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Backwoods of Canada
Letter 16

Indian Hunters.--Sail in a Canoe.--Want of Libraries in the Backwoods.--New Village.--Progress of Improvement.--Fire-flies.

HAVING in a former letter given you some account of a winter visit to the Indians, I shall now give a short sketch of their summer encampment, which I went to see one beautiful afternoon in June, accompanied by my husband and some friends that had come in to spend the day with us.

The Indians were encamped on a little peninsula jutting out between two small lakes; our nearest path would have been through the bush, but the ground was so encumbered by fallen trees that we agreed to go in a canoe. The day was warm, without being oppressively hot, as it too often is during the summer months: and for a wonder the mosquitoes and black- flies were so civil as not to molest us. Our light bark skimmed gaily over the calm waters, beneath the overhanging shade of cedars, hemlock, and balsams, that emitted a delicious fragrance as the passing breeze swept through the boughs. I was in raptures with a bed of blue irises mixed with snow-white water-lilies that our canoe passed over. Turning the stony bank that formed the point, we saw the thin blue smoke of the camp curling above the trees, and soon our canoe was safely moored alongside of those belonging to the Indians, and by help of the straggling branches and underwood I contrived to scramble up a steep path, and soon found myself in front of the tent. It was a Sunday afternoon; all the men were at home; some of the younger branches of the families (for there were three that inhabited the wigwam) were amusing themselves with throwing the tomahawk at a notch cut in the bark of a distant tree, or shooting at a mark with their bows and arrows, while the elders reposed on their blankets within the shade, some reading, others smoking, and gravely eyeing the young rival marksmen at their feats of skill.

Only one of the squaws was at home; this was my old acquaintance the hunter's wife, who was sitting on a blanket; her youngest, little David, a papouse of three years, who was not yet weaned, was reposing between her feet; she often eyed him with looks of great affection, and patted his shaggy head from time to time. Peter, who is a sort of great man, though not a chief, sat beside his spouse, dressed in a handsome blue surtout-coat, with a red worsted sash about his waist. He was smoking a short pipe, and viewing the assembled party at the door of the tent with an expression of quiet interest; sometimes he lifted his pipe for an instant to give a sort of inward exclamation at the success or failure of his sons' attempts to hit the mark on the tree. The old squaw, as soon as she saw me, motioned me forward, and pointing to a vacant portion of her blanket, with a good-natured smile, signed for me to sit beside her, which I did, and amused myself with taking note of the interior of the wigwam and its inhabitants. The building was of an oblong form, open at both ends, but at night I was told the openings were closed by blankets; the upper part of the roof was also open; the sides were rudely fenced with large sheets of birch bark, drawn in and out between the sticks that made the frame-work of the tent; a long slender pole of iron-wood formed a low beam, from which depended sundry iron and brass pots and kettles, also some joints of fresh-killed venison and dried fish; the fires occupied the centre of the hut, around the embers of which reposed several meek deer-hounds; they evinced something of the quiet apathy of their masters, merely opening their eyes to look upon the intruders, and seeing all was well returned to their former slumbers, perfectly unconcerned by our entrance.

The hunter's family occupied one entire side of the building, while Joseph Muskrat with his family, and Joseph Bolans and his squaw shared the opposite one, their several apartments being distinguished by their blankets, fishing-spears, rifles, tomahawks, and other property; as to the cooking utensils they seemed from their scarcity to be held in common among them; perfect amity appeared among the three families; and, if one might judge from outward appearance, they seemed happy and contented. On examining the books that were in the hands of the young men, they proved to be hymns and tracts, one side printed in English, the other the Indian translation. In compliance with our wishes the men sang one of the hymns, which sounded very well, but we missed the sweet voices of the Indian girls, whom I had left in front of the house, sitting on a pine-log and amusing themselves with my baby, and seeming highly delighted with him and his nurse.

Outside the tent the squaw showed me a birch-bark canoe that was building; the shape of the canoe is marked out by sticks stuck in the ground at regular distances; the sheets of bark being wetted, and secured in their proper places by cedar laths, which are bent so as to serve the purpose of ribs or timbers; the sheets of bark are stitched together with the tough roots of the tamarack, and the edges of the canoe also sewed or laced over with the same material; the whole is then varnished over with a thick gum.

