are formed by the scarlet creeper (or Canadian ivy) and the wild vine, flinging their closely-entwined wreaths of richly tinted foliage from bough to bough of the forest trees, mingling their hues with the splendid rose-tipped branches of the soft maple, the autumnal tints of which are unrivalled in beauty by any of our forest trees at home.

The purple clusters of the grape, by no means so contemptible in size as I had been led to imagine, looked tempting to my longing eyes, as they appeared just ripening among these forest bowers. I am told the juice forms a delicious and highly-flavoured jelly, boiled with sufficient quantity of sugar; the seeds are too large to make any other preparation of them practicable. I shall endeavour, at some time or other, to try the improvement that can be effected by cultivation. One is apt to imagine where Nature has so abundantly bestowed fruits, that is the most favourable climate for their attaining perfection with the assistance of culture and soil.

The waters of the Otanabee are so clear and free from impurity that you distinctly see every stone-pebble or shell at the bottom. Here and there an opening in the forest reveals some tributary stream, working its way beneath the gigantic trees that meet above it. The silence of the scene is unbroken but by the sudden rush of the wild duck, disturbed from its retreat among the shrubby willows, that in some parts fringe the left bank, or the shrill cry of the kingfisher, as it darts across the water. The steam-boat put in for a supply of fire-wood at a clearing about half-way from Peterborough, and I gladly availed myself of the opportunity of indulging my inclination for gathering some of the splendid cardinal flowers that grew among the stones by the river's brink. Here, too, I plucked as sweet a rose as ever graced an English garden. I also found, among the grass of the meadow-land, spearmint, and, nearer to the bank, peppermint. There was a bush resembling our hawthorn, which, on examination, proved to be the cockspur hawthorn, with fruit as large as cherries, pulpy, and of a pleasant tartness not much unlike to tamarinds. The thorns of this tree were of formidable length and strength. I should think it might be introduced with great advantage to form live fences; the fruit, too, would prove by no means contemptible as a preserve.

As I felt a great curiosity to see the interior of a log-house, I entered the open door-way of the tavern, as the people termed it, under the pretext of buying a draught of milk. The interior of this rude dwelling presented no very inviting aspect. The walls were of rough unhewn logs, filled between the chinks with moss and irregular wedges of wood to keep out the wind and rain. The unplastered roof displayed the rafters, covered with moss and lichens, green, yellow, and grey; above which might be seen the shingles, dyed to a fine mahogany-red by the smoke which refused to ascend the wide clay and stone chimney, to curl gracefully about the roof, and seek its exit in the various crannies and apertures with which the roof and sides of the building abounded.

The floor was of earth, which had become pretty hard and smooth through use. This hut reminded me of the one described by the four Russian sailors that were left to winter on the island of Spitzbergen. Its furniture was of corresponding rudeness; a few stools, rough and unplaned; a deal table, which, from being manufactured from unseasoned wood, was divided by three wide open seams, and was only held together by its ill-shaped legs; two or three blocks of grey granite placed beside the hearth served for seats for the children, with the addition of two beds raised a little above the ground by a frame of split cedars. On these lowly couches lay extended two poor men, suffering under the wasting effects of lake-fever. Their yellow bilious faces strangely contrasted with the gay patchwork-quilts that covered them. I felt much concerned for the poor emigrants, who told me they had not been many weeks in the country when they were seized with the fever and ague. They both had wives and small children, who seemed very miserable. The wives also had been sick with ague, and had not a house or even shanty of their own up; the husbands having fallen ill were unable to do anything; and much of the little money they had brought out with them had been expended in board and lodging in this miserable place, which they dignified by the name of tavern. I cannot say I was greatly prepossessed in favour of their hostess, a harsh, covetous woman. Besides the various emigrants, men, women, and children, that lodged within the walls, the log-house had tenants of another description. A fine calf occupied a pen in a corner; some pigs roamed grunting about in company with some half-dozen fowls. The most attractive objects were three snow-white pigeons, that were meekly picking up crumbs, and looking as if they were too pure and innocent to be inhabitants of such a place.

Owing to the shallowness of the river at this season, and to the rapids, the steam-boat is unable to go up the whole way to Peterborough, and a scow or rowboat, as it is sometimes termed--a huge, unwieldy, flat-bottomed machine--meets the passengers at a certain part of the river, within sight of a singular pine tree on the right bank; this is termed the "Yankee bonnet," from the fancied resemblance of the topmost boughs to a sort of cap worn by the Yankees, not much unlike the blue bonnet of Scotland.

Unfortunately, the steamer ran aground some four miles below the usual place of rendezvous, and we waited till near four o'clock for the scow. When it made its appearance, we found, to our discomfort, the rowers (eight in number, and all Irishmen) were under the exciting influence of a --g of whiskey, which they had drunk dry on the voyage. They were moreover exasperated by the delay on the part of the steamer, which gave them four miles additional heavy rowing. Beside a number of passengers there was an enormous load of furniture, trunks, boxes, chests, sacks of wheat, barrels of flour, salt, and pork, with many miscellaneous packages and articles, small and great, which were piled to a height that I thought very unsafe both to goods and passengers.

With a marvellous ill grace the men took up their oars when their load was completed, but declared they would go on shore and make a fire and cook their dinners, they not having eaten any food, though they had taken large potations of the whiskey. This measure was opposed by some of the gentlemen, and a fierce and angry scene ensued, which ended in the mutineers flinging down their oars, and positively refusing to row another stroke till they had satisfied their hunger.

Perhaps I had a fellow-feeling for them, as I began to be exceedingly hungry, almost ravenous, myself, having fasted since six that morning; indeed, so faint was I, that I was fain to get my husband to procure me a morsel of the coarse uninviting bread that was produced by the rowers, and which they ate with huge slices of raw pickled pork, seasoning this unseemly meal with curses "not loud but deep," and bitter taunts against those who prevented them from cooking their food like "Christians".

