Frontier life in Penetangore 1850’s

On a visit to the Bruce County Archives office in Southampton Ontario in the summer of 2012, I was fortunate to meet with the President of the Bruce County Historical Society, Ms. Audry Underwood.  She was exceptionally helpful in introducing me to the family history resources.    Within an hour I was able to obtain photocopies of original documents that identified the location of tracts of crown lands that James Ferguson had acquired and occupied from 1855 to 1889.  The variety of detailed accounts about the life, trials and tribulations of early pioneer settlers, which were recorded by surveyors, and community leaders of the time also impressed me. It is from these resources that the following story is based.

Opening  the Huron Territory:  1837 – 1855

Homesteaders had been trickling into the Huron frontier of Upper Canada since 1848 but conditions necessary to promote their success were severely curtailed by a variety of socio-economic and environmental conditions.  The story of the pioneering life of James and Fanny Ferguson is one of opportunism, determination, sacrifice and accomplishment. The Fergusons were an Irish immigrant family from Ottawa (Bytown) with two young children who, in the summer of 1851, decided to join the wave of adventuresome homesteaders eager to take advantage of the opportunity to buy their own land at an affordable price. They travelled four hundred miles across rugged dirt tracks and causeway  obstacles into the heart of the western frontier to take advantage of the sale of crown lands in the Huron Tract.  It was a region of mature dense forests that carpeted well-drained fertile soils.

Upper & Lower Canada

Upper & Lower Canada

In a short span of thirty years the axe of settlers like James wrought changes that rapidly transformed the primeval forest of the Queens Bush into productive farmland.  

Arriving at Penetangore, on Lake Huron, the Fergusons endured four years of challenges before they eventually acquired a plot of land.  They faced long weary hours of hard labour, weathered brutal winters of isolating deep snow, and faced deprivation through time of famine.  But in the end they helped to create a lasting community of productive farms complete with a village sawmill, a school and a church. Several of their offspring continued the pioneering tradition in the Dakotas, Manitoba and Saskatchewan resulting in a continental dispersion of descendants in both the United States and Canada.

To appreciate the situation that faced James and Fanny upon their arrival on the shores of Lake Huron requires an understanding of the process of colonization which preceded their arrival.  Frontier settlement was fraught with high expectations by settlers pitted against the stark realities of challenges posed by the natural environment.

The Huron Tract was divided into three counties of Huron, Bruce and Grey. Each county was then surveyed in sections referred to as townships.

Huron Tract
James Ferguson cleared and farmed Crown Lots in the township of Kincardine just north of the hamlet of Bervie, shown  on the above map with a red dot.

The extension of settlement boundaries in the early frontiers of Ontario was an evolving one. Treaties with native inhabitants required tactful negotiations.  New territories had to be surveyed and mapped to created identifiable plots of land for future farms.  The construction of settlement roads would provide settlers with a means of accessing their land.  Measures to enhance the security of homesteaders in the wilderness were necessary.  Legitimate colonization also required the establishment of an administrative hamlet to provide a location where crown lands could be advertised and where homesteaders could legally make application for crown lands offered for sale.  Infrastructural services such as road improvement and the expansion of mills along rivers became ongoing necessities.

Upper Canada Frontier 1850's

Upper Canada Frontier

The process of frontier expansion westward into the wilds of Upper Canada began in 1836 with the Treaty of Manitowaning.  At that time the Chippawa band of the Ojibway nation surrendered a huge tract of land, 1,500,000 acres.   Mounting pressure for land by settlers prompted legislatures to make representation with the native communities.  This land would be known as the Huron Tract, or the “Queen’s Bush”. The remaining part of Bruce County, above the line drawn from the mouth of the Saugeen River (now Southampton) to the mouth of the Sydenham River (now Owen Sound), ——- was called the Indian Peninsula and was held by the Ojibway. In 1849 the Queen’s Bush was eventually divided into the three counties of Huron, Bruce and Grey. Further land treaties followed and eventually the remaining parts of the peninsula were incorporated into Bruce County.

