A Trip to Chemong (Mud) Lake Indians - 1831


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Otonabee, 4th February, 1831

Dear Sir

Among the various progressive or contemplated improvements, which give animation to this fine District, the civilization and settlement of the Indian tribes, hitherto a neglected and despised portion of the human family, cannot be considered as one of the least humane or interesting. Accustomed, perhaps from the infancy of America, to roam without the consolations of rational religion, the accession of their white brethren, instead of improving their morals or bettering their condition, served only to sink them deeper in the abyss of depravity and misery. The friend to humanity may therefore rejoice that the reign of systematic violence and oppression has at length yielded to the exercise of benevolence and generosity. And that the selfish passions which preyed upon their prosperity, ruined their health, and reduced them to a level with the brutes, have in a great measure, been calmed by the voice of reason and of religion.

Your readers are already acquainted with the Indian establishment upon the shores of the Rice Lake, but many of them may not know that a similar kind office has been performed to the Indians on the Mud Lake. A visit to the latter settlement, undertaken from motives of curiosity, has enabled me to enter into particulars respecting the execution of this benevolent scheme, and to describe the surrounding country. If this communication should suit your design, you may give it an insertion in your paper, and by that means shed a few rays of light from your star upon this remote part of the District.

The distance from the pleasantly situated and thriving town of Peterborough to the Mud Lake is six miles, by what is called the “Communication Road,” leading N.N.W. This road, though lined on both sides for the distance of four miles with old and extensive farms, we cannot, we are sorry to say, recommend to travellers; being covered with large stones and with stumps in a state of decay, both of which nuisances might be easily removed. As the road is not in conformity with the clearings, it is but too evident that the worthy farmers of this township, (Smith,) which, from its proximity to Peterborough, enjoys many advantages, want taste, industry, or public spirit; a want which we would advise them to supply. The entrance into Peterborough, in this direction, calls aloud upon the industry of its inhabitants. At the distance of four miles you leave the Communication Road and travel through the woods. The land is in general stony, broken, and apparently dry.

Arrived at the Lake, you are required to travel six miles upon the ice, in a northeasterly direction to reach the Indian Village. This Lake lying S.W. and N.E. extends about ten miles in length and one in breadth. Destitute of islands and of deep bays, in presents a bleak and joyless uniformity. Its shores are composed alternately of ridges covered with pines, which advance a little into the Lake, and of hollows, which recede in proportion. The cedars that in many places skirt the margin of the water are intermingled with a few white poplars. The average depth of the water does not exceed six feet, covering a bed of mud of the same depth. The ice is generally good, and what forms a peculiarity, unusually free from cracks. It abounds, perhaps more than any other lake in this Province, with masquinonge, eels, and bass, together with waterfowls in the season.

Fishing, when the mildness of the weather will permit, is here carried on by the Indians to a considerable extent. As this process is rather curious and as the description may afford amusement, we shall endeavour to give it. A circular hole of about a foot and a half in diameter is first dug through the ice. A small pole is then bent into the shape of a hoop and tied. This hoop surrounds the hole at a few inches from the side of it. Two other semi-circular hoops are then made and tied to the first so as to cross each other at right angles, the apex of which is about three feet above the level of the ice. Blankets are then fixed upon these hoops like the covering of a tent, leaving an aperture at the top or centre for the handle of a spear, sufficiently large for it to play up and down with ease; the iron head resting at intervals upon the ice on the inside.

The fisherman, having thus formed a small tent over the hole to darken it, spreads a blanket upon the ice by the side of his tent to lie upon lifts up a part of the covering introduces his head and shoulders, lets down his wooden fish to the depth of three or four feet, and patiently waits the approach of his prey. No sooner does a fish approach the decoy than he grasps his spear and strikes it with an unerring aim. Through a hole thus darkened the water is so transparent to the very bottom, that not a mote can escape observation.

The decoy fish are carved of wood in the shape of a perch, furnished with fins, and spotted and streaked au naturel. A piece of lead is let into the belly to make it sink, and it is poised by means of a hair line fastened round the middle. We halted for some time beside a grey bearded old Indian, who was fishing. Upon asking him the price of his fish, he replied; “ One dollar one.” What do you say? “One dollar one fish; fish scarce; weather cold.” By the intervention, however, of a friend, we procured some at half a dollar each. The fish, from the influx of settlers are now in great demand.

