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Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


IN the fall of the year, when the corn was beginning to harden in the ear, the raccoons, which usually inhabited the hollow trees and logs in the woods and swamps, would make frequent raids on the corn patch, and if not stopped would destroy large quantities of corn. In order to prevent these depredations the farmers and farmers' sons would organize into bands, and on a clear frosty night in October, with their dogs trained for the purpose, and, armed with old guns, would go out to the corn fields. They would quietly remain on the outskirts of the field with their dogs until they heard the cry or whistle of the coons in the field, or the noise they made as they broke off the ears of corn, when the dogs, which had been waiting impatiently for the fray, were allowed to plunge into the corn patch after the coons. The men would follow with their guns and sticks, and as the coons and dogs attacked each other, they would strike and kill the coons with their sticks and clubs. If the coons were "treed," 'i.e., obliged to flee and climb into a tree for shelter, the men and boys would remain underneath, so as to prevent the animals from escaping, until daylight dawned, when they could see to shoot them. Sometimes they would build a fire underneath the tree, to enable them to see the coon, and sometimes they would chop the tree down, so that they could get at him. The raccoon is, like the bear, a hibernating animal, and lies dormant in the winter time. They were quite numerous in the backwoods settlements, and were found frequently in the older settled parts They live chiefly on nuts and green vegetation, such a corn, clover, etc. They are harmless and rather cowardly animals, unless cornered, when they will fight desperately, and frequently came out victors in their fights with the dogs, when the farmer was not close at hand to help his dogs. They are sharp, cunning, quick-scented, and keen of eye, and will cry to imitate a child, and whistle sharply, apparently for the purpose of calling or answering one another. If a number of them happen together and are pursued, they will take to the nearest tree and get out on the furthest branches, or hide in the crotches, where they have been found after being shot. Their fur is handsomely marked, and is valuable for making into garments and leather. The leather is one of the strongest to be got, and is very useful for making laces for shoes and belting.

Hunting for Bees.

In the woods were to be found numerous hollow trees where escaped swarms of bees had taken up their abode. It was quite a profitable business at one time to locate these wild rustic hives and rob the bees of their honey. This was usually done in the fall of the year when the flower season was nearly over, and after the bees had laid in their winter's supply of food. The bee hunter would place some honey as a bait in a small box, and perhaps burn some comb to make an odor to attract the bees. On a bright sunshiny day he would go out to the woods to "course the bees." A good place to commence from was the vicinity of a stream, where the bees were generally to be found in large numbers, having come there in quest of water. The bee hunter would wait patiently until some bee, flying around in the sunlight, was attracted by the odor of the burnt comb, and would fly into the trap prepared for it. After it had gorged itself with honey it was allowed to wend its way homeward, the direction it took being carefully noted. The trap was then moved a few rods further on, in which position it was kept until other bees, which had possibly been informed by bee No. 1 of its find, would fly into the trap. The direction they took as they were let out of the trap in turn was noticed and the trap moved further on, as before. This would be repeated until the bee hunter arrived in the vicinity of the hive. Sometimes cross scents would enable him to find several bee trees in which the wild honey was stored at the same time. The spot where the bee tree was located was marked and the bees allowed to remain unmolested until late in the fall. On some cold day, when the bees, being chilled. by the cold, were not so liable to sting, the tree was chopped down and the honey taken away. If the season was a good one the hunter was often well rewarded for his labors and took away honey by the pail, and even tubful. It is said that bears were fond of honey and, when possible, would rob the log bee hives.

War losses

Every country school boy has had the experience of robbing a bumble bee's nest. How diligently lie would work up the sod and ground where a nest was supposed to be until he came upon the cone-shaped sacs full of the sweetest honey. What mattered a few stings, so long as he found a good supply of nature's luscious nectar. It is said the bumble bees, when they found they were about to be robbed, would at once commence to fill themselves with honey and would often leave very little for the boys. It might be well in this connection to mention how the expression "bee line" originated. When the bees have filled themselves with honey they fly up into the air to a certain height and then make a straight line for home.

NOTE. —It must be remembered that it was only in cleared or partially cleared sections of the country that bee-hunting was carried on, as all of the wild swarms had a domesticated ancestry. Many of the farmyards years ago were dotted with bee hives. If not carefully watched when swarming time came the new swarms were sure to get away and find a home for themselves in the neighboring woods.

Hunting and Trapping.

