Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Pen Pictures of Early Pioneer Life in Upper Canada


THE camp-meetings of the present day are to a large extent social gatherings, with religion and fashion mixed up together, but in the olden time they were times of spiritual outpouring. It was only among the Methodists they were held. Their churches being few and scattered, this was one way they had chosen for getting the people together in the summer time for special revival services, and some of the results were truly wonderful. The zeal of the early Methodist was untiring. He was sincere and earnest, and when these two qualities are combined great results are sure to follow. The camp-meetings usually lasted from one to two weeks. Crowds of people came from near and far to attend them. A great many were attracted out of curiosity. Many that went there to scoff remained to Pray. Some remained on the ground living in tents and cabins made of boards. Provisions were sold on the ground.

People were frequently overcome by the "Power," as it was called, and would lie prostrate on the ground for some time. We are inclined to think that this was only the reaction from the nervous frenzy that they had worked themselves into. Meetings were held nearly every hour of the day. There were mass meetings for all, and prayer and praise meetings in the different tents. The voice of prayer could be heard in all parts of the ground. No doubt great good came of these meetings.

The following description of a camp-meeting held in Northumberland County over fifty years ago, as given me by a friend who attended it, may be of interest to the reader: "The camp was situated in the woods, and consisted of board shanties sufficient to accommodate 500 people. In the centre of the ground was a square space large enough to seat the crowds of people-who gathered there for the Sunday service. At each of the four corners, raised on posts, was a platform covered with earth, on which pine knots were burned for giving light at the nightly meetings. At one end of the ground was the preacher's stand, in front of which was a space covered with straw, and roped off for the penitents to assemble. The public meeting was announced by a horn from the preacher's cabin"

The Old-Time Funerals.

There were no regular undertakers in the pioneer times, all the work connected with a burial, from the laying out of the body to the digging of the grave, being done by the neighbors and friends. A carpenter or handy man was employed to make the coffin. Usually it was. made out of pine and stained with lamp-black; but it was very frequently made out of good cherry or oak, nicely planed and varnished, and looked almost as imposing as the modern coffin or casket with its drapery and silver mountings. It was the practice with some of the old settlers to select lumber and lay it away years beforehand for the making of their coffins. It is said that the coffin of one of the old pioneers in Norfolk County was hewed out of a walnut log. The style or shape of the coffin was somewhat different to that of today. The cover was raised in the centre, the upper part being on hinges, so that it could be turned back.

On the day set for the funeral the friends would assemble at the house and follow the remains to their last resting-place, perhaps in the family plot on the farm. After the obsequies were all over many of them would return to the house, where refreshments were served to all, and the will (if any) read. There being no hearse then available, the coffin was conveyed to the cemetery in a farmer's wagon or sleigh, a blanket or quilt being thrown over it in the winter time to keep off the snow. In the settlements where the neighbors were few and far between, a man was sent around on horseback to notify the people of a death and invite them to the funeral. In the early days, if the cemetery was any distance from the residence of the deceased, the funeral procession would consist of a line of farm wagons, the more fashionable "democrat" and buggy being seldom seeu4Jndeed, a farmer who had one was thought to be getting up in the world.

The Superstitions of the People.

The people of fifty and one hundred years ago were more superstitious than they are now, the great advances in education having rid the minds of the people of many of the superstitious beliefs held by the majority of the people years ago. Science has helped to explain away and make ridiculous many of the ideas of the supernatural indulged in by our forefathers, and yet we cannot blame our ancestors for their erroneous theories and practices; they were trained to them. These things were fostered by people of all classes. The people of New England believed in witches, ghosts, etc., and we find the German settlers bringing similar notions from the Fatherland. The old settlers always butchered their hogs, made their soap, sowed their grain, plucked their geese in a certain time of the moon. We do not deny that the moon has a great influence over the earth, but the old settlers certainly carried this idea of the moon's influence too far, imagination in most cases having more influence than the moon. The old almanac always hung by a nail to the wall, and was often consulted by the old folks. When grandmother wished to wean the baby she was very particular in what sign of the zodiac she did it. Such phenomena of nature as thunder, lightning, etc., which are now known to be the result of natural causes, were at one time by many ascribed to an angry God. Scientific men, however, by giving an explanation of these disturbances, have helped to divest society of much of its former superstition.

Ghosts, Hobgoblins and-Will-o'-the Wisps.

