“Fragmentary Family Records”
“I was naturally of an anxious disposition, disposed to view the dark side of things. The other boys called me “the croaker”. It is likely that I deserved the name. On looking back, I cannot say that I did not deserve to be so called.” — David Wardrope
Having just the right temperament for the task, David “Croaker” Wardrope brilliantly documents for all posterity the trials and tribulations that awaited the very first pioneers of Puslinch as they arrived in the 1830’s at the township doorstep, to behold in awe the vast and uninterrupted primeval landscape of woodland and swamp.
Perhaps an anxious youngster, but David Wardrope, in 1904, at a mellow and sagacious 81 years of age, recounts in a fashion at least as entertaining as it is solemn, the tale of his family’s adventures in immigrating from Berwick, Scotland to the “New World” frontier of Puslinch Township in 1834.
The recollections were originally humbly entitled “Fragmentary Family Records”, for Wardrope discovered that his intention of proclaiming his familial pedigree had been closely circumscribed by his own father’s reticent modesty with respect to both his immediate family and his ancestors. The title added here, “Wardrope’s Lament”, serves as a reminder that, by the author’s own consideration, these reminiscences, seemingly focused on the arduousness of pioneer life, might be more severe than circumstances warranted, for although the lives of the pioneers were indeed fraught with challenges, even to their very day-to-day survival, they yet prevailed in magnificent fashion and became symbolic of the work ethic of a nation, a lasting record of quiet perseverance and practical innovation, of communal spirit, and ultimately of achievement, astounding achievement, for within a lifetime, with very limited means, an inhospitable wilderness was transformed into a pastoral paradise.
Only a few brief passages have been reproduced on this website, but that meritorious organization, the Puslinch Historical Society, has made a complete edition, pictorially enhanced, available for purchase.
In 1833, we boys were out taking a walk when our eldest brother, Thomas, greatly gladdened our hearts by making the announcement, “We are going to America in two years”. A few days later, “We are going to America next year”. So it was fixed that we should go in 1834.
There were four of us boys, Thomas, James, David, and George. Then came Jane, our sister, born in 1828. Thomas was born in 1819. He was greatly in advance of we younger boys. There were two reasons for that. First, he got more than his share of brains at the start. Second, he was more cultivated by our parents, especially by mother. He was sent to Edinburgh, to college, in his fourteenth year. Those things made a great gap between him and the rest of us.
When it was noised that we were going to America, it made a great stir in the neighbourhood. Many looked upon us with envious eyes. I overheard a young woman say to a companion, “Eh, there is David Wardrope, he is gau’n to America and he’ll sune come back and take us a’ away wi’ ‘im”. So strong was the desire on the part of many to go to America. We need not wonder at that. The working people in those days lived in great poverty. But they were strong and healthy on their plain food. One of our farmers told me that when he was a young man working in Glasgow, he and a companion would go out amongst the farmers to reap in harvest. For food, they had nothing but oatmeal stirred in cold water, three times a day. After living five or six weeks in that way, they would return to their city home, heavier in flesh than when they left. So well did their work and food agree with them.
We boys were very happy in the prospect of going to America. We were thoughtless and light-hearted. Had we seen what was before us, we would have joined trembling with our mirth. I know now. I did not know then, that mother joined trembling with her mirth. That is easily explained. Father was a good scholar, a licentiate of the Church of Scotland. But he knew very little about common things. Besides teaching the parish school, our parents kept boarding pupils. They made a good deal of money while they lived in Ladykirk. Our father was not the man to rough it in a new country. That was one reason why mother was so painfully anxious regarding the future.
Mr. Gordon, our cousin, was going to Canada too. It may be that mother wrote to him, proposing that he should go with us. I do not know, but this I do know, that a letter came from him one day, as we were sitting down to dinner, and when mother had read the letter, she rose and danced for joy. Soon after that, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon became members of our household and they remained with us until we were settled in Canada. Mr. Gordon was a gardener. He was considerably above the ordinary labouring man in culture and refinement. As a matter of course, his name will often come up in these records.
