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Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick, Part 2

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Life in the Backwoods of New Brunswick, Part 2 of 2

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.

An Emigrant’s House:

The fire-flies now gleam through the air like living diamonds, and the evening star has opened her golden eye in the rich deep azure of the sky. Our home stands before us, with its white walls thrown in strong relief by the dark woods behind it: and here, on this adjoining lot, lives our neighbour who is ill – he who today has had the “barn raising”. It would be but friendly to call and enquire for him. The house is one of the best description of log buildings. The ground floor contains two large apartments and a spacious porch, which extends along the front, has the dairy in one end and a workshop in the other, that most useful adjunct to a New Brunswick dwelling, where the settlers are often their own blacksmiths and carpenters, as well as splint pounders and shingle weavers. The walls are raised high enough to make the chamber sufficiently lofty, and the roof is neatly shingled. As we enter, an air of that undefinable English ideality – comfort – seems diffused, as it were, in the atmosphere of the place. There is a look of retirement about the beds, which stand in dim recesses of the inner apartment, with their old but well-cared-for chintz hangings, differing from the free uncurtained openness of the blue nose settler’s couch; a publicity of sleeping arrangements being common all over America, and much disliked by persons from the old countries, a bed being a prominent piece of furniture in the sitting and keeping rooms of even those aristocratic personages, the first settlers. The large solid-looking dresser, which extends nearly along one side of the house, differs too from the light shelf of the blue nose, which rests no more crockery than is absolutely necessary. Here there is a wide array of dishes, large and small – old China tea-cups, wisely kept for show, – little funny mugs, curious pitchers, mysterious covered dishes, unearthly salad bowls, and a host of superannuated tea-pots. Above them is ranged a bright copper kettle, a large silvery pewter basin, and glittering brazen candlesticks, all brought from their English home, and borne through toil and danger, like sacred relics, from the shrine of the household gods. The light of the fire is reflected on the polished surface of a venerable oaken bureau, whose unwieldy form has also come o’er the deep sea, being borne along the creeks and rivers of New Brunswick, and dragged through forest paths to its present resting place. In the course of its wanderings by earth and ocean it has become minus a foot, the loss of which is supplied by an unsmoothed block of pine, the two forming not an inapt illustration of their different countries. The polished oaken symbol of England receiving assistance in its hour of need from the rude but hardy pine emblem of New Brunswick.

‘The Law of Kindness’ Applied to a Criminal:

Bolts and bars being all unused, the business of locksmith is quite at a discount in the back woods, where all idea of a midnight robbery is unknown; and yet, if rumour was true, there were persons not far from us to whom the trade of stealing would not be new. One there was of whom it was said, that for this reason alone was New Brunswick graced with his presence. He had in his own country been taken in a daring act of robbery, and conveyed in the dark of night to be lodged in gaol. The officers were kind-hearted, and, having secured his hands, allowed his wife to accompany him, themselves walking a short distance apart. At first the lady kept up a most animated conversation, apparently upbraiding the culprit for his conduct. He answered her, but by degrees he seemed so overcome by her remarks that he spoke no more, and she had all the discourse to herself. Having arrived at their destination, the officers approached their prisoner, but he was gone, the wife alone remained. The darkness of the night had favoured his escape while she feigned to be addressing him, and, having thus defeated the law, joined her spouse, and made the best of their way to America, where the workings of the law of kindness were exemplified in his case. His character being there generally unknown, he was treated and trusted as an honest man, and he broke not his faith. The better feelings were called into action; conscientiousness, though long subdued, arose and breathed through his spirit the golden rule of right.


