Travel Challenges in the New Settlement
The Final Letter to a Scottish Newspaper (XXIV)
Before leaving Scotland Rev. William Bell agreed to provide reports back to a Scottish newspaper. The editors wished to assist in the recruitment of people to settle in Upper Canada. It is evident that, while fulfilling the commitment to provide information to entice settlers, he reported both the opportunities and challenges of the emerging community. However, he often glossed over the challenges that would face a settler and this is especially true in the matter of getting from one place to another. Access to markets and the means of moving soldiers and supplies across the province were high priorities. Although roads were a priority, the nature of the landscape required that waterways be used as primary transportation routes. Progress came slowly and the funds required for the task were hard to come by. Physical labour by the settlers and their oxen were key to the beginnings of trails through the forests. This is what he reported. An account of his actual experiences follows.
“The opening of roads in a new settlement is always attended with trouble and expense. This is well known to the people in the county of Carleton; but their difficulties would have been much greater, had it not been for the liberal assistance they have received from Government. The first settlers at Perth had to open a road about twenty miles into the woods for themselves; but they received rations while they were so employed. One part of it was opened by a contractor, who received fifty pounds from Government for his trouble. But all that was done at that time was merely making an opening through the woods wide enough to let a wagon pass. The Legislature two years afterwards, voted the sum of L500 to improve the same road, and clear it to the full width of 60′. But this grant, liberal as it was, made little appearance when laid out upon a road covered with heavy timber, and crossed by numerous creeks.
In 1820, when the first emigrants on the Government grant arrived from Glasgow, it became necessary to open up a road to the new settlement at Lanark. This cost the sum of L200, and the expense was defrayed, by the Commander of the Forces, out of the military chest. About the same time, when the military road began to be opened from the Grand River to Kingston, through Richmond and Perth, his Excellency granted L400 towards this undertaking, and the legislature granted L200 more. Thus, in the course of a very few years, L1350 of public money, besides the statute labour of a great many men and oxen, have been expended on these roads, and yet a great deal more must be done before they are good.
The Larger View in Upper Canada
In 1821, the merchants in Canada were alarmed by a report that His Majesty’s government intended to lay a duty on timber from the British Colonies in North America, or to reduce the duty upon that from the Baltic. Either of these would be ruinous to the trade of Canada, and numerous and strong remonstrances were sent home on the subject. The evil was averted for the present, but for how long we knew not. The produce of our forest is almost the only article we have to pay for our imports from Britain, and the price is at present so low as barely to defray the expense of bringing it to market. But should a duty be imposed, ruin to the trade, and consequently to Canada, would be the consequence. Nor would the mother country herself be uninjured. A market for her manufacturers would be lost, and many of her ships and seamen would be thrown out of employment.
No country stands more in need of inland navigation, or offers greater facilities for carrying it into effect, than Upper Canada. The St. Lawrence has hitherto been the principal highway to the province. But it contains many rapids which are difficult to ascend. And, besides, being the boundary between Upper Canada and the United States, whenever a war takes place, the enemy have it in their power to capture any supplies that may pass that way; hence the necessity of a navigation by some other route less exposed. This has long been an object both with Government and the colonists; the one to convey stores in time of war, and the other to convey their produce to market. With a view to effecting this desirable object, the House of Assembly, in 1822, appointed commissioners to explore and survey the internal communications of the province, to prepare plans and estimates for the improvement of the inland navigation, and to report their opinions as to the most eligible and practical routes for effecting the same. They also voted the sum of L3000 to defray the expense of the plans, surveys, etc. The proposed canal is to connect the Grand River with Lake Ontario near Kingston. It will be more than 100 miles in length and it is expected will pass through some part of Perth settlement. When it is completed, boats may pass between the upper and lower province with produce or stores without being exposed to the frontiers of the United States. Another canal has been proposed, to connect Lakes Ontario and Erie, so as to avoid the falls of Niagara. The distance between these lakes is said to be about 30 miles, and many locks will be wanted to enable boats to pass from one to another.
Rev. William Bell’s Personal Travel Experiences
Rev. William Bell who traveled more than most when undertaking his missionary activities leaves us with a vivid understanding of what travel entailed during the early years of the eastern portion of Upper Canada settlement. In his diary he provides vivid descriptions of his experiences as he moved between communities. Travel was perilous and not to be undertaken lightly. Many did not travel far during their lifetime, and married daughters or sons from a neighbouring farm.
