Variations in the Temperature of the
Weather.--Electrical Phenomenon.-- Canadian Winter.--Country deficient in
Poetical Associations.--Sugar- making. Fishing Season.--Mode of
Fishing.--Duck-shooting.--Family of Indians.--Papouses and their
Cradle-cases.--Indian Manufactures.-- Frogs.
Lake House, May the 9th. 1833.
WHAT a different winter this has been to what
I had anticipated. The snows of December were continually thawing; on the
1st of January not a flake was to be seen on our clearing, though it
lingered in the bush. The warmth of the sun was so great on the first and
second days of the new year that it was hardly possible to endure a cloak,
or even shawl, out of doors; and within, the fire was quite too much for us.
The weather remained pretty open till the latter part of the month, when the
cold set in severely enough, and continued so during February. The 1st of
March was the coldest day and night I ever experienced in my life; the
mercury was down to twenty five degrees in the house; abroad it was much
lower. The sensation of cold early in the morning was very painful,
producing an involuntary shuddering, and an almost convulsive feeling in the
chest and stomach. Our breaths were congealed in hoar-frost on the sheets
and blankets. Every thing we touched of metal seemed to freeze our fingers.
This excessive degree of cold only lasted three days, and then a gradual
amelioration of temperature was felt.
During this very cold weather I was surprised
by the frequent recurrence of a phenomenon that I suppose was of an
electrical nature. When the frosts were most intense I noticed that when I
undressed, my clothes, which are at this cold season chiefly of woollen
cloth, or lined with flannel, gave out when moved a succession of sounds,
like the crackling and snapping of fire, and in the absence of a candle
emitted sparks of a pale whitish blue light, similar to the flashes produced
by cutting loaf-sugar in the dark, or stroking the back of a black cat: the
same effect was also produced when I combed and brushed my hair*.
[* This phenomenon is common enough everywhere
when the air is very dry.--Ed.]
The snow lay very deep on the ground during
February, and until the l9th of March, when a rapid thaw commenced, which
continued without intermission till the ground was thoroughly freed from its
hoary livery, which was effected in less than a fortnight's time. The air
during the progress of the thaw was much warmer and more balmy than it
usually is in England, when a disagreeable damp cold is felt during that
Though the Canadian winter has its
disadvantages, it also has its charms. After a day or two of heavy snow the
sky brightens, and the air becomes exquisitely clear and free from vapour;
the smoke ascends in tall spiral columns till it is lost: seen against the
saffron-tinted sky of an evening, or early of a clear morning, when the
hoar-frost sparkles on the trees, the effect is singularly beautiful.
I enjoy a walk in the woods of a bright
winter-day, when not a cloud, or the faint shadow of a cloud, obscures the
soft azure of the heavens above; when but for the silver covering of the
earth I might look upwards to the cloudless sky and say, "It is June, sweet
June." The evergreens, as the pines, cedars, hemlock, and balsam firs,
are bending their pendent branches, loaded with snow, which the least motion
scatters in a mimic shower around, but so light and dry is it that it is
shaken off without the slightest inconvenience.
The tops of the stumps look quite pretty, with
their turbans of snow; a blackened pine-stump, with its white cap and
mantle, will often startle you into the belief that some one is approaching
you thus fancifully attired. As to ghosts or spirits they appear
totally banished from Canada. This is too matter-of-fact country for such
supernaturals to visit. Here there are no historical associations, no
legendary tales of those that came before us. Fancy would starve for
lack of marvellous food to keep her alive in the backwoods. We have
neither fay nor fairy, ghost nor bogle, satyr nor wood-nymph; our very
forests disdain to shelter dryad or hamadryad. No naiad haunts the rushy
margin of our lakes, or hallows with her presence our forest-rills. No
Druid claims our oaks; and instead of poring with mysterious awe among our
curious limestone rocks, that are often singularly grouped together, we
refer them to the geologist to exercise his skill in accounting for their
appearance: instead of investing them with the solemn characters of ancient
temples or heathen altars, we look upon them with the curious eye of natural
Even the Irish and Highlanders of the humblest
class seem to lay aside their ancient superstitions on becoming denizens of
the woods of Canada. I heard a friend exclaim, when speaking of the want of
interest this country possessed, "It is the most unpoetical of all lands;
there is no scope for imagination; here all is new--the very soil seems
newly formed; there is no hoary ancient grandeur in these woods; no
recollections of former deeds connected with the country. The only beings in
which I take any interest are the Indians, and they want the warlike
character and intelligence that I had pictured to myself they would posses."