Birds and animals of all kinds were very numerous at the first settlement of the province. Settlers were then experts in the use of the gun. Part of the day's toil was the search for and killing of game, which was looked to as a necessary and regular means of replenishing the larder, which for the first few years after settlement was not always any too well supplied. Along the lakes, rivers and creeks, wild fowl, such as ducks, etc., were to be found in great abundance. In some localities wild turkeys were very plentiful and venison and bear meat frequently took the place of beef and pork. The wild geese when flying by would stop to feed and it was common for some of them to be bagged in numbers by the pioneer hunter. The peculiar drumming sound made by the partridge could be heard any day in the woods. Snares were set for rabbits and other animals. Many animals were killed for their fur. When not easily secured by the rifle-ball and shot they were trapped. The common trap was the steel trap with jaws, which was of different sizes. A. very large one was called the deer gin. Muskrats were caught by small traps of this kind. Bears were often caught by means of a dead-fall, or bear-pen. The bear-pen was built of logs, about eight feet long, four feet wide, and five feet high. The cover or log roof was made so that it could be raised at one end high enough to admit Mr. Bruin. One of the logs was made longer than the rest and when the roof was raised it extended behind the pen to the ground, where it was lightly fastened. To this end of the log was attached a cord, which had a piece of meat fixed to the other end of the cord in the pen. The bear attracted by the bait would walk around the pen a number of times, snuffing as he went, and finally, not being able to resist the temptation any longer, he would make a leap into the pen, and pull at the bait., when suddenly down comes the roof, making him a prisoner and placing him at the mercy of the settler, who soon dispatched poor bruin with his rifle.

The dead-fall for catching bears and large animals was made in the following manner: An enclosure was built of logs, an opening being left on one side to admit the animal. In this opening were fixed several logs, one on the other, the upper one being raised at one end, leaving space enough for the victim to crawl through. It was so fastened that when the animal got part way in and when he pulled at the bait the log came down upon him and held him fast.

Fishing in the River.

The rivers and lakes teemed with fish, chief among which were the whitefish, trout, salmon trout, pickerel and pike. In the Niagara River there were large numbers of sturgeon, some of them measuring as much as five or six feet in length and weighing sixty or seventy pounds. The larger fish were caught by trolling and spearing as well as by nets. To catch pike the fishermen would shoot over the water, when the fish would come to the surface belly upwards, apparently stunned by the sound. They would remain in this state for a time, when they were picked out of the water by hand.

On a fine day, a small boat with several men in it might be seen remaining almost motionless, except for a slight movement of the oars, out in the middle of the stream, when all at once one of the men could be seen moving his hands quickly in the act of drawing in a line, shortly after which a silvery fish would appear at the surface of the water and be quickly drawn into the boat.

Frequently on a dark night a light could be seen moving along the river, which might be mistaken for one of the lights on the opposite bank only for the dropping into the water of the sparks from the "Jack- light," and the reflection of the light on the faces of the men as they moved around, spear in hand, ready t thrust it into the body of the first fish that made its appearance. The Jack-light was made of fat pine knots (knots full of pitch), or hickory bark placed in a basket made of hoop iron hung up to a pole at one end of the boat. The fish were attracted by this light and would quickly come to the surface, when the fisherman could sight them and speedily gather them in. In the wintertime the settlers would cut holes in the ice, through which they would catch the fish. The fish would gather around the opening in the ice, where they became easy victims of the hook and the spear. In the spring of the year the sucker (so called from the shape of its mouth) would swim up the rivers and creeks to spawn in the shallow running water. Being stopped in their course by the dams, which they could not get over, the people would set nets for them at this point and catch large quantities, enough to supply the whole country round. Another arrangement they had for catching the fish in the small streams was the "weir," a framework made of stakes placed close together. This was put across the stream from bank to bank so as to intercept the fish on their way up, when they would catch them in groat numbers. This was the Indian plan. The throwing into the water of the sawdust from the mills situated along the banks of the rivers and lakes has proven most destructive to the fish, so much so that they are not nearly as plentiful as they were at one time. The sawdust settled to the bottom and prevented the fish from spawning and procuring their food. Since the government has prohibited the throwing of the sawdust into the streams, in places where a few years ago there was scarcely a fish to be found they are again becoming plentiful, helped on by the present fishery regulations and the restocking of the denuded waters.

The Wild Pigeons and Wild Geese.

Every spring and fall the country was visited by immense flocks of wild pigeons and wild geese; in the fall, on their way to the south, and in the spring, on their way to their breeding places in the forests of the north, although in the early days, when the country was nearly all bush, they frequently selected a suitable place for hatching out their young, and remained in the locality all summer. The wild geese were headed by a goose called the "leader," and flew so high in the air that you might not notice them except for the cackling noise they made in their flight. The wild pigeons were very plentiful, and were then one of the pests which the farmer had to contend with, for he was obliged to keep them off his grain fields, as they were very destructive to the crops. They were so thickly numerous and packed when they were flying by that sometimes they fairly darkened the air (some may doubt this, but it is said to be a fact by some of the old settlers). Oftentimes they would locate their rookeries or breeding places near the settlements; then there was lots of pigeon pie to be had, for the people would go out to these breeding places and bring away pigeons by the bagful, which it was the custom to make into pigeon pie. They were so thick sometimes that frequently all that was necessary was to knock them down with sticks. Sometimes the branches on which they rested would break with their weight, and kill a number of the pigeons.

Different devices were used for catching the pigeons when they came around the farm. One of the most simple and ingenious of these was the figure 4 trap. Three sticks were cut the required size and notched so that when put together they resembled the figure 4. The grain for bait was placed on the ground underneath the long stick. The cage was placed over this, with one end resting on the top of the figure 4, and holding it in position. As the pigeons came underneath and brushed against the long stick down came the cage, making them prisoners.

War losses


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