1822 – “In the spring and fall, when the roads were bad, I had often very unpleasant journeys. Take the following as an instance. Mr. Shaw, one of the clerks at the Superintendent’s office at Lanark was about to take a wife, and had requested me to come out and marry him on Monday 28 October. Though there had been no frost, there came such a snowstorm on that day, that I could not venture out, the distance being 14 miles by the road then travelled. On Wednesday morning, having had a letter from Mr. Shaw, saying that he still expected me, I set out, though the road was the worst I ever travelled. The snow had melted and made it an ocean of mud and water all the way. Some of the mud holes were deep and almost impassable. Going and coming took me all day, and it was dark long before I got home, the horses and myself both very tired.
1823 – “In July, as usual, I assisted Mr. Buchanan in Beckwith at his communion; and, as he was somewhat infirm, I performed most of the services. The weather was hot, and the journey both out and home very fatiguing, especially as I had to travel the worst part of it on foot. A swamp, a mile wide, could not be passed by a horse, and even a foot passenger had to wade deep in black mud and water, while annoyed with myriad of mosquitoes.
1824 – “The early part of this winter was mild, but it became colder as it advanced, and the snow became deep. In my anxiety to visit every family, even in the most retired corner of the settlement, I made many unpleasant journeys. One of these was on the 2nd day of February.
I had given notice of an examination at the house of Wm. Anderson in Burgess, an out of the way place, and far from any public road. When the day arrived a snowstorm raged over the land. The first half of my journey was difficult, even on the ferry road, but after I got upon the Otty Lake it was more difficult still, as I had no track, and the snow was at least two feet deep. My progress was slow, and though the day was cold Kate was very warm, being to the belly at every step.
On reaching the place she had no shelter, but the side of a wretched shantie (sic), the only building yet erected. Indeed I was little better off myself, for a more miserable hut I never was in; and it smoked so abominably that we had to sit with the door open all the time. Even then the gas from the green timber on the fire brought tears from my eyes. The roof being covered merely with hemlock boughs, the heat of the fire melted the snow, which came down over us in rain, so that a dry spot to sit could not be found. The inmates of this wretched hovel were much to be pitied. Mrs. Anderson was at the time in delicate health, and after long illness, died no doubt from cold and exposure in this hut.
Next week I held an examination at Donald Campbell’s, in Drummond, which, as usual, was well attended. On setting out in the afternoon, for home, Kate being very cold set off at full speed, and before I could bring her up, she beset the cutter and threw me out with great violence, dragging me some distance on the ground, as I held on by the reins. My right arm and face were bruised, but on the whole I was not much hurt.
“As we were leaving the house Mr. Clarke’s horse, a mischievous beast, became restive, broke the reins, galloped off, upset the cutter, threw out the riders, demolished another sleigh with which he came in contact, alarmed the whole company, and nearly killed a young woman by running her over, when he was at last driven up against a fence and secured.
1825 – “On Tuesday, we set out on our way home, leaving Isabella a few days with Mr. Smart. A snowstorm, directly in our faces during the whole day, rendered our journey very unpleasant. I had made an appointment to preach at a farmhouse on the Rideau in the evening, but could not reach it in time. From erroneous information we took a wrong road and after a long, wearisome, and fatiguing journey, of 40 miles, half of it in the woods where no human face was to be seen, we stopped at sun set at a tavern to refresh ourselves and horse.
After resting an hour we set out by moonlight, having still eight miles to travel. The storm had been boisterous all day, but now it became tremendous and made travelling not only difficult, but dangerous, from the falling of trees or rotten limbs. To add to our misfortunes, having no one to direct us, we again took a wrong road, and travelled five or six miles out of our way before we discovered our error.
After many difficulties we at last, almost frozen, reached our destination at 9 at night just three hours after the time I had appointed to preach. The people had waited two hours, but now they were all gone, so that the only thing we could now do was to make ourselves as comfortable as possible for the night. Our accommodation was homely, but few I believe, after such a day as we had experienced, would be very fastidious, if under a hospitable roof. I was chiefly concerned for poor Kate which after so long a journey, had to pass the night under the shelter of an open shed, on a dreadfully cold night. Next day we finished our journey home, over a very bad road, and on a very cold day.