This was the lamentation of a poet. Now, the
class of people to whom this country is so admirably adapted are formed of
the unlettered and industrious labourers and artisans. They feel no regret
that the land they labour on has not been celebrated by the pen of the
historian or the lay of the poet. The earth yields her increase to them as
freely as if it had been enriched by the blood of heroes. They would not
spare the ancient oak from feelings of veneration, nor look upon it with
regard for any thing but its use as timber. They have no time, even if they
possessed the taste, to gaze abroad on the beauties of Nature, but their
ignorance is bliss.
After all, these are imaginary evils, and can
hardly be considered just causes for dislike to the country. They would
excite little sympathy among every-day men and women, though doubtless they
would have their weight with the more refined and intellectual members of
society, who naturally would regret that taste, learning, and genius should
be thrown out of its proper sphere.
For myself, though I can easily enter into the
feelings of the poet and the enthusiastic lover of the wild and the
wonderful of historic lore, I can yet make myself very happy and contented
in this country. If its volume of history is yet a blank, that of Nature is
open, and eloquently marked by the finger of God; and from its pages I can
extract a thousand sources of amusement and interest whenever I take my
walks in the forest or by the borders of the lakes.
But I must now tell you of our sugar-making,
in which I take rather an active part. Our experiment was on a very limited
scale, having but one kettle, besides two iron tripods; but it was
sufficient to initiate us in the art and mystery of boiling the sap into
molasses, and finally the molasses down to sugar.
The first thing to be done in tapping the
maples, is to provide little rough troughs to catch the sap as it flows:
these are merely pieces of pine-tree, hollowed with the axe. The tapping the
tree is done by cutting a gash in the bark, or boring a hole with an auger.
The former plan, as being most readily performed, is that most usually
practised. A slightly-hollowed piece of cedar or elder is then inserted, so
as to slant downwards and direct the sap into the trough; I have even seen a
flat chip made the conductor. Ours were managed according to rule, you may
be sure. The sap runs most freely after a frosty night, followed by a bright
warm day; it should be collected during the day in a barrel or large trough,
capable of holding all that can be boiled down the same evening; it should
not stand more than twenty-four hours, as it is apt to ferment, and will not
grain well unless fresh.
My husband, with an Irish lad, began
collecting the sap the last week in March. A pole was fixed across two
forked stakes, strong enough to bear the weight of the big kettle. Their
employment during the day was emptying the troughs and chopping wood to
supply the fires. In the evening they lit the fires and began boiling down
It was a pretty and picturesque sight to see
the sugar-boilers, with their bright log-fire among the trees, now stirring
up the blazing pile, now throwing in the liquid and stirring it down with a
big ladle. When the fire grew fierce, it boiled and foamed up in the kettle,
and they had to throw in fresh sap to keep it from running over.
When the sap begins to thicken into molasses,
it is then brought to the sugar-boiler to be finished. The process is
simple; it only requires attention in skimming and keeping the mass from
boiling over, till it has arrived at the sugaring point, which is
ascertained by dropping a little into cold water. When it is near the proper
consistency, the kettle or pot becomes full of yellow froth, that dimples
and rises in large bubbles from beneath. These throw out puffs of steam, and
when the molasses is in this stage, it is nearly converted into sugar. Those
who pay great attention to keeping the liquid free from scum, and understand
the precise sugaring point, will produce an article little if at all
inferior to muscovado*.
[* Good well-made maple-sugar bears a strong
resemblance to that called powdered sugar-candy, sold by all grocers as a
delicate article to sweeten coffee; it is more like maple-sugar in its
In general you see the maple-sugar in large
cakes, like bees' wax, close and compact, without showing the
crystallization; but it looks more beautiful when the grain is coarse and
sparkling, and the sugar is broken in rough masses like sugar-candy.
