History of Fenelon and Verulam Townships
Watson Kirkconnell claims that the first settler in Fenelon Township was Angus McLaren, who “many years before any formal locations were made, squatted just north of the creek which still bears his name.” Whether or not this assertion is true, by 1833, immigrants had begun to arrive in the region. Robert Jameson, the son of a wealthy Dublin brewer, had begun speculating on property and was planning a mill at the Falls (Fenelon Falls), which he later completed in partnership with James Wallis. The same year, John Langton, the son of a formerly wealthy Lancashire merchant, began to carve a farm from the forests on the east shore of the northern bay of Sturgeon Lake. When he arrived he noted that Mr. & Mrs. Beaston had a house on the south shore, and that several other gentry already lived nearby. Among these were Captain Warren, Edward Athill, A. S. Fraser, Thomas Need, D’Arcos and Sawers in Verulam township, as well as while King, Evans, Mudge and Lieutenant Hay in Harvey.
Other gentry continued to arrive in the region. In 1834, Mossom Boyd, James Wallis, Hughes, McCall and W. A. Macredie arrived. Boyd was remembered as a man of remarkable energy. He is reputed to have completed the initial clearing on his property on the north shore of Sturgeon Lake in Verulam Township by himself, and acquired the Bobcaygeon mill after Thomas Need gave it up and returned to England. James Wallis, the builder of Maryboro, was also a very enthusiastic adventurer. John Langton noted that he provided much of the initiative in his partnership with Jameson, seeing to the completion of a mill by February 1835, and opening a tavern and store by 1839.
In 1835, Robert Dennistoun, whose family owned Glasgow Bank, settled on the southwest shore of Cameron Lake, and hired labourers to create a farm in the forest. The same year, Tom Macredie joined his older brother on the south shore of Sturgeon Lake in Verulam Township. Thomas, Ellen and Anne Langton, accompanied by Alice Currer, arrived at John Langton’s farm, Blythe, in 1837. In 1838, James Hartley Dunsford settled at the Beehive on the north shore of Sturgeon Lake.
Generally, this group of gentry was comprised of younger sons, who needed to find an independent source of wealth, as they could not expect a large share of their parent’s ventures. They chose the Kawartha Lakes region because they believed it held considerable advantages compared to other regions opening for settlement. In the case of those early settlers whose writings have been published, after very careful consideration and touring, their primary reason for choosing the area was its water resources.
Construction of the Bobcaygeon Lock began in 1833, and most gentry had confidence that the works would continue at a reasonable pace. The Trent Waterway seemed to offer a significantly shorter route from Lake Huron to Lake Ontario than the route through Lake Erie. It seemed very likely to the region’s pioneers that their government would complete this project expeditiously.
Many less affluent settlers were arriving during the same period and there is no reason to believe that they relied on any similar speculations about the significance of the waterway, as most of these settlers sought to be independent farmers. The gentry, who arrived with much loftier goals, created advantages that encouraged others to settle, providing both income and services to local pioneers.
In a pioneer’s first few years, it was completely unrealistic to depend on farm production for survival. In addition to funds to purchase additional food, settlers also needed to pay for tools, their land, and, once collection began, property taxes. Although some immigrants remained in the more developed regions, often working on public works projects to earn money, many settlers arrived with no financial resources. The proximity of gentrified neighbours provided the opportunity of much needed employment, especially in the winter. Workers were routinely paid in kind, receiving food in return for labour.
The gentry also provided an essential service as merchants. Wallis and Jameson opened a store at the Falls, and Need had one in Bobcaygeon. Of equal significance were the informal stores that their peers operated. Since the gentry sought to maintain a standard of living far in excess of what the area could produce, they made regular trips to market towns for merchandise. On these trips they also made purchases for their neighbours, either through food given in lieu of wages, or by meeting the constant orders they received for locally unavailable items. These gentry routinely either sold the items at cost, or at a profit they believed to be small relative to their efforts.
With these two advantages, combined with the cheap price of land in the area, between 5s and 10s per acre, workers also began to arrive in the region. Need, Langton and Wallis all brought considerable numbers of labourers to work on their projects, but it is unclear how many remained. Those who settled included Daniel O’Flynn, William Jordan and John Menzies, neighbours of Langton, who arrived in consecutive years from 1833 to 1835. By 1839, the population of Fenelon, Somerville and Bexley Townships, the overwhelming majority of which was the former, had reached 148.
