Pioneer Life in
In the late afternoon of a cool but sunny December day
in the last year of the eighteenth century, a pioneer
Richmond Hill family
stands in front of their cabin, located some distance east of
Yonge Street on a
pathway charitably described as a township concession road. This family arrived
in the area from New York State less than a year ago, and only moved onto their
land in the spring. Although they are second-generation citizens of the New
World, and thoroughly familiar with North American agricultural conditions,
this is their first winter in the Upper Canadian wilderness.
The house behind them is a one-room log shanty,
hastily erected with help from neighbours already settled in the area. As the
years pass and the family proves enterprising and successful, they will replace
this shanty with a larger and more comfortable log house. Eventually, their
children or grandchildren may build a handsome frame, brick, or stone dwelling
on the property.
Meanwhile, on that December day at the close of the
eighteenth century, the family waits in front of their settlement cabin.
Husband and wife are in their early forties, with five children ranging in age
from teenagers to infants. All are wearing rather plain clothing, dull brown
and grey homespun made from a combination of flax and wool.
We are the visitors they await - old friends from New
York who came to the
Richmond Hill area
two years earlier. Today, we have walked from our own log house on
Yonge Street, across
Langstaff Road to
have dinner with our friends. They
greet us warmly in a mixture of English and German, and graciously invite us to
enter their cabin.
As we step through the doorway, we encounter a world
of cramped but cozy domesticity. Our eyes come to rest on a huge wood-fuelled
fireplace used for both heating and cooking. They invite us to sit on handmade
wooden benches and chairs and eat at handmade tables. Our gaze takes in the
family's wooden beds, a churn in one corner and a spinning wheel in another,
and the customary snowshoes, powder horn, bullet pouch, and flintlock guns hung
on the walls. As darkness falls, candles are lit from glowing embers in the
The evening meal consists
of plain but hearty fare, nearly all produced on the family's own land. We
adults dig into a plate of salt pork, potatoes, and turnip. The younger
children eat a bit of the same, along with large bowls of cornmeal porridge
known as "mush." There is plenty of homebaked bread and pumpkin loaf, with
berry jam and nuts on the side. We wash it all down with homemade spruce-beer
and herbal tea.
The family's diet will grow more varied over the next
few years, especially during growing seasons. On other visits to our pioneer
friends, we will enjoy fresh pork and beef, wild pigeon, and sometimes fresh
fish from the headwater tributaries of the Don and Rouge rivers. There will be
peas and carrots, fresh raspberries, strawberries, and currants, as well as
honey from the family's own beehives.
After dinner on that first visit, we talk of the
back-breaking work we have had to do on our first year on the land. We know we
will have to do the same kind of hard work for many years to come.
Trees had to be removed from the fields before much
seed could be sown. Our friend averaged an acre of trees (less than half a
hectare) after two weeks concentrated chopping. With the help of neighbours, he
cut the logs into lengths suitable for cabin building, stacked smaller bits for
firewood, and burned away the scrub and branches. Later, when time permits, he
will burn the stumps or haul them away to make fences.
At first, our pioneer friend planted seeds almost one
by one until enough ground was cleared so the seed could be scattered by hand.
That first year, he harvested the grain with a sickle, although in later years
he may switch to a longer-handled and more efficient scythe. Once the grain was
cut, the stalks were bound in sheaves, then threshed with a flail - a primitive
tool consisting of two lengths of wood held together by a leather thong.
His first year's goal was to clear enough land to
plant a crop of wheat. As more land is cleared, he will plant other crops such
as barley, oats, timothy, and corn. After building a shed or barn, he will
store these grains to feed his animals during the winter months. Eventually,
the farm will have horses and oxen as beasts of burden, a few cows for milk and
cattle for beef, semi-wild pigs (an important source of revenue when fattened
on corn), and a small flock of sheep prized for their wool.
We talked that evening of what the future held for
our two families. We prayed that each successive year would be easier, allowing
more leisure for all. We looked forward to having a church in the area and a
school for the children. We spoke optimistically of better roads and easier
access to the little luxuries of life that were available in town. We planned
to take advantage of a public market that was to open in
York the next year, where
we could sell any of the surplus beef, pork, oats, or potatoes our farms might
produce. We dreamed of someday exporting produce to the larger markets of
Britain and the United States.
How well or poorly off were we? In later years, we
looked back on those early times with great nostalgia, often forgetting the
back-breaking labour and the hardships. Perhaps we also forgot that women
suffered more than men, given the hard work, frequent child-bearing, and often
Still, we were never as disadvantaged as many
nineteenth-century British travel writers maintained. They looked at pioneer
British North America through upper-class European eyes and found our pioneer
We, however, with our modest backgrounds, our
experience in the New World, and our knowledge of the miserable life faced by
the lower classes in the Old World - we had made our choice and we were doing
all right, thank you very much, as the pioneers of