Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


HABITS of industry were inherited by the old pioneers. The people who emigrated from the New England States and from New York and New Jersey necessarily belonged to an industrious race. Their ancestors had cut down the primeval forests in these States, and had gone through experiences and privations similar to those which our forefathers had gone through in this country.

The thrift and industry of the "Pennsylvania Dutch," many of whom settled in Canada, are proverbial, their farm houses and farms being almost everywhere models of neatness and order. While the early settler was clearing his land, sowing, planting and reaping his crops, his industrious spouse was kept equally busy with matters pertaining to household affairs, and yet she was not above going out on the farm and giving her husband a hand if occasion required it. We can see her picking up sticks and chunks in the logging field; helping to cut (with the sickle) and bind the sheaves of wheat; at work in the sugar bush and hoeing and planting in the garden.

The women folks wove the woollen blankets and linen sheets for the beds, cloth for their clothing and carpets for the floor. When they grew old and feeble they spent their time in knitting, sewing carpet rags, plaiting straw for hats and darning stockings. The writer can well remember grandmother's work-basket, which stood on the sitting-room table, with its spools, scissors, twist, piece of wax, thimble, spectacles, and the stocking she was knitting. Happy, quiet days!

In studying the times of our forefathers, we see clearly illustrated the truth of the old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention" for, in order to have the conveniences and luxuries of life, outside of a few store goods, they were obliged to produce them themselves, as most manufactured articles had to be imported from the Old Country, and for that reason were very expensive. They were very ingenious, however, and whatever they made was well made and not loosely put together in a frail manner, as such things are now. Many articles of furniture then made by them still defy the lapse of time, and are preserved by some of their descendants, giving strong evidence that they were made to last.

The Hospitality of the People.

Among the old settlers it was not necessary to lock the entrance door, the latch string being frequently left hanging outside, so that anyone could enter that wished. It is said that oftentimes when the folks got up in the morning they would find several Indians lying before the fire. The old settlers never turned a stranger from the door; in fact, they were always glad to have someone come along and partake of their hospitality. This was one way they kept themselves informed of the goingson in the outside world, for there were very few newspapers at that time, and the news in those they received was weeks and months old before reaching them, and did not contain anything like the amount of reading matter in the newspapers of the present day.

There generally seems to be more of a feeling of social equality in the backwoods—anyway, all are comparatively poor and, therefore, on the same level. As the land gets cleared up and this one and that one gets a new house or barn, then the class distinction begins, and envy, jealousy and pride assert themselves. The houses of our forefathers were always welcome stopping-places for the emigrant from the States, and some romantic marriages were not infrequently the result of the -acquaintanceship thus formed. The people, having to produce nearly everything themselves, were usually good providers; and their tables were bountifully supplied with good things to tempt the appetite of the visitor. The women folks were not behind the times in making mince pies, pumpkin pies, doughnuts, ginger snaps, etc., and the old-time sausage, head-cheese and "liver-wurst," were not to be excelled.

Old-fashioned Cradle

It was more customary in the early days for people living long distances apart to visit each other at certain set times, even if they were obliged to go on foot. People were known to travel back and forth from the States in this manner. Neighbors would frequently change work, and in that way were often thrown into each other's society. "Bees" of different sorts were the fashion. There were "bees" for logging, ploughing, sheep-shearing, wool-picking, quilting, apple-paring, corn-husking, etc. These gatherings all helped to bring the people together and encouraged sociability among them.

Smoking was quite an evening pastime among the people. Almost all the men smoked, and some of the old women even did not conceal the pleasure derived by them at being addicted to the practice. After the toils of the day were over, the men folk could be seen sitting around the fire-place smoking their pipes the whole evening long, and, of course, chatting with a neighbor crony who might drop in to have an evening's social enjoyment.

The Amusements of the People.

Even with all our so-called modern improvements and facilities for enjoying ourselves, it is doubtful whether the people of the present day enjoy themselves any better, if as much as, the people of fifty and one hundred years ago. Their amusements were simple, it is true, but they entered into them with a heartiness and freedom that gave to the social atmosphere a charm that could not be surpassed. Although their opportunities were limited the spirit of contentment seemed to thoroughly prevail among them. They had varied amusements for every season of the year. The list included paring bees, husking bees, horseback riding (riding parties), skating, sleighing parties, taffy pulls, quilting bees, etc. These gatherings as a rule wound up with a dance, unless this amusement was interdicted by the religious society to which they belonged.

The Schools.