Father brought with him a man called William Donald. I do not know how that came about. My impression is that John Donald was anxious to immigrate to Canada. But not being able to do so for want of money, he proposed to our father that if he would take his son, William Donald, with him, that he, William, would pay back in work the money father should spend on his account. So father agreed to take William, his wife, and child. John Donald made a good bargain, but father, a very bad one. William Donald was good at fishing and hunting, but he was not very good at working. I can remember how his father boasted of him in respect of those two things.
The year 1834 came around, the year appointed for our leaving Scotland. We were going to sail from Berwick in a two-masted vessel called the “Berwick on Tweed”. Those were days of trial and great suffering to our parents. The young are ready to leave with a light heart. So it is with the small tree taken from the nursery. I have seen large trees dug up. How they rebelled against the harsh treatment! The strong roots said, “You may break us, but we will not let go our hold”. What a trial for grown people to leave the land of their birth! How many tender ties must be broken! Our parents came through a time of great suffering, but we children knew nothing of it. The small tree is often transplanted without drooping.
My mother had a sister living in Berwick. Her husband, Mr. Thompson, was a harness maker. We were going to spend a day or two with them on our way to the ship. We left Uncle Thompson’s on Saturday p.m. We were going to sail that night. I do not know how many passengers there were. I think that we had between two and three hundred. There was a large gathering of people about the ship. Many had come to Berwick to see their friends for the last time. There was much silent weeping amongst us. It was a melancholy night. My emotions are much more stirred now as I look back on that scene than they were then as I looked upon it.
Early Sabbath morning I was up on the deck. Mother soon came up. We two were by ourselves. There was no land in sight. Mother was looking very sad. Soon many of the passengers came on deck. Some were very sick and some very hungry. So we must prepare breakfast. There was a fire on the deck in a long grating. It might be ten feet in length, or more. There was a certain quantity of water given to each family. On that fire, we prepared our food. We had porridge in the morning. Each of us had a tin cup called a pannikin, for his porridge. I think that most of us enjoyed our food. There was one thing that I liked much. We would steep our biscuits in salt water until they were well softened, then we would split them and eat with butter. Those to me were more toothsome than any soirée cake.
There were three classes of passengers in the ship, cabin, second cabin, and steerage. We were in the second class. In the cabin, there was a family called Hall. The father was a retired sea captain. Willie, a boy, a year or two older than myself, showed me a great deal of kindness. I do not think that he was a bad boy. He used no bad language. Swearing was not so common in those days as it is now. So far as I know, none of us four boys ever took God’s name in vain. I never heard my father utter a word bordering on profanity. Willie Hall taught me to play cards. Before we parted I was beginning to enjoy “card playing”, so I infer that I understood something about the game. But I know nothing of it now. Besides the card playing, Willie gave me at different times, ginger cake, for which I gave him oat cake. This, with the approval of our parents. We boys looked on Captain Hall with a feeling akin to reverence. We thought that we were safer with two captains than with only one.
Before leaving Berwick, our father had been appointed ship doctor. But very fortunately, so far as I remember, he was never called upon, during our seven weeks sail, to act in that capacity. The Berwick on Tweed was a very healthy vessel. When we reached “Grosse Isle”, we were examined as a matter of form. But we were soon told to pass on.
I must not forget to tell about our fishing on the Banks of “New Foundland”. When we got to the fishing ground, our captain stopped the vessel to allow us to get some fresh fish. Now, William Donald comes to the front. But his line is too short, so he and a fellow passenger joined their lines together. In that way, they caught two or three codfish.
We spent several days sailing up the gulf to Quebec because of headwinds. There is not much on my memory about our sail between Quebec and Toronto, then called “Little York”. There is one unpleasant thing lying on my memory. We sailed up the Rideau Canal in “Durham boats”. We had little comfort in that part of our journey because of rain and cold. When we reached Toronto, father took lodgings for some days. Then, Mr. Gordon went up to Puslinch to find a home for us.
Soon Mr. Gordon returned from Puslinch, having bought a lot with a small log house on it. We boys were much crestfallen when we heard that there was no river running through it on which we could sail a canoe.
Now we go to take possession of our new home. We spent a night in Hamilton on the way. There, father hired wagons to take us up the Brock Road. From Dundas to our home, the country was almost unbroken bush. A farm without a clearing was called a bush lot. Our home was not a bush lot because there was a clearing on it of five or six acres. This small clearing was under crop.
