Early Struggles of Canada’s Rugged Pioneers

How the United Empire Loyalists built their homes on Canadian soil. Hardships and privations which would cause many a stout heart to-day to quail — The inner life of the rude cabin homes vividly pictured.

Maude Benson April 1 1908

Early Struggles of Canada’s Rugged Pioneers

How the United Empire Loyalists built their homes on Canadian soil. Hardships and privations which would cause many a stout heart to-day to quail — The inner life of the rude cabin homes vividly pictured.

Maude Benson April 1 1908

Early Struggles of Canada’s Rugged Pioneers

How the United Empire Loyalists built their homes on Canadian soil. Hardships and privations which would cause many a stout heart to-day to quail — The inner life of the rude cabin homes vividly pictured.

Maude Benson

LITTLE else than stout and loyal hearts, and willing hands, were the Loyalist pioneers able to bring to the Canadian wilderness, when they left behind them their comfortable homes in the States, and braved the unknown for love of king and country.

Life, for them, resolved itself into the problem, as old as the ages, of providing food and shelter. Their base of supplies consisted of the small assistance given them by the Government, and the natural resources of the country. However, they were not weaklings, and grim necessity was their captain. With what few tools they had been able to bring with them and to secure from Government, they, both men and women, went to work cheerfully, and with great perseverance, not only laid the foundation of their new homes, but of a new nation as well.

Primitive and crude now became the lives of these former children of plenty. Makeshifts took the place of ordinary conveniences, man power of domestic animals, inventive genius the place of money, for as the saying went : “Money was as rare as a wild

goose in Januafy,” and money, after all, could buy nothing, when there was nothing to be purchased.

Co-operation was the order of the day, and by this means a bit of land was chopped over, logged and burned, a log cabin built, and the few precious seeds of grain and "vegetables they possessed, carefully planted. One of the most important considerations in locating a lot was the water supply. The selection being made, if possible, near a spring or stream, a clearing was made, and all fallen timber burned, except the smooth, straight logs that were saved for the house. An expert axeman was next required to cut the notches in the logs, in order to have them fit well at the corners, and a man with a “plumb head” to build the fireplace, chimney and bake-oven, and mix clay to the proper consistency for mortar. Often “hollows and rounds,” made from hollow trees split in halves, and put on alternately as tile is placed today, formed the roof. All crevices were tamped with moss or mud. The two small windows, when glass was not to be had, were covered with the skin of some animal, tanned and rubbed thin. The bare earth sufficed until boards for floor and door were sawn in a saw-pit, then the floor was fastened to place with wooden pegs, and the door hung on wooden hinges, a wooden latch with string attached, which admitted of being drawn in through the door, when the family retired for the night, formed the fastening. The latch-string hanging out denoted hospitality, hence the saying, “The latch-string hangs out for you.”


The houses were generally small and required little furniture. Benches took the place of chairs. A table and corner cupboard, made of boards left from the floor, and pegged together, were important items in the furnishing. A bedstead made of small poles about six feet long, driven into augerholes bored into the logs, and supported at the lower ends by a crosspiece, resting on an upright

from the floor, and the log wall, when covered with cedar or hemlock boughs, made a luxurious and healthful sleeping place. Later, when linen was manufactured in the homes, a feather bed took the place of the scented boughs. Berths were placed along the walls for the children whose numbers generally reached a dozen or more, for new land was conductive to large families, and well for them that this was the case, for every soul was needed.

Their supply of crockery was scanty, and pewter plates, platters and mugs were much in evidence. A certain Ontario family that has contributed a premier to one of Canada’s provinces, besides professional men, and the like, possessed so few dishes when they reached the wilderness that a large log was flattened, and hollows scooped out, from which each member of the family received their allotted portion of food, each one keeping to his own hollow. Another family, less noted, built their house around a large hardwood stump, thus providing themselves a table without further effort.

Spoon and bullet molds were in much demand, so, also, were pots, and they passed from family to family.

The waters abounded with fish, and pigeons, deer and other edible wild animals supplied food. Bears, wolves, lynx, foxes, raccoons and squirrels thronged the woods, and the howling of wolves at night formed the lullaby of many of Canada’s best known men.

When sheep were brought into the country, wolves caused so much distress, the Government came forward with an offer of four dollars per head bounty. Money was scarce, as has been said, and the young men thus spurred on became veritable mimrods and a wolf hunt was one of the most excitable pastimes afforded the exiles.


Wool was then almost the only article available for the manufacture of clothing. This, together with buckskin, and the pelts of certain furbearing animals, went to make up the scanty, but durable wardrobe of the settlers. The culture of flax was not undertaken for some few years, until sufficient land had been cleared to allow space for it, as well as for the more necessary wheat and corn. Flax added variety, and linen and linseywoolsey became in time as common as homespun flannel. Now the tiny flax-wheels took their place beside the larger spinning-wheels, and were more conductive to sociability, as they permitted of being carried from house to house, where work as well as visiting could be indulged in. Besides manufacturing their own garments they had to make their own shoes, and tan the leather as well. Buckskin was chiefly used. Later a son of St. Crispin went from house to house “whippin’ the cat,” as his work was called. His “stint” was to “box the craft,'” and erecting his bench in some favorite corner, this knight of the awl would proceed to make and repair shoes for the entire family. These men took the place of newspapers, as their necessary intimacy with the daily life of the people supplied them with whatever item of news was afloat. Added to this they were usually good story-tellers, consequently their advent in a home was always a welcome occurrence.

