New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick, 1845

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Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick

These excerpts are from Sketches and Tales Illustrative of Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick, North America, by Frances Beavan, published in London in 1845.

The author had a favourable view of New Brunswick and, when things were not just as she would have preferred, she apologised at length for our ancestors’ peculiarities. My favourite tract is the one about morals and religion which is a 220 word explanation for New Brunswickers’ lack of culture and education. She hoped that these deficiencies would be corrected as British institutions took root.

Some spelling has been corrected, but the odd sentence structure has been retained. The Romantic era writing style is noted, but somehow seems appropriate to these word-pictures.


When people have a particular kind of work requiring to be done quickly, and strength to accomplish it, they invite their neighbours to come, and, if necessary, bring with them their horses or oxen. Frolics are used for building log huts, chopping, piling, ploughing, planting, and hoeing. The ladies also have their particular frolics, such as wool-picking, or cutting out and making the home-spun woollen clothes for winter. The entertainment given on such occasions is such as the house people can afford; for the men, roast mutton, pot pie, pumpkin pie, and rum dough nuts; for the ladies, tea, some scandal, and plenty of “sweet cake”, with stewed apple and custards. There are, at certain seasons, a great many of these frolics, and the people never grow tired of attending them, knowing that the logs on their own fallows will disappear all the quicker for it.

Sugar Making:

A visit to a sugar-camp is an interesting sight to a stranger – it may, perhaps, be two or three miles through the woods to where a sufficient number of maple trees may be found close enough together to render it eligible for sugar-making. All the different kinds of maple yield a sweet sap, but the “rock maple” is the species particularly used for sugar, and perhaps a thousand of these trees near together constitute what is called a sugar-bush. Here, then, a rude hut, but withal picturesque in its appearance, is erected – it is formed of logs, and covered with broad sheets of birch bark. For the universal use of this bark I think the Indians must have given the example. Many beautiful articles are made by them of it, and to the back settlers it is invaluable. As an inside roofing, it effectually resists the rain – baskets for gathering the innumerable tribe of summer berries, and boxes for packing butter are made of it – calabashes for drinking are formed of it in an instant by the bright forest stream. Many a New Brunswick belle has worn it for a head-dress as the dames of more polished lands do frames of French willow; and it is said the title deeds of many a broad acre in America have been written on no other parchment than its smooth and vellum-like folds. The sugar-maker’s bark-covered hut contains his bedding and provisions, consisting of little save the huge round loaf of bread, known as the “shanty loaf” – his beverage, or substitute for tea, is made of the leaves of the winter green, or the hemlock boughs which grow beside him, and his sweetening being handy bye, he wants nothing more. A notch is cut in the tree, from which the sap flows, and beneath it a piece of shingle is inserted for a spout to conduct it into troughs, or bark dishes, placed at the foot of the tree. The cold frosty nights, followed by warm sunny days, making it run freely, clear as water, and slightly sweet – from these troughs, or bark dishes, it is collected in pails, by walking upon the now soft snow, by the aid of snow shoes, and poured into barrels which stand near the boilers, ready to supply them as the syrup boils down. When it reaches the consistence required for sugar, it is poured into moulds of different forms. Visits to these sugar camps are a great amusement of the young people of the neighbourhood in which they are, who make parties for that purpose – the great treat is the candy, made by dashing the boiling syrup on the snow, where it instantly congeals, transparent and crisp, into sheets. At first the blazing fire and boiling cauldron look strange, amid the solemn loneliness of the forest, along whose stately aisles of cathedral-like grandeur the eye may gaze for days, and see no living thing – the ear hear no sound, save it may be the tapping of the woodpecker, or the whispering of the wind as it sighs through the boughs, seeming to mourn with them for the time when the white man knew them not. But these thoughts pass away when the proprietor, with his pale intelligent face, shaded by a flapping sun hat from the glaring snow, presses us hospitably to “take along a junk of candy, a lump of sugar”, or a cup of the syrup. He sees nothing picturesque or romantic in the whole affair, and only calculates if it will pay for the time it occupies; at the same time, with the produce of his labours he is extremely “clever”, this being the term for generous or hospitable, and one is sometimes startled at its application, especially to women; the persons in England, to whom it is applied, are so unlike the clever women of New Brunswick, those dear old creatures, who know not the difference between Milton and Dilworth, and whose very woolen gowns are redolent of all-spice and apples.

