Glimpses of Canada in 1817

Fifty years before Confederation, the land we now call “Canada” consisted of the colonies of British North America: Upper Canada (southern Ontario), Lower Canada (southern Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. British North America also included Rupert’s Land, which was nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and encompassed what is today northern Quebec, northern and western Ontario, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, south and central Alberta, and parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Through the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, the British also had a permanent presence in what is now British Columbia. In practice, vast tracts of Canada were populated solely or mainly by aboriginal peoples. Here are some glimpses of Canada in 1817.

British Dominions in North America by J. (John) Russell, 1814. Source: University of British Columbia Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. Andrew McCormick Maps and Prints

British Dominions in North America by J. (John) Russell, 1814. Source: University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, Andrew McCormick Maps and Prints

Newfoundland’s deplorable condition

Newfoundland had a terrible year. There had been massive Irish immigration to the colony between 1811 and 1816, due to Newfoundland’s prosperity during the Napoleonic Wars. Then, in 1815, the cod fishery collapsed, and in 1816, the harvest failed. As noted in a letter written in St. John’s on April 5, 1817:

Our condition in this island, generally, is deplorable: the consequence must be serious, if relief is not received from some quarter soon. All the stores here are completely empty. The surplus of provisions that were in the navy store is exhausted, and we have but a few tierces of flour to receive from the commissariat stores. Families of the first respectability are drained of the provisions they laid in for their own support. There are 2500 people supported by the charitable institutions, 1000 others by the inhabitants, in messes, where they get a dinner every day: biscuit is baked from the flour we receive from the king’s stores, and sold by small quantities, to such as are able to purchase. The whole of our stock is not sufficient to support us 3 weeks. (1)

To make matters worse, on November 7 and November 21, 1817, fire swept through St. John’s, destroying some 300 homes and businesses. The following was written by a St. John’s resident a week after the first blaze.

The news of the almost total destruction of our town by fire will no doubt have reached you before the arrival of this….

The real state and character of Newfoundland have been but little considered, and not at all appreciated in Great Britain, except by a few who have been immediately concerned in its trade. The barren rocks, the uncultivated inland, and the rigours of a long winter, with its produce only in the contemptible article of salt fish, have given an idea in England that such a place is hardly worth the notice of the mother country…. But never did any impression go upon a more false principle: for notwithstanding all the seeming disadvantages of climate and soil, Newfoundland, with its fish produce, together with oil and fur, stands forth as the emporium of British North America; and in the fall of St. John’s, the colonies have lost their metropolis. Halifax and Quebec, with their appended provinces, cannot supply the deficiency, nor answer for the loss to the British Empire. The Canadas, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island have each an independent regular government: these provinces contain a population of about 300,000; the population of Newfoundland is about 80,000, and for these no regular government is provided, although the state of society in St. John’s, and some of the out harbours, is such as to demand all the assistance of a well-digested legislation, and a vigorous police. In the different ranks of society, shocking scenes of vice, intemperance, and excess have been witnessed, which have threatened ten thousand times over the most awful consequences….

It is now (15th Nov.) eight days since the dreadful catastrophe, and no measures have been taken by government to bring a vigorous system to bear against the horrors of the fast coming winter. We had but a short stock of provisions in store before the fire: much, very much of this is destroyed. St. John’s is full of people; and thousands must be fed by charity…..

It is a fact well known that this country is almost peopled by Roman Catholics, chiefly of the lower orders from Ireland. The depredations committed during the fire by these unhappy people were enormous; and were it not for the activity and vigilance of the priests, little of this plunder would be restored. But then what a sad reflection! … The Christian priesthood rallying round their standard a banditti of plunderers, and administering the ordinances of religion to a herd of vagabonds and incendiaries. It is this influence which the priests have over their people, which renders their services so valuable in the eyes of the Magistrates; for the priests are our police officers, rather than are the appointed agents of Government; and we are taught to believe that we are more indebted to the Catholic Priests for our safety and comfort, than to any other class of men in the island. (2)