In 1850, legislative representative William Benjamin Robinson completed negotiations with native leaders of the Ojibway nation.   The Robinson Huron treaty (Crown Treaty Number 61) signed Sept. 9, 1850, transferred to the Crown the eastern and northern shores of Lake Huron.  In the same month surveyor James W. Bridgeland and his team of packmen completed formal measurement of townships and description of lands within the county of Bruce.  This involved hacking their way through the dense bush to lay out and measure a grid pattern of farm lots to create the township of Kincardine. Planting a numbered cedar posts marked bush lots between each of the concession lines.  In September their task culminated with marking the point where Bruce, Kincardine and Greenock townships converged.  The spot turned out to be the future location of a burgeoning new community of Glammis that would grow in the heart of Bruce county.  Standing above the future village site, Bridgland recorded in his field journal “this is the finest slope of land in the township,’ and noted the rich soil and imposing stands of maple, hemlock, and elm timber in the south east corner of Kincardine township which he had just surveyed.

Survey crew taking a break.

Survey crew taking a break.

Survey crew camp.

Survey crew camp.

The extension of settlement into the frontier forest was made possible by the construction of settlement roads.  In 1837, the Garafraxa Road (Hwy #6) was hacked out of the forest northward from Fergus through Durham and on to Sydenham (now Owen Sound).  At the time Fergus was on the northern fringe of civilization in central section of Upper Canada. The response by settlers to this new access route was slow. It was not until the 1850’s that there was much activity along its length.  Wolves, bears, deer and lynx were plentiful in the natural habitat of the Queen’s Bush.  In addition, treaties with the native Indians had not been finalized and expansion outward from the road into their territory offered additional dangers.  What settlement that did exist occurred directly adjacent to either side of the road where free grants of narrow 50 acres lots provided opportunity for hardy settlers with oxen to make the lonely trek into the wilderness.

Settlement Roads in the Queen's Bush frontier

Settlement Roads in the Queen’s Bush frontier

A Squatter's Cabin

A Squatter’s Cabin

Industrious Scots and Irish immigrants, both from settlements near Ottawa and from overseas, were the first to respond to the opportunities and hardships that pioneer life had to offer.  A trading post at the mouth of the Saugeen River (now Southampton) with a small lakeside landing and a government office kept interested parties informed as to the progress of native treaties, surveying and road building within the “Queen’s Bush”.  However, without the necessary political and economic infrastructure in place to meet the needs of these early settlers most ended up squatting on lands along the lakeshore.  They hastily constructed small cabins with an angled roof like the one shown in this photo. From 1852 to 1855 this would have been the type of dwelling built by James Ferguson for his young family.

A Surveyor's trail

A Surveyor’s trail

In 1848/49 the government commissioned the survey of the Durham Road (today Highway 4 & 9) from the village of Durham, on the Garafraxa Road (Highway 6), westward to the mouth of the Penetangore River on the shores of Lake Huron.  By the end of 1851 this rough survey trail had been hacked out of the Queens Bush but its condition tended to dissuade even the most adventuresome.  Tree stumps remained, the surface had not been graded or drained and the only means to traverse its irregular surface was by oxen pulling a sleigh through the mud.

Of the issue, local historian, Norman Robertson, wrote the following in his 1906 book Settlement of Bruce County:

“The Durham Road was “a sleigh track,” used in those early days throughout the county. Summer or winter the only conveyance the early settler used was’ a sleigh, alike in winter’s snow or summer’s mud. A wagon would have been bumped or racked to pieces among the stumps and trees, or have sunk inextricably into unknown depths of muck   in the tracks cut through the woods, or possibly only cleared of underbrush, which did duty for roads, these being utterly devoid of every requisite that is considered necessary in a good road. The sleighs were the handiwork of the settler alone. Rough looking —, he no doubt looked with pride upon it. The runners and frame-work he had hewed with much labor out of suitable wood, selected on account of possessing the requisite curve, and had put it together with wooden pins and wedges, his only tools an auger and an axe. With such a primitive conveyance, drawn by a yoke of oxen, he could travel through the bush with no fears of  ‘a break down.’  (Robertson, Ch 5 )