“In July I made a journey to Beckwith to assist Mr. Buchanan at the sacrament. The weather being hot, I thought it best to set out early in the morning. The distance was 18 miles, and the road bad, if road it could be called; but nobody in a cultivated country would call such a line of hillocks, stones, fallen trees, mud holes, and deep swamps, a road.
In these circumstances, and attended with swarms of mosquitoes, my ride was as pleasant as I could expect. Six miles on my way I called at John McPhail’s and raised the family out of bed. They were happy to see me, but much surprised at my early and unexpected visit. Five miles farther on I called at James Robertson’s, to inquire about the state of the long swamp; a bog about a mile across, which no horse could go through.
On arriving at this swamp, which is a dead level of black mud, covered with bushes and small trees, I sent back my horse with a boy I had taken with me from J. Robertson’s and proceeded on foot. But this was no easy matter from the mud and water through which I had to pass, and the myriads of mosquitoes with which I was attended. The heat at this time was excessive, and though I carried my coat over my arm, I was drenched in perspiration. Small trees had been cut and laid along the line of march, to keep the passenger above the mud and water, but these formed a very ticklish pathway, and a false step sent one to the knees in the mire.
1826 – “Near the end of January I had appointed an examination at a schoolhouse in the 6th Concession of Bathurst. The day before, a great deal of snow had fallen; and the road was not tracked. Yet I set out on foot, though the distance was six miles, for I was loath to fail in fulfilling my engagement. The snow was drifted in some places from two to three feet deep, and I had to break the road at least one third of the way. I was greatly heated by my exertions, and afterwards chilled in the cold schoolhouse, where few attended and no fire had been made till after I came. Inflammation was the consequence; and though I got a sleigh to convey me home, I was dangerously ill for some days.
1827 – “On Saturday, 14th July, very early in the morning, accompanied by Mr. Holliday, one of my elders, I set out for Beckwith, to assist at the communion. The first 12 miles we got along very well. But the swamp at McLellan’s was very bad, and we got through with difficulty by driving our horses before us. This swamp was only half a mile, but the long swamp, a little farther on, was a mile across and worse to pass. We were told however that at a particular place it might be passed, but after making the attempt, and nearly losing our horses, we were forced to turn back and leave them at the next farmhouse. We then proceeded on foot and waded the swamp. The heat was excessive, and the mosquitoes annoyed us exceedingly.
At 10 we reached Mr. Buchanan’s, and at 12 I preached to a large congregation. In the afternoon the heat and fatigue made me sick, so that I was forced to go to bed; but a cool breeze in the evening revived me, and I got up. Next day at 11, I preached to a very attentive congregation of 300 people.
1828 – “In July, having to assist Mr. Buchanan at the sacrament, Mrs. Bell went along with me. We had to walk the whole way, 18 miles, the road being still encumbered with trees, the effect of a late storm, so that a horse could not pass. The water too was so deep in some of the swamps that we had to take off our stockings and shoes and wade through.
1829 – “On the 22 January I went a few miles into the country to marry Duncan Ferguson. The day was stormy, and the snow fell thick and fast; but the wedding party having a warm house, and the good things of this life in abundance, cared little for the storm that raged without. On my way home, the night being dark, and the new fallen snow deep, I could not keep to the road, and got upset among the stumps by which my cutter was broken, so that I got it home with great difficulty.
“In some of these journeys I suffered severely from cold, the thermometer being sometimes from 20 to 30 degrees below zero. The excavation and building of the locks on the Rideau Canal were going on at this time. One very cold night, soon after passing Smith’s Falls, where a great number of mechanics and labourers were employed, an impudent Irishman, under pretense of showing me the way, got into the sleigh along with me.
After driving about a mile under his direction, he told we were wrong, and must turn back. This was no easy matter, the road being a narrow track between high banks of snow, and no room to turn. Both got out, and he, taking hold of the cutter, said he would help to pull it round. Suiting the action to the word, he pulled with so great violence that he frightened my horse and made him plunge among logs concealed by the snow, so that one of the runners was broken.
This was provoking enough, on a cold night and far from home. But the damage to the cutter gave me less concern than my own situation in regard to my fellow traveler, who I began to suspect had done all to detain, and perhaps rob me before we parted.