Rustic Lower Canada

Esplanade Park in Quebec City circa 1818 (see Glimpses of Canada in 1817)

Esplanade Park in Quebec City circa 1818

Lieutenant Francis Hall, a member of Britain’s 14th Regiment of Light Dragoons, travelled from Albany to Montreal in the winter of 1816-1817. Upon arriving in Lower Canada, he wrote:

Nothing could be more Siberian than the aspect of the Canadian frontier: a narrow road, choked with snow, led through a wood, in which patches were occasionally cleared, on either side, to admit the construction of a few log-huts, round which a brood of ragged children, a starved pig, and a few half-broken rustic implements, formed an accompaniment more suited to an Irish landscape than to the thriving scenes we had just quitted. The Canadian peasant is still the same unsophisticated animal whom we may suppose to have been imported by Jacques Cartier…. Now, too, the frequent cross by the road side, thick-studded with all the implements of crucifixional torture, begins to indicate a Catholic country: distorted virgins and ghastly saints decorate each inn room, while the light spires of the parish church, covered with plates of tin, glitter across the snowy plain. … We found the inns neat and the people attentive; French politesse began to be contrasted with American bluntness. … [T]he most prominent trait in the character of this people, is an attachment to whatever is established: far different in this respect from the American, the Canadian will submit to any privation rather than quit the spot his forefathers tilled, or remove from the sound of his parish bells. (3)

Pierre François Réal and his secretary Pichon provide Napoleon with a similar opinion of Lower Canada in Napoleon in America.

Hall continued on to Quebec City.

It would be acting unfairly to Quebec to describe it as I found it on my arrival, choked with ice and snow, which one day flooded the streets with a profusion of dirty kennels, and the next, cased them with a sheet of glass. Cloth or carpet boots, galoshes, with spikes to their heels, iron-pointed walking-sticks, are the defensive weapons perpetually in employ on these occasions. The direction of the streets too, which are most of them built up a precipice, greatly facilitates any inclination one may entertain for tumbling, or neck-breaking. (4)

James Wilson, an Irish Methodist preacher who sailed from Dublin to Quebec in the spring of 1817, wrote of Montreal:

In taking a view of this extensive city, I found it far superior in appearance to Quebec; the markets well supplied with beef, mutton, fowl, &c. selling at a moderate price. In this place I first took notice of the Indian tribe, who were very numerous, selling at market maple sugar, wild pigeons, and wrought baskets of every kind. Their curious dress and appearance excited my attention much; many of them were very grand in their way, and are called Mohawks: the women…wear large trinkets in their ears, large breast-plates composed, I suppose, of silver, made after the form of our military officers, with long fine blue cloaks down to their feet. …

This city is a place of great business, and likely to become very extensive, as building is carried on with much spirit. The houses are large, some composed of wood, and others of stone. The French here, as in Quebec, have a very splendid church, and are very numerous.” (5)

Joseph Sansom, a member of the American Philosophical Society from Philadelphia, toured Lower Canada in July 1817.

Montreal shows from the water like an old country sea port, with long ranges of high walls, and stone houses, overtopped here and there by churches and convents; with something that resembles a continued quay, though it is nothing more than a high bank, to which large vessels can lie close enough for the purposes of loading and unloading; in consequence of the unusual depth of water at the very edge of the current. … [I]t is only on the banks of its rivers that Canada pretends to any population, or improvement, whatever. (6)

Rough-mannered Upper Canada

Naval dockyard at Point Frederick in Kingston, 1815

Naval dockyard at Point Frederick in Kingston, 1815

C. Stuart, a retired Captain of the East India Company, lived in Upper Canada from 1817 to 1819, during which time he was a justice of the peace for the Western district of the province. He observed:

The state of society in Upper Canada, especially to a European, is not attractive…. Canadian society has rather roughness than simplicity of manners; and scarcely presents a trace of that truly refined, that nobly cultivated, and that spiritually improved tone of conversation and deportment, which, even in the most highly polished circles, and amidst all the inflations of real or imagined superiority, is so rarely to be found.