Oxen were the preferred beast of burden

Oxen were the preferred beast of burden

The Durham Road was designed to provide a means of safe access for settlers to the newly surveyed frontier where cheap crown lands were being opened up to the public.  The relatively small 50-acre lots lay out adjacent to either side of the road provided opportunity for settlers of lesser means to acquire the cheapest plots of land.  The system of “narrow fifties,” created a compact linear placement of homesteads along the road, making it easier for groups of local neighbours to maintain its surface and assure passing travelers of assistance in case of emergency.
Kincardine Township Survey System

The narrow 50-acre lots were measured for the distance of three ranges to the north and south of Durham Road. Farm lots were numbered east to west from a line representing the Kincardine to Southampton Road.  Concessions were identified by Roman numerals both to the north and south of the baseline of the Durham Road.  Every other concession line was designated a road right-of-way thus leaving farmlots backing on to each other.  At and interval of every five lots another north to south right-of-way was designated as Sideroads.  This formed a complete grid system.
The James Ferguson homestead was Concession V lot 26, as indicated on the following map.

The Ferguson homestead Kincardine Township

The Ferguson homestead
Kincardine Township

Finally, in Dec. 1855, a report by the United Counties Council was released to show the comparison of expenditures of colonization roads in the county of Bruce.  The Durham Road project had received less than 1000 pounds, a paltry fifth of the amount consumed by the Elora and Saugeen Road projects.  The report pleaded the case for Kincardine Township.

The “Mud Turtles” of Kincardne Township

“What do others think of the counties of Huron and Bruce for allowing themselves to continue enveloped in mud, literally locked up for three months in the year, unable to proceed with their legitimate vocations and urgent business by the deplorable state of the so-called roads!  What a cruel mockery to call such sloughs – roads!  The mere idea of them and what we have suffered in them during past years makes our blood run cold. How long are we to suffer such a state of things, how long allow a cloak of apathy, a narrow-minded and selfish policy, to chain us in the mud?  Hard indeed would it be to suffer such and not have power to improve our state.  Still harder is it to have to endure such grievances and know and feel that nothing save a well-directed, thoroughly-understood action is required to place us in a state of comparative comfort, and in a position to hold up our head amongst neighboring counties, free from the foul imputation of being styled ‘Mud Turtles.’   (Robertson, Ch 5)

Having completed the treaty settlement, the township survey of crown lands, and the “slashing” of a settlement road through the Queen’s Bush, news spread about the impending release of crown land lots.  However, the rapid and unplanned influx of hundreds of settlers from the United States as well as other locations in the more settled areas of Upper Canada, placed local officials under pressure to release crown lots to combat the hundreds of squatter shanties which were appearing.  Consequently, in July 1850, the first 255 Crown lots in Kincardine Township were released.

A homesteader's sketch

A homesteader’s sketch

Acquiring full title to crown lots involved a ten-year period of conditional occupancy.  To obtain title to the land yeomen farmers had to meet the following requirements:
– to pay an installment of one tenth of the purchase money per year at the rate of ten     shillings per acre;
– to occupy the lot immediately and continuously for the ten year period;
– to clear at least five acres per year for every hundred acres;
– to build a dwelling house not less than 18 x 26 ft within five years;
– not to cut any wood for commercial sale until the land had been paid for in full;  (The exception was timber cut for the clearing of the ground and used for fuel and the construction of ones own house, buildings and fences.)

Previously the Crown lands in Bruce County were fixed at 12 and half shillings per acre.  On June 27th, 1851, a public notice was placed in the Upper Canada Gazette offering the sale of lands in the Huron District, and the villages of Penetangore and Saugeen, beginning on August 5th.  Application was to be made at the office of the Crown Land Department in Saugeen.   From Durham to Ottawa posters and newspaper articles like the one at right   announced the sale.