Our first night in Puslinch we spent at “Black’s Tavern”. The Blacks were a Berwick family. So mother and Mrs. Black met as if they had known each other from girlhood. What a trifling thing may become a bond of friendship. The tavern was on the Brock Road. Our farm was a little over a mile from that point, in an easterly direction. We used a sleigh to move our “impediments” from the tavern to our home. This was our first experience with a sleigh. We had our own oxen. With the farm, Mr. Gordon bought a yoke of oxen, a cow, and two young cattle. Besides the house, there was a barn on the place, a good barn, but it had no roof on it. I suppose we would have roofed it but for a severe accident which befell us. We come to that too soon.
We had been settled only a few days when Thomas and William Donald went out with their guns. It was Saturday night. They were near home. We heard the report of a gun. Soon, “Tom has shot his hand!” Then, oh what grief! O what excitement! O what confusion! There was no doctor within twelve miles of us. The weather was very warm, early in July 1834. Something must be done immediately.
In this way, we were introduced to Guelph. Father and Thomas walked off to Guelph to find a doctor. There they are, a little after midnight, strangers looking for a resting place. I do not know how it came, but they were directed to a boarding house kept by a Mr. Hall. Mr. Hall was very kind. He took them to a Dr. Cattermole, who dressed the hand, telling them that he hoped to save the hand, though it was badly shattered. When father learned from Dr. Cattermole that Thomas would need medical care for eight or nine months, he took counsel with some friends and bought a fifty-acre farm near Guelph, and we all moved to it, in August, I think. Mother and Jane went to live with father and Thomas at Mr. Hall’s while the rest of us were getting ready to move on to the Guelph farm.
On the Puslinch farm, we had some rye and wheat. The rye being ripe, Mr. Gordon, William Donald, James, and I reaped it with hooks. William Donald was a good reaper for he worked with the sickle in Scotland. I remember that I had to use a saw hook. I was sorry for that. With the saw hook, you must take a hand full of grain and holding it firmly, draw the hook to you, pressing on the grain. It differs from the saw in this way. In sawing, you cut from you. With the saw hook, you cut to you. It is good for beginners. It hinders waste.
Now our forces are divided. Except Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, we all go to the Guelph farm. They stay on the Puslinch farm. William Donald and we boys drove the cattle up the Brock Road. We had no conveyance except the ox sleigh. It was common in those days to travel in that way. It was very hard upon the poor oxen. When we were settled on the Guelph farm, we took steps to dig a well and build a house without delay. Mr. Hall hired a man to dig the well. His name was Michael Dooly. Our oxen drew the stones for the well. Mr. Dooly was either very incompetent or dishonest, perhaps a little of both. In stoning up the well, he used wood along with the stones. When Mr. Hall came to take the well off his hands, he said to him, “Dooly, you must do that stoning over again or you get no pay.” So he had to take up all the stones and begin “de novo”. A neighbour, John Jackson, took the job of building the house. William Donald helped well in the house building for he was good at using carpenters’ tools. Before leaving Scotland, James worked for some months with a carpenter. He brought a chest of tools with him. They were very helpful to us. James was naturally very good at carpenter work. The house was finished before winter set in, a log house, 22 feet by 32 feet. That was a good size in those days.
There was a family named Kennedy whose land joined our farm, so our houses were not far apart. Between our clearings, a deer pad crossed the road. Perhaps I ought to say that our road crossed the deer pad, for the deer pad was there before our road. Well, they crossed each other. Sometimes we saw the deer making use of their pad as they went from one feeding ground to another. One evening, Jane and I were driving home the cows. We had trifled playing with the young Kennedys. The cattle were some distance away from us, maybe twenty rods. We saw a wolf crossing our road on the deer pad, the only wolf ever I saw in the woods. But we often heard them howling at nights. We never lost any of our cattle by the wolves. But some years after that, when we were on the Flamboro farm, we lost all of our sheep in one night by the wolves, in 1846. I had left home before that. In those days it was necessary to shut the sheep in at nights. One night they were left out and were killed.