The sugar is rolled or scraped down with a
knife for use, as it takes long to dissolve in the tea without this
preparation. I superintended the last part of the process, that of boiling
the molasses down to sugar; and, considering it was a first attempt, and
without any experienced person to direct me, otherwise than the information
I obtained from ------. I succeeded tolerably well, and produced some sugar
of a fine sparkling grain and good colour. Besides the sugar, I made about
three gallons of molasses, which proved a great comfort to us, forming a
nice ingredient in cakes and an excellent sauce for puddings.
The Yankees, I am told, make excellent
preserves with molasses instead of sugar. The molasses boiled from maple-sap
is very different from the molasses of the West Indies, both in flavour,
colour, and consistency.
Beside the sugar and molasses, we manufactured
a small cask of vinegar, which promises to be good. This was done by boiling
five pails-full of sap down to two, and fermenting it after it was in the
vessel with barm; it was then placed near the fire, and suffered to continue
there in preference to being exposed to the sun's heat.
With regard to the expediency of making
maple-sugar, it depends on circumstances whether it be profitable or not to
the farmer. If he have to hire hands for the work, and pay high wages, it
certainly does not answer to make it, unless on a large scale. One thing in
its favour is, that the sugar season commences at a time when little else
can be done on the farm, with the exception of chopping, the frost not being
sufficiently out of the ground to admit of crops being sown; time is,
therefore, less valuable than it is later in the spring.
Where there is a large family of children and
a convenient sugar-bush on the lot, the making of sugar and molasses is
decidedly a saving; as young children can be employed in emptying the
troughs and collecting fire-wood, the bigger ones can tend the kettles and
keep up the fire while the sap is boiling, and the wife and daughters can
finish off the sugar within-doors.
Maple-sugar sells for four-pence and six-pence
per pound, and sometimes for more. At first I did not particularly relish
the flavour it gave to tea, but after awhile I liked it far better than
muscovado, and as a sweetmeat it is to my taste delicious. I shall send you
a specimen by the first opportunity, that you may judge for yourself of its
The weather is now very warm--oppressively so.
We can scarcely endure the heat of the cooking-stove in the kitchen. As to a
fire in the parlour there is not much need of it, as I am glad to sit at the
open door and enjoy the lake-breeze. The insects are already beginning to be
troublesome, particularly the black flies--a wicked-looking fly, with black
body and white legs and wings; you do not feel their bite for a few minutes,
but are made aware of it by a stream of blood flowing from the wound; after
a few hours the part swells and becomes extremely painful.
These "beasties" chiefly delight in biting the
sides of the throat, ears, and sides of the cheek, and with me the swelling
continues for many days. The mosquitoes are also very annoying. I care more
for the noise they make even than their sting. To keep them out of the house
we light little heaps of damp chips, the smoke of which drives them away;
but this remedy is not entirely effectual, and is of itself rather an
This is the fishing season. Our lakes are
famous for masquinonge, salmon-trout, white fish, black bass, and many
others. We often see the lighted canoes of the fishermen pass and repass of
a dark night before our door. S------ is considered very skilful as a
spearsman, and enjoys the sport so much that he seldom misses a night
favourable for it. The darker the night and the calmer the water the better
it is for the fishing.
It is a very pretty sight to see these little
barks slowly stealing from some cove of the dark pine-clad shores, and
manoeuvring among the islands on the lakes, rendered visible in the darkness
by the blaze of light cast on the water from the jack--a sort of open grated
iron basket, fixed to a long pole at the bows of the skiff or canoe. This is
filled with a very combustible substance called fat-pine, which burns with a
fierce and rapid flame, or else with rolls of birch-bark, which is also very
The light from above renders objects
distinctly visible below the surface of the water. One person stands up in
the middle of the boat with his fish-spear--a sort of iron trident, ready to
strike at the fish that he may chance to see gliding in the still waters,
while another with his paddle steers the canoe cautiously along. This sport
requires a quick eye, a steady hand, and great caution in those that pursue
I delight in watching these torch-lighted
canoes so quietly gliding over the calm waters, which are illuminated for
yards with a bright track of light, by which we may distinctly perceive the
figure of the spearsman standing in the centre of the boat, first glancing
to one side, then the other, or poising his weapon ready for a blow. When
four or five of these lighted vessels are seen at once on the
fishing-ground, the effect is striking and splendid.
The Indians are very expert in this kind of
fishing; the squaws paddling the canoes with admirable skill and dexterity.