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Decision to relocate

Back in Fitzroy County this news would have rung like wedding bells to the ears of James Ferguson.  Homesteading could mean a new life full of possibilities for his young family.  It was an opportunity for him to acquire his own land at a price he could afford.  After all, these lands were blessed with abundant virgin forest containing a variety of quality timber suitable for building a home.    Well-drained fertile soils and a longer growing season were factors that might allow for selected double cropping of wheat.   The moist near-lake climate offered the possibility of greater crop yields and also allowed for temperate fruit and berry growing.  The Saugeen, Teeswater and Penetangore Rivers were rich with trout and their waters could be used for the construction of sawmills, cording mills and gristmills.

Fourteen years earlier James had been forced to assess his tragic situation upon arriving in Canada.  Widowed, he sought employment opportunities to support himself in the townships west of Ottawa.  His years at Fitzroy had served James well.   Working as a farm labourer and later as a worker at a saw mill both presented him with practical experiences in learning the nature of Canadian farming and saw milling.   Not only was he a skilled farmer, but also his sawmilling experience provided him with opportunities to learn the woodsman’s craft of selecting and shaping different size and species of trees for specific uses. He became familiar with tools and skills used to fashion logs into timbers and to manufacture materials necessary for constructing a dwelling and farm implements.  Collectively, these vital experiences provided the training and skills necessary to equip him for the challenges of homesteading in the dense forest of the Huron Frontier.

The decision for James to homestead at the age of 38 was calculated and opportunistic.   He had remarried in 1848 and already had two young boys who someday, no doubt, would like their own land. David was born March 16, 1849, and Robert Aug 16 1850, both at Carlton Place just south of Fitzroy near Ottawa.  Although fourteen years of steady employment in Fitzroy had enabled James to save some money and gain relevant homesteading skills it had not offered him the opportunity of owning his own land.  This was the opportunity the couple was looking for;  that chance to achieve financial security and a prospect of a better life for their growing family.

The advertisement of cheap land in Kincardine Township was an offer that James and Fanny could not refuse.  So in early summer of 1851* with confidence in his abilities and cash in his pocket, James and Fanny, along with their two young children, packed up their possessions and headed westward from Carlton Place, along the Northern Highway (today Highway #7) to Guelph.  This was the western frontier of Upper Canada where the Canada Company had its headquarters.

[* It should be noted here that there is no documented evidence of the actual date of this migration. The summer of 1851 seems most likely because Fanny was not pregnant at that time. Their children were aged 1 and 2 yrs and the next child was born in Aug. 1852 in Kincardine.  This window of opportunity for rigorous travel along with the first advertisements of land sales were the chief factors considered in assessing the most likely date for the Ferguson trek.]

The Ferguson Trek of 1851

The “Northern Highway” was the main east-west gravel road linking Carlton Place to Peterborough and eventually to Guelph, a distance of 300 miles.   Guelph had been selected as a site for a planned town in 1827 to serve as the headquarters of a British land development firm known as the “Canada Company”.  Located on the Speed River the site was ideally suited for the construction of mills. The location was picked by the Company’s Superintendent in Canada, a popular Scottish novelist named John Galt who designed the town to attract settlers to it and to the surrounding countryside.

Guelph was also centrally located to service the interests of the Canada Company as they took charge of the settlement and development of the Huron Tract in the wilderness of Upper Canada.  By 1840’s Guelph had become the major point of embarkation for settlers heading west and north into the frontier.   By 1851 the routes of travel into the heartland of the Huron Track followed either a route north through Fergus to Owen Sound or directly westward through Kitchener and Stratford on to Goderich on the shores of Lake Huron.   Most settlers heading into the Huron tract would marshal at Guelph to hear the latest news concerning the availability of land and the best route to get to their destination.  For James and Fanny the most direct route would have been to head northward on the Garafraxa Road to Durham and from there head west along the Durham Road to Pentangore.  However, word had filtered back to Guelph about the horrible state of affairs of the Durham Road.  As a result most settlers chose to head for Goderich and journey north by boat to Pentangore or Saugeen.

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Early setbacks

Upon arrival at Penetangore, James and Fanny Ferguson no doubt were very disappointed with relative lack of appropriate infrastructure to support successful homesteading.  In 1850 the population of Kincardine Township was 262 with only 11 acres cultivated.  The Census of 1851, taken a few months before the arrival of James and Fanny, reveals that there were just over 2,800 people representing 499 families in all of Bruce County.  Yet despite these encouraging numbers relatively few plots of land had been sold.   Although township boundaries had been surveyed the complete grid of future roadways within them had yet to be attended to.  Existing roads were few and in their initial phase of clearing.  The regular placement of posts to identify the location of bush lots within the Crown lands was not yet completed.  These inadequacies presented severe disadvantages to newly arriving settlers.  Consequently, like many other settlers, James and Fanny were forced to make alternative living arrangements and seek employment  in, or between, the growing villages of Penetangore  and Saugeen.

It is at this point in time the story of the Fergusons raises some interesting questions.  Fanny gave birth to their first daughter, Mary Ann, on the 22nd of May, 1852, in Kincardine.  This information was taken from the genealogy website of McFadyen family but I have not found record of the birth to verify this.  However, if true, it would help to confirm that James and Fanny most likely journeyed to Kincardine in the summer of 1851 in response to the first public advertisement of land sales in the township.  However, land records show that the first purchase of a lot by James was not until four years later on Nov. 10th, 1855!  Where did the couple live in the meantime?  What did James do to sustain the family during those four years?  Why did he not purchase land when he first arrived at the cheapest price possible?

Answers to these questions present a variety of interesting scenarios.  Perhaps upon arrival, James realized that conditions in the bush would be too prohibitive for safe and successful homesteading. He was wary of the potential risks to his young family.  He did not want a repeat of the tragedy of his first marriage.  The right-of-way slash for the Durham Road had not yet been cleared of stumps.  It was not graded, nor properly drained, and could only be traversed by oxen pulling a sleigh through the mud in summer and snow in winter.  In addition, the parallel concession lines to the Durham Road were merely straight line paths hacked by surveyors who were measuring and marking the location of 150-acre lots as part of the double row concession system. The first clearing of 44’ wide concession lines had not been completed.  Access to the marked lots along these concession lines north of the
Durham Road was barely possible.    The deplorable road conditions and limited access to lots would jeopardize settler’s ability to meet the conditions of sale in the allotted time.  This may have given many would be settlers like James good reason to hold up in the village of Kincardine until such time as the impending road improvements were completed.

Like many others, James and Fanny may have merely squatted, and built a cabin where Fanny cared for the children while James worked.  James may have found employment as member of one of the several road gangs or survey pack crews who were crisscrossing the township to complete the marking of farm lots.  This latter activity would give him insight as to the location of the best quality lands.  On the other hand he may have tapped into his basket of skills to produce products in high demand by other settlers whose experience in the bush was a novelty.   He may have used his broad axe skills to fashion “mud sleighs” or ox yokes and ox bows to and them to less skilled neighbours.   With the availability of cedar from river valleys he may have used a shaving-horse and drawknife to manufacture shingles for sale in the settlements.

The first winter of 1851/52 in Kincardine for the Fergusons was unusually severe with a combination of long periods of sub zero temperatures interspersed with excessive amounts of snow.  These dark days presented severe challenges to isolated bush settlers who had not taken in large stores of provisions.  Nevertheless, the Ferguson family did survive the winter in Kincardine.  The summer of 1853 saw the completion of the survey of the remaining Crown lands in the county into farm lots.  In July, to try and offset the increasing number of squatters, the government took the opportunity to reduce the price of lots to 10 and half shillings per acre.  Cautious and calculating, James was not persuaded to respond to the offer.

The events of 1853 were met with renewed hope for the impatient squatters. A new Superintendent of Colonization Roads was appointed with a clear plan to immediately address the grievances of squatters in Bruce County.  This prompted the “Big Land Sale” in Sept 1854 when over two thousand squatters showed up at the Crown Land office in Southampton to obtain a license of occupation.   Still James refused the temptation to buy.  In any event, it appears that wherever they lived and whatever means of income James found, the family stayed healthy.  On March 11th, 1854, third son William James was born in Kincardine.  Finally in Jan. 1855 the Durham Road improvements were completed and formerly opened to settlers.  At this point in time James and Fanny were ready to make their move.

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