Morals and Religion:

The state of morals and religion is fast progressing; these, of course, have all their mainspring from education, for an uneducated people can never be, rightly speaking, either moral or religious. So New Brunswick may have the apology for whispered tales that float about, of corn being reaped and wood being felled on the Sabbath-day, and of sacred rites being dispensed with. She is yet in her infancy, and when one thinks that ’tis but sixty years since they first set foot on the shore, where stood one lonely hut, on the site of the now flourishing city of St. John, we must know that their physical wants were then so many that but little attention could be given to the wants of the mind. But now, thanks to the parental care of Britain, schools and churches are rising fast throughout the country, and learning is received with an avidity that marks the active intellect it has to work upon; besides, all these old stories of failings occurred long before the tide of emigration caused them to be enlightened by the visitation of the inhabitants of the gifted climes of the olden world. Well would it be if all those showed as much desire to avail themselves of their means of improvement, as a New Brunswicker does of those enjoyed by him.


  1. A person’s facial features or expression, esp. when regarded as indicative of character or ethnic origin.
  2. The supposed art of judging character from facial characteristics.

Their personal appearance differs much from the English. Cooper says, “the American physiognomy has already its own peculiar cast” – so it has, and can easily be distinguished – in general they are handsomer than the emigrants – darker in complexion, but finer in feature and more graceful in form – not so strong, and fading sooner. Many of the children are perfectly beautiful, but the cherub beauty changes soon, and the women particularly look old and withered while yet young in years. Infantine beauty seems peculiar to the country, for even the children of emigrants born there are much handsomer than those born at home. Such are some of the traits of the natives – then comes the wide circle of emigrants, each (at least the older ones) retaining the peculiarities of their different countries.


A few clumps of cranberry bushes had also been permitted to remain, notwithstanding the American’s antipathy to trees or bushes is such, that his axe, which he hardly ever stirs without, is continually flying about him; but this berry, one amongst the many indigenous to the country, is a useful addition to the winter store – they grow abundantly, and, after the first frost which ripens them they have a brilliant appearance, hanging like clustering rubies, reminding one of the gem-clad boughs of Aladdin. When gathered, they are hung up in bunches, when they become frozen, keeping good till the spring. They are used for tarts and jellies, the frost neither altering their colour nor flavour. Those places are overflown in the spring; the “freshets” caused by the melting of the snow raising the waters above their ordinary level.

Stream Driving:

… wood-boats are used for carrying deals and cord-wood, so called from the stick forming the measure of a cord, which is the mode of selling it in the city for fuel. The deals are floated from the saw mills over the shallows, and piled into the boats. One could sometimes walk across the river on the quantities of wood floating about. The larger pieces of wood or timber are floated singly down the stream nearest to the place whence they are cut. This operation is called stream-driving, and commences as soon as the rapid melting of the snow and ice has so swollen the small streams as to give them power to force and carry the huge pieces of timber, until, at the confluence of the streams, the water becomes wide enough to enable them to form it into rafts, on which raft a hut is built and furnished with the necessaries for subsistence. The gang who have been employed in bringing it so far lay themselves upon it, and allow it to float down the stream, until the breeze wafts them to their destination. These are the scenes of the spring, when all life seems awakening.

Burning a Fallow:

After the evaporation of the steaming vapour of spring has gone forward, and the farmer has operated in the way of ploughing and sowing, on whatever ready-prepared land he may have for the purpose, the first dry “spell” is looked forward to most anxiously to burn off the land which has been chopped during the winter – it is bad policy, however, to depend for the whole crop on this “spring burn”, as a long continuance of wet weather may prevent it. The new settler, on his first season, has nothing else to depend upon; but the older ones chop the land at intervals during the summer, and clear it off in the autumn, and thus have it ready for the ensuing spring. Burning a chopping, or fallow, as it is called, of twelve or fourteen acres in extent, is a grand and even awful sight: rushing in torrents of flame, it rolls with the wind, crackling and roaring through the brushwood, and often extending beyond the limits assigned it, catching the dry stems of ancient trees, the growth of the earlier ages of this continent, which lie in gigantic ruins, half buried in the rising soil, and which will be themes of speculation to the geologists of other days – it rushes madly among the standing trees of the woods, wreathing them to their summits in its wild embrace – they stand at night like lofty torches, or a park decked out with festal lamps for some grand gala. After this first burn, a fallow presents a blackened scene of desolation and confusion, and requires, indeed, a strong arm and a stout heart to undertake its clearance; the small branches and brush-wood alone have been burnt, but the large logs or trunks lie all blackened but unconsumed. These must all be placed in regular piles or heaps, which are again fired, and burn steadily for a few hours, after which all traces of the noble forest are gone, save the blackened stumps and a few white ashes; it is then ready for planting or sowing, with the assistance of the hoe or harrow.


