Sketch Number 1 : The Making of a County


One hundred years ago, in 1821, the government of Upper Canada first offered land for sale in the region that is now Victoria County. Since then, a hardy phalanx of Celto-Saxon stock has swept away a wilderness of swamp and forest and established a prosperous agricultural civilization after the manner of their race.

The coming of the pioneers calls for a prologue and a setting. In 1791, the British Parliament passes a Constitutional Act, by which the Canadian colony was divided into two provinces, Upper and Lower Canada, corresponding roughly to the Old Ontario and Quebec of today. The first governor of Upper Canada was Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who foresaw and provided for the future needs of the country with an enlightened disinterestedness unknown among his successors. He explored the province diligently by canoe and forest trail. He built trunk roads, such as Yonge Street from York (now Toronto) to Lake Simcoe. He set aside tracts of good land for genuine settlers and encouraged the immigration of those who would guarantee to clear and occupy the country. In all this, however, he aroused the ill-will of a clique of speculators, who were already strongly entrenched among the officialdom and so-called aristocracy of the province. The intrigue of these enemies brought about his removal in 1796. Government officials and their friends then quietly secured possession of all the good land in the Lake Simcoe country and blocked settlement for another twenty years. After the war of 1812-14, however, a rising flood of immigration demanded the opening up of fresh territory. Accordingly, in 1818 the government went through the formalities of buying from the Mississaga Indians a tract of some four thousand square miles, comprising the modern counties of Peterborough and Victoria and a fringe of twenty-eight adjoining townships. It is with a limited portion of this Mississaga Tract that we have now to deal.

The work of survey began at once. Emily was the first of the townships of modern Victoria to be laid out. Mariposa came next, and then Fenelon, Ops and Eldon, in that order. Verulam, Somerville and Bexley were opened up later, and the more northerly townships of Carden, Laxton, Digby, Dalton and Longford much later still. These townships first came under the Newcastle District with headquarters at Cobourg, on Lake Ontario. Then, in 1841, along with some of the inland townships lying to the east, they became the Colborne District, which was reorganized in 1850 as Peterborough County and in 1854 as the "United Counties of Peterborough and Victoria." From 1841 to 1861 municipal authority was centred at Peterborough but in the latter year Victoria was given provisional and in 1863 complete independence.

A New Domain and a Virile Race.

The area of Victoria County is about eleven hundred square miles. It is thus larger than Cheshire or Dorsetshire in England; larger, too, than Lanarkshire or Dumfriesshire in Scotland; and almost equal to the combined areas of Fermanagh and Monaghan in Ireland. In shape it is roughly rectangular, with a length from north to south of fifty-two miles and a breadth from east to west of twenty-six miles. The chief irregularities lie in the northeast and northwest corners, where three townships, Anson, Lutterworth and Ryde, each eight miles square, have been chopped out and allotted, the former two to Haliburton County and the latter one to Muskoka District. This rough rectangle is cut into approximate north and south halves by the Kawartha Lakes, Balsam, Cameron and Sturgeon, and their modern canal affiliations. Immediately north of this water system is a region of severely glaciated limestone, covered with thin, uncertain soil. This tract soon merges into a wilderness of crystalline limestone and Laurentian gneiss. South of the Kawartha system, however, the land is distinctly suited for agriculture, for the underlying limestone is covered with glacial clays, which become rapidly deeper and more fertile in passing southward towards the morainic hills of Durham. But in 1821 the intrinsic character of rock and soil was not the most evident feature of the region. It was rather the towering forests of pine that spread away to the farthest horizon.

To the transformation of this wilderness came a virile race of white men from the far-off islands of Great Britain and Ireland. The years that followed Waterloo and the close of Britain's continental war were full of distress. The economic aftermath of war pressed hard. The population of Ireland was growing beyond the safety limits of the precarious potato. The introduction of weaving machinery brought tens of thousands of Scotch and English handloom-weavers face to face with starvation. To cope with this distress the British government deliberately encouraged emigration to Canada. Once started, the human stream poured steadily across the Atlantic. The pressure of a straightened food supply, the oldest and most powerful cause of human migration, was once more in operation. In 1814, Upper Canada contained only 95,000 inhabitants. By 1849 the population had risen to 791,000, an increase of 732 per cent. In a single year 50,000 immigrants arrived at Quebec. The younger sons of the Celto-Saxon stock had struck their tents and were on the march. Their great campaign against the forests of Upper Canada is recorded today in the magnificent prosperity of Ontario.

The first settlers in what is now Victoria County were Protestant Irishmen from the County of Fermanagh. Humphrey Finlay and his family first established themselves in Emily Township, and were followed by James Laidley and William and Samuel Cottingham, who cleared and built on the site of modern Omemee. While South Emily was colonized by Irish Protestants, the northern concessions and part of Ops were taken up by Irish Catholics from County Cork, brought out under a British emigration scheme managed by the Hon. Peter Robinson. Mariposa was largely settled by pioneers of the second generation from the vicinity of Whitchurch and Markham. In Eldon the earliest colonists were Scotch Presbyterians from Argyllshire. Verulam was placed on the market in 1832 but was bought up and held by speculators. Fenelon Township was not settled until the mid-thirties and the more northerly townships remaining unoccupied until much later times.