However, the rush to settle the region that land speculators like Wallis and Jameson expected did not materialize. Crown land was readily available locally at least into the 1860s. This was very troubling for the gentry, who almost unanimously concluded that the region did not hold the financial promise that they had initially expected. Only James W. Dunsford, Hartley’s son, and Mossom Boyd persisted as gentry settlers in the region. The consensus that the remainder reached was that their livelihoods would decrease to the level of their labourers if they stayed. As a result, the social structure of the region changed.
Although some of the settlers in the Fenelon region relocated from more developed townships in the colony, many came directly from Europe. The gentry took steamers to Cobourg or Port Hope, but most settlers could not afford such luxury. After a transatlantic journey, often in cramped conditions, they continued up the St. Lawrence from Montreal in Durham boats or bateaus. The bateau was a flat bottomed skiff propelled by sail, pole or oars about 30-40 feet long which was dragged up rapids as necessary. Durham boats were flat bottomed, about 90ft long, propelled by poles or sails.
These journeys were arduous. Travel by these ships was quite slow, often taking about a week to get from Montreal to Prescott. To make matters worse, most of the settlers could not afford accommodation at the inns and slept either on the boats or in tents, which were often makeshift. Not surprisingly, many fell ill with dysentry, ague or other bush fevers.
From Cobourg or Port Hope, the settlers had to travel by land on very poor roads which isolated the Fenelon area from the Front townships. One route followed a native trail along the Ganaraska River towards Cavan, travelling to the west of Rice Lake. In 1818 the Legislative Assembly commissioned a road roughly on this route, and in May 1831, work began on a road from the southeast corner of Cavan, where it met the road coming north from the Front townships, to Pigeon Lake. This project was completed the following year. In 1835, John Huston oversaw the construction of a road through Emily Township to Ops.
However, these roads were not always passable. Gravel roads were rare in this era even in developed regions. The majority were corduroy, built of logs laid adjacent and perpendicular to the direction of the road. The logs decomposed rapidly leaving gaps. The roads were often passable only on horseback or by oxcart, except in winter, when the snow covered many of the obstacles. It was wise practice for travellers to carry an axe to allow them to repair roads where necessary.
Because of the poor roads, most settlers tried to use the water as much as possible. They would travel by foot or ox-cart to Rice Lake, then by water to Peterborough. It was six miles from Peterborough to Mud (Chemong) Lake, along which there was a crude road. John Langton described it as “six miles of mud holes (for really a road is too good a name for many parts.)” The settlers could then travel by boat to Bobcaygeon, where there were rapids. In 1833, a lock was built there. Although it was convenient for small boats, it was too small for many others, forcing their masters to drag them up a chute.
From Mud Lake onwards, the local Mississauga natives were of considerable assistance as guides, particularly to the earliest settlers. They were also helpful by trading commodities in a region that was isolated from the front districts. They sold canoes for very reasonable rates, which were primarily of interest to the gentry who had the time and the resources to travel on the lakes. They also sold venison and fish when they had surplus, charging about 1.5d per pound of venison, when salt pork was selling for 5 to 6d per pound. However, many of the settlers who arrived in the Fenelon region lacked the resources to make purchases, acquiring their food in exchange for labour instead. The amount deducted from their wages for provisions was usually at or above the retail rates.
For many years, most of the immigrants had to work for their more affluent neighbours to acquire food, tools and pay for their land. Generally, they worked steadily in the winter, often at clearing forest, and less in the summer, allowing them to work at their own farms. Often their masters also lent them money to pay for their land. This could lead to ruin if it was not carefully managed, as many of the lenders were quite happy to seize property as repayment of the balance.
The process of building farms was slow and difficult. Settlers could not expect to clear more than about five to ten acres at the most in a year. Many of the trees were cut at about waist level for convenience and the removal of stumps was far too labourious to be practical. Burning usually did not complete the job, and therefore the immigrants had to wait for the stumps to rot. Ploughing was very difficult, as the stumps and roots dictated the areas that could be ploughed at all. Often they would seed the areas in the first year after clearing, but owning to their inability to plough, some let it fill in with grass for subsequent years.