I had the honour of being paddled home by Mrs. Peter in a new canoe, just launched, and really the motion was delightful; seated at the bottom of the little bark, on a few light hemlock boughs, I enjoyed my voyage home exceedingly. The canoe, propelled by the Amazonian arm of the swarthy matron, flew swiftly over the waters, and I was soon landed in a little cove within a short distance from my own door. In return for the squaw's civility I delighted her by a present of a few beads for working mocassins and knife-sheaths, with which she seemed very well pleased, carefully securing her treasure by tying them in a corner of her blanket with a bit of thread.

With a peculiar reserve and gravity of temper, there is at the same time a degree of childishness about the Indians in some things. I gave the hunter and his son one day some coloured prints, which they seemed mightily taken with, laughing immoderately at some of the fashionably dressed figures. When they left the house they seated themselves on a fallen tree, and called their hounds round them, displaying to each severally the pictures.

The poor animals, instead of taking a survey of the gaily dressed ladies and gentlemen, held up their meek heads and licked their masters' hands and faces; but old Peter was resolved the dogs should share the amusement of looking at the pictures and turned their faces to them, holding them fast by their long ears when they endeavoured to escape. I could hardly have supposed the grave Indian capable of such childish behaviour.

These Indians appear less addicted to gay and tinselly adornments than formerly, and rather affect a European style in their dress; it is no unusual sight to see an Indian habited in a fine cloth coat and trousers, though I must say the blanket-coats provided for them by Government, and which form part of their annual presents, are far more suitable and becoming. The squaws, too, prefer cotton or stuff gowns, aprons and handkerchiefs, and such useful articles, to any sort of finery, though they like well enough to look at and admire them; they delight nevertheless in decking out the little ones, embroidering their cradle wrappings with silks and beads, and tacking the wings of birds to their shoulders. I was a little amused by the appearance of one of these Indian Cupids, adorned with the wings of the American war-bird; a very beautiful creature, something like our British bullfinch, only far more lively in plumage: the breast and under-feathers of the wings being a tint of the most brilliant carmine, shaded with black and white. This bird has been called the "war-bird," from its having first made its appearance in this province during the late American war; a fact that I believe is well authenticated, or at any rate has obtained general credence.

I could hardly help smiling at your notion that we in the backwoods can have easy access to a circulation library. In one sense, indeed, you are not so far from truth, for every settler's library may be called a circulating one, as their books are sure to pass from friend to friend in due rotation; and, fortunately for us, we happen to have several excellently furnished ones in our neighbourhood, which are always open to us. There is a public library at York, and a small circulating library at Cobourg, but they might just as well be on the other side of the Atlantic for any access we can have to them.

I know how it is; at home you have the same idea of the facility of travelling in this country as I once had: now I know what bush-roads are, a few miles' journey seems an awful undertaking. Do you remember my account of a day's travelling through the woods? I am sorry to say they are but little amended since that letter was written. I have only once ventured to perform a similar journey, which took several hours hard travelling, and, more by good luck than any other thing, arrived with whole bones at my destination. I could not help laughing at the frequent exclamations of the teamster, a shrewd Yorkshire lad, "Oh, if I had but the driving of his excellency the governor along this road, how I would make the old horses trot over the stumps and stones, till he should cry out again; I warrant he'd do summut to mend them before he came along them again."

Unfortunately it is not a statute-road on this side the river, and has been cut by the settlers for their own convenience, so that I fear nothing will be done to improve it, unless it is by the inhabitants themselves.

We hope soon to have a market for our grain nearer at hand than Peterborough; a grist-mill has just been raised at the new village that is springing up. This will prove a great comfort to us; we have at present to fetch flour up at a great expense, through bad roads, and the loss of time to those that are obliged to send wheat to the town to be ground, is a serious evil; this will soon be remedied, to the joy of the whole neighbourhood.

You do not know how important these improvements are, and what effect they have in raising the spirits of the emigrant, besides enhancing the value of his property in no trifling degree. We have already experienced the benefit of being near the saw-mill, as it not only enables us to build at a smaller expense, but enables us to exchange logs for sawn lumber. The great pine-trees which, under other circumstances, would be an encumbrance and drawback to clearing the land, prove a most profitable crop when cleared off in the form of saw-logs, which is easily done where they are near the water; the logs are sawn to a certain length, and dragged by oxen, during the winter, when the ground is hard, to the lake's edge; when the ice breaks up, the logs float down with the current and enter the mill-race; I have seen the lake opposite to our windows covered with these floating timbers, voyaging down to the saw-mill.