Among the early settlers a belief in the existence of ghosts and hobgoblins was more traditional than real. Occasionally there might be a man who claimed to have seen a ghost, but such stories were usually matters of hearsay. As the people became better informed folks they utterly repudiated such ideas. Although may not as a rule have believed in such things, they took delight in talking about them, and as all children have listening ear they heard these stories and were filled with fear, in consequence of which they were afraid to go into a dark room alone, and there always was a certain amount of dread of having to go to a cemetery after night although people may be skeptical regarding ghosts and apparitions, it is oftentimes hard to eradicate the idea of such things from their minds. We have no way of finding out the cause of the many wonderful things that occurred in the past, but a belief in such things is gradually wearing away. We hear less of them every year; this of itself shows that they were the creatures of fancy and a superstitious mind, as well as the inventions of certain designing and wicked persons for the purpose of deceiving the people, in order to gain some unworthy object they had in view. Most of these superstitious originated in the Old Country, and many of them could be traced back to the Middle Ages  Certain parts of Europe, a century or two ago, were with robbers and smugglers, who made their living by plundering the people. They had their hiding-places in lonely and unfrequented spots and sometimes in old abandoned churches and graveyards, from which they would issue dressed in the form of ghosts and hobgoblins to frighten the people away. No doubt the woman in white with streaming hair, and the headless man on horseback, were the invention of such men, for people nowadays do not see such things. Sometimes the people associated such fancies with the place where someone had been murdered, and oftentimes the houses where such wicked deeds had been committed were supposed to be haunted by the spirit of the murdered person, strange sights being seen in them and strange sounds being heard issuing from them at times. The father of the writer often used to relate a story about a drunken man that might throw light on some of the graveyard stories. A man passing by a cemetery after night heard strange noises issuing from it. Not being satisfied io go by without investigating, he entered the cemetery. Following in the direction the sound proceeded from, he came to a freshly-dug grave in which a drunken man had fallen, and who, no doubt, thinking the Day of Judgment had come, and being unable to extricate himself, lay there groaning in terror. The will-o'-the-wisp, or jack-o'-lantern, as it is sometimes called, is nothing more than a certain kind of gas which issues from the decaying vegetation in marshy places, and very frequently in Ireland from the bogs, which, as it comes into contact with the outer air, ignites and floats around in the air for a time like a ball of fire. This was supposed by some people to be the spirit of some departed person let loose to frighten folks. Punk, a fungus growth in decaying wood, when wet, will sometimes emit a phosphorescent light. This is called "fox fire."

We will not attempt to denounce or utterly repudiate all belief in mysterious powers, for in mesmerism, mind- reading, etc., we see manifestations of an unknown force; but just what that force is we are unable to say, although our limited knowledge of such things would lead us to believe that it does not emanate from any person or place outside of the material world.

The Lightning Bug or Firefly.

There are very few people but have experienced a peculiar creepy feeling when seeing the fireflies darting around on the edge of a wood in the dusk of the evening, this feeling generally being more acute if in the vicinity of some old deserted building. Along with the croaking of the frogs, the chirping of the crickets and the hooting of the night owl, they made the silence of the evening very weird and doleful, and to a person of superstitious mind (and most of us were so inclined as children) suggestive of ghosts, spooks, etc., and helped the imagination to conjure up images of such; a white horse or cow, sheep or pig, often being trans- formed into a phantom creature, and, unless circumstances afterwards explained the mystery, were always believed to be such by the beholder.

In Time of Sickness.

Doctors were not obliged to hold diplomas in the early days in order to be allowed to practise medicine, the law requiring registration not coming into force till many years afterwards. There were, to be sure, a few educated medical men, but there was a larger number of quacks and herb-doctors, some of whom had -the reputation of being quite skilful. Many of the old -women made excellent midwives, their services being 'often called into requisition in the absence of a qualified doctor or a trained nurse, either of winch it was 'sometimes impossible to obtain. There were also "witch- doctors" and persons who had "charms," people sometimes going miles to visit such persons. An old gentleman told the father of the writer that, when a young man, he was sent on horseback over to Pennsylvania by one of the old settlers to consult a certain witch-doctor.

Our grandmothers always kept a collection of herbs on hand for treating the simple ailments of the family. These herbs were collected at certain times, tied into bundles and hung up to the rafters- and walls of the house to dry. Vaccination, blood-letting and cupping were commonly practised, there generally being some one in the neighborhood with skill in performing these operations, to whom the neighbors would go when requiring such treatment. Blood-letting was at the time the great panacea among the people in doctoring. People were bled for nearly every ill. The practice of medicine has indeed undergone a wonderful transformation within the last fifty years, and will not likely undergo as great a process of progression in the coming fifty.