It was now dark, and I was in the woods with a savage Irishman, far from any human habitation. Besides, I knew he had two companions coming on behind, no better looking then himself. On getting into the path, I at once laid the whip to the horse, and took French leave of my pretended guide, regardless alike of the broken state of my cutter, and his calls to wait and take him up. At the first house I came to, which was 20 miles from Perth, I stopped to get information. I was fortunate enough to find one of the persons of whom I was in search. He took me to his house, about a mile distant, and treated me with great kindness and hospitality.
Next morning I was detained some hours getting my cutter repaired. Fortunately there was a blacksmith at no great distance. In the meantime I had a meeting with some of the people, who were glad to hear that I meant to make that (Edmond’s Rapids) one of my preaching stations. At about 10 I started, traveled most of the day in the woods, and reached Richmond late in the evening, almost frozen. Next day I reached Bytown, where I was happy to find that the object of my visit was already attained; Rev. Mr. Cruickshank being expected in a few days. On my return, I preached at a variety of places, where I had left appointments. Before I got home my cutter broke down, and I had some difficulty to get it repaired so as to reach Perth.
1830 – “In one of my journeys, in February, I had much difficulty from a deep fall of snow. I had left Mrs. Gray’s in the morning, intending to cross the concessions to Mr. McGregor’s, in Bathurst, a distance of about six miles; but after forcing my way half the distance, I had to give it up, and direct my course homeward. Even this was no easy task, as I had to break the road all the way, 12 miles, with a high wind and the snow drifting in my face. The evil was increased by having to get out at one place and repair part of the harness, standing up to my knees in snow. After a new fall of snow everyone is unwilling to be the first to break the road. But I had no alternative; I was already out and must be home. The snow was drifted smooth: on the top, nearly as high as the fences; and to steer my way among the logs and stumps was no easy matter, and my horse could not travel faster than a walk. Soon after noon I reached home, as cold as I ever was in my life – indeed almost frozen.
“In the course of this summer I made several more missionary journeys, the particulars of which will be found in the larger account of my life. In one of these I was severely hurt by my horse falling with my foot and leg under him. Though no bones were broken, the ankle swelled to a great size, and gave me much pain. Yet I pressed on and fulfilled all my appointments and assisted Mr. Buchanan at the sacrament before I returned home.
On Monday I was forced to keep in bed all day, that being the only posture in which I could obtain any ease. The thermometer at this time ranged from 90 to 95 in the shade, the heat excessive, and the mosquitoes tormenting. On Wednesday I returned home from Ramsey by 24 miles of the worst road I ever traveled, preaching at two places on the way. The difficulties in this journey of six days, taking down fences and wading through swamps in my lame and sickly state, I need not attempt to describe. At 10 at night I reached home in a feverish state, my leg and ankle swelled to a great size and very painful. For some days I kept in bed; being neither able to stand nor walk.
1831 – “During the winter, whenever I could be spared from home, I was diligently employed in missionary labours, or examining my congregation in different parts of the country. For some years the Rideau settlement, and Carleton Place, with intermediate stations, were generally supplied once a month. In some of these journeys I had miserable weather and roads to contend with. Heavy rains, deep falls of snow, and boggy swamps; had to be got through, that appointments might be punctually kept. One time in crossing the country, in order to save going a great way round, I had to wade some distance in deep snow; without a track, to take down half a dozen fences, and to cross a chopped field, where my horse was several times thrown down among the logs. In winter the cold was sometimes from 10 to 20 degrees below zero; in summer the heat was at times from 90 to 95 above.
In the last week of December I made a journey to Ramsay, to marry our son John, to Miss Wilson. The ground was hard, but very rough, and the snow was too scanty to make good sleighing. The last half of the way was across the country where there was no proper road, but through clearings, where I had to take down fences, and sometimes to get over logs or brush with no small damage to my cutter, which was but frail at the best. Sometimes I lost the way and had to run back. Night came on before I got to Mr. Wilson’s, and it was with great difficulty I got there at all. After the marriage, John returned home with his wife to his own residence at Carleton Place. My journey home next day was both difficult and perplexing and employed the whole day.