Although in this country the local government has done much towards the advancement of schools, yet much improvement requires to be made – not in their simple internal arrangements, for which there is no regular system, but in the more important article of remuneration. The government allows twenty pounds a year to each school; the proprietors, or those persons who send their children to the school, agreeing to pay the teacher a like sum at least (though in some of the older settled parts of the country from forty to fifty pounds is paid by them); as part payment of this sum providing him with board, &c., &c., and this alone is the evil part of the scheme; this boarding in turn with the proprietors, who keep him a week or a month in proportion to the number of the pupils they send, and to make up their share of the year, for which term he is hired, as his engagement is termed – an expression how derogatory to the dignity of many a learned dominie? From this cause the teacher has no home, no depository for his books, which are lost in wandering from place to place; and if he had them, no chance for study: for the log-house filled with children and wheels is no fit abode for a student. This boarding system operates badly in many ways. The nature of the blue nose is still leavened with that dislike of coercive measures inherited from their former countrymen, the Yankees. It extends to their children, and each little black-eyed urchin, on his wooden bench and dog-eared dilworth in hand, must be treated by his teacher as a free enlightened citizen. But even without this, where is there in any country a schoolmaster daring enough to use a rattan, or birch rod, to that unruly darling from whose mother he knows his evening reception will be sour looks, and tea tinged with sky-blue, but would not rather let the boy make fox-and-geese instead of ciphering, say his lesson when he pleased, and have cream and short-cake for his portion. Another disagreeable thing is, that fond and anxious as they are for “larning,” they have not yet enough of it to appreciate the value of education. The schoolmaster is not yet regarded as the mightiest moral agent of the earth; the true vicegerent of the spirit from above, by which alone the soul is truly taught to plume her wings and shape her course for Heaven. And in this country, where operative power is certain wealth, he who can neither wield axe or scythe may be looked on with a slight shade of contempt: but this only arises from constant association with the people; for were the schoolmaster more his own master, and less under their surveillance by having a dwelling of his own, his situation otherwise would be comfortable and lucrative.

The state of school affairs begins to attract much notice from the legislature, and no doubt the present system of school government will soon be improved. A board of education is appointed in each county, whose office it is to examine candidates for the office of parish school teacher, and report to the local governor as to their competency, previous to his conferring the required license. Trustees are also appointed in the several parishes, who manage the other business connected with them, such as regulating their number, placing masters where they are most wanted, and receiving and apportioning the sum appropriated to their support, or encouragement, by the government.

Library in the Backwoods:

As winter was now approaching, how to pass its long evenings agreeably and rationally was a question which was agitated. The dwellers of America are more enlightened now than in those old times when dancing and feasting were the sole amusements, so a library was instituted and formed by the same means as the church had been – a load of potatoes, or a barrel of buckwheat, being given by each party to purchase books with. The selection of these, to suit all tastes, was a matter of some difficulty, the grave and serious declaiming against light reading, and regarding a novel as the climax of human wickedness. One old lady, who by the way was fond of reading, and had studied the ancient tale of Pamela regularly, at her leisure, for the last forty years, was the strongest against these, and, on being told that her favourite tome was no less than a novel, she consigned it to oblivion, and seemed, for a time, to have lost all faith in sublunary things. After some little trouble, however, the thing was satisfactorily arranged.

Falling Through the Ice:

Travelling on the ice is not altogether free from danger; and even when it is thought safe, there are places where it is dangerous to go. The best plan of avoiding these is to follow the track of those who have gone before – never, but with caution, and especially at night, striking out a new one.

One of the parties who accompanied us wished to reach the shore. There was a path which, though rather longer, would have led him safely to it, but he determined to strike across the unmarked ice, to where he wished to land. All advised him to take the longer way, but he was resolute, and turned his horse’s head from us. The gallant steed bounded forward – the golden light was beaming from the sky – and we paused to watch his progress. A fearful crashing was heard – then a sharp crack, and sleigh, horse, and rider vanished from our sight. ’Twas horrible to see them thus enclosed in that cold tomb.

Assistance was speedily sought from the shore, but ere it came I heard the horrid shout of “steeds that snort in agony”, while the blue sulphurous flash from above showed the man struggling helplessly among the breaking ice. Poles were placed from the solid parts to where he was, and he was rescued. He was carried to the nearest house, and with some difficulty restored to warmth. The sleighing rarely passes without many such accidents occurring, merely through want of caution.

