PIONEER DAYS IN THE TOWNSHIP OF OTONABEE
Otonabee is an Indian word meaning “mouth water” so called from the place where the Otonabee River empties into Rice Lake through a delta. The township was surveyed in 1819. The same year Captain Rubidge, R.N., visited the township and returned the following year with his family for permanent settlement. He was the first to perform settlement duties and secure a title to his land.
These settlement duties consisted in chopping down and clearing out trees and brushwood along the concession line in front of the lot to the width of two rods, and slashing down the timber four rods wide along the side of this, thus making an opening through the forest six rods wide along the entire lot of 100 acres, which, with similar work on the part of the owner of the opposite lot opened to view the whole breadth of the concession line. In addition to this, a clearing of two acres at least must be made and a house or shanty 18 by 30 feet erected on the land.
A considerable number of settlers came in during the year 1820. These were: John Walstead, Major Design, Thomas Carr, John Nelson and his sons Andrew and William, John Mackintosh, Mr. Lindsay, Ambrose Mayett, James Beckett, Thomas Nelson, George Esson with his sons Thomas, Alexander, Daniel and Robert, John Fife and six sons, James Foley, John Stewart, William Snowden, Ralph Davidson, and the following single men without families-Robert Redpath, James Hunter, George Banks, Nicholas Bullen, Robert Ferguson, Robert Hyatt, Lieut. Jenkins, and Mr. Collier.
For many years before the township was surveyed a trading post for the purchase of furs and the exchange of commodities with the Indians was kept, at first by an intelligent Indian named Herkimer, and afterwards by Major Charles Anderson, on the shore of Rice Lake. The location of the post was on a point of land just below the site of the present village of Hiawatha. Since the erection of the dam at Hasting (formerly Cook’s Rapids) the point has become an island.
A number of gentlemen, occupying the position of half-pay officers, secured the greater portion of the lots along the front of the township thus obliging the other settlers, not without some reluctance, to take up positions further to the rear.
The first thing required of the settler, in those days, was to go before a land agent (who resided first in Toronto, afterwards an agency was opened in Cobourg), and take the oath of allegiance. A fee of seven shillings and sixpence was charged for administering the oath, and the applicant was then furnished with a location ticket for any unoccupied lot he may have selected. This ticket entitled him to a free grant of fifty acres on performing certain conditions known as settlement duties, upon the performance of which a deed was issued for the fifty acres, with the right to purchase the other fifty, or any other unoccupied lands in the vicinity. The second fifty acres could be secured on the payment of four pounds sterling but, with a view to checking speculation by non-settlers an additional 200 acres could only be got by paying thirty-six pounds.
The only means of ingress to the township, in the early days, was by crossing Rice Lake in small boats hired for the occasion, at a tariff of charges which would now be considered very high. For instance, a boat and a boy to convey a passenger or two from Gore’s Landing to Foley’s Point, could hardly be procured for less than four dollars. In consequence of the inexperience of settlers in handling a boat in rough weather, these small craft were frequently upset by swells, and the luggage as well as the lives of the passengers endangered or lost.
In the fall of 1820 a Mr. Houston, an intending settler in Asphodel, and his three sons, with their effects, arrived at the south side of the lake, where the owner of a boat of considerable size was demanding what was considered an extravagant sum for ferrying them across. Lieut. Jenkins and a ship carpenter named Collier, who had just returned from Kingston with a trim sail boat, promptly undertook the task, and the passengers and their goods were placed on board the little vessel, which was heavily laden. As they approached the first island a storm arose, the vessel swamped, and the five passengers were immersed in the water amid floating trunks and a bundle of bedding. Jenkins could not swim and speedily sank. Collier was an excellent swimmer, but his pockets were loaded with shot. He struck out for the island, but becoming entangled in the rice, he too was drowned. Houston and his sons, with rare presence of mind, clung to their floating goods, which kept them afloat until the large boat arrived from the shore, and they were rescued.
John Mackintosh and his daughter Margaret perished by breaking through the ice in attempting to cross. His body was found during the following spring in Foley’s Bay, and hers down at a point of land since called Margaret’s Island.
Other similar accidents of a similar kind were not infrequent, so that the passage of the lake came to be regarded as highly dangerous. This, combined with the total absence of milling facilities, and the great labor and expense involved in getting supplies, cast a gloom of despondency over the young settlement. Many of the young men left the township to seek occupation elsewhere, and at the end of the third year the settlement had receded rather than advanced.
Even after the erection of Scott’s Mills at “the Plains” (afterwards called Peterborough) the forest was so difficult of passage that many settlers of the south-eastern portion of the township found it to their advantage to carry their scanty store of grain some miles to Rice Lake, paddle it up to the mouth of the Otonabee River, and thence up its winding course to “the Plains,” and after an indefinite delay return by the same route.
For many years the skins of hogs were made into moccasins, with the hairy side in, as a substitute for boots: and in the scarcity of tea, which was then a costly luxury, wild peppermint, sweet balm, and other herbs were made to take its place. One of these went by the name of Foley’s tea, and some others were believed to be an antidote to fever and ague-a disease from which the early settler suffered severely.