The newspapers in this country, especially those of the United States, are not merely dull records of parliamentary doings, of bill and debate, the rising of corn or falling of wheat, but contain besides reviews and whole copies of the newest and best works of the day, both in science and lighter literature. We dwellers of the forest had no guineas to give for new books, and if we had, unless we freighted ships home on purpose, we could not have procured them. But this was not felt, while for our few yearly dollars the Albion’s pearly paper and clear black type brought for society around our hearths the laughter-loving “Lorrequer”, the pathos of the portrait painter, or the soul-winning Christopher North, whose every word seems written in letters of gold, incrusted with precious jewels. In the “New World” Froissart gave his chronicles of the olden time, and the mammoth sheets of “Era” and “The Notion” brought us the peerless pages of “Zanoni”, or led us away with “Dickens” and “Little Nell”, by the green glades and ancient churches of England. Little did we think while we read with delight of this author’s princely welcome to the American continent, what would be the result of his visit. He came and passed like the wild Simoom. Soon after his return to England an edict came, forbidding in the British provinces of America publications containing reprints of English works. Of the deeper matters connected with the copyright question I know not, but this I do know, that our long winter nights seemed doubly long and drear, with nothing to read but dark details of horrid murder, or deadly doings of Rebeccaite and Chartist. As yet, however, this time was not come, and each passing week saw us now enlightened with the rays of some new bright gem of genius.


The evening is dry and clear, with no trace of rain in the atmosphere, or we would be surrounded with clouds of those awful critters, the mosquitoes, which the cattle bring home. These are often a dreadful annoyance, nothing but a thick cloud of smoke dispelling them, and that only for a time. At night they are particularly a nuisance, buzzing and stinging unceasingly through the silent hours, forbidding all thought of sleep till the dawn shows them clinging to the walls and windows, wearied and bloated with their night’s amusement. Those who are sufficiently acclimated suffer comparatively little – ’tis the rich blood of the stranger that the mosquito loves, and emigrants, on the first season, especially in low marshy situations, suffer extremely from their attacks.

Log Huts in a Settlement:

The dwellings, either the primitive log-hut, the first home of the settler, or the more stately frame-buildings, stand each near the road, on the verge of its own clearing, which reaches back to where the dark woods form a back-ground to the scene. These stretch far and wide over the land, save where appears, amid their density, some lonely settlement or improvement of adventurous emigrant. Those little spots, of so much importance to their owners, yet seem as nothing amid the vast forest. Each dwelling in this country is in itself a theme for study and interest. Here, on one side, is the home of an English settler – amid all the bustle and chopping and burning of a new farm, he has found time to plant a few fruit trees, and has now a flourishing young orchard, and a garden wherein are herbs of “fragrant smell and spicy taste”, to give a warm relish to the night’s repast. For the cultivation of a garden the natives, unless the more opulent of them, seem to care little; and outside the dwelling of a blue nose there is little to be seen, unless it be a cucumber bed among the chips, or a patch of Indian corn. Again, the Scotch settlers may be known by the taste shown in selecting a garden spot – a gentle declivity, sloping to a silvery stream, by which stand a few household trees that he has permitted to remain – beneath them a seat is placed, and in some cherished spot, watched over with the tenderest care, is an exotic sprig of heath or broom. About the Hibernian’s dwelling may be a mixture of all these differing tastes, while perhaps a little of the national ingenuity may be displayed in a broken window, repaired with an old hat, or an approximation towards friendliness between the domestic animals and the inmates. With the interior of these dwellings one is agreeably surprised, they (that is, generally speaking), appear so clean and comfortable. Outside the logs are merely hewed flat, and the interstices filled up with moss and clay, the roof and ends being patched up with boards and bark, or anything to keep out the cold. They certainly look rough enough, but within they are ceiled above and around with smooth shining boards; there are no walls daubed with white-wash, nor floors strewn with vile gritty sand, which last certainly requires all the sanctity of custom to render it endurable, but the walls and floors are as bright and clean as the scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap can make them. This great accessory to cleanliness, soap, is made at home in large quantities, the ashes of the wood burnt in the fire-place making the “ley”, to which is added the coarser fat and grease of the animals used for home consumption. It costs nothing but the trouble of making, and the art is little.

