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Penetanguishene: The Nipissang Cannibals, and a Friendly Brother in the Wilderness

Penetanguishene, pronounced by the Indians Pen-et-awn-gu-shene, "the Bay of the White Rolling Sand," is a magnificent harbor, about three miles in length, narrow and land-locked completely by hills on each side. Here is always a steam-vessel of war, of a small class, with others in ordinary, stores and appliances, a small military force, hospital and commissariat, an Indian interpreter, and a surgeon.

But the presents are no longer given out here, as in 1837 and previously, to the wild tribes; so that, to see the Indian in perfection, you must take the annual government trader, and sail to the Grand Manitoulin Island, about a hundred miles on the northern shore of Lake Huron, where, at Manitou-a-wanning, there is a large settlement of Indian people, removed thither by the government to keep them from being plundered of their presents by the Whites, who were in the habit of giving whiskey and tobacco for their blankets, rifles, clothing, axes, knives, and other useful articles, with which, by treaty, they are annually supplied.

The Great Manitoulin, or Island of the Great Spirit, is an immense island, and, being good land, it is hoped that the benevolent intentions of the government will be successful. An Indian agent, or superintendent, resides with them; and a steamboat, called the Goderich, has made one or two trips to it, and up to the head of Lake Huron, last summer.

I went to Penetanguishene with the intention of meeting this vessel and going with her, but fear that her enterprise will be a failure. She was chartered to run from Sturgeon Bay, about nineteen miles beyond the narrows of Lake Simcoe, in connection with the mail or stage from Toronto, and the Beaver steamboat, plying on Lake Simcoe.

From Sturgeon Bay she went to Penetanguishene, and then to St. Vincent Settlement, and Owen's Sound, on Lake Huron, where a vast body of emigrants are locating. From Owen's Sound, she coasted and doubled Cabot's Head, and then ran down three hundred miles of the shore of Lake Huron to Goderich, Sarnia, Fort Gratiot, Windsor, and Detroit, with an occasional pleasure-trip to Manitoulin, St. Joseph's, and St. Mary's; so that all the north shore of Lake Huron could be seen, and the passengers might take a peep at Lake Superior, by going up the rapids of St. Mary to Gros Cap. But a variety of obstacles occurred in this immense voyage, although ultimately they will no doubt be overcome.

By starting in the Toronto stage early in the morning, the traveler slept on board the Goderich at Sturgeon Bay, a good road having been formed from the Narrows, although, by some strange oversight, this road terminates in a marsh six hundred feet from the bank to the island, on which the wharf and storehouse built for the steamer are erected. This caused much inconvenience to the passengers.

The stage went, or goes, once a week, on Monday, to Holland Landing, thirty six miles, meets the Beaver, which then crosses Lake Simcoe to the Narrows, a small village, thriving very fast since it is no longer a government Indian station, fifty miles, and there lands the travelers, who proceed by stage to Sturgeon Bay, nineteen more, and sleep on board the Goderich, arriving about eight p.m. The vessel gets under weigh, and reaches Penetanguishene by six in the morning: thus the whole route from Toronto, which takes three days by the land road, is performed in twenty-four hours.

But there are drawbacks: the Georgian Bay, between Sturgeon Bay and Penetanguishene, is, as I have already observed, dangerous at night, or in a fog. At Owen's Sound, the population is not far enough advanced to build the extensive wharf requisite, or to lay in sufficient supplies of fuel, and thus great detention was experienced there. At Penetanguishene, the wharf is not taken far enough into deep water for the vessel to lie at, and thus she usually grounded in the mud, and detention again arose. Then again, after rounding Cabot's Head and getting into the open lake, the coast is very dangerous, having not one harbor, until we arrive at the artificial one of Goderich, which is a pier-harbor; for the Saugeen is a roadstead full of rocks, and cannot be approached by a large vessel.

If, therefore, any thing happens to the machinery, and a steamer has to trust to her sails, the westerly winds which prevail on Lake Huron and blow tremendously, raising a sea that must be seen to be conceived of in a fresh-water lake, she has only to keep off the shore out into the main lake, and avoid Goderich altogether, by making for the St. Clair River.

However, the vessel did perform the voyage successfully seven times; and in summer it may do, and, if it does do, will be of incalculable benefit to the Huron tract, and the new settlements of the far west of Canada.