We said the progress was wonderful; might we not add, as still more to be wondered at, that so many patients survived the medical treatment in vogue half a century ago! Many a man who has had the lancet applied to his arm and the life-blood taken away from him, succumbed to the operation, who otherwise and with proper treatment might have lived to a long and useful life. Cold water was strictly forbidden anyone suffering from a fever, it being stupidly supposed that it would cause immediate death. The doors and windows were kept securely closed to prevent any cold air from coming into contact with the patient. During the cholera times, men who were supposed to be dead and had been removed to outhouses, were brought hack to consciousness and recovered by the invigorating action of the pure cold air.

Notwithstanding their ignorance of the practice of ---medicine and of principles of sanitary science, however, -there was apparently less sickness among the people years ago than there is now. No doubt the plain fare —of the people, coupled with much exercise in the shape —of hard work, as well as the wholesome ventilation - furnished by the big chimneys in the living rooms, helped to make people healthier and hardier than the People of the present day. They were, however, not immune from epidemics, such as diphtheria, scarlet -fever, typhoid fever, small-pox, etc., and when these vmade their appearance in a community they sometimes made great ravages.

The healthfulness of the people in the early days was attested by their vigorous old age; many of them, notwithstanding their life of toil, living to be ninety and one hundred years old. Their diet of fried pork and food fried in grease was apparently rendered harmless by their life of hard work in the open air.

Saving Habits of Grandfather.

Then, as now, extravagance was a sin, economy a virtue, but economy seems to have been practised more generally by the people in the early times than at present. In the early days everything was made by hand nowadays nearly everything is produced by machinery, which has reduced the price accordingly. Imported goods were so high-priced as to be beyond the reach of the limited means of the struggling settler in the backwoods, in those days of scarcity of money and low prices for farm produce. High ocean freights, added to the cost of conveyance to long distances inland, more than doubled the first cost price of the imported article. Besides, the settlers in the rural districts felt more comfortable in their substantial and inexpensive homemade clothing. And they also knew too well the value of their independence to run into debt for what they could well afford to do without. In this respect it is not too much to say that they were no less happier nor less wise than some of their descendants of the present day, who cut a dash in expensive imported garments obtained on credit. Our forefathers wasted nothing. Every scrap of iron was thrown in a barrel or heap in a corner of theshed, every old piece of furniture was stowed away in the garret or workshop connected with most houses, even the old letters, newspapers and magazines were bundled up and packed in boxes and chests. It is to this characteristic saving of our thrifty ancestors of fifty and one hundred years ago that the relic-hunter is able to unearth mines of wealth of this character in some of the old farmhouses.

Soldier's Monument

Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies.

Mothers sang their children to sleep in the pioneer times, the same as they do now, but they did not dose them with paregoric or Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, or other drugs to keep them quiet; and no doubt the babies were just as well off. About the only medicine given to baby was castor oil or catnip tea. We can imagine we see our grandmothers leaving their work and catching up the baby to lull it to sleep, and perhaps singing to it some of the old-fashioned lullaby songs, or, if it were too cross or troublesome, telling it that if it would not be a good baby the bears would come and take it away. The old-fashioned rocker cradles had strings tied across the top over the cover to keep the baby in, so that the women folks could get their work done; and many a mother in the backwoods has rocked her baby to sleep in a sap-trough and it is said that one mother used a cannon-ball box as a cradle. It must have been quite an honor to be rocked in such a cradle. The Indian mother would strap her baby or papoose to a board and lean it up against a tree; when travelling she would put the baby, board and all on her back. Some think this accounts for the Indian being so straight and upright in his physique. In the early days of New England the mothers are said to have placed their babies in baskets and hung them on the trees; this is said to be the origin of the Mother Goose nursery song:

"Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top;
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough bends the cradle will fall,
And down cornea cradle, baby and all!

Among the nursery rhymes and lullabies recited and sung by our grandmothers were the following:

"Hush, my child, lie still and slumber," "Trot, trot to Boston," "Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man," "Bah! bah! black sheep!" "Once there was a little boy who lived by himself," "Shoe the horse, and shoe the mare, and let the filly colt go bare," etc.

One of the German ones went thus:

"Trot, trot, trifle,
Der bauer hat ein flue,
Fills springt aveek,
Und das kind felt in der dreck.'

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.