The Woods:

The forests, especially in the hard wood districts, are beautiful in their fresh unbroken solitude – not the solitude of desolation, but the young wild loveliness of the untamed earth. The trees stand close and thick, with straight pillar-like stems, unbroken by leaf or bough, which all expand to the summit, as if for breathing space. There is little brush wood, but myriads of plants and creepers, springing with the summer’s breath. The beautiful dog-wood’s sweeping sprays and broad leaves, the maiden-hairs glossy wreathes and pearly buds, and the soft emerald moss, clothing the old fallen trees with its velvet tapestry, and hiding their decay with its cool rich beauty, while the sun light falls in golden tracery down the birch trees silver trunk, and the sparkling water flashes in the rays, or sings on its sweet melody unseen amid the luxuriant vegetation that conceals it. 


 When I first trod the woods of New Brunswick, I fancied wild animals would meet me at each step – every black log was transformed into some shaggy monster–visions of bears and lucifee’s were ever before me–but these are now but rarely seen near the settlements, although bruin will sometimes make a descent on the sheepfolds; yet they have generally retreated before the axe, along with the more valuable moose deer and caribou, with which the country used to abound. The ugliest animal I ever saw was a huge porcupine, which came close to the door and carried off, one by one, a whole flock of young turkeys; and the boldest, the beautiful foxes, which are also extremely destructive to the poultry; so that in walking the woods one need not be afraid, even if a bear’s foot-print be indented in the soil, as perhaps he is then far enough off, and besides ’tis only in the hungry spring, after his winter’s sleep, he is carnivorous, preferring in summer the roots, nuts, and berries with which the forest supplies him. The living things one sees are quite harmless – the bright eyed raccoon looking down upon us through the branches, or the squirrels hopping from spray to spray, a mink or an otter splashing through the pond of a deserted beaver dam, from which the ancient possessors have also retired, and a hare or sable gliding in the distance, are all the animals one usually sees, with flocks of partridges, so tame that they stir not from you, and there being no game laws, these free denizens of the wild are the property of all who choose to claim them.

 A Wedding, a Sleigh Ride, and the Northern Lights:

 In the days of the early settling of the country, marriages were attended with a ceremony called stumping. This was a local way of publishing the banns, the names of the parties and the announcement of the event to take place being written on a slip of paper, and inserted on the numerous stumps bordering the corduroy road, that all who ran might read, though perchance none might scan it save some bewildered fox or wandering bear; the squire read the ceremony from the prayer-book, received his dollar, and further form for wedlock was required not. Now they order these things differently. A wedding is a regular frolic, and generally performed by a clergyman (though a few in the back settlements still adhere to the custom of their fathers), a large party being invited to solemnize the event. The last winter we were in the country we attended one some distance from home; but here, while flying along the ice paths, distance is not thought of. Nothing can be more exhilarating than sleigh-riding, the clear air bracing the nerves, and the bells ringing gladly out. These bells are worn round the horse’s neck and on the harness, to give warning of the sleigh’s approach, which otherwise would not be heard over the smooth road. The glassy way was crowded with skaters, gliding past with graceful ease and folded arms, “as though they trod on tented ground”. We soon reached our destination, and found assembled a large and joyous party. The festival commenced in the morning, and continued late. The fare was luxuriant, and the bride, in her white dress and orange blossoms (for, be it known, such things are sometimes seen, even in this region of spruce and pine), looked as all brides do, bashful and beautiful. The “grave and pompous father”, and busy-minded mother, had a look which, though concealed, told that at heart they rejoiced to see their “bairn respeckit like the lave”, and “all indeed went merry as a marriage bell”. We and some others left at midnight. The air was piercingly cold, and the bear skins in which we were wrapped soon had a white fringe, where fell the fast congealing breath. There was no moon, and the stars looked dim, in the fitful gleam of the streamers of the aurora borealis, which were glancing in coruscations of awful grandeur along the heavens, now throwing a blood red glare on the snow, their pale sepulchral rays of green or blue imparting a ghastly horror to the scene, or arranging themselves like the golden pillars of some mighty organ, while, ever and again, a wild unearthly sound is heard, as if swords were clashing. Those mysterious northern lights, whose appearance in superstitious times was supposed to threaten, or be the forerunner, of dire calamity; and no wonder was it, for even now, with all the light science has thrown upon such things, there is attached to them, seen as they are in this country, a feeling of dread which cannot all be dispelled.


Written by johnwood1946

January 30, 2013 at 9:46 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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