I am, however, afraid that the railroad schemes for opening the country to the south of this tract will for some time prevent a profitable steamboat speculation, although vast quantities of very superior fish are caught and cured now on the shores of Huron, such as salmon-trout and white fish, which, when properly salted or dried, are equal to any salt sea-fish whatever.

The Canadian French, the half-breeds, and the Indians, are chiefly engaged in this trade, which promises to become one of great importance to the country, and is already much encroached upon by adventurers from the United States.

The herring, as far as I can learn, ascends the St. Lawrence no higher than the Niagara River, but Ontario abounds with them and with salmon; a smaller species of white fish also has of late years spread itself over that lake, and is now sold plentifully in the Kingston market, where it was never seen only seven years ago. It is a beautiful fish, firm and well tasted, but rather too fat.

A farmer on the Penetanguishene road has introduced English breeds of cattle and sheep of the best kind. He was, and perhaps still is, contractor for the troops, and his stock is well worth seeing; he lives a few miles from Barrie. Thus the garrison is constantly supplied with finer meat than any other station in Canada, although more out of the world and in the wilderness than any other; and, as fish is plentiful, the soldiers and sailors of Queen Victoria in the Bay of the White Rolling Sand live well.

I was agreeably surprised to find at this remote post that only one soldier drank anything stronger than beer or water; and of course very little of the former, owing to the expense of transport, was to be had. The soldier that did drink spirits did not drink to excess.

How did all this happen in a place where drunkenness had been proverbial? The soldiers, who were of the 82nd regiment, had been selected for the station as married men. Their young commanding officer patronized gardening, cricketing, boating, and every manly amusement, but permitted no gambling. He formed a school for the soldiers and their families, and, in short, he knew how to manage them, and to keep their minds engaged; for they worked and played, read and reasoned; and so whiskey, which is as cheap as dirt there, was not a temptation which they could not resist. In winter, he had sleighing, snowshoeing, and every exercise compatible with the severe weather and the very deep snow incident to the station.

I feel persuaded that, now government has provided such handsome garrison libraries of choice and well selected books for the soldiers, if a ball alley, or racket court, and a cricket ground were attached to every large barrack, there would not only be less drinking in the army, but that vice would ultimately be scorned, as it has been within the last twenty years by the officers. A hard-drinking officer will scarcely be tolerated in a regiment now, simply because excessive drinking is a low, mean vice, being the indulgence of self for unworthy motives, and beneath the character of a gentleman. To be brought to a court-martial for drunkenness is now as disgraceful and injurious to the reputation of an officer as it was to be tried for cowardice, and therefore seldom occurs in the British army.

The vice of Canada is, however, drink; and Temperance Societies will not mend it. Their good is very equivocal, unless combined with religion, as there is only one Father Matthew in the world, nor is it probable that there will be another.

Penetanguishene is at present the ultima Thule of the British military posts in North America. It borders on the great wilderness of the North, and on that backbone of primary rocks running from the Alleghanies, across the thousand islands of the St. Lawrence, to the unknown interior of the northern verge of Lake Superior.

Penetanguishene will not, however, be long the ultima Thule of British military posts in Western Canada, as a large and most important settlement is making at Owen's Sound, on Lake Huron, connected by a long road through the wilderness with Saugeen river, another settlement on the shores of that lake, to prevent the necessity of the difficult water-passage round Cabot's Head; and a steamboat has been put on the route by the Canada Company, to connect Saugeen with Goderich.

The government, up to the 31st of December, 1845, had sold or granted 54,056 acres of land at Owen's Sound, of which 1,168 acres had been chopped or cleared of the forest last year alone; and 1,787 acres of wheat and 1,414 acres of oats had been harvested in 1845. There were 483 oxen, 596 cows, 433 young cattle, and 26 horses; and the population was 1,950, of which 759 were males above sixteen, and 399 males under sixteen, with 395 females above, and 399 under, the same age.

