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A Beautiful Peninsula
Indian Point is a large peninsula that divides the Northwest Bay of Balsam Lake from the Gull River, which winds through Coboconk and a great many lakes on its way to the northern end of the Trent Watershed. Its landscape is rocky, in places fissured rocks do not even support trees. But the peninsula has an undeniable beauty. Its woods and trails make for a pleasant outing, while many cottagers enjoy sunsets over Balsam Lake.
Living at Water's Edge
In the early nineteenth century, the Kawarthas were home to three Michi Saagiig (Mississauga/Ojibwa) villages at Lake Scugog, Curve Lake and Rice Lake. These communities lived alongside the lakes, each was located near bountiful patches of Mnoomin (Wild Rice) that grew in muddy shallows where there was little current. In winter, families set out to their hunting and trapping camps located throughout the Kawarthas, including many wetlands and creeks. To the region’s residents, Balsam Lake was one of these seasonal homes.
Beginning around 1826, Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers – Peter Jones) and Methodist Missionaries converted most local residents to Christianity. Kahkewaquonaby was the son of Tuhbenahneequay, who was daughter of chief Wahbanosay of the Credit River community. His father, Augustus Jones was a Provincial Land Surveyor, who was also married to by native ceremony to Sara Tekharihogen, a Haudenosaunee (Mohawk). Raised by his mother, his father enrolled him an in English School, he converted to Christianity at a Haudenosaunee Grand River Anglican Church, then to Methodism. A brick maker, a Methodist minister, a chief and for many years representative of the Michi Saagiig to the Crown, he was unique—the person best able to comfortably move between the different cultures present in Upper Canada. Kahkewaquonaby advocated Methodism (in a form that was very emotional and frowned upon by colonial Anglican elites) and learning craft and trade skills, particularly agriculture.
In the nineteenth century, many diverse people, from distant parts of the globe, were all trying to find ways to improve farming, while vastly increasing the amount of land devoted to agriculture. Two hundred years ago, the integrated global food network that we take for granted today did not then exist, and if crops failed or hunting returns were poor in one region, local hardship would result. In contrast to the excess of food that is today the norm, practically everyone then knew what it meant to make do without. Then there was an international preoccupation with improving agriculture, and finding new areas that could be farmed. In the Kawarthas and regions to the north, this international movement ran into real environmental challenges. It was then commonly assumed that practically all land could be farmed. On the Canadian Shield and its fringes, this was not true, and countless families devoted their lives to making a farm that never had any real hope of succeeding.
A New Settlement
By the 1830s, Methodist missions were well established in the Kawarthas and most locals participated in Christian ceremonies, though this did not necessarily mean supplanting their long-standing beliefs. There were about sixty former Lake Scugog residents at Curve Lake, including Chief Jacob Crane, who were also looking to move to a separate village. At the same time, the missionaries were looking to take the next step in introducing agriculture. In 1833, Alexander McDonell, the Crown Lands Agent at Peterborough, established Crane along with some residents of Curve Lake and Lake Scugog on the peninsula at the north end of Balsam Lake, described as “a more healthy and promising location near Balsam Lake.” Many chose to remain behind.
Arranging for the Site
In 1833 there were already undeeded settlers on Indian Point—if a settler had asked for the location with such adverse possession, it would probably have been declined. Squatting was certainly not discouraged, and typically resulted in ownership, but for such a special project they would have to leave. At about the same time, Rosedale, a former Michi Saagiig campsite on the rapids leading to Balsam Lake was in process of being patented to James Wallis and Robert Jameson, two prominent land speculators, who were McDonell’s friends. In the end, the vicinity of Rosedale would prove much more suited to agriculture than Indian Point, but few people at the time realized it.
Farming an Alvar
Nothing was recorded in the surveys to indicate that Indian Point was not suitable for agriculture. Rather, much of it was marked ‘good land,’ which in keeping with surveying customs would have meant that it was not swampy and the trees seemed to grow on most of it. The new community was granted 1,206 acres, the missionaries hoped this would show how successful agriculture could be, while the settlers looked forward to a new future.
A Good Cause Goes Wrong
The Indian Point settlement became a charitable cause, soliciting many well-meaning donations. There were plans to build houses for each family, and ensure that everyone would have the opportunity to learn the newest agricultural techniques. The community kept oxen, while raising raised corn and potatoes. But there were irregularities in how McDonell and the Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Samuel Peters Jarvis, handled the accounts. Jarvis was not above using band accounts for his own purposes, which ultimately led to his forced retirement. Ten houses were supposed to be built, but by 1839 only two were complete. The missionaries also may have known more about Christianity than farming. Every year it became a little more obvious that Indian Point just wasn’t farmland.
Facing the Inevitable
By 1843 the village was well aware that the project had been futile. They were certainly not alone in this experience, as many settlers in the forests to the north were inching towards exactly the same conclusion. Everyone would have to find a new life. Fortunately for the residents of Balsam Lake, the returns from their traditional livelihood and the fur trade were often better than farming.
Moving to Lake Scugog
Chief Crane explained that they were “dissatisfied with the climate and the quality of the land at the Balsam Lake.” The community held a council “to see how and when we could buy good land.” Crane told Jarvis that “we wished to leave Balsam Lake because it was too far out of the way. We told him there were no merchants near the place and we find it difficult to get what we want. We wanted to go to Scugog where there was plenty land and plenty white people.” They purchased 600 acres on Scugog Island—near the former site of a traditional village that had not been granted as a reserve—out of their band funds. Some residents went to Snake Island in Lake Simcoe or Curve Lake, but most went to Lake Scugog.
Logging and Cottages
The government undertook to sell the Balsam Lake site for the benefit of former residents (they held land communally, unlike the fee simple tenure that allowed colonists to buy and sell land), but did not find anyone interested in farming it. It was granted in 1860 to Alexander (Sandy) Dennistoun for $2175.60 for timber. After stripping the forests, he sold the property to John Grandy in 1868 for $10,000, and the peninsula has since become a Provincial Park and cottage community. Dennistoun had the good fortune to marry Margaret Pringle Redpath, of the famed sugar family, and is best remembered for founding the Montreal Golf Club.
A New Beginning
The Balsam Lake Settlement was certainly not the end of missions to Michi Saagiig communities, nor of initiatives to persuade them of the superiority of agriculture, but it dealt an enduring blow to credibility and zeal of the preachers. It had been part of a sweeping, real-life experiment, to see how far agriculture could be expanded, which unfortunately did not pan out for the particular people involved. The Balsam Lake community negotiated the chance to return to the lake that many members had once called home, and the tract of land they purchased is the home of their descendants to this day.