The fireplace was the centre of not only the family, but also of the social life of the people. Heat and light it supplied. Its great blazing back-log and pine fore-sticks rendering dim and inconsequent the “witch,” rush light or tallow dip. The great black throat was necklaced by an iron crane, ornamented by trammels and hooks, and dinner pot, or singing, blackened kettle, and, perhaps, flanked by bake kettle and shining reflectors. Jealously was the “altar fire” of the home guarded, for all did not possess flint and tinder, or a lens, and if the covered fire in the fireplace proved to be not “alive,” when examined in the morning, the head of the house must of necessity “pack himself afoot” to the nearest neighbor, perhaps a mile or so distant, to borrow a few coals.

A story is told of a man, a great hunter, who could never be trusted to go after coals, for forgetting his family shivering in the cold, and their unbroken fast, his hunter’s blood would invariably blot all memory of his mission from mind, and with musket and powder horn, he ranged the woods until positive hunger brought the laggard home, with the precious, needed fire. On one occasion he returned laden with wild ducks, the borrowed coals in a borrowed dinner pot.

Before the fireplace the “courting” was done, and many a timid swain has told the old, old story, to a blushing maiden, cheered on by the fire’s sparkling light. Shovel and tongs stood silent listeners, each keeping their own side of the hearth, for it was never considered safe or prudent to stand them together, as they always quarreled, and the tongs, having two legs to stand on, always knocked over the shovel, hence the saying, “they quarrel like shovel and tongs.”

One evening a widower came to woo a comely young woman, and after the old folks had retired, the lovers seated themselves before the fire as was customary. Some mischievous boys knowing this, captured a large goose, and quietly climbing to the roof, hurled it down the chimney. The soot flew, the fire flew, and the goose flopped about and squacked. The young woman fainted, and the widower fled from the house. Recovering from his fright and thinking his sweetheart near by, he called out : “Mariar! Mariar! Come back, I ain’t afraid o’ spooks.”


The Israelites longed for the “fleshpots of Egypt,” but the Loyalists, as their children grew up, longed for the schools left behind, but until 1799 there was absolutely no school in all Upper Canada. In this year, 1799, Bishop Strachan, started his renowned grammar school in Cornwall ; then by degrees other schools were slowly established. In these the “three R’s” were the only branches taught— “Readin’, Ritin’ and ’Rithmatic.” To these schools, all those who could pay for board and tuition, cheerfully sent one or more of their children, and the following story is characteristic of the times. An old Dutchman at the close of his life, in attempting to make up to his' one son, what the other had gained by attending school, carelessly inquired of his elder son, “Hans, vot iss your lamin’ wort to you ?” “One hundred pounds,” promptly replied Hans, and the father accordingly bequeathed to his younger son an additional one hundred pounds.

Logging bees, sugar making, quilting and spinning bees supplied what few amusements were to be had. With the establishment of schools came “spelling bees,” and the planting of orchards brought about the famed apple pareing bees.' Itinerant ministers and incoming settlers brought apple seeds into the country, and these seeds being carefully planted resulted in the first orchards. Gradually the wilderness receded, greater space was cleared for the sowing of the grain brought with such hardships from Lower Canada. No longer was it planted with a hoe and thrashed out with the hands. A brush drag covered it and a “poverty-club,” or flail thrashed it out. Instead of a hollow stump and boulder for crushing the grain, mills were established, which same were reached by the settlements fringing lake or stream, by means of canoes bearing the precious burden. When the clearing had grown into a number of fields, the primitive shanty was replaced by a more commodious house. Cattle were brought into the country, horses also, but sparingly, at first, for many years elapsed before they replaced “Buck and Bright” in the lives and work of the settlers.

Ministers of the Gospel at regular intervals began to visit the settlement, on their arduous rounds of circuit riding, and performed the rites of marriage and baptism. However, the Methodist ministers were not granted the privilege of performing the marriage ceremony in Canada for a number of years after their advent among the settlers. With the opening up of roads came the more rapid development of the country.


True to their day and generation, the early pioneers lived ; under many disadvantages they toiled, with unflinching perseverance, and a fidelity to duty amid hardships and inconveniences difficult at this time to be realized. The inner life of their rude cabin homes would reveal such a struggle to meet the crying demands of the hour that the stoutest-hearted among us to-day could we but know, would stand appalled. Through imagination alone can we catch a glimpse of what they bravely and cheerfully endured. Making the best of their surroundings, and contented with the possibilities that confronted them, they toiled on laboriously; and now, shame to the younger generations, even the places in which mother earth received them to her bosom, are neglected, and, in many instances, forgotten.

Theirs, not ours, is the glory of this great Dominion. They laid the foundation broad, and strong, and true. We are but building the superstructure, guided therein by the rich heritage of pride in our citizenship, equality of opportunity, faith in God, and love of our fellows, bequeathed us by them—the early pioneers, Canada's first nation builders.

Success lies in grasping every opportunity presented, adopting every appliance, system or device that will save or earn more money, thus keeping abreast or a little ahead of competitors.

The man who is satisfied with his business—satisfied to go on in the same old way, allowing others to take the lead—is in a dangerous position.

It pays to be a leader, for then you can be doing new things while others follow along at the old pace.