During the winter of 1834-1835, one of our oxen took some disease. He lost flesh and he lost strength. Then, after some time, he lost his sight. A neighbour, called Liverton, tried to cure him. The cure was painful and useless, burnt alum powder was blown into his eyes. Yes, painful and useless. The poor ox died. Then father sold his mate and bought another yoke.
One of father’s worst bargains was the following. A man called Mr. Carsey had an old lame mare. He was anxious to sell her. Yes, he was very anxious to get some of father’s money. So he came to the house and made our parents believe that he was taking a great interest in their welfare. He said, “Now, I am going to give you some advice. You have come to a new country and you do not know what you need. Many will advise you about what you should buy, but you must not listen to everybody, for there are some who will try to take advantage of you. Now listen to me, for I am your friend. I have a very valuable mare and I am going to sell her to you. I can do without her and I do not see how you can do without her. I am willing to make a sacrifice to help you. You may have the mare for $65.00”. Father had no stable, no food, and no work for the mare. In the circumstances, she would have been dear if he had got her for nothing, but he gave the $65 for her, and I suppose that he thought that he made a good bargain. The poor brute was half starved during the ten months that we kept her. Sometimes she pastured on the roadside. Sometimes she broke into our neighbours’ crops. Sometimes we kept her at home. Then, George and I waited on her, cutting a handful of grass wherever we could get it. She was a great nuisance. I think that we were all glad when she was sold. She had a foal while she was with us. She was sold for $30 by public auction and the foal for $30. I do not know how much money father paid on her account while we had her, but it was something considerable.
At the time of our selling the mare we had more cattle than we could feed. But we must buy more. At the sale, of which I spoke, we bought three calves; two of them were steers, one heifer. For the steers, we paid $32, for the heifer, $7, all too dear. There was much excitement through whiskey and much foolish buying. I do not think that we drank any whiskey but excitement is contagious. I was sorry about the buying. I thought of the feeding. It cost us a struggle to feed our cattle through the winter. We bought food for them and we begged food for them. Yes, we begged straw, and it fell to me to go for it, for I was the ox driver. I did not like the job.
I now come to another painful little episode in our family history. During our first winter, 1834, we went into store keeping. I do not know how that came. I think that some of the neighbours suggested. Our parents talked over the matter between themselves. They compared the wholesale price with the retail price and they thought that they could make money by buying and selling. They did not take into account the bad debts that lessen the storekeeper’s profits. They did not think of the loss that they would sustain by buying for cash and selling on credit. So, we went into storekeeping. Father hired a man to draw goods from Preston, all kinds of goods for a general store, hardware, dry goods, groceries, et cetera.
We did not continue in the business for very long. I do not think that father ever renewed his stock of goods. It did not pay. In the summer of 1836 we sold our Guelph farm. I do not know why we took that step. It was a good farm, small, only 50 acres. The man who got it had a great bargain. It was sold for $400, to be paid in ten years, $40 a year and no interest. A neighbour afterwards said to my mother , “Ye gied away your farm. If I had kenned I wud hae gien ye that for’t in your luif”. As I look back, I wonder much that none of our neighbours knew anything about father’s intention to sell.
We then began to prepare for moving again. We bought a good deal of hay because we had many cattle. This hay was drawn to Puslinch to the farm that father had bought in 1834. When the time came for moving, a kind neighbour, who had horses, took our parents and George and Jane down in his sleigh. We three older boys were left to drive down the cattle. On a bright, fine morning in March, I think, we made an early start. We had the oxen, drawing twelve bushels of seed potatoes, two cows, two yoke of steers, and two heifers. We had a very fine day and we would have reached our new home in good time but we lost some hours because of the slipping nature of a steep hill south of Guelph. That hill is not so steep now. Because of that delay we did not reach our Puslinch home until eight o’ clock.
In March 1838, we moved from Guelph to Puslinch with all our substance. We had ten horned cattle, some pigs, and fowls. We thought that we had a large herd of cattle. It was large in those days when we had very little food for them. We brought some hay with us from Guelph, but we had no straw. The poor cows had no bedding. A barnyard is a very cold place when there is no straw in sight. Our barnyard had a very cold appearance in March 1838. One of our neighbours was in a worse position. He had neither straw nor hay. His cows were dying for want of food. Mrs. N. came to us for help. Our hay was nearly done. We made up a small bundle for her, but Mr. N., knowing our circumstances, would not take it. When neighbours pass through an experience like that, their hearts are strangely drawn out to each other. So adversity is not an unmixed evil.
