Last weekend I went up to my grandparents’ place in Gravenhurst, Ontario. Their health is beginning to fail, and so I decided we should find a sedentary activity to occupy our time. I went through half a dozen old family albums with them and scanned in over a hundred family photos. Many of them, and the stories attached to them, will make their way onto this blog eventually. I wanted to start off, though, with a wonderful discovery I made: Three long typewritten pages copied from who knows where, detailing how some of my ancestors founded the town of Kenmore outside Ottawa, almost two hundred years ago.
The first known residents of Kenmore were two McDonald brothers, William and John. In a letter written in 1832, a local named Archibald McDonell lists them as having taken up residence on the Clergy Reserve, lot 28 concession 1. John was on the north half, William the south. When the Osgoode Township Census was taken in 1841-42, three brothers, James, William and John are shown side by side. All were born in Ireland. William was a widower; John had four children by that time; James had a young daughter. John had been in Canada for 14 years, the other two for 12.
John McDonald, the eldest brother (born circa 1791, died Sept. 16, 1860 of dropsy) had come out the same time as his wife’s parents. He married Elizabeth McMillan (c1799-Apr. 4 1883), daughter of Zachariah McMillan (1768-1864) and Jane Brunton (1778-1847) and worked on the Rideau Canal from 1827 until it was completed in 1832. Their first child was William, born at Hog’s Back circa 1828; Their daughter Jane was born there on February 19, 1832 and came to their home in what was later to be called Kenmore in April of the same year. No doubt William and his family, and probably James, were in the same group and perhaps lived in the first shanty mentioned in great detail in the story to follow.
This account was written by a woman who signed her name as Mrs. Wm Reid (Jane McDonald). She married a tailor named William Reid. They had eight children, Betsy, Agnes (Nancy), Mary Jane Thomson, Margaret, John, Ellenor McMillan, Helena (Lena) and William Reid. She lived to at least the age of 88. In her 80th year, she wrote this story of her family’s beginnings in what was then called Upper Canada.
(The illustrations were obtained from the Osgoode Township Historical Society and Museum. All brackets within the story are my own additions)
Early Days in the Ottawa Valley
by Mrs. Wm. Reid
My father arrived at the place around which the scenes of my story cluster in 1830, having previously been engaged in the construction of the Rideau Canal. He located on lot 28, Concession 10, Township of Osgoode, now part of Kenmore. The land was sold by the Crown at the rate of 50 cents per acre. As I dictate my story, the original Deed lies on the table before me. On his arrival he located the site of his future home on the banks of the Castor River. A rude shanty was fashioned out of round logs, while for a roof scoops hollowed out of basswood timer served as an overhead protection against the elements. Logs were reduced to a thickness desirable for flooring, being flattened (she used the word flatted) to suit the purpose. These were piled up until seasoned to be fit for further use.
At the beginning of the following year, I myself was born, and in early spring was brought in along with my little brother, since deceased. Our family, along with our scanty household effects, were brought in within six miles of our location on an ox-sleigh. My brother was carried the remainder of the distance in a shawl strapped to my father’s back, while I was borne in my mother’s arms. But this, by no means made up their load, for, in addition, they carried some provisions, dishes and articles most necessary for immediate use. On arrival, a couple of pieces intended for flooring were placed for mother to sit on, while father busied himself in lighting a fire by means of the old “flint and punk” method, matches at this time being an unknown convenience. A hasty meal was prepared and partaken of, and then father, after tacking a shawl over the opening intended for a door, barricaded it with pieces of flooring in order to guard us from the wild animals which infested these regions in the early days. He then returned for the balance of our effects and arrived back after midnight. No roads then existed, nothing but the blazed trail serving to guide the traveler through the trackless wilderness. The friendly torch, always used at night, served a two-fold purpose – it lighted and showed the right trail to the woodsman, and it acted as a protection against the wild beasts.
On father’s return, a hasty bed of balsam boughs was prepared on which were thrown some blankets. Then weary, and almost exhausted with the day’s fatigue, a few logs were rolled together to replenish the fire, and we retired. No chimney graced our early home – the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof.