There was no system of public schools in the early days, schools partly supported by taxation not being introduced till near the close of the first quarter of the century. The usual way the people had of supplying their children with the means of education was for the different families in the neighborhood to club together and subscribe a certain sum towards the maintenance of a schoolmaster, each paying according to the number of children in the family. The pay the teacher received did not, as might be expected in such circumstances, amount to too much. He had, however, free board, the custom being to have the teacher board around among the people during his term of engagement. These school- masters, as a rule, were not over-learned graduates in their profession. Many of them were discharged British soldiers, and others came from the ranks of worn-out tailors, shoemakers, etc. It was not necessary to hold a diploma in those days in order to be allowed to teach school. There were some few of these teachers, no doubt, who had the advantage of a superior education, but the great majority of them had no regular training, and were wholly unfit for the work. Their primary efforts did undeniably good service in the case of beginners, but the smart pupils soon outstripped the master. The reference here is, of course, confined to the schools in the country districts. In the towns there were private schools and boarding schools, which offered superior facilities for getting a liberal education, although very few of the people in the farming community were able to avail themselves of these advantages for their children. Notwithstanding that the chances for obtaining a higher education were limited, all the people were not by any means illiterate. In fact, many of them, being great readers, were what might be called self-educated men, whose education extended even to a high range of subjects and various branches of knowledge. It has been alleged that a large percentage of the people could not read or write, and such was probably the case, but it has to be remembered that people of this class were mostly immigrants and foreigners from the Old Country and from European nations. The settlers being so widely scattered over large areas, many of them were prevented from giving their children the advantages of school training. Attending school not being compulsory, many of them who were not well educated themselves neglected the education of their children. They thought that because they had succeeded well enough without education their children should.

About the only subjects taught in the early schools were reading, writing and arithmetic. Many of the teachers themselves had very little knowledge of any other subjects. Of grammar many of them knew nothing. Their knowledge of arithmetic very seldom went beyond the Rule of Three. Of geography they were ignorant. The people in the early times having fewer books and papers to read, their memories generally retained what they did read. The knowledge they got of subjects other than those taught in the schools was mostly obtained by reading.

In regard to the discipline in the schools in the early days, it may be said that order was maintained in most cases by a liberal use of the "birch rod" or "blue beech." Nowadays a teacher who depended on corporal punishment for securing obedience would not be tolerated.

The public schools were at one time called "common" and "district" schools. The change in name and designation to that of public schools was more in accordance with the progressive spirit of the times, which gave the grammar school, the high school and the collegiate institute.

The School-houses.

Before regular school-houses were built, it was customary to hold the school in private houses, one of the neighbors having a house large enough setting a room apart for this purpose. The first school-houses were built of logs, and had two rows of desks, one on each side, facing the windows, and placed against the walls, with two rows of benches or forms without backs for seats for the scholars, and were placed so high from the floor that the feet of the younger children dangled in the air. At one end of the room was the master's desk or table, and chair, and in the middle a big box stove, with a bench on each side, on which the children collected at recess or before school hours. There were no such things as blackboards, maps or globes, and quill pens were used exclusively for writing. Part of the master's work was to see that the children's pens were kept properly made and mended, his ability as a teacher being reckoned largely by his proficiency in this line in a time when to read, to write and to cipher were considered sufficient education for ordinary people.

In localities where there were no churches, the schoolhouses were often used for divine worship on Sunday, as well as for singing schools, lectures, political meetings and polling places at the elections.

The scholars' hats and dinner pails were hung on wooden pegs driven into the logs, or into a piece of board at the back end of the school-room. The benches were made of boards with legs of wood driven into auger holes at each end. When the writer first went to school stone ink bottles were the fashion. Every scholar was obliged to furnish his own ink. On cold, frosty mornings in the winter, it was customary for the scholars to place these bottles on the stove to thaw out the ink. Occasionally some mischievous boy would leave the cork in the bottle; the result would be an explosion and a large black spot on the ceiling of the room.

The Churches.

Churches in the country places were few and far between, most of the people having to travel miles to the place of worship, and yet the people, if anything, were more devoutly religious than they are now. In many places, if there was no church convenient, religious services were held in school-houses, in private houses, and even in barns; and although the ministers' as a rule, were not a highly educated class of men, the people were always glad to listen to anyone who felt himself "called of the Lord" to preach to them the gospel of Christ. Many of these preachers were noble men and endured hardships and privations that they might carry the good tidings to the remote settlements. They were always made welcome guests and were generally on hand to console the people in times of grief and trouble. In the towns and villages there was usually an English or Presbyterian church, or both. The ministers of these churches, aside from the magistrates, were the only persons authorized to marry. The Presbyterian minister could only marry when at least one of the contracting parties was a member of his congregation, magistrates only when the parties wishing to be married lived more than eighteen miles from a fully authorized minister. It was not until 1831 that a law was passed allowing ministers of any denomination to marry. In the very earliest days, before even magistrates and parsons had been appointed, in garrison towns, like Niagara, it is said the ceremony was occasionally performed by army officers. To make the contract more binding, the parties to it would sometimes have a minister go through the ceremony afterwards. Marriages of this kind were performed in St. Mark's parish, Niagara (see church register of Mr. Addison, the first minister).


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus