(Pages 146 – 151)

“Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
  Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
  More free from peril than the envious court?”


           Immediately after the War of 1812 (to which period belongs the beginning of settlement in Lanark County), the military and civic officials in Canada, the half-pay officers and other educated British settlers, seem to have been obsessed (not unnaturally) with fear and dislike of the Americans. The travellers of the time constantly held up to ridicule and obloquy American manners and American morality, but this distrust did not deter “Yankee” pioneers from flocking into the country, from making, as individuals, as much as possible of it their own, nor from doing it good service by their experience of similar conditions of life.

           As was mentioned previously, the Rideau Canal owed its inception to this chronic suspicion of our neighbours, and, of course, it was always in the thoughts of the actual constructors of the work. Possibly, therefore, their accounts of the Yankees, in Lanark and elsewhere, may not have been quite free from prejudice. There are, however, some interesting pages concerning Lanark County in a book, published about 1828, by John McTaggart, clerk of the works on the canal, who was sent through the country to make careful surveys and reports, and from his pages one can glean many a picture of the state of the district through which the canal was to pass. Of course, his first interest is in the river, vexed in its course by rapids or plunging madly over great ledges of rock, but he gives some glimpses of the scattered settlers and their doings.

           Hinting now and then at the lonely beauty of the wilderness, he paints the land, upon the whole, in somewhat forbidding colours. He tells of long stretches of swamp where, by actual measurement, the black mud was over three feet in depth. These dread morasses were the haunt, as canal-workers and settlers alike found to their cost, of fever and ague. They were the haunt, too, of all manner of noxious stinging and biting insects — which tortured all the workers at their patient measuring and surveying. In the spring the thickly growing forests were strangely vocal with wild pigeons innumerable, sometimes flying in flocks of “five acres” in extent.

           Swamps and dense woods must have had a subduing effect on their few human inhabitants, for McTaggart mentions “a melancholy peculiar to Canada.” The notion scarcely suits with our twentieth-century conception of our young country, nor does it seem altogether to accord with the idea one gets of the man himself, who, amidst the manifold difficulties of his canal-building, was so eager and enthusiastic as to be dreaming strange dreams of a “grand canal” across the northern half of the North American continent, through a “notch” in the Rockies to the waters of the Pacific, upon which he saw visions of a city of Nookta as large as the metropolis of the Empire itself.

           But McTaggart was not always in the clouds. He could grow eloquent in dispraise of the “cheap and nasty” whisky made in every little hamlet from bad potatoes and other refuse, to the great detriment of the health, morals, and fortunes of the people. At that time distilleries seemed to be regarded as only second in importance to grist mills and sawmills, which were generally built by the aristocrats amongst the pioneers, or “settlers of eminence,” as McTaggart calls them. Of course, many of the energetic settlers also took to keeping the tiny village stores, which had to cater for the wants of a very miscellaneous population. For instance, in headgear, it was customary for them to keep “white hats for Yankees, black hats for Irish, and Kilmarnock bonnets for Canadians.”

           As it might be guessed from its Scottish name, Lanark township was largely settled by Scotch — many of them Glasgow weavers; and in that day, when means of communication throughout the country were so deficient, any settlers might count themselves fortunate if within reach of neighbours whose upbringing and modes of thought bore some resemblance to their own.

           In the year 1816 the townships of Bathurst, Drummond, and Beckwith (like the neighbouring township of Goulbourn in Carleton County) were settled to a considerable extent by discharged soldiers, some of whom had been, it is said, “with Abercrombie in Egypt, with Wellington and Sir John Moore in Spain, with Cornwallis in America,” but the greater part had seen service in 1812, when Canada was the battlefield. At a very great expense, the British Government — partly to strengthen the Colony from the military point of view — “tried to make these old soldiers and their families as comfortable as possible. . . . They chose their locations without expense, and each man received, according to his rank, from one hundred to five hundred acres. They were also supplied with all necessary implements of husbandry, and tools for building purposes; also cooking utensils and blankets, with one year’s provisions for each man, woman, and child.” Some of the ex-solders of this “Perth settlement” did well. Others stayed only as long as the distribution of rations continued, or until they could obtain some trifle for their lands. By the middle of the century it was said that scarcely one soldier-settler in fifty had remained for good; but by that time Irish and English immigrants had filled up the deserted holdings.

           In 1815 proclamations had been issued in Britain inviting civilians also, under certain conditions, to become settlers in Upper or Lower Canada, as they might choose, though the exact location was left to the Government; and some of the Perth settlement pioneers were gathered in this way. According to Robert Gourlay, that industrious hunter-out of abuses, the good intentions of the Government were, in part, frustrated by the carelessness and bad conduct of its accredited agents. As a beginning, the new-comers, unused to axe-work, were obliged to cut a road twenty miles long through the wooded wilderness before they could reach the principal place of settlement, and, arriving there, found the surveying of their lands only beginning. Sometimes, too, the promised rations were stopped for very slight reasons.

           The county town of Perth was laid out by the Government in 1816, on an island in the Tay River, which was afterwards rendered navigable for small vessels to the Rideau Canal by a private company. Sixty years ago Perth was a clean, thriving little place of nearly 2000 inhabitants. Its attractiveness was due largely to its river and its many stone buildings. Its population has nearly doubled since then, but it has been outstripped by its younger rival, Smith’s Falls. Originally, by the way, the progress of this latter place was, it is said, much hindered by the cupidity of its owners, who asked as much as £250 for quarter-acre lots in the business section of the village.

           Of course in the early days there were many squatters in the county, who, going into the wilderness in advance of the surveyors, built their shanties and made their little clearings, trusting to the authorities to give due consideration to their claims whenever the country should be opened formally to settlement. McTaggart tells that, in the winter of 1827, when, going with his men through the woods in a part of Lanark County which he believed to be absolutely unsettled, he came on the track of a sleigh — a sight almost as astonishing, under the circumstances, as was the footprint to Robinson Crusoe on his desolate island. Following the track, the party came to a clearing of about seven acres, in the midst of which “a neat little log house sat smoking.” Its master, in a voice trembling with emotion at the unusual sight of strangers, asked them to “Come ben!” Accepting the invitation, they entered to find “a snug little cabin,” a wife, three children, some sleek grey cats, and a good dog. “Having broached the rum jug” (not the simplest courtesy was then complete without strong drink), they all sat down to listen to their host’s story.

           A plain working man, Peter Armstrong by name, from Hawick, in Scotland, he had managed, fifteen years earlier, to save enough to come to Canada; had “fought up the water St. Lawrence to a place they ca’d Perth, and there finding nought to do — nae country work” — (one wonders what they did in that pioneer hamlet, if not country work!) — “he just went afar into the heart of the wild woods with his axe, dog and gun, and, after looking about, fixed on the place where we found him for his abode in this world.

           “Year by year, he wrought away all by himself — read the Bible every Sabbath day — made a journey to Perth twice a year and bought wee needfuls; at last got a house, and sleigh, and cleared about five acres.” Having good health, “spring-water plenty just aside him,” and no lack of firewood, he lived well enough for five long solitary years, on “what he caught, shot, gathered or grew. All at once, on one of his visits to Perth, whom should he meet but Tibby Patterson, who was the byre-woman at the laird of Branksome’s, where he was once a herd lad. Far frae hame in a wild land,” with few friends, they were drawn to each other at once. So they were married by one of the irregular weddings of those days when parsons were so far to seek — and for nine years they had lived happily, deep in the great woods. But McTaggart wondered less at their content than at the grumblings of others whom he met in his wanderings, who would neither leave the woods and “fight for an honest living and cheerful society, nor yet be at peace in them.”