Yet the state of society in Upper Canada is not without its advantages. It is adapted to the condition of the country, and is consistent with the circumstances of which it forms a part.

Its general characteristics may be said to be, in the higher classes, a similar etiquette to that established at home, with a minor redundancy of polish, and minor extravagance; and in the lower, a somewhat coarser simplicity. As far as I have seen the people, they appear to me fully as moral as any other that I know, with as much mutual kindness amongst themselves, and more than commonly hospitable to strangers. They seem to me rather inclined to seriousness than to levity, and to need only the advantages of pious instruction and of pious example to become, under grace, one of the most valuable people upon the earth.

Their habits are in general moderately industrious, frugal, and benevolent. Their amusements, of course, are unhappily like those of the world. Horse-racing, betting shooting; and where leisure abounds, idle conversation, balls, cards, and the theatre, &c. Yet I have observed with pleasure, a somewhat more domestic tone amongst their women; and it has amply compensated to me, for the absence of the greater degree of polish, which at once adorns and disgraces the general mass of our European ladies. …

There are few towns or villages in Upper Canada, and those few are small. Kingston, the most considerable of them, being less extensive than the generality of the common country towns in Great Britain and Ireland. Agriculturalists, such as are almost universally the people of Upper Canada, scatter themselves over their farms, not crowd together, as do the votaries of commerce. …

The conveyances, where there are any (and such of any description are by no means universal), are generally poor; the surface rough, the bridges wretched, and attendance at the inns as defective, as must necessarily be the case where there is too great a tone of general equality and familiarity, amidst a scattered, independent, and uncultivated people. But greater kindness and fellow-feeling often exist here than are to be found in the more accomplished receptacles of politer people. Mixed with their equality, there are, in my opinion, generally speaking, a greater degree of spontaneous attention, and a more disinterested desire to serve, than we meet amidst all the elegant accommodations of the British roads. (7)

James Wilson became a traveling preacher in the Kingston area. He wrote:

The people here have many privileges: in the spring they make sugar by piercing the maple tree, which produces a sweet sap, and when well boiled, makes remarkably good sugar. Another advantage is most families make their own soap, by saving the ashes of the firewood: the people in general live well; there are here no poor, comparatively speaking; they have from the produce of their gardens, melons, cucumbers, and all kinds of vegetables, and of these they make preserves; and as each house has in general a cellar, they store their garden roots, potatoes, &c in these secure places, to protect them from frost.

The women here in general weave their own clothing, consisting of linen and woollen, diaper and fancy bed quilts and floor carpets; many of them are also well skilled in making both men and women’s clothing: this saves much expense, as tailoring is extremely high. Provisions are cheap, in general…. Cider is much in use here, and made by many families. (8)

War in the West

Summer view in the environs of Fort Douglas on the Red River by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822

Summer view in the environs of Fort Douglas on the Red River by Peter Rindisbacher, 1822

From that narrow stripe of territory situated along the St. Lawrence, to which we give the name of Upper and Lower Canada, a plain of illimitable extent stretches to the north and north-west, as far as the frozen regions. If the whole population of this vast expanse were collected together, it would not perhaps equal that of one of our moderate-sized English counties. In the absence of man, however, the track is covered with elks, deer, beavers, otters, martens, &c. &c. in swarms of which it is impossible for us to form any conception. This abundance of the most valuable fur-bearing animals has become the foundation of an extensive trade, carried on by a company established at Montreal called the North-West Company. The exertions made, and privations endured, by their agents, appear truly astonishing. It is said, that the track by which their goods are transported, occupies an extent of from three to four thousand miles, through upwards of sixty large lakes, without any means of transport but slight canoes of bark. In persons engaged in so rough a trade, so far out of the pale of civilized society, and having to deal with the most savage of the human race, it would be vain to expect a deportment always quite regular and peaceable. If any illegal act is committed, there is no redress but from the tribunals at Montreal, placed at the distance of several thousand miles, and to be reached only by a voyage more toilsome and dangerous than that across the Atlantic. In such a case, the remedy most prompt, most convenient, and every way suited to their inclination, is to take the law into their own hands.