As many misconceptions exist concerning the character of the population of the county, a few figures may be of interest. The chief racial stocks represented are: —Irish, 12,292; English, 10,663; Scotch, 5,080; French, 575; German, 339; Dutch, 304. That race is no index to religion, will be evident from a further analysis: —Methodists, 12,283; Presbyterians, 6,814; Anglicans, 4,551; Roman Catholics, 4,344; Baptists, 1,151; Salvation Army, 210; Christians, 164; and Mormons, 95.

A Long Rough Journey From Old to New.

The journey from old homes to new, from the shores of Britain to the depths of the backwoods, was long and severe. The Atlantic was crossed in sailing-vessels, which were often packed beyond endurance by greedy masters. At Quebec the travellers transferred to a river-steamer and proceeded to Montreal. From here west, one could, by paying prohibitive fares, reach Lake Ontario by alternate shifts of stage-coach and steamer, but by far the greater number travelled by bateau or by Durham boat. The bateau was a large, flat-bottomed skiff, thirty to forty feet long, eight to ten wide, and built sharp at both ends. It was propelled by oars and sails, and was likewise pushed along by pole or sail. Progress was necessarily slow. It often took a whole week to go from Montreal to Prescott. Sometimes as many as one hundred persons would be crowded together in a single thirty-foot bateau, scorched by sun or drenched by rain, as their rude craft crept reluctantly up the river. At last, at Prescott or Kingston transfer was made to a lake steamer, which carried the pioneers on to the lake port nearest their destination.

There were two general routes from the lake front to the inland townships. Those who went to Emily and Ops went north from Cobourg or Port Hope. One trail lay north-northwest through Cavan (the modern Millbrook); another went north to Peterborough and then northwest towards Emily; another still cut across from Peterborough to Chemong Lake, whence access to the remoter townships could be had by canoe. The second main route, by which Mariposa and Eldon were colonized, lay from York (the present Toronto) up Yonge Street and in by way of Brock (now Sunderland) or Beaverton. The trails and bridle-paths by which they came, sometimes carrying their belongings, sometimes leading oxen with an ox-cart, wound laboriously through towering forests and dank swamps, across flooded creeks, up log-strewn hills and around black morasses. And when, at last, some summer evening, they reached their destination, they found a still denser wilderness, with only the frogs and the wolves to sing a chorus of welcome.

The Work of Settlement in the Wilderness.

Then, in a little circle of sunlight hewn out of the forest, arose a new home. The sills and walls were pine logs, peeled and notched. For the roof, hollow basswood trunks were cut the proper length and split in two so as to form troughs, which were then laid from eaves to ridgepole in two rows, the lower row bark side down, and the upper row with their edges fitted into the hollows of the lower. This was a rough covering, but shed water very well. All chinks in the walls and roof, inside and out, were packed with moss, which the children gathered by the sackful near at hand, and plastered over with clay. A hole covered with a quilt served as a door, until lumber became available. The tiny windows were fitted with sheets of oiled paper, as glass was not to be had.

At one end of the single room, a platform of poles served as a bedstead. At the other was the fireplace, floored and built up with stones. A chimney of sticks and clay usually surmounted this, but often many months elapsed before such a vent was added, and in the meantime the smoke filtered out through a gap in the roof after stifling the householders. As matches were unknown, and ignition had to be won from flint and steel, a fire was kept burning constantly on the hearth. To husband this precious blaze, a large backlog, two feet or more in diameter, would be dragged into the house by an ox. The beast would be unhitched in front of the fireplace, and the log rolled with handspikes to the back of the fire, where it would often last for three or four days.

Outside of the little cabin work went on under difficulties. The mosquitoes and black flies were numberless and merciless. Faces had to be smeared thickly with grease to avoid their torture. The cattle were frantic with agony, and when smoke screens were set up for their benefit the deer would sometimes emerge from the woods to share in their temporary peace.

But the forest itself was the great enemy of the would-be farmer. In the beginning, he could not attempt to plough, but chopped and burnt, and then scattered his wheat broadcast by hand among the stumps. The grain was covered over, or "bushed in," by hitching a yoke of oxen to the butt end of a small tree, whose branches were still intact, and dragging it to and fro between the charred stumps. In the autumn the crop was cut with a sickle, threshed with a home-made flail, and winnowed by pouring. It was then bagged and carried on the back of man or horse to the nearest grist mill, sometimes a distance of fifty miles. Some milling was, however, done at home by burning out a hollow in the top of a hardwood stump, filling it with grain, and pounding it with a heavy wooden pestle.

The Steady Changes Wrought With Time.

