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Some Stories Of The Pioneer Days

( Originally Published 1924 )

I CANNOT leave the old folks without relating some stories of the pioneer days, for some of which I am indebted to my cousin, Mr. Edward Harris.* We deplore the high cost of living and are critical about our neighbors' clothes, but in the early days of the settlement of Ontario they were content with buckskin. Mr. Harris says: " In the absence of all other clothing and supplies the less fortunate settlers, and, as a rule all the men, used the skins of animals. The girls in the milder weather wore the buckskin slip. 'White goods' were unknown in those days. Miss Sprague, a fine young girl of fourteen or fifteen years, had been in my mother's kitchen with her parents, and noticed washing going on in the ordinary way, by boiling in soap and water. A few days after Polly Sprague took advantage of her parents' absence to wash her only garment, the buckskin slip. This she did by boiling it. We all know the action of heat on leather, and Polly had to retreat into the potato hole under the floor. When her parents returned they soon found the shrunken slip and then Polly. She was brought down to my mother's house, four miles away, in a barrel, on an ox team and temporarily clothed until more buckskin could be found.

This Miss Sprague's granddaughter is now Lady B— in England.

Another young lady was prayed for in the congregation, as having joined the church and given up all her worldly and frivolous ways, and had given away all her trinkets and finery, such as it was, to her younger sister. Those were the days when no pretence whatever was made of personal adornment and no apparel of any kind was permitted to leave the family. It is quite easy to understand the introduction of the crazy quilt—nothing was wasted.

Marriage customs were peculiar in those days and courtships were short. My father and mother, says Mr. Harris, were visited one morning about 1825, by Mr. McDonald, of Goderich, the young surveyor for the Canada Company, and afterwards Sheriff of Huron. He had ridden through the forest from Goderich, to Long Point Bay having heard that Judge Mitchell had two fine daughters, and desired my mother's opinion as to which of them he should marry. The elder was recommended and they all went to the Judge's house, a few miles off. The eldest daughter was interviewed, and the next morning left for Goderich, married, travelling 150 miles on horseback, on a pillion behind her husband.

Marriages were mostly solemnized by a magistrate, but about 1818 a well-educated Episcopal rector located at the Long Point settlement. A country couple came down on an ox team from about twelve miles north, through a bush road, to be married. The rector wanted them to go a mile farther to the church_ As the couple had a long return journey to make through the forest, the man remonstrated. The rectory consisted of a house sixteen by eighteen feet, with one room on the ground floor, and a ladder outside to go to the one bedroom above. This lower room the rector's wife had carpeted with a carpet made with her own hands. Wedding parties were mostly mud from head to foot, hence she did not want them to soil her carpet. The man became very abusive when the rector's wife suggested that they should be married in the barn. The girl stepped forward and checked his flow of language and said " No, John, we will be married in the stable. If our Saviour could be born in a stable, I guess I can be married in one." And so they were.

A sheriff of a Western Ontario district had a narrow escape from official extinction on account of his "perfectly reasonable" way of doing business. A negro had been sentenced to be hanged. The sheriff was a sportsman in the duck-shooting line and was always in demand. A party of his friends came to his neighborhood from a distance for a shoot, a few days before the hanging. The sheriff's sporting instincts were too much for him; so he went to the negro and asked if he would mind being hanged on Tuesday instead of Thursday. The negro said, "Well, Sheriff, you have been so kind to me in de gaol dat Ah don't want to spoil your sport. You can hang me Tuesday, but do it early in the morning, fuss as Ah wake up." He was hanged accordingly on that morning. The news of the incident soon reached the authorities, and it was unpleasant for the sheriff for some time, but his friends saved him from official decapitation.

A story is told of a settler who was awakened in the night by a noise and thinking it was a bear in his berry patch fired his rifle out of the window and went back to bed. Next morning he was shocked to find that he had killed an Indian. He hastened to the nearest magistrate and reported the circumstance. The judge said a jury must sit on this case and in due course assembled twelve good men and true.

After the facts had been stated they retired to consider a verdict and presently returned, when the foreman announced that: "The said Tobico came to his death by falling over a cliff." The judge said that would not do as there was no cliff within twenty miles and directed them to retire and reconsider their verdict. After some delay they returned the following- verdict: "We find that the said Tobico, now deceased, came to his death by the bite of a dog, but God knows whose dog it was."