How valuable would the great oaks and gigantic pines be on an estate in England; while here they are as little thought of as saplings would be at home. Some years hence the timbers that are now burned up will be regretted. Yet it is impossible to preserve them; they would prove a great encumbrance to the farmer. The oaks are desirable for splitting, as they make the most durable fences; pine, cedar, and white ash are also used for rail-cuts; maple and dry beech are the best sorts of wood for fires: white ash burns well. In making ley for soap, care is taken to use none but the ashes of hard wood, as oak, ash, maple, beech; any of the resinous trees are bad for the purpose, and the ley will not mingle with the fat. In boiling, to the great mortification of the uninitiated soap-boiler, who, by being made acquainted with this simple fact, might have been spared much useless trouble and waste of material, after months of careful saving.

An American settler's wife told me this, and bade me be careful not to make use of any of the pine-wood ashes in running the ley. And here I must observe, that of all people the Yankees, as they are termed, are the most industrious and ingenious; they are never at a loss for an expedient: if one thing fails them they adopt another, with a quickness of thought that surprises me, while to them it seems only a matter of course. They seem to possess a sort of innate presence of mind, and instead of wasting their energies in words, they act. The old settlers that have been long among them seem to acquire the same sort of habits, insomuch that it is difficult to distinguish them. I have heard the Americans called a loquacious boasting people; now, as far as my limited acquaintance with them goes, I consider they are almost laconic, and if I dislike them it is for a certain cold brevity of manner that seems to place a barrier between you and them.

I was somewhat struck with a remark made by a travelling clock-maker, a native of the state of Ohio. After speaking of the superior climate of Ohio, in answer to some questions of my husband, he said, he was surprised that gentlemen should prefer the Canadas, especially the bush, where for many years they must want all the comforts and luxuries of life, to the rich, highly cultivated, and fruitful state of Ohio, where land was much cheaper, both cleared and wild.

To this we replied that, in the first place, British subjects preferred the British government; and, besides, they were averse to the manners of his countrymen. He candidly admitted the first objection; and in reply to the last observed, that the Americans at large ought not to be judged by the specimens to be found in the British colonies, as they were, for the most part, persons of no reputation, many of whom had fled to the Canadas to escape from debt, or other disgraceful conduct; and added, "It would be hard if the English were to be judged as a nation by the convicts of Botany Bay."

Now there was nothing unfair or rude in the manners of this stranger, and his defence of his nation was mild and reasonable, and such as any unprejudiced person must have respected him for.

I have just been interrupted by a friend, who has called to tell me he has an opportunity of sending safe and free of expense to London or Liverpool, and that he will enclose a packet for me in the box he is packing for England.

I am delighted by the intelligence, but regret that I have nothing but a few flower-seeds, a specimen of Indian workmanship, and a few butterflies to send you--the latter are for Jane. I hope all will not share the fate of the last I sent. Sarah wrote me word, when they came to look for the green moth I had enclosed in a little box, nothing of his earthly remains was visible beyond a little dust and some pink feet. I have, with some difficulty, been able to procure another and finer specimen; and, for fear it should meet with a similar annihilation, I will at least preserve the memory of its beauties, and give you a description of it.

It is just five inches from wing to wing; the body the thickness of my little finger, snow-white, covered with long silken hair; the legs bright red, so are the antennae, which are toothed like a comb on either side, shorter than those of butterflies and elegantly curled; the wings, both upper and under, are of the most exquisite pale tint of green, fringed at the edges with golden colour; each wing has a small shaded crescent of pale blue, deep red, and orange; the blue forming the centre, like a half-closed eye; the lower wings elongated in deep scollop, so as to form two long tails, like those of the swallow-tail butterfly, only a full inch in length and deeply fringed; on the whole this moth is the most exquisite creature I have ever seen.

We have a variety of the peacock butterfly, that is very rich, with innumerable eyes on the wings. The yellow swallow-tail is also very common, and the black and blue admiral, and the red, white, and black admiral, with many other beautiful varieties that I cannot describe. The largest butterfly I have yet seen is a gay vermilion, marked with jet black lines that form an elegant black lace pattern over its wide wings.