Soon after moving, we began to prepare for sugar making. For making maple sugar we must have maple trees. There are other things required, troughs, boilers, spouts, gauge, et cetera. We had very few maple trees on our lot, not enough to make what was called a “sugar bush”. There was a rough lot joining our lot. On it, there was a sugar bush. That lot was owned by a Mr. Kennedy, who was working at “the front”. Dundas and that neighbourhood were called “the front” in those days. Mr. Kennedy had cousins, neighbours of ours. Through them, we obtained leave to make sugar on their cousin’s lot. As I look back, I wonder that we should have asked for such a great thing. At that time, we looked on the tree as a common enemy. From a certain standpoint, I do not wonder at that. There is a sense in which the tree was a common enemy.
In the early part of the last century, the tree proudly said, “I am monarch of all that I survey.” But when man appeared with his axe over his shoulder, the tree began to tremble, and there was war between man and the tree. It was soon seen that the axe was going to be the conqueror. As the tree lost, man gained, and wherever man was found these words were heard, “Death to the tree!”, and as the trees fell, one after another, hundreds on hundreds, and thousands on thousands, the earth trembled. But man rejoiced, saying, “We shall now get bread for our children.” The earth, which has been producing nothing but trees will now produce an abundance of food for man and beast. The wilderness will become a garden, and what was the home of wolves and bears, will now be the home of men, women, and children. Instead of wolves, will be heard the shouts and hearty laughter of happy, healthy children as they go out for the cows after coming home from school. And the neighing of horses will be heard, and the lowing of cows, and the bleating of lambs, and the crowing of the cock, all the sounds which proceed from the farm, teeming with life and happiness.
But some of us who, sixty or seventy years ago, saw the woods in all their glory and all their grandeur, cannot hinder the tear from falling as we pass the grave of the conquered tree. A thousand years B.C., these words were often sung, “A man was famous and held in estimation, according as he lifted up his axe, thick trees upon.” They were often sung too in the early part of the last century. But now we sing them on the minor key as we think of the glory of the forest, which once was, but is no more.
I have given this history of the tree to show that the loan of a sugar bush was not such a great thing in those days as it would be now.
The spring of 1837 was a sad time for the poor cows. Some of our neighbours tried to keep their cows alive by feeding them with the roots of dandelions. Many of the poor creatures died of weakness in those days, weakness brought on by hunger. This question was put: “Tom, how are your cows doing?” Answer: “They are a’ deed.” I do not know that all the cows were dead but that many of them were.
Our mothers looked forward with anxious hearts when they saw the cows gradually losing their strength. Often, the hope of the family, the cow, was so reduced that she could not rise from her bed without help. Sometimes one person was sufficient to get the cow to her feet. That was when she had reached one stage of weakness. At a farther advanced stage, three people were required. One would take the cow by the tail and the other two would take a long, strong, course bag and put it under the cow, then one at each end of the bag would lift as the cow tried to get up on her feet. In this case, there are four, all willing in the same direction. The cow wills and tries to get up onto her feet, the man at the tail wills and tries to lift the cow, and the two at the bag try for the same thing. If the cow could not be raised to her feet in this way, the case was thought to be hopeless. Sometimes the cow regained her strength and lived to help the mother to feed her children, and sometimes she died.
Then, the boys grew sad as they saw the oxen losing their strength. We often saw our oxen so weakened by hunger that they could not plough for two hours before their tongues would be hanging out, and when we said “Gee up”, they would cast on us such a look. They seemed to say, “We cannot do it. Do you not see that the flesh has left our bones?” With sorrow in our hearts, we often saw them lie down in the plough through exhaustion. Yes, mothers and cows, boys and oxen, suffered much in those dark days.