While I was eagerly eating the bit of bread, an old farmer, who had eyed me for some time with a mixture of curiosity and compassion, said, "Poor thing: well, you do seem hungry indeed, and I dare say are just out from the "ould" country, and so little used to such hard fare. Here are some cakes that my woman (i.e. wife) put in my pocket when I left home; I care nothing for them, but they are better than that bad bread; take 'em, and welcome." With these words he tossed some very respectable home-made seed-cakes into my lap, and truly never was anything more welcome than this seasonable refreshment.

A sullen and gloomy spirit seemed to prevail among our boatmen, which by no means diminished as the evening drew on, and "the rapids were near." The sun had set, and the moon and stars rose brilliantly over the still waters, which gave back the reflections of their glorious multitude of heavenly bodies. A sight so passing fair might have stilled the most turbulent spirits into peace; at least so I thought, as, wrapped in my cloak, I leant back against the supporting arm of my husband, and looking from the waters to the sky, and from the sky to the waters, with delight and admiration. My pleasant reverie was, however, soon ended, when I suddenly felt the boat touch the rocky bank, and heard the boatmen protesting they would go no further that night. We were nearly three miles below Peterborough, and how I was to walk this distance, weakened as I was by recent illness and fatigue of our long travelling, I knew not. To spend the night in an open boat, exposed to the heavy dews arising from the river, would be almost death. While we were deliberating on what to do, the rest of the passengers had made up their minds, and taken the way through the woods by a road they were well acquainted with. They were soon out of sight, all but one gentleman, who was bargaining with one of the rowers to take him and his dog across the river at the head of the rapids in a skiff.

Imagine our situation, at ten o'clock at night, without knowing a single step of our road, put on shore to find the way to the distant town as we best could, or pass the night in the dark forest.

Almost in despair, we entreated the gentleman to be our guide as far as he went. But so many obstacles beset our path in the form of newly- chopped trees and blocks of stone, scattered along the shore, that it was with the utmost difficulty we could keep him in sight. At last we came up with him at the place appointed to meet the skiff, and, with a pertinacity that at another time and in other circumstances we never should have adopted, we all but insisted on being admitted into the boat. An angry growling consent was extorted from the surly Charon, and we hastily entered the frail bark, which seemed hardly calculated to convey us in safety to the opposite shore.

I could not help indulging in a feeling of indescribable fear, as I listened to the torrent of profane invective that burst forth continually from the lips of the boatman. Once or twice we were in danger of being overset by the boughs of the pines and cedars which had fallen into the water near the banks. Right glad was I when we reached the opposite shores; but here a new trouble arose: there was yet more untracked wood to cross before we again met the skiff which had to pass up a small rapid, and meet us at the head of the small lake, an expansion of the Otanabee a little below Peterborough. At the distance of every few yards our path was obstructed by fallen trees, mostly hemlock, spruce, or cedar, the branches of which are so thickly interwoven that it is scarcely possible to separate them, or force a passage through the tangled thicket which they form.

Had it not been for the humane assistance of our conductor, I know not how I should have surmounted these difficulties. Sometimes I was ready to sink down from very weariness. At length I hailed, with a joy I could hardly have supposed possible, the gruff voice of the Irish rower, and, after considerable grumbling on his part, we were again seated.

Glad enough we were to see, by the blazing light of an enormous log-heap, the house of our friend. Here we received the offer of a guide to show us the way to the town by a road cut through the wood. We partook of the welcome refreshment of tea, and, having gained a little strength by a short rest, we once more commenced our journey, guided by a ragged, but polite, Irish boy, whose frankness and good humour quite won our regards. He informed us he was one of seven orphans, who had lost father and mother in the cholera. It was a sad thing, he said, to be left fatherless and motherless, in a strange land; and he swept away the tears that gathered in his eyes as he told the simple, but sad tale of his early bereavement; but added, cheerfully, he had met with a kind master, who had taken some of his brothers and sisters into his service as well as himself.

Just as we were emerging from the gloom of the wood we found our progress impeded by a _creek_, as the boy called it, over which he told us we must pass by a log-bridge before we could get to the town. Now, the log-bridge was composed of one log, or rather a fallen tree, thrown across the stream, rendered very slippery by the heavy dew that had risen from the swamp. As the log admitted of only one person at a time, I could receive no assistance from my companions; and, though our little guide, with a natural politeness arising from the benevolence of his disposition, did me all the service in his power by holding the lantern close to the surface to throw all the light he could on the subject, I had the ill luck to fall in up to my knees in the water, my head turning quite giddy just as I came to the last step or two; thus was I wet as well as weary. To add to our misfortune we saw the lights disappear, one by one, in the village, till a solitary candle, glimmering from the upper chambers of one or two houses, were our only beacons. We had yet a lodging to seek, and it was near midnight before we reached the door of the principal inn; there, at least, thought I, our troubles for to-night will end; but great was our mortification on being told there was not a spare bed to be had in the house, every one being occupied by emigrants going up to one of the back townships.

I could go no further, and we petitioned for a place by the kitchen fire, where we might rest, at least, if not sleep, and I might dry my wet garments. On seeing my condition the landlady took compassion on me, led me to a blazing fire, which her damsels quickly roused up; one brought a warm bath for my feet, while another provided a warm potation, which, I really believe, strange and unusual to my lips as it was, did me good: in short, we received every kindness and attention that we required from mine host and hostess, who relinquished their own bed for our accommodation, contenting themselves with a shakedown before the kitchen fire.

I can now smile at the disasters of _that_ day, but at the time they appeared no trifles, as you may well suppose.

Farewell, my dearest Mother.

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