These were times to try men’s patriotism and to test their patience; but well and bravely did the men and women too, of that day endure their privations; and though they have passed away to their well earned rest, their children’s children are enjoying the fruits of their labour.
Among the early settlers in Otonabee deserving, from his talents and enterprise, of more than mere passing notice, was Thomas Carr. This gentleman, after a residence of ten years in the West Indies, became afflicted with a white swelling of the knee. He returned to his native land and underwent the operation of amputating the diseased limb at Edinburgh. On his recovery he made his way to Canada with his brother Andrew, and settled in Otonabee in the year 1820. The two brothers acquired the land on which the village of Keene now stands, Thomas owning the 100 acres on the south and Andrew that on the north side of the intersecting line. Andrew was killed soon after by the falling of a tree while doing settlement duties for a man named Jenkins; but Thomas continued an active life for many years, displaying much enterprise, and investing large means in both farm and store. Of a cultivated and observing mind he wrote frequent articles of local interest to the Cobourg “Star,” one of the earliest, if not the first, newspapers in the then Newcastle District. He was the first Postmaster in Keene, and during his life performed the duties of many offices of public trust. He at length became melancholy and depressed in spirits and was unable to shake off the burden which weighed upon his mind. Although surrounded by kind and attentive friends, he came to a sad end in November, 1860, in the house of a near relative, for he had never married.
In the fall of 1825 fifty-one families were added to the residents in Otonabee from among the immigrants under the Hon. Peter Robinson. In the settlement and location of these upon their lands Capt. Rubidge rendered efficient aid, which was not the less prompt and obliging in that it was gratuitously given.
During the same year Dr. John Gilchrist erected a grist mill at Keene, with one run of stones, and a saw mill with a single upright saw. In order to do this an excavation for a water course of half a mile in length was necessary, which he successfully accomplished at his own expense, though aided in part by the voluntary labour of settlers. In order to increase the water supply in Indian River, on which this mill and that of the Hon. Zaccheus Burnham, subsequently erected at Warsaw, depended these gentlemen in after years excavated a short cut from Stoney Lake to the head waters of the Indian River which materially increased the supply and afforded a second outlet to the waters of that lake.
Among the earliest improvements of a public kind in this township was a road from Bannister’s Point, on Rice Lake, to the town of Peterborough, laid out by Captain Rubidge, and graded in a great measure by his own personal exertions, aided by a grant of money from the Magistrates of the Newcastle District. For many years it was known as Rubidge’s Road, in consequence of the great interest taken by that gentleman in rendering it possible.
The first schoolhouse was erected about the year 1830 on the east half of lot number 20, in the third concession. Aid was rendered by Cobourg, and that locality also contributed the first teacher, in the person of David Houston. In 1832 a school was opened in Keene by Thomas Dennehy.
The first who ministered to the spiritual wants of the people was Rev. Samuel Armour, Episcopal clergyman of Peterborough. Service was held once a month at the house of John Nelson, Sr. The Wesleyan Methodists, who came next, were represented by Rev. Mr. Evans, missionary to the Rice Lake Indians, and Rev. Daniel McMullen, of the Cobourg circuit. These pastors preached once a month at the houses of John Fife, Jr., John Sewart, and George Howson. The first Presbyterian minister was Rev. Archibald Colquhoun. He resided about five years among his parishioners, and then, a difference arising between him and his hearers, he removed to Dummer. For a number of years the Presbyterian body was supplied by missionaries until the induction of Rev. Mr. Andrews, who later resided in Keene.
In 1853-4 the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway was completed, furnishing ??????? ???????????? through the heart of the township. Since 1860 the railroad with its huge embankments remains a silent monument, reminding us that great natural obstructions do, sometimes, for a time at least, bid defiance to the genius and the power of man.
The most interesting thing in connection with this township is the fact that it is the birthplace of the famous Fife wheat. Nearly a century ago David Fife sent to a friend in Glasgow for a small bag of seed wheat to try in a cleared patch of the backwoods. The friend secured some seed from a vessel just in from Dantzic. Unfortunately it was fall wheat, and reached David Fife in the spring. Nevertheless, he sowed it in the spring. Only three wheat heads survived till the fall but these were entirely free from the rust that had ruined the crops of his neighbours, and really represented a new variety of wheat. David Fife threshed the three heads and planted them in the spring. Such was the beginning of the famous Fife wheat. It has been known to millers here and in Britain as the best wheat ever produced for the production of “strong” bakers’ flour. It was taken to Manitoba by the early settlers forty years ago, and the result was the establishment of “Manitoba hard” as the highest grade of milling known on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Those names on the honour roll of settlers, to whom posterity will point as the patriots, who first hewed down the forest, and by their labour and their example, amid many discouragements, have made this fine township what it now is-one of the foremost in wealth and successful industry in Ontario.
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