An itinerant Methodist preacher riding through the bush towards the close of day came to a shanty with a light in the window and the latch string hanging out. He went in and found fifteen or twenty men who had sought shelter there. The preacher asked if he could shelter there. They said, "There is always room for another." He took out his Bible and read it and then said he would like to pray out loud. They said they would be very glad to hear a prayer, as they had not heard one for six years. He prayed for about half an hour and made himself out to be the chief of sinners. After listening for some time, one man got up and put on his hat and boots and was about to leave the room. The minister said to him " My good man, I thought there would be room for us all; I hope you are not leaving on my account." "Well," said the man, " that's not it; I have been listening to your prayer, and I have made up my mind that I'll not sleep all night in the same room with any man who asked forgiveness for as many sins as you have acknowledged you have committed. "

At the present time when revivalists hold meetings it is the custom to invite those who want to be saved to come and sit on the penitents' bench where all may see them. But in the days of the circuit rider there were no benches, so those who " got religion " threw themselves on the ground, and as the ground was apt to be wet and muddy, clean straw was provided for the penitents to sit on. On one occasion there were more repentant sinners than was expected and sufficient straw had not been provided. Then the preacher raised his arms and cried with a loud voice "Straw, more straw; souls are being lost for want of straw_ "

Many years ago there died at Erie, Penn., an octogenarian by name of Richard Carr who had a thrilling experience in the thirties of the last century. One day an ox was missing in the village of Vittoria, Norfolk County. There was great excitement and finally the hide was traced to a house inhabited by Carr. He and a man named Smith were arrested, tried and condemned to death, for in those days stealing was a capital offence. They would probably have been executed next day but the sheriff may have thought that it was a pity not to give people a chance to see the show, for the population was scattered and the roads bad. Hanging was done in public and people gathered for miles around to see the spectacle. So the execution was postponed. But there were those who were shocked and horrified at the infliction of capital punishment for so small an offence by two very poor men. Among these were my uncle, John Ryerson, and Dr. John Rolph. Dr. Rolph was greatly excited and being young and strong determined to ride to Toronto to intercede with the Governor of the Province for the remission of the death sentence. Before leaving he had a secret interview with Rev. John Ryerson. People had little hope that he would succeed in his mission, even if he were to get back in time for the execution. Uncle John did all he could to comfort the prisoners and keep up their hopes of reprieve. At last the day of the execution arrived and no Dr. Rolph. The gallows had been erected, the hangman had arrived and all was ready for the final scene. Uncle John began to pray in a low voice and very slowly. After he prayed for half an hour the people began to shuffle and make a noise, but he prayed right along. At the end of an hour even the condemned looked bored. Still he kept on. His voice became weak, his knees ached, his back was sore, his words were almost incomprehensible, but still he prayed. At last at the end of two hours there was a shout, "Here is the doctor," and so it was. Frantically waving a paper he shouted "Hold on, here is a reprieve from the Governor." Uncle John fainted from fatigue and excitement, but the men were saved. A few months later an Act was passed by the Legislature abolishing death for stealing.

My Uncle Egerton Ryerson was not only a dis- tinguished educationist, but a great sportsman. From his earliest youth he had been accustomed to shoot ducks and wild geese every spring and fall. Indeed in the early days of the Long Point settlement game formed an important portion of the family fare. At that time the woods were full of deer, wild turkeys, partridges, wild pigeons and even bear. Wolves were plentiful and were a constant source of annoyance and anxiety to the settlers because of their fondness for mutton. The sheep had to be carefully housed at night and dogs were always kept to give warning of the approach of the prowling enemy.

The taste for sport acquired in early life followed him to the end, indeed was the immediate cause of his death, for in November, 1880, he sat out all night in his punt to shoot wild geese at dawn, being then seventy-eight years of age. He shot seven, but got a severe chill which resulted in pneumonia and his death.

He was in the habit for many years of seeking relaxation in the enjoyment of his favorite sport of duck hunting. He usually took his little sail boat, the Seabird, with him and on five different occasions crossed Lake Ontario alone in this tiny craft, twenty feet long, one and a half in depth and three feet in beam. He had it arranged with a canvas cover with a small opening which just fitted his body so that there was less chance of being swamped in a storm. On one occasion he had intended crossing in the steamer City of Toronto to Niagara, but, missing the boat, he determined to cross in his little skiff. It was nearly dark, but he set sail. The wind rose and with it the waves. It became pitch dark, but he was fearless and confident of the seagoing qualities of his boat. He battled with the storm all night, and eight hours later, as the morning broke, he sailed into Port Dalhousie. He was then over seventy, but on this occasion came to no harm from his long vigil and exposure. He was a fine shot and it was generally expected at Ryerson's Island in Long Point Bay he would make the largest bag. On one occasion he shot 163 ducks in a. day. He found eventually that the cost of running the preserve was too great a strain on his purse and that it was impossible to keep off poachers, hence he sold the property to the Long Point Company, who still own it, retaining- life shooting rights for himself and his son. When I last heard of them the value of these shares, carrying a shooting right for one person, was $13,000. The company shoots about 14,000 ducks a year, which are put in cold storage as soon as brought in and later sold in New York. Long Point, Lake Erie, is probably the greatest cluck preserve in the world.

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