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The Pioneers of Old Ontario
Heroes and their Descendants


"At the time my father came to Canada in 1832, a plague of cholera was sweeping through the land and the only activity was in the cemeteries."

This statement was made to me by Henry Morris, of the township of Colborne, Huron County. An old newspaper clipping of the early thirties, preserved by Mr. Morris, showed that he had not exaggerated in his description of the situation. In this clipping it was stated that the entire country along the line of the St. Lawrence frontier, for a distance of five hundred miles, was being scourged by the plague and that the "mortality was enormous." Seigneurs, judges, members of the Legislature, doctors, men of all degrees were stricken. Among the notable victims were the Hon. John Caldwell and Judges Taschereau and Kerr. The city of Quebec was in a state of terror, business was suspended, people shut themselves in their homes to escape contagion, and plague flags, more ominous than the red emblem in parts of Continental Europe to-day, flew everywhere. In Montreal out of a population of twenty-five thousand at that time, there were one thousand deaths. In the whole colony it was estimated that half the population was attacked and that one in every twenty-seven of the people died.

The situation was made worse by the refusal of the crews of many lake and river steamers to operate the vessels, and by the action of people everywhere in barring their doors against emigrants then streaming into the country, and who were blamed for bringing the cholera with them. The emigrants' cup of sorrow was filled to overflowing when, seeking to escape to the United States, they found the American militia lining the border to prevent entrance.

"It was," said Mr. Morris, "under circumstances such as these that my parents arrived at Quebec. They had with them an infant child that took sick on the way. While on a river steamer coming up the St. Lawrence the child died; and in order to conceal death, and so avoid having the body thrown overboard, my mother held the dead body in her arms for twenty-four hours, until Prescott was reached, and there Christian burial was secured.

"There was just one bright spot in a situation that otherwise was one of universal gloom. While the plague was at its height a delegation came over from New York to assist the stricken. The most picturesque figure in the delegation was a doctor, with a beard like that of a prophet of old, and driving a ramshackle light wagon to which a team of ponies was attached by rope harness. This doctor made but the one request as lie journeyed over the plague-smitten territory, that he be shown where the worst cases were to be found. When he arrived on the scene of suffering his remedies were of the simplest—powdered charcoal, maple sugar, and lard administered internally; with lye poultices, made front wood ashes, and as strong as the patient could stand, applied externally to relieve the cramps from which cholera patients suffered. In no case would this Father of Mercy accept fee, but after his service was ended a fund, raised by public subscription, was forced upon him. That nameless American doctor of the 'thirties was the Hoover and more than the Hoover of his day."

Mr. Morris had to draw on what he had heard from his parents, or read in an old newspaper clipping, for what he told me. From Henry Smith, of Barrie, interviewed a month later, I received a first hand story, not only of the devastation caused by cholera outbreak, but of the equal calamity due to ship-fever which occurred some thirteen years afterwards.

"I was in Montreal when the cholera was at its worst," said Mi. Smith. "As people were dying by thousands no time was taken for funeral ceremonies. The dead were buried by contract on the basis of so much for each corpse disposed of. The bodies were hauled away in carts and dumped in great trenches as the killed are laid away after battle. I believe many were buried while merely in the state of stupor that resembles death. Those immigrants who had not been attacked were held in quarantine in great barn-like structures. The sick were housed in buildings of like construction and with little more by way of comfort. An immigrant told me that as their ship was coming up the Gulf of St. Lawrence they saw, dotting the sea for miles, bedding that had been thrown overboard and on which fever-stricken emigrants had died.

"I was in Piston when ship-fever came later, and as I was attacked by that disease myself, I saw little of what went on during the worst of the plague but I was witness of the effects afterwards. The sufferers were housed in sheds and a nearby cemetery was largely filled with those who died. Then, after the plague had apparently been brought under control, the disease was carried in the clothing of immigrants to farm houses in which employment had been secured. Children seemed to escape the fever, but among the immigrants, as well as the farmers who had employed them, many children were left orphans and many women widowed.

"The question then arose as to what was to be done with immigrant orplians and widows. They could not be sent back and could not be left uncared for here. I.t was at this juncture that Bishop Straclhan came to the rescue with. heroic remedies. I-Ie had the orphaned children placed in foster homes, and he was credited with arranging something like forced marriages for the widows. One well-authenticated case had to do with a widow who had considerable cash, and a local farmer who had much land but no money and no wife. The bishop had banns proclaimed between these two, and it was not until after the proclamation that the widow was told of what had been done. She was further informed that banns having been published, the marriage must of necessity be gone on with and she was ordered to prepare for the same forthwith. The inevitable was accepted and the union appears to have turned out quite happily."