In this new colony there were 1,005 Presbyterians, 195 Roman Catholics, 173 Methodists, 167 of the Church of England, 67 Baptists, 8 Quakers. The other sects or divisions were not enumerated with sufficient accuracy to detail; and Owen's Sound, being as yet buried in the Bush, cannot be visited by casual travelers, unless when an occasional steamer plies from Penetanguishene. There is yet no post-office; but 1,500 newspapers and letters were received or sent in 1845; and two flour-mills and two saw-mills are erected and in use. Three schooners of a small class ply in summer to Penetanguishene. The village is at the head of Owen's Sound, fifteen miles from Cape Croker, and is named Sydenham, containing already thirty-six houses. Government gives 50 acres free, on condition of actual settlement, and that one third is cleared and cropped in four years, when a deed is obtained: another fifty is granted by paying 8s. an acre within three years, 9s. within six years, 10s. an acre within nine years. The soil is good and climate healthy.

North-north-west and north-east of Penetanguishene, all is wood, rock, lake, river, and desert, in which, towards the French river, the Nipissang Indian, the most degraded and helpless of the Red Men, wanders, and obtains scanty food, for game is rare, although fish is more plentiful.

An exploring expedition into this country was sent by Sir John Colborne, in 1835, with a view of ascertaining its capabilities for settlement. An officer of engineers, Captain Baddely, was the astronomer and geologist; a naval officer the pilot; with surveyors and a hardy suite.

They left Lake Simcoe in the township of Rama from the Severn river, and, going a short journey eastward, struck the division line of the Home and the Newcastle districts, which commences between the townships of Whitby and Darlington, on the shore of Lake Ontario, and runs a little to the westward of north in a straight course, until it strikes the south-east borders of Lake Nipissang, embracing more than two degrees of latitude, not one half of which has ever been fully explored.

The plan adopted was to cut out this line, and diverge occasionally from it to the right and left, until a great extent of unknown land on the east, and the distance between it and Lake Huron, which contained a large portion of the Chippewa Indian hunting-grounds, was thoroughly surveyed.

In performing so very arduous a task, much privation and many obstacles occurred—forests, swamps, rivers, lakes, rocky ridges—all had to be passed.

To the eastward of the main line, and for some distance to the westward, good land appeared; and, as the agricultural probe was freely used, chance was not permitted to sway. The agricultural probe is an instrument which I first saw slung over my friend Baddely's shoulders, and of his invention. It is a sort of huge screw gimblet, or auger, which readily penetrates the ground by being worked with a long cross-handle, and brings up the subsoil in a groove to a considerable depth. Specimens of the soil and of rocks and minerals were collected, and a plan was adopted which is a useful lesson to future explorers. A small piece of linen or cotton, about four inches square, had two pieces of twine sewed on opposite corners, and the cloth was marked in printers' ink, from stamps, with figures from 1 to 500. A knapsack was provided, and the specimens were reduced to a size small enough to be carefully tied up in one of these numbered square cloths; and, as the specimens were collected, they were entered in the journal as to number and locality, strata, dip, and appearance. Thus a vast number of small specimens could be brought on a man's back, and examined at leisure.

The toils, however, of such a journey in the vast and untrodden wilderness are very severe, and the privations greater. For, in this tract, on the side next to Lake Huron, there was an absence of game which scarcely ever occurs in the forest near the great lakes. With ice forming and snow commencing, and with every prospect of being frozen in, a portion of the explorers missed their supplies, and subsisted for three whole days and nights on almost nothing; a putrid deer's liver, hanging on a bush near a recent Indian trail, was all the animal food they had found; but this even hunger could scarcely tempt them to cook. I was exploring in a more civilized country near them; but even there our Indian guide was at fault, and, from want of proper precaution, our provision failed. A small fish amongst four or five persons was one day's luxury.

The Nipissang Indians, a very degraded and wretched tribe, live in this desolate region, and, it is said, have sometimes been so reduced for want of game as to resort to cannibalism. We heard that they had recently been obliged to resort to this practice. I was directed, with my friends, to conciliate these people, and to assure them that the British government, so far from intending to injure them by an examination of their country, desired only to ameliorate their sad condition.1

We had a council. The astronomer royal, who was also the geologist, was a fine, portly fellow, whose bodily proportions would make three such carcasses as that which I rejoice in. The nation sat in council and the Talk was held. Grim old savages, filthy and forbidding, half-starved warriors, hideous to the eye, sat in large circle, with the two great Red Fathers, as they called my friend and myself, on account of our scarlet jackets. The pipe passed from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth, and many a solemn whiff ascended in curling clouds: all was solemn and sad.