The acquisition of livestock occurred gradually. Although cattle could be pastured in the forest during the summer without too much concern for their diet, this tactic could become problematic because the cattle were not always inclined to return. Sheep were much more difficult to maintain, as their vulnerability to predators dictated that they needed to be kept close to the buildings, and should be kept indoors at night. However, the greatest restraint was the difficulty in producing enough hay in the summer to keep the animals over the winter. The scarcity of fodder increased hay prices sufficiently that the cost of feed would easily eclipse the value of the livestock in a single winter.
Nonetheless, settlers gradually increased their holdings. The 1839 census indicates that 8 of 27 households in Fenelon township had at least one ox, 6 had a team of two oxen and 14 had at least one milk cow. Of 41 households in 1841, 16 had at least one team of oxen and 23 had at least one milk cow. These cattle were of considerable assistance to the settlers. The oxen provided much needed labour and dairy products were a welcome addition to the settler’s diet.
Initially the settlers’ menu was very limited. Since much of their food was acquired from their employers, their diets were often dictated by parsimony. Salt pork predominated, and was often accompanied by unleavened bread, corn meal porridge or potatoes. Masters frequently tried to increase the proportion of potatoes in their provisions, because of their low cost.
In the early 1830s, the nearest mill was at Purdy’s Mills (Lindsay), which was a considerable journey, especially for settlers without a boat. Because of both the cost of milling and the difficulty of transporting wheat, settlers made makeshift mills from a burnt out tree stump, in which they ground their grain with a blunt log. Many travelled to Purdy’s, however, some carrying their wheat on their back the entire distance. In February 1835, Jameson and Wallis opened their grist mill at the Falls, reducing travel for many.
The first homes that the settlers occupied were unpleasant. The walls were usually made of stacked logs, and the roofs were frequently hollowed logs split in half lengthways, laid in two layers, with the lower row forming troughs and the upper one inverted to cover the edges of the logs. This allowed most of the water to flow into the troughs in the first layer and thus off of the roof. Unfortunately this design always had some leaks.
Windows, if the building had any, and doors were usually made of either leather or cloth and were drafty. The floor of the building was almost inevitably dirt, which was piled around the edges to decrease the amount of snow that would blow under and through the walls in the winter. Holes in the wall were plugged with mud, clay, grass or moss. Chimneys of any form were a luxury, and often the smoke could only escape through a small hole in the roof. When chimneys were added, they were built of wood, rock and clay, and their performance reflected their imperfect construction.
Bees were necessary gatherings to procure the labour to build houses and clear land. These were often raucous affairs, as a good supply of whiskey was often the cost of the labour. Whiskey was fairly cheap, costing about twenty cents per gallon, and servings could be as large as a bowlful. Disorderly conduct very frequently ensued, whether in the form of merriment or violence.
As in many early settlements, the tavern at the Falls was among the first establishments in the area. Built by Wallis and Jameson by the mid-1830s, it was a popular venue, although it was a costly luxury. The settlers quickly began to call for other institutions, including a church and school. The Anglican church was completed in 1839, after considerable effort from Wallis, Dennistoun and John Langton.
Schooling initially began rather informally. Anne Langton, who arrived on Sturgeon Lake in August 1837, was operating a school at her home by January 1839. The resident clergyman, Thomas Fidler, who arrived in 1839, was also operating a school by February 1840. In 1841, Anne Langton donated the land for a school house. School was held in a barn during its construction.
These first services went a considerable distance towards satisfying the basic desires of settlers. Nonetheless, settlement continued to progress slowly. The departure of most of the local gentry by the mid-1840s, accompanied by curtailment of the services which they had provided, delayed the area’s development. The mill fell into disrepair, and the store’s services were inconsistent. The town continued to grow steadily, but there was certainly no rush to settle the region, as many speculators had predicted. By the 1860s the government was still granting crown land. However, those who arrived in the 1860s were coming to a much more developed region than those a generation earlier. In 1842, a bridge had been constructed across the Fenelon River and roads were becoming much more passable. Goods and services were much more readily available, affording the settlers a society where they were far less isolated and unsupplied than the first pioneers.