There is another mode of fishing in which these people also excel: this is
fishing on the ice when the lakes are frozen over--a sport that requires the
exercise of great patience. The Indian, provided with his tomahawk, with
which he makes an opening in the ice, a spear, his blanket, and a decoy-fish
of wood, proceeds to the place he has fixed upon. Having cut a hole in the
ice he places himself on hands and knees, and casts his blanket over him, so
as to darken the water and conceal himself from observation; in this
position he will remain for hours, patiently watching the approach of his
prey, which he strikes with admirable precision as soon as it appears within
the reach of his spear.
The masquinonge thus caught are superior in
flavour to those taken later in the season, and may be bought very
reasonably from the Indians. I gave a small loaf of bread for a fish
weighing from eighteen to twenty pounds. The masquinonge is to all
appearance a large species of the pike, and possesses the ravenous
propensities of that fish.
One of the small lakes of the Otanabee is
called Trout Lake, from the abundance of salmon-trout that occupy its
waters. The white fish is also found in these lakes and is very delicious.
The large sorts of fish are mostly taken with the spear, few persons having
time for angling in this busy country.
As soon as the ice breaks up, our lakes are
visited by innumerable flights of wild fowl: some of the ducks are extremely
beautiful in their plumage, and are very fine-flavoured. I love to watch
these pretty creatures, floating so tranquilly on the water, or suddenly
rising and skimming along the edge of the pine-fringed shores, to drop again
on the surface, and then remain stationary, like a little fleet at anchor.
Sometimes we see an old duck lead out a brood of little ones from among the
rushes; the innocent, soft things look very pretty, sailing round their
mother, but at the least appearance of danger they disappear instantly by
diving. The frogs are great enemies to the young broods; they are also the
prey of the masquinonge, and, I believe, of other large fish that abound in
The ducks are in the finest order during the
early part of the summer, when they resort to the rice-beds in vast numbers,
getting very fat on the green rice, which they eagerly devour.
The Indians are very successful in their
duck-shooting: they fill a canoe with green boughs, so that it resembles a
sort of floating island; beneath the cover of these boughs they remain
concealed, and are enabled by this device to approach much nearer than they
otherwise could do to the wary birds. The same plan is often adopted by our
own sportsmen with great success.
A family of Indians have pitched their tents
very near us. On one of the islands in our lake we can distinguish the thin
blue smoke of their wood fires, rising among the trees, from our front
window, or curling over the bosom of the waters.
The squaws have been several times to see me;
sometimes from curiosity, sometimes with the view of bartering their
baskets, mats, ducks, or venison, for pork, flour, potatoes, or articles of
wearing-apparel. Sometimes their object is to borrow "kettle to cook," which
they are very punctual in returning.
Once a squaw came to borrow a washing-tub, but
not understanding her language, I could not for some time discover the
object of her solicitude; at last she took up a corner of her blanket, and,
pointing to some soap, began rubbing it between her hands, imitated the
action of washing, then laughed, and pointed to a tub; she then held up two
fingers, to intimate it was for two days she needed the loan.
These people appear of gentle and amiable
dispositions; and, as far as our experience goes, they are very honest.
Once, indeed, the old hunter, Peter, obtained from me some bread, for which
he promised to give a pair of ducks, but when the time came for payment, and
I demanded my ducks, he looked gloomy, and replied with characteristic
brevity, "No duck-- Chippewa (meaning S------, this being the name they have
affectionately given him) gone up lake with canoe--no canoe--duck
by-and-by." By-and- by is a favourite expression of the Indians, signifying
an indefinite point of time; may be it means to-morrow, or a week, or month,
or it may be a year, or even more. They rarely give you a direct promise.
As it is not wise to let any one cheat you if
you can prevent it, I coldly declined any further overtures to bartering
with the Indians until my ducks made their appearance.
Some time afterwards I received one duck by
the hands of Maquin, a sort of Indian Flibberty-gibbet: this lad is a
hunchbacked dwarf, very shrewd, but a perfect imp; his delight seems to be
tormenting the brown babies in the wigwam, or teazing the meek deer-hounds.
He speaks English very fluently, and writes tolerably for an Indian boy; he
usually accompanies the women in their visits, and acts as their
interpreter, grinning with mischievous glee at his mother's bad English and
my perplexity at not being able to understand her signs. In spite of his
extreme deformity, he seemed to possess no inconsiderable share of vanity,
gazing with great satisfaction at his face in the looking glass. When I
asked his name, he replied, "Indian name Maquin, but English name 'Mister
Walker,' very good man;" this was the person he was called after.