The speech was made and answered with an acuteness which we were not prepared for. But our explanation and mission were at length received, and the pledge of peace, the wampum-belts, were accepted and worn by the aged chiefs. My friend jogged my elbow once or twice, and thought they were eyeing him suspiciously, for he was to proceed into their country. He looked so fat and so healthy, that he thought their greasy mouths watered for a roasted slice of so fine a subject!

But the wampum pledge is never broken, and we had smoked the calumet of friendship. Thus, although he luxuriated, after a total abstinence of three days, on the sight of a decayed deer's liver, which he could not be prevailed upon to partake of, yet the Nipissang, starving as he must also have been, never fried my friend, nor feasted on his fatness.

This is not the only good story to be told of Penetanguishene; for the American press of the frontier, with its accustomed adherence to truth, discovered a mare's nest there lately, and stated that the British government kept enormous supplies of naval stores, several steam-vessels, a depôt of coal, and everything necessary for the equipment of a large war fleet on Lake Huron, at this little outpost of the West, and that a tremendous force of mounted cavaliers were always ready to embark on board of it at all times.

There are now certainly a good many horses at the village, whereas, in 1837, perhaps one might have found out a dozen by great research there: as for cavalry, unless Brother Jonathan can manufacture it as cheaply and as lucratively as he does wooden clocks or nutmegs, it would be somewhat difficult to raise it at Penetanguishene.

The village is a small, rambling place, with a little Roman Catholic church and a storehouse or general shop or two, about which, in summer, you always see idle Indians playing at some game or other, or else smoking with as idle villagers.

The garrison is three miles from the village, and is always called "The Establishment;" and in the forest between the two places is a new church, built of wood, very small, but sufficient for the Established Church, as it is sometimes called, of that portion of Canada. A clergyman is constantly stationed here for the army, navy, and civilians, and near the church is a collection of log huts, which I placed there some years ago by order of Lord Seaton, with small plots of ground attached to each as a refuge for destitute soldiers who had commuted their pensions.

This Chelsea in miniature flourished for a time, and drained the streets of the large towns of Canada of the miserable objects; but, such was the improvidence of most of these settlers and such their broken constitutions, that, on my present visit, I found but one old sergeant left, and he was on the point of moving.

The commutation of pensions was an experiment of the most benevolent intention. It was thought that the married pensioner would purchase stock for a small farm, and set himself down to provide for his children with a sum of money in hand which he could never have obtained in any other way. Many did so, and are now independent; but the majority, helpless in their habits, and giving way to drink, soon got cheated of their dollars and became beggars; so that the government was actually obliged at length to restore a small portion of the pension to keep them from starvation. They died out, would not work at the Penetanguishene settlement, and have vanished from the things that be. Poor fellows! many a tale have they told me of flood and field, of being sabred by the cuirassiers at Waterloo, of being impaled on a Polish lance, and of their wanderings and sufferings.

The military settlement, however, of the Penetanguishene road is a different affair. It was effected by pensioned non-commissioned officers and soldiers, who had grants of a hundred acres and sometimes more; and it will please the benevolent founder, should these pages meet his eye, to know that many of them are now prosperous, and almost all well to do in the world.

But we must retrace our steps, and wagon back again by their doors to Barrie.

I left the village at half-past six in the morning, raining still, with the wind in the south-east, and very cold. We arrived at the Widow Marlow's, nineteen miles, at mid-day; the weather having changed to fine and blowing hard—certainly not pleasant in the forest-road, on account of the danger of falling trees, to which this pass is so liable that a party of axe men have sometimes to go ahead to cut out a way for the horses.

We passed through the twelve mile woods by a new road, which reduces the extent of actual forest to five, and avoids altogether the Trees of the Two Brothers, noted in Penetanguishene history for the fatal accident, narrated in a former volume, by which one soldier died, and his brother was, it is supposed, frightened to death, in the solemn depths of the primeval and then endless woods.

Near the end of the five mile Bush, about a mile from the first clearance, Jeffrey, the landlord of the inn at the village, has built a small cottage for the refreshment of the traveler, and in it he intends to place his son. In the mean time, until quite completed, for money is scarce and things not to be done at railroad pace so near the North Pole, he has located here an old well known black gentleman, called Mr. Davenport, who was once better to do in the world, and kept a tavern himself.