1832 – “The winter was busily employed in examinations, and preaching in various parts of the settlement, and on the Rideau, and many a cold and unpleasant journey I had. Returning from an examination at James Bryce’s one evening, coming down a hill, some part of the harness gave way, and the cutter came forward on the beast’s heels. She ran off at gallop, kicking and plunging so violently that she knocked the front of the cutter all to splinters. The danger was increased by our being on the brink of a steep precipice, over which we were every moment exposed to be thrown. By holding on firmly till we got to rising ground, I at last brought her up, and was thus mercifully saved from a perilous situation. At another time, on a very cold night, I had two of my toes frozen which caused me much pain before they were healed.
1833 – “In the fall, while employed visiting my congregation, I had a happy escape from a serious accident. About two miles beyond the Rideau Ferry, as I was riding smartly over a log bridge, one of the logs; being rotten, gave way, when Jess’ legs being entangled she fell and threw me forward on the bridge with great violence. Falling on my side, on the round edge of a log, my hip was much hurt. Jess too had been stunned, for she lay some time before attempting to get up. Badly bruised as I was I felt thankful that my thighbone was not broken, for it was in much danger. With some difficulty I mounted and got to the next house.
On the morning of our communion Sabbath, in December, when I went over to the church I was informed that Ab Ferrier, the evening before, going home from Perth drunk, had been killed by his wagon running over him. The night was very cold, and the road rough, and there being no box to the wagon, his furious driving threw him off, and the wheel passing over his neck killed him on the spot. I had often tried to induce this man to become sober, but without effect. He even told me one day, after Mr. Wilson came here, that he could now take a glass in spite of me.
1834 – “On Monday morning Mrs. Bell and I set out on a visit to our son Andrew, in Toronto, and the Falls of Niagara. The morning was hot, the road rough, and the dust and mosquitoes annoying. At the Ferry we took the steamboat to Kingston, where were detained two days in consequence of arriving an hour too late for the boat that left on Tuesday. On Friday, however, we sailed in the Cobourg crowded with emigrants, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday landed at Toronto, where we found Captain Miller waiting with a wagon to take us to our son’s house, 16 miles off, which we reached at 9 pretty tired.
On Friday morning, having settled all our affairs, we sailed in the Great Britain for Niagara and Queenston, where we landed at 4 p.m. and by the coach proceeded to the celebrated falls. The evening we spent in viewing the cataract and the scenery round it; and in the dusk of a fine evening returned to the house of the Rev. Mr. Russell at Stamford, where we remained for the night. Early next morning walked down to Queenston, crossed at the ferry to the American side, and spent part of the day at Lewiston. At 2 p.m. we again embarked, calling at Niagara and Toronto, and next day we were landed at Kingston. From this we made the best of our way home, by the canal, where we found all safe and well.
1835 – “As a specimen of the unpleasant journeys I had to make, in bad weather, take the following. On Sabbath, 4th October, it rained all day. After preaching twice at home, and conducting a prayer meeting, I prepared for an appointment, in the afternoon, six miles in the country. I was unwell at the time, the road was horrid, and it still continued to rain; but I was expected, and therefore could not think of remaining at home. The soil was a stiff clay, the weather had been wet for weeks, and constant travelling had trod it into a mass of tough mire. The road was so bad that I was sometimes on the point of turning back; but it was well I did not, as I had a better congregation than I had expected. It was dark long before I got home, wading through the mud, in no pleasant plight, both weary and wet with the drizzling rain that fell all the time.
On the 20th January I set out for the country, to hold an examination at T. Barber’s. Before I got a mile on the road William’s horse, which I had borrowed, became unmanageable, ran away, upset the cutter, and threw me out on the road. I held on to the reins for some time, he dragging me on the ground, but I was obliged to let go, lest he should dash me against one of the logs at the roadside.
At the moment I feared he might run over some one, but fortunately he took off the road in deep snow, which delayed him, and he was taken by two men passing at the time. My left arm and shoulder were bruised, but otherwise I was not much hurt. By the kindness of Providence I have often escaped from danger with very little damage. The cutter being repaired, I set out again; but the horse was so much excited that he kept me in a state of alarm all day. The weather at the time was so cold that, the same morning at sunrise, the thermometer stood at 20 degrees below zero, that is 52 degrees below the freezing point.