These Indians are scrupulous in their
observance of the Sabbath, and show great reluctance to having any dealings
in the way of trading or pursuing their usual avocations of hunting or
fishing on that day.
The young Indians are very expert in the use
of a long bow, with wooden arrows, rather heavy and blunt at the end. Maquin
said he could shoot ducks and small birds with his arrows; but I should
think they were not calculated to reach objects at any great distance, as
they appeared very heavy.
'Tis sweet to hear the Indians singing their
hymns of a Sunday night; their rich soft voices rising in the still evening
air. I have often listened to this little choir praising the Lord's name in
the simplicity and fervour of their hearts, and have felt it was a reproach
that these poor half-civilized wanderers should alone be found to gather
together to give glory to God in the wilderness.
I was much pleased with the simple piety of
our friend the hunter Peter's squaw, a stout, swarthy matron, of most
amiable expression. We were taking our tea when she softly opened the door
and looked in; an encouraging smile induced her to enter, and depositing a
brown papouse (Indian for baby or little child) on the ground, she gazed
round with curiosity and delight in her eyes. We offered her some tea and
bread, motioning to her to take a vacant seat beside the table. She seemed
pleased by the invitation, and drawing her little one to her knee, poured
some tea into the saucer, and gave it to the child to drink. She ate very
moderately, and when she had finished, rose, and, wrapping her face in the
folds of her blanket, bent down her head on her breast in the attitude of
prayer. This little act of devotion was performed without the slightest
appearance of pharisaical display, but in singleness and simplicity of
heart. She then thanked us with a face beaming with smiles and good humour;
and, taking little Rachel by the hands, threw her over her shoulder with a
peculiar sleight that I feared would dislocate the tender thing's arms, but
the papouse seemed well satisfied with this mode of treatment.
In long journeys the children are placed in
upright baskets of a peculiar form, which are fastened round the necks of
the mothers by straps of deer-skin; but the young infant is swathed to a
sort of flat cradle, secured with flexible hoops, to prevent it from falling
out. To these machines they are strapped, so as to be unable to move a limb.
Much finery is often displayed in the outer covering and the bandages that
confine the papouse.
There is a sling attached to this cradle that
passes over the squaw's neck, the back of the babe being placed to the back
of the mother, and its face outward. The first thing a squaw does on
entering a house is to release herself from her burden, and stick it up
against the wall or chair, chest, or any thing that will support it, where
the passive prisoner stands, looking not unlike a mummy in its case. I have
seen the picture of the Virgin and Child in some of the old illuminated
missals, not unlike the figure of a papouse in its swaddling-clothes.
The squaws are most affectionate to their
little ones. Gentleness and good humour appear distinguishing traits in the
tempers of the female Indians; whether this be natural to their characters,
the savage state, or the softening effects of Christianity, I cannot
determine. Certainly in no instance does the Christian religion appear more
lovely than when, untainted by the doubts and infidelity of modern sceptics,
it is displayed in the conduct of the reclaimed Indian breaking down the
strong-holds of idolatry and natural evil, and bringing forth the fruits of
holiness and morality. They may be said to receive the truths of the Gospel
as little children, with simplicity of heart and unclouded faith.
The squaws are very ingenious in many of their
handiworks. We find their birch-bark baskets very convenient for a number of
purposes. My bread-basket, knife-tray, sugar-basket, are all of this humble
material. When ornamented and wrought in patterns with dyed quills, I can
assure you, they are by no means inelegant. They manufacture vessels of
birch-bark so well, that they will serve for many useful household purposes,
such as holding water, milk, broth, or any other liquid; they are sewn or
rather stitched together with the tough roots of the tamarack or larch, or
else with strips of cedar-bark. They also weave very useful sorts of baskets
from the inner rind of the bass-wood and white ash.
Some of these baskets, of a coarse kind, are
made use of for gathering up potatoes, Indian corn, or turnips; the settlers
finding them very good substitutes for the osier baskets used for such
purposes in the old country.