Then for dragon-flies, we have them of every size, shape, and colour. I was particularly charmed by a pair of superb blue ones that I used to see this summer in my walk to visit my sister. They were as large as butterflies, with black gauze wings; on each pair was marked a crescent of the brightest azure blue, shaded with scarlet; the bodies of these beautiful creatures were also blue. I have seen them scarlet and black, yellow and black, copper-coloured, green, and brown; the latter are great enemies to the mosquitoes and other small insects, and may be seen in vast numbers flitting around in all directions of an evening in search of prey.

The fire-flies must not be forgotten, for of all others they are the most remarkable; their appearance generally precedes rain; they are often seen after dark, on mild damp evenings, sporting among the cedars at the edge of the wood, and especially near swamps, when the air is illuminated with their brilliant dancing light. Sometimes they may be seen in groups, glancing like falling stars in mid-air, or descending so low as to enter your dwelling and flit about among the draperies of your bed or window curtains; the light they emit is more brilliant than that of the glowworm; but it is produced in the same manner from the under part of the body. The glowworm is also frequently seen, even as late as September, on mild, warm, dewy nights.

We have abundance of large and small beetles, some most splendid: green and gold, rose-colour, red and black, yellow and black; some quite black, formidably large, with wide branching horns. Wasps are not so troublesome as in England, but I suppose it is because we cannot offer such temptations as our home gardens hold out to these ravenous insects.

One of our choppers brought me the other day what he called a hornet's nest; it was certainly too small and delicate a piece of workmanship for so large an insect; and I rather conjecture that it belonged to the beautiful black and gold insect called the wasp-fly, but of this I am not certain. The nest was about the size and shape of a turkey's egg, and was composed of six paper cups inserted one within the other, each lessening till the innermost of all appeared not larger than a pigeon's egg. On looking carefully within the orifice of the last cup, a small comb, containing twelve cells, of the most exquisite neatness, might be perceived, if anything, superior in regularity to the cells in the comb of the domestic bee, one of which was at least equal to three of these. The substance that composed the cups was of a fine silver grey silken texture, as fine as the finest India silk paper, and extremely brittle; when slightly wetted it became glutinous, and adhered a little to the finger; the whole was carefully fixed to a stick: I have seen one since fastened to a rough rail. I could not but admire the instinctive care displayed in the formation of this exquisite piece of insect architecture to guard the embryo animal from injury, either from the voracity of birds or the effect of rain, which could scarcely find entrance in the interior.

I had carefully, as I thought, preserved my treasure, by putting it in one of my drawers, but a wicked little thief of a mouse found it out and tore it to pieces for the sake of the drops of honey contained in one or two of the cells. I was much vexed, as I purposed sending it by some favourable opportunity to a dear friend living in Gloucester Place, who took great delight in natural curiosities, and once showed me a nest of similar form to this, that had been found in a bee-hive; the material was much coarser, and, if I remember right, had but two cases instead of six.

I have always felt a great desire to see the nest of a humming-bird, but hitherto have been disappointed. This summer I had some beds of mignionette and other flowers, with some most splendid major convolvuluses or "morning gloves," as the Americans call them; these lovely flowers tempted the hummingbirds to visit my garden, and I had the pleasure of seeing a pair of those beautiful creatures, but their flight is so peculiar that it hardly gives you a perfect sight of their colours; their motion when on the wing resembles the whirl of a spinning-wheel, and the sound they make is like the hum of a wheel at work; I shall plant flowers to entice them to build near us.

I sometimes fear you will grow weary of my long dull letters; my only resources are domestic details and the natural history of the country, which I give whenever I think the subject has novelty to recommend it to your attention. Possibly I may sometimes disappoint you by details that appear to place the state of the emigrant in an unfavourable light; I merely give facts as I have seen, or heard them stated. I could give you many flourishing accounts of settlers in this country; I could also reverse the picture, and you would come to the conclusion that there are many arguments to be used both for and against emigration. Now, the greatest argument, and that which has the most weight, is NECESSITY, and this will always turn the scale in the favour of emigration; and that same imperative dame Necessity tells me it is necessary for me to draw my letter to a conclusion.

Farewell, ever faithfully and affectionately, your attached sister.

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