On Saturday, 23 January, I set out, by appointment of the Presbytery, on a missionary tour; all of us having agreed to perform part of this work. My first stage was to Smith’s Falls, where I arrived in the evening, almost frozen, the cold being very severe. On Sabbath I preached two discourses in the village, in a large schoolroom, to a very crowded congregation. The heat was past enduring, though it was very cold out-of-doors.
In the afternoon Mr. Storey took me to his house, four miles off, where I had engaged to preach in the evening. On the way I was so chilled with the cold wind in my face, after being heated in the schoolroom, that I caught a severe cold. At 6 in the evening, the house being crowded, I preached again in a very uncomfortable situation, being roasted on one side by a large fire, and chilled on the other by the cold wind at a broken window.
On Monday morning, Mr. Storey, having taken me in his sleigh to Armstrong’s where I had left my horse and cutter, I started for the north. In the afternoon I preached in the Methodist chapel at Mr. Kerfoot’s, in Beckwith, to about 100 people, and baptised three children. At 6, I reached Mr. Gordon’s in Goulburn, where I found the house crammed full of people waiting for me. Here I preached from a dark corner of the kitchen, not the most convenient for a pulpit. Every room in the house was full of people, many of whom had no seats; but those in the kitchen had a worse evil to endure, having before them a raging fire, and behind them a stove almost red hot. Here I baptised four children, and remained for the night.
Leaving this hospitable house I went on to Richmond, four miles farther, where I preached to a small congregation; for the people there had little taste for weekday preaching.
My next journey was to Lowrie’s, in Huntly, 22 miles, where I preached in the evening to a crowded house, and baptised seven children. Next morning I walked a mile to visit a sick family and baptise a child. . .
On my return to Mr. Lowrie’s, I found a man come to request that I would go and visit his wife, who was supposed to be dying. I went with him, and after travelling about seven miles on a very rough and crooked road, through a wild and uncultivated country, we came to an opening in the forest, where were about a dozen shanties or log huts, upon a tract of fine land. . .
On the first Sabbath of February I assisted Mr. McAlister, at Middleton (Middleville), after preaching for him on the fast day and Saturday.
1840 – “In the first week of May, by appointment of Presbytery, I made a journey to Richmond; and preached there and other places, on the way. The road was still bad, and I had to go a great way round to avoid bridges destroyed by the spring flood. The kindness of friends compensated for every inconvenience.
1844 – “On Monday, 27 May, Mrs. Bell and I set out for Cumberland on the Grand River, to attend the ordination of our son George. The journey was fatiguing, as we had to ride 52 miles to Bytown in a wagon, over a very rough road. On the way we had heavy rain, which soaked us effectually. We lodged with Mr. Malloch, Sheriff of the District, who invited a party of friends to meet us in the evening. Next day we visited the Falls, the Fort, jail and court house. At 12 on Wednesday the Presbytery met, and took the rest of George’s trials, and made all ready for his ordination on the following day.
At 10, on Thursday morning, we left Bytown in the Porcupine steamer for Cumberland, 16 miles lower down. Besides the members of Presbytery, about 30 ladies and gentlemen went with us to see the ordination, a ceremony which most of them had never before witnessed. At 11 we landed from the boat and walked about a mile to the church, which we found crowded. Mr. McKid conducted all the services with much dignity and solemnity. At the conclusion I baptised two children. As the people retired from the church they shook their young minister by the hand with hearty good will. It now rained, but we soon got on board the boat where we dined, and reached Bytown at 7 in the evening. Great credit was due to the agent of the Porcupine, for the handsome manner in which he not only furnished the boat, but all our refreshments, free of expense, and even went along with us himself to see that we were properly accommodated. Next day, after taking leave of our good friends, we proceeded homewards, the road both rough and muddy. As before we lodged a night at Mr. Gordon’s, and reached home on the following day.
1848 – “I did not remain till the business of the Synod was over having to go to Bytown to preach on Sabbath and make arrangements for the induction of the Rev. Mr. Spence. On the following Monday I set out for home by the Rideau Canal. As the country through which we passed was new to me I remained on deck most of the day though it was somewhat cold and cloudy. In the course of the day we passed 32 locks before reaching the Rideau lake. At the Ferry I landed near midnight and leaving my trunk with Mrs. Campbell I walked home, 8 miles, by moon light where I was happy to find all well.