A few years brought about great changes in the wilderness homes. The clearings had grown everywhere. Log barns had been built and sheep and swine brought in to join the earlier cattle. Wolves were, however, still dangerous, and corrals had to be built to protect the stock. Horses were very rarely met with, for strange as it may seem, the oxen were much surer of their footing among the stumps and scattered logs. In some of the more secluded districts the arrival of the first horse was a great event and all the children were called out hurriedly to see the strange animal. The houses, too, were enlarged as the years passed, and were filled with rough but serviceable furniture. The fireplace was still the housewife's province, but a tin bake-oven, fitted with trays and open on one side, now stood before it, laden with bread and cakes. Above the fireplace hung the family arsenal, avoiding rust, squashes avoiding frost, and haunches of beef and venison avoiding dissolution.

The staple foods, however, were pork, cooked in various forms, fish, bread and wheat cakes make (sic) of coarse, often unbolted flour, corn meal porridge and griddle-cakes, wild berries, and maple sugar. Tomatoes, then called "love apples," were considered poisonous until after the middle of the century, and were grown only because of their prettiness.

The pioneers showed extraordinary versatility in supplying their own wants. Linen, flannel, and fullcloth for the whole family were prepared at home. Every farm, too, had its own tanning-trough and worked up its own leather. The clothes would usually be made by some itinerant tailor who would lodge with the family while he fitted them out for the next year. Boots were similarly made by a travelling shoemaker. But the material in both cases had already been prepared on the premises.

Social life in such times took the form of "bees" or community meetings at one home or another to co-operate in the work of the homestead. The men had their logging bees, barn-raising bees, stumping bees and husking bees; the women their quilting bees and paring bees. At the former gatherings, whiskey, which then cost only twenty cents a gallon, was carried around by "whiskey boys," and gulped down by the bowlful. Drunkenness and fighting were the inevitable result, especially at the logging bees, where the charred trunks of the burnt-over slashing were being cleared away, and identity and self-respect were lost under a smudgy mark. The women's gatherings were less openly dangerous, but have never been equalled as clearing-houses for gossip.

The trails by which settlers first communicated with one another were gradually replaced by indescribable roads. An Act passed by the first parliament of Upper Canada in 1793 had required each settler to clear that portion of the concession line on which his lot fronted. Even had this work been done well—which it certainly was not—the condition of the highway systems would have been well-nigh hopeless. For huge blocks of land, clergy reserves, crown reserves, and choice grants to Family Compact politicians, lay unimproved, between the settlements preying on their industry and blighting their development. Especially was this the case in Mariposa, where much land was held by a corporation known as the Canada Company, which had been chartered in 1824 to promote colonization but which, in this district, hindered settlement far more than it helped it. The early roads were chiefly corduroy, trunks of trees laid side by side across the highway, and filled over with earth. At a much later time, after the introduction of municipal government, plank and gravel roads took their place.

The great curse of the country for over half a century was the inordinate use of liquor. In every village and at nearly every crossroads were wretched taverns, kept by a greedy, illiterate class of Americans. These taverns were universal. In the backwoods, the church usually preceded the school, but the tavern invariably preceded both. The coinage used for payment in these days was of two standards, the Halifax or provincial currency, in which a pound was worth four dollars and a shilling twenty cents, and the New York currency in which the pound was worth two dollars and a half and the so-called "York shilling" twelve and a half cents. There was no Canadian silver coinage until Confederation.

Schools were slow in coming but by 1842 there were five in the County, two in Ops, two in Mariposa and one in Eldon. In 1847, there were eleven teachers in Emily, with an average salary of $183 a year. In Ops there were six schools, with a total wage list of $840, or $140 apiece. The teachers, however, though poorly paid were often worse prepared. Discharged soldiers often performed these duties and enforced discipline with great ferocity. The subjects covered were the merest elements of reading, writing, and figuring. In the world outside, universities were being founded. King's College, now the University of Toronto, was chartered in 1827, but its privileges were restricted to the small minority of Anglicans. Queen's College, Kingston, and Victoria College, Cobourg, were therefore founded in 1841 by indignant Presbyterians and Methodists respectively. But the little backwoods schools in Victoria knew little of these higher institutions. Even secondary schools were unknown until the fifties and it was two decades more before matriculants began to pass on to the universities.

Methods of letter writing have changed much since those early days. The pen was a goose-quill. The ink was made at home by boiling maple bark or nut galls and adding copperas. Blotting-paper was unknown; and to dry the ink, sand was shaken over the letter from a tin box or caster. Envelopes were not yet invented. The paper was simply folded, the address written on the back, and the missive sealed together with sealing-wax. Postal charges were collected in cash from the person receiving the letter. The first postage stamps in Canada were not issued until 1851.

Religious Life in Pioneer Times.

The teacher, with his slender learning, commanded considerable respect, but the preacher had even greater prestige. Certainly he earned it. Churches were very few and very scattered. His circuit might extend for scores of miles through the half-settled wilderness, and over this he would travel on horseback all week long, struggling through bog-holes and fording unbridged streams along the narrow trails. Services would be held in churches, school-houses, taverns, log cabins, anywhere that a few devout folk could be gathered together.

Next - History of the County of Victoria Part 4

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