In addition to the cattle, we had three sheep and some pigs. Our fences were bad so we had to keep our pigs shut in when we could not be with them. It fell to the younger members of the family to attend to those animals. Sometimes we gathered food for them and sometimes they gathered their own food. They pastured on the road, rooting up dandelions, et cetera. One evening, when George and Jane were looking for the cows, they discovered a bed of “cow cabbage”, protected from the cows by bush heaps. I need not say that they rejoiced greatly over their discovery. We carried the cabbage home in bags for the sheep. They enjoyed it much. I think that they were sorry when it was all eaten. Then we gathered dandelions. They grew plentifully among the potatoes.
In 1837, we had a very good crop of potatoes. We never had an abundant crop until then. They were planted very carefully. Father, George, and I did that work. Thomas and James were preparing for house building. We built what was considered a good house in those days. Then, for the potatoes, we had a good deal of well-rotted manure. Father did the manuring. George and I carried it from the cow house on a hand-barrow. We had no wheelbarrow in those days. Both potatoes and dandelions did well in that rich soil. The latter we gathered for the pigs. We were glad to get them. There was a strong bond of sympathy between our animals and ourselves. They seemed to know that we were doing everything in our power to help them.
As I have said, animals of all kinds suffered much from hunger in those days. Here is one sad illustration. Two dogs attacked a sow to satisfy their hunger. When they were found, they had the poor creature down, preparing to tear the skin from her bones. But the sow was rescued. Those were dark days for the cattle, pigs, and dogs. I do not like to think about them.
In the winter of 1837-1838 we enlarged our clearing. Thomas and James were good choppers and I too could do something with the axe. Our Puslinch farm was much broken up with wet land, swale and swamp. For this reason, we could not grow much wheat. In those days, wheat was the one thing for bringing in money to the farmers. So Thomas thought that it would be a good plan to sell the Puslinch farm and buy a “rough lot” in Flamboro West Township. It took some time to carry out this plan. The lot was bought in early 1839. The next thing was the building of a shanty. Early one morning in June, we three boys set out to build a shanty. We took nothing with us except our axes and a little food. We walked three or four miles, cut the logs for the shanty, carried them on hand-spikes, and put them up, all in one day. Thomas carried one end of the log, James and I, the other end on a hand-spike. The house was small, 12 feet by 12 feet. We lived in it very comfortably for two winters. In 1839-1840, Thomas and James spent a great part of the winter chopping the first ten acres field of our new farm.
In the summer of 1840, we logged that field. We had a hired man with us. I drove the oxen. The other three rolled up the logs into large piles. We worked very hard, logging half an acre in the day. We began before sunrise and worked until dark. We did not lose one hour by rain during that month. One morning I heard a few drops on the roof of the barn in which we slept. Then, I hoped that we were going to get a little rest, but the rain ceased and there was no rest.
After the logging was finished, we went to our Puslinch home to harvest the grain. That being done, Thomas and I returned to burn the log piles. The weather was very favourable. In a short time, we had all the piles in a blaze. At night, the sight was grand and impressive. The pine logs burned with great fury. There was not as much flame as when the bush was burning but it lasted much longer. We walked about among the burning piles for two days, carrying our hand-spikes to push the logs near to each other. If they did not touch each other, combustion would go on slowly or not at all. So it was our duty to keep them as near each as possible to get them reduced to ashes. It is with burning logs as with other things. “How can one be warm alone?” Our eyes did not enjoy the pungent atmosphere of the logging field during those two days, but we did not suffer in health although breathing smoke and ashes, which enveloped us from morning until night.
Part of the field was hard wood; part was pine. The former was easily burned, not so the latter. Mrs. Stowe says that pine logs are like naughty children. While you are with them, pushing them with hand-spikes, they are bright and flaming, but as soon as you take your eye from them, they grow black and cold. I have often seen maple and elm logs burning singly, but the pine must have company. After the log piles were burned, we carefully spread the ashes. Were that neglected, there would be little or nothing in harvest on what were called “the log pile bottoms”. On September 11th, the wheat was sown on the first five acres. The sowing was finished on September 23rd. We looked forward with anxious expectation to the harvest of 1840. Much depended on it. We were not disappointed. The crop was very good. The house was never without flour after that date. And now, I bring my records to a close.