The introduction of spirits among the Indians is the source of a thousand disorders and vices; and yet it seems difficult to say how we could prevent it. What cordon of excise officers could guard a frontier of four thousand miles? Could the traders be sent, without spirits for their own use, into a climate where the thermometer is sometimes forty degrees below zero? And when the spirits were there, how [to] prevent their being used in traffic? Would a permit or justice’s warrant be of any avail at Saskatchewina carrying place, or on the river of the Assiniboils? If the attempt were made to stop the trade altogether, it might perhaps meet a partial success; but if the object be, to make its agents assume the deportment of orderly and civilized persons, it will, we fear, prove altogether abortive. (9)

In 1817, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company (allied with the Métis) were in the midst of the Pemmican War, a series of armed confrontations between the two companies focused on the Red River Colony, situated in what is today Manitoba. The colony was founded in 1812 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, a majority shareholder of the Hudson Bay Company. On August 19, 1817, Mr. Shaw, an agent of the North West Company, arrived in Montreal with news from the colony.

Mr. Shaw reached the Red River most opportunely, as the stock of provisions had been in a manner abandoned by the people who had it in charge. On Mr. Shaw making the Forks, he was immediately joined by a large band of the natives, who offered him their services, not only to protect the provisions, but to assist in driving away what they term, the bad dogs, from the land. Mr. Shaw visited Lord Selkirk at Fort Douglas, who expressed great satisfaction at seeing him, and told him that himself and followers, about 160 in all, were almost in a state of starvation, having been obliged chiefly to subsist on cat-fish for the last month, and that he now looked to the provisions of the North West Company for the subsistence of his people. Mr. Shaw objected to this, for the reason of not diminishing his own supplies. His Lordship said he had the means to enforce compliance with his request, and endeavoured to prevail on Mr. Shaw to resign a part without compulsion. Mr. Shaw refused the supply, and ultimately maintained his point.

Col. Coltman then arrived, and made known to both parties the instructions he had received from Government relating to their disputes, which were to enforce ‘the cessation of all hostility both in Canada and the Indian country, and the mutual restoration of all property captured during their disputes, the freedom of trade and intercourse with the Indians, until the trials now pending can be brought to a judicial decision, and the great question at issue with respect to the rights of the two companies shall be definitively settled.’ (10)

The two companies merged in 1821.

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  1. The National Advocate (Washington, DC), May 22, 1817.
  2. Northampton Mercury (Northampton, England), December 20, 1817.
  3. Francis Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States in 1816 and 1817, 2nd edition (London, 1819), pp. 49-51, 74.
  4. Ibid., p. 54.
  5. James Wilson, Narrative of a Voyage from Dublin to Quebec, in North America (Dublin, 1822), p. 24.
  6. Joseph Sansom, Sketches of Lower Canada, Historical and Descriptive (New York, 1817), pp. 48, 54.
  7. C. Stuart, The Emigrant’s Guide to Upper Canada, or, Sketches of the Present State of that Province, collected from a residence therein during the years 1817, 1818, 1819 (London, 1820), pp. 120-122, 142, 160-161.
  8. Wilson, Narrative of a Voyage from Dublin to Quebec, in North America, p. 35.
  9. The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany: A New Series of the Scots Magazine, May 1, 1817, pp. 370-371.
  10. The Times, London, October 1, 1817.

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Nothing could be more Siberian than the aspect of the Canadian frontier: a narrow road, choked with snow, led through a wood, in which patches were occasionally cleared, on either side, to admit the construction of a few log-huts, round which a brood of ragged children, a starved pig, and a few half-broken rustic implements, formed an accompaniment more suited to an Irish landscape than to the thriving scenes we had just quitted.

Lieutenant Francis Hall