Having had the honor of his acquaintance for many years, I stopped to see how my old friend was getting on, particularly as I heard that he was now very old, and that his white consort had left him alone in the narrow world of the house in the woods. He received me with grinning delight, and told me that he had just left the new jail at Barrie for selling liquor without a license, which, I opine, is rather hard law against a poor old nigger, who had literally no other means of support, and was most usefully stationed, like the monks of St. Bernard, in a dangerous pass.

But the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, and the woolly head of old Davenport had matter of satisfaction in it from a source that he never dreamed of.

Alone—far away from the whole human world, in the depth of a hideous forest, with a road nearly impassable one half of the year,—he found an unexpected friend.

For fear of the visits of two-footed and four-footed brutes during the long nights of his Robinson Crusoe solitude, old Davenport always shut up his log castle early, and retired to rest as soon as daylight departed; for it did so very early in the evening there, as the solemn pines, with their gray trunks and far-spreading moss-grown arms and dismal evergreen foliage, if it can be called foliage, stood close to his dwelling—nay, brushed with the breath of the wind his very roof.

Recollect, reader, that this lonely dweller in the Bush resided near the spot where the two soldier brothers perished; and you may imagine his thoughts, after his castle was closed at night by the lone warder. No one could come to his assistance, if he had the bugle that roused the echoes of Fontarabia.

He had retired to rest early one night in the young spring-time, when he heard a singular noise on the outside of his house, like somebody moaning, and rubbing forcibly under his window, which was close to the head of his pallet-bed. Quivering with fear, he lay, with these sounds continuing at short intervals, through the whole night, and did not rise until the sun was well up. He then peeped cautiously about, but neither heard nor saw any thing; and, axe in hand and gun loaded, he went forth, but could not perceive aught more than that the ground had been slightly disturbed. This went on for some time, until at last, one fine moonlight night, the old man ventured to open a part of his narrow window; and there he saw rubbing himself, very composedly, a fine large he bear, who looked up very affectionately at him, and whined in a decent melancholy growl.

Davenport had, it seems, thrown some useless article of food out of this window; and Bruin supposed, no doubt, that Blackey did it out of compassionate feeling for a fellow denizen of the forest, and repeated his visits to obtain something more substantial, rubbing himself, to get rid of the mosquitoes, as it was his custom of an afternoon, against the rough logs of the dwelling. He had, moreover, become a little impatient at not being noticed, and scratched like a dog to make the lord of the mansion aware of his presence. This usually occurred about nine o'clock.

Davenport, at last, threw some salt pork to Bruin, which was most gratefully received; and every night after that, for the whole summer and autumn, at nine o'clock or thereabouts, the bear came to receive bread, meat, milk, or potatoes, or whatever could be spared from the larder, which was left on the ground under the window for him. In fact, they soon came to be upon very friendly terms, and spent many hours in each other's company, with a stout log-wall between Davenport and his brother, as he always calls the bear.

When the snows of winter, the long, severe winter of these northern woods, at last came, Bruin ceased his nocturnal visitations, and has never been seen since, the old man thinking that he has been shot or trapped by the Indian hunters.

I asked Davenport if he ever ventured out to look for his brother, but he shook his head and replied, "My brother might have hugged me too hard, perhaps." The poor old fellow is very cheerful, and regrets his brother's absence daily. The bailiffs most likely would not have put him in jail for selling whiskey to a tired traveler, but would have avoided the castle in the woods, if they thought there was any chance of meeting Bruin.

1 Some time afterwards, during the period in which Lord Glenelg held the Colonial Office, I was appointed to report upon the state and condition of the Indians of Canada, by his lordship, without my knowledge or solicitation; this was never communicated to me by the then Lieut.-Governor of Upper Canada, and I only knew of it last year, by accidentally reading a report on the subject made by order of the House of Assembly, after I left Canada. I do not know if his lordship will ever read this work, or the gentleman to whom I believe I was indebted for the intended kindness; and, if either should, I beg to tender my thanks thus publicly.

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Source: Canada and the Canadians, Volume I, 1849


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