The Indians are acquainted with a variety of
dyes, with which they stain the more elegant fancy-baskets and
porcupine-quills. Our parlour is ornamented with several very pretty
specimens of their ingenuity in this way, which answer the purpose of note
and letter-cases, flower-stands, and work-baskets.
They appear to value the useful rather more
highly than the merely ornamental articles that you may exhibit to them.
They are very shrewd and close in all their bargains, and exhibit a
surprising degree of caution in their dealings. The men are much less
difficult to trade with than the women: they display a singular pertinacity
in some instances. If they have fixed their mind on any one article, they
will come to you day after day, refusing any other you may offer to their
notice. One of the squaws fell in love with a gay chintz dressing-gown
belonging to my husband, and though I resolutely refused to part with it,
all the squaws in the wigwam by turns came to look at "gown," which they
pronounced with their peculiarly plaintive tone of voice; and when I said
"no gown to sell," they uttered a melancholy exclamation of regret, and went
They will seldom make any article you want on
purpose for you. If you express a desire to have baskets of a particular
pattern that they do not happen to have ready made by them, they give you
the usual vague reply of "by-and-by." If the goods you offer them in
exchange for theirs do not answer their expectations, they give a sullen and
dogged look or reply, "Car-car" (no, no), or "Carwinni," which is a still
more forcible negative. But when the bargain pleases them, they signify
their approbation by several affirmative nods of the head, and a note not
much unlike a grunt; the ducks, fish, venison, or baskets, are placed beside
you, and the articles of exchange transferred to the folds of their
capacious blankets, or deposited in a sort of rushen wallets, not unlike
those straw baskets in which English carpenters carry their tools.
The women imitate the dresses of the whites,
and are rather skilful in converting their purchases. Many of the young
girls can sew very neatly. I often give them bits of silk and velvet, and
braid, for which they appear very thankful.
I am just now very busy with my garden. Some
of our vegetable seeds are in the ground, though I am told we have been
premature; there being ten chances to one but the young plants will be cut
off by the late frosts, which are often felt through May, and even the
beginning of June.
Our garden at present has nothing to boast of,
being merely a spot of ground enclosed with a rough unsightly fence of split
rails to keep the cattle from destroying the vegetables. Another spring, I
hope to have a nice fence, and a portion of the ground devoted to flowers.
This spring there is so much pressing work to be done on the land in
clearing for the crops, that I do not like to urge my claims on behalf of a
The forest-trees are nearly all in leaf. Never
did spring burst forth with greater rapidity than it has done this year. The
verdure of the leaves is most vivid. A thousand lovely flowers are expanding
in the woods and clearings. Nor are our Canadian songsters mute: the
cheerful melody of the robin, the bugle-song of the blackbird and thrush,
with the weak but not unpleasing call of the little bird called Thitabecec,
and a wren, whose note is sweet and thrilling, fill our woods.
For my part, I see no reason or wisdom in
carping at the good we do possess, because it lacks something of that which
we formerly enjoyed. I am aware it is the fashion for travellers to assert
that our feathered tribes are either mute or give utterance to discordant
cries that pierce the ear, and disgust rather than please. It would be
untrue were I to assert that our singing birds were as numerous or as
melodious on the whole as those of Europe; but I must not suffer prejudice
to rob my adopted country of her rights without one word being spoken in
behalf of her feathered vocalists. Nay, I consider her very frogs have been
belied: if it were not for the monotony of their notes, I really consider
they are not quite unmusical. The green frogs are very handsome, being
marked over with brown oval shields on the most vivid green coat: they are
larger in size than the biggest of our English frogs, and certainly much
handsomer in every respect. Their note resembles that of a bird, and has
nothing of the creek in it.
The bull-frogs are very different from the
greens frogs. Instead of being angry with their comical notes, I can hardly
refrain from laughing when a great fellow pops up his broad brown head from
the margin of the water, and says, "Williroo, williroo, williroo," to which
another bull-frog, from a distant part of the swamp, replies, in hoarser
accents, "Get out, get out, get out;" and presently a sudden chorus is heard
of old and young, as if each party was desirous of out-croaking the other.
In my next I shall give you an account of our
logging-bee, which will take place the latter end of this month. I feel some
anxiety respecting the burning of the log-heaps on the fallow round the
house, as it appears to me rather a hazardous matter.
I shall write again very shortly. Farewell,
dearest of friends.