There were some Good Samaritans at the time of the ship-fever as well as at the time of the cholera plague. Some of the stricken ones among the Irish immigrants having reached Newmarket, an old brewery was turned into a hospital for their accommodation. Volunteers were called for to nurse the patients and Wright Burkett and a harness-maker named Wallace responded. While engaged on their service of mercy, Burkett contracted the fever and died, and Wallace was brought to death's door but recovered.

The facts in this case were given me by John Langstaff at the time he told the story of the tragedies of Yonge Street due to early drinking customs.


I've tried to portray with the aid of the pen
The last resting place of two different men,
Divergent in life, one humble, one great,
They both passed in death through the same little gate.
Neath six feet of earth they now lie asleep;
Their friends and their neighbours have long ceased to weep;
The hoarse blasts of winter hurl snow o'er the ground,
The soft summer zephyr caresses each mound;
In nature's embrace no difference they find,
It leaves class distinction to fickle mankind.

We learn from the obelisk reared to the sky,
Resplendent in grandeur, impressing the eye,
That a lofty man lies in the clay damp and cold,
If we read the inscription in letters of gold;
The plot claims attention, the grass is kept shoran,
The sweet blooming flowers are trained to adorn.
The neat iron railing, loop, tassel and fret,
Are painted and varnished the colour of jet;
The lilac in season of beauteous bloom
Ne'er fails to contribute her fragrant perfume.

We turn to the other, neglected it stands
And hence to its fellow more beauty it lends:
The mound it has settled, the slab has a lean,
While round it the weeds in profusion are seen,
Which seem as they sway by the autumn wind blown,
In affection to burnish the face of the stone,
O'er the grave of a poor simple knight of the soil
Released from his thraldom of trouble and toil,
Who played well his part when the country was young,
And now lies forgotten, unhonoured, unsung.

—M. McGillivray

Here and there through these stories reference has been made to occasions, when in summer's heat or winter's cold the first settlers laid the bodies of their loved ones in ground forever hallowed by the labours of the dead and the living. In many cases these burials marked the beginning of cemeteries that have since been maintained by descendants of the original settlers who still live in the neighbourhood. In cases without number a different story must be told. Some of those who died in the early days were without relatives in this country and no one was left, even from the first, to care for the lonely graves in which they were laid. A typical case was that of which my old friend Larry Smith, of Whitby, once told me. Pointing to two or three field stones irregularly embedded on the bank of a stream on his own farm, he said that these marked the last resting place of two strangers who had fallen victims to the cholera plague, which swept the province in the early part of the last century. As noted already, burials of necessity followed promptly on death in such cases, and one of these victims heard the sound of his coffin being nailed together before his eyes closed in the last sleep. In thousands of instances descendants of those who fell by the wayside, inheriting the wanderlust to which the creation of Ontario was in no small part due, followed the moving horizon beyond which the star of hope always beckoned, and the result is that to-day almost every township in Old Ontario has at least one cemetery in which the names of the dead are those of strangers in a strange land. The descendants of the pioneers have themselves passed to the beyond, or are scattered all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the polar seas and no one is left to care for these resting places.

In the closing year of the last century I visited one such cemetery in the township of McGillivray, near where Maple Lodge post-office then was. Not one of the descendants of those lying in this cemetery were then living in the neighbourhood, and sheep were pasturing among the broken or falling monuments.

One broken slab had been erected to the memory of "Rebecca, daughter of—." This was all that remained of the inscription. Another headstone marked the spot where lay the body of a little son of William and Jane Barber, who was carried off in 1846, at the tender age of one year, six months, and fourteen days. One could imagine the grief of the broken-hearted parents as, amid the gloom of a forest varied only by the blackened stumps of the scanty clearings, the body of the little one was laid in the damp ground. Particularly pathetic, too, was the blurred lettering over the grave of Alonzo Barber, born in 1858 and died in 1859. All that could be deciphered of the lettering in this case was:

" ................ Little Stranger

But there was a world of pathos in those three words.

These scattered graves and neglected cemeteries of the unknown dead are but gloomy reminders of man's mortality. They serve no real purpose, and it would be more in keeping with what is due to those who blazed the trail into the forest and laid the foundations of a prosperous province, if the broken headstones were wholly removed. Fields of waving grain or the rich bloom of orchards growing in their place would in some measure remind those with ears to hear and eyes to see, of the inestimable services rendered by the labours of the men and women who made possible the enjoyment of the heritage of to-day.

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