The Mud Lake, on the east on Smith-town side, is studded with a number of clearings, amongst which those of the Mann’s and of Mr. Pearson are the most elegant and conspicuous. On arriving near the foot of the lake, you have the Indian village right in front, upon a point of land consists of 1700 acres, which divided by 26, the number of the Mud lake and Scugog families, will give about 60 acres for each, a very liberal allowance. The houses now built, 16 in number, fall back a little on each side from the centre of the Point, forming an obtuse triangle, with the schoolhouse in the rear. Each house occupies a front of ten rods. Two acres of clearing have been provided for each family; and it is the intention of the Indian families to chop two acres each this winter. Their houses, 25 by 20 in the clear, and remarkable for their uniformity are substantial log edifices slightly squared inside and out, with cellars and the comfortable appendage of stone chimneys.

The number of Mud Lake Indians exceeds 100; and these will be reinforced next summer by 60 from the Scugag. The Scugag chief has already arrived, and is comfortably houses. Ten additional houses will be erected next summer, which will make a total of twenty-six.

We visited a number of the houses and found the new occupants apparently comfortable and contented. Perfect equality of condition is not to be met with among any class of mankind, whether savage or civilized; consequently some of their domiciles might, for poverty and simplicity of furniture, suit the temper of an anchorite, or even of Diogenes the Cynic: while others were garnished with two beds each, having hangings and other ornamental appendages, window curtains, Cobourg chairs, tables, shelves, and even chairs for the youngsters. We observed, however, that, in many houses, chairs seemed rather intended for ornament than use; for, (such is the power of custom) the inmates appeared more inclined to squat upon their hams, according to the good old fashion, than to occupy them. Justice however, requires us to state that articles of furniture seemed to be eagerly sought after; and that every Indian who had a head to contrive and hands to execute, was employed in making them. The two chiefs, John Iron, of the Mud Lake Indians, and Jacob Carne of the Scugag, inhabit the court end of the village, and seem, in every respect, very comfortable.

The school is attended by about thirty scholars, who are learning the elements of English reading. The great difficulty in instructing them arises from their ignorance of the English language; a circumstance which obstructs the communication of ideas. The children are docile.

The hunting grounds of these two tribes, which extend about seventy miles in the rear of the settlement, were last season invaded by a band of lawless white hunters from the States and this neighbourhood, to the number of thirteen, who in their wanton depredations, spared neither age nor sex among the beavers; leaving, in short, none “to keep seed alive.” The Indians, it must be observed, never kill a whole colony of beavers; they are not so impolitic or so unmerciful, but always leave a remnant to multiply the species. These lawless freebooters got fur last season to the value of six hundred dollars, which should have gone into the pockets of the poor Indians. Hence their losses are both present and prospective. A petition has been sent to the Governor praying him to put a stop to these depredations, and we would humbly recommend it to his Excellency’s notice.

All the small lakes which extend from Peterborough to Lake Simcoe, are said to abound with fish, while the latter has, in this respect, a bad character. Now we may be permitted to observe that all Indian settlements should be formed on the banks of lakes or rivers, where fish is plentiful; for, to deprive them all at once of their native resources and pursuits would tend to impoverish and dispirit them. They must be won over to civilization and industry by degrees. Their hunting grounds should also, both for the benefit of commerce and for their own advantage, be preserved.

With regard to industry and sobriety, they are said to excel their friends of the Rice Lake. Having staid all night, we rose early enough next morning to behold the smoke of sixteen peaceful cottages curling up out of the wilderness into the clouds; and to hear the artless, sincere, and ardent prayers of the converts, ascending unto the throne of the Most High.

In reflecting seriously upon this settlement-in viewing these Indians, formerly poor houseless wanderers, comfortably situated upon good land, with an inexhaustible fishery in their front and hunting grounds in their rear. We could not help regretting that thousands in Great Britain and Ireland, who at this moment have little bread to eat, had not an offer of the like advantages. Much has been done for the Indians, and we trust that they will be sensible of the benefits conferred upon them, and endeavour to deserve by improving them.

To conclude by how much better is education than ignorance a comfortable dwelling, supplied with provisions than a wretched wigwam and a precarious sustenance by how much the Christian religion is more conductive to temporal and eternal happiness than Pagan superstition-by so much their condition is certainly improved.

It is scarcely necessary to add that the villages on the banks of the Rice Lake, and of the Mud Lake, have been formed under the superintendence of the Rev. Mr. Scott, agent for a benevolent Society in England. A gentleman whose Christian deportment and active benevolence fully entitle him to public confidence. I am, dear sir, yours, &c.,

THOMAS CARR


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