One great drawback we experienced in building up our early home was the inroads made upon our stock by the wild animals. I distinctly remember, as a girl of five, seeing seven wolves drinking at the river, coming up the bank in Indian file, and passing close to out shanty. At night, these denizens of the forest would break the stillness of the calm night and make the woods vibrate with their sharp howlings, filling our young hearts with terror. In later years, when, by much sacrifice, we have managed to secure some sheep, these unwelcome visitors destroyed as many as seven in a single day.
This also brings to my memory how these marauders deprived us of a fine three-year-old heifer, nothing but this bones telling the tale of their feast on our hard-earned, prized, and all-too-slim stock. Bears also were plentiful and gave us considerable inconvenience. On one occasion, we children were playing at my uncle’s – two uncles had settled close by – when our attention was called to the pig-pen by the squeals coming from it. Here we discovered that Mr. Bruin was the cause of the disturbance and we speedily conveyed the intelligence to mother who summoned the men. The men brought their flintlocks, the beat was forced to take to a nearby tree, and one by one the men fired until one of their bullets found its mark. But by no means was the empty pig-sty filled again. On this same day the men were called to two other families, and that night three dead bears told the story of their invasion.
Four years after our arrival we secured our first yoke of oxen, and these greatly lessened the strenuous life of the early days. Our first start to clear away the primeval forest was on the bank of the river. The trees were cut into logs and rolled down the steep bank. A small clearing was then made and placed in tillable condition. The first implements were the grub hoe and the oak rake. When the oxen were introduced, an oak plough or jumper was used along with a V-shaped wooden drag in which were placed iron pins procured in Bytown, now Ottawa, the flourishing Capital of our fair Dominion. Logging Bees of those days have been described in Ralph Connor’s book, The Man From Glengarry, which recalls to us old settlers the days of strife and triumph.
Our first cow had been procured by father while he was at work on the Canal and left at “The Front” until provision could be made for her sustinence and shelter. On one occasion she strayed from her keeper, and, following a winter road where she was picking up wisps of hay that had fallen from a lumberman’s sleigh, she was mistaken for a bear. She narrowly escaped being shot. Her arrival at her new quartes was a day of rejoicing for us all. Henceforth, many long-felt wants were supplied. Food and clothing were obtained from Bytown, 25 miles distant, and carried in on the backs of men who took turns in this arduous task.
The first wheat was taken to the mill, a distance of 35 miles in two canoes, the round trip occupying a week. On the return journey the provisions had entirely disappeared, and the men, paddling back against the current, were famished and almost exhausted. They espied a large flat stone, came to shore and kindled a fire on the stone. Then they later swept off the coals, mixed some of the flour and water in a basin which they carried and poured the mixture on the hot stone and waited until it was cooked. They always afterwards looked back on this repast as the fines of their lives. No less was the flour welcome to us at home who anxiously waited and watched for the returning canoes, bread not having been in our house for six weeks.
The first missionary was Rev. Daniel McPhail who traveled on foot at first and later on horseback. The first school was a little log building two miles distant. Here the youth were instructed, not in the modern and scientific methods of to-day, but in the crude, very crude form indeed. The school was called the pay school, the teacher boarding round among families represented in the school. Nevertheless, the men and women of those days were the medium whereby the liberal and advanced education of today was reached.
In conclusion, I may state that some 47 years ago I was left as sole bread winner for a young and somewhat large family. (Just as an aside –somewhat large? She had eight children!) No channels such as now exist were open by which money might be obtained, and the busy loom had to be kept going far into the night in order to meet the over recurring wants of the little flock. I now reside alone on a portion of an old pioneer farm, being the only survivor of those connected with this story. I am still, in spite of my 80 years, enjoying, by the blessing of God, a fair measure of good health. And, as I sit on my verandah during the summer, instead of the ring of the woodsman’s axe of long ago, there comes floating on the breeze, in strong contrast, the buzz of the circular saw and the dull hum of the planers.
— (Jane Reid of) Kenmore, 1910.
In another post I’ll give more details of my family tree, but just to clarify how I am related to Jane, my mother is Paulette (née Anderson) Micks (1951-present). Her mother is Verna “Serena” (née MacDonald) Anderson (1924-present). Her father was David Eastman McDonald, born July 11, 1877, died January 9, 1930 after a terrible winter logging accident. He was the youngest son of William McDonald, who was Jane’s eldest brother. That makes Jane my great-great-great-aunt.