Blowing the Horn:

By the accustomed sun-mark on the floor, which Sybèl prefers to the clock, she sees ’tis now the hungry hour of noon, and blows the horn for Lank to come to dinner. This horn is a conk shell, bored at one end, and its sound is heard at a great distance. At the hours of meal-time it may be heard from house to house, and, ringing through the echoing woods from distant settlements, telling us, amid their loneliness, of happy meetings at the household board; but it comes, too, at times, when its sounds are heralds of trouble and dismay. I have heard it burst upon the ear at the silent hour of midnight, and, starting from sleep, seen the sky all crimsoned with the flames of some far off dwelling, whose inmates thus called for assistance; but long ere that assistance could be given, the fire would have done its worst of destruction, perhaps of death. I have also heard it, when twilight gathered darkly o’er the earth, floating sad and mournfully since sun-set, from some dwelling in the forest’s depths, whose locality, but for the sounds, would not be known. Some member of the family has been lost in the woods, and the horn is blown to guide him homewards through the trackless wilderness. How sweet must those sounds be to the benighted wanderer, bearing, as they do, the voice of the heart, and telling of love and affectionate solicitude!


The dinner, as is often the case in the backwoods in summer, is “a regular pick-up one”, that is, composed of any thing and every thing. People care little for meat in the hot weather; and, in fact, a new settler generally uses his allowance of beef and pork during the long winter, so that the provision for summer depends principally on fish, with which the country is amply supplied, and the produce of the dairy. The present meal consists of fine trout from the adjoining stream, potatoes white as snow-balls, and, pulverising on the dish, some fried ham, and young French beans, which grow there in the greatest luxuriance, climbing to the top of their lofty poles till they can grow no higher. I have often thought them scions of that illustrious bean-stalk owned by Jack in the fairy tale. We have also a bowl of salad, and home-made vinegar prepared from maple sap, a large hot cake, made with Indian meal, and milk and dried blue-berries, an excellent substitute for currants. Biscuits, of snow white Tennessee flour, raised with cream and sal-a-ratus. This last article, which is used in place of yeast, or eggs, in compounding light cakes, can also be made at home from ley of the wood ashes, but it is mostly bought in town. The quantity of this used is surprising, country “store-keepers” purchasing barrels to supply their customers. A raspberry pie, and a splendid dish of strawberries and cream, with tea (the inseparable beverage of every meal in New Brunswick), forms our repast; and such would it be in ninety-nine houses out of a hundred of the class I am describing. Many of the luxuries, and all the necessaries of life, can be raised at home, by those who are industrious and spirited enough to take advantage of their resources.

The Bushwhacker:

One of the settlers has to-day a “barn-raising frolic”, and thither they are bound. They present a fair specimen of their class in the forest settlements. The bushwhacker has nothing of the “bog-trotter” in his appearance, and his step is firm and free, as though he trod on marble floor. The attire of the younger parties which, although coarse, is perfectly clean and whole, has nothing rustic in its arrangement. His kersey trousers are tightly strapped, and the little low-crowned hat, with a streaming ribbon, is placed most jauntily on his head. His axe is carried over one shoulder and his jacket over the other, which in summer is the common mode of carrying this part of the apparel. Those who have been lumbering may easily be known among the others, by sporting a flashy stock or waistcoat, and by being arrayed in “boughten” clothes, procured in town at a most expensive rate in lieu of their lumber. Little respect is, however, paid here to the cloth, (that is, broadcloth), for it is a sure sign of bad management, and most likely of debt, for the back settlers to be arrayed in any thing but their own home-made clothing. The grave and serious demeanour of these people is as different from the savage scowl of the discontented peasant, murmuring beneath the burthen of taxation and ill-remunerated toil, as from the free, light-hearted, and careless laughter, both of which characterize the rural groups in the fertile fields of England. New Brunswick is the land of strangers; even the first settlers, the “sons of the soil”, as they claim to be, have hardly yet forgot their exile, a trace of which character, be he prosperous as he may, still hovers over the emigrant. Their early home, with its thousand ties of love, cannot be all forgotten. This feeling descends to their children, losing its tone of sadness, but throwing a serious shade over the national character, which, otherwise has nothing gloomy or melancholy in its composition. There is also a kind of “looking a-head” expression of countenance natural to the country, which is observed even in the children, who are not the careless frolicsome beings they are in other countries, but are here more truly miniature men and women, looking, as the Yankees express it, as if they had all cut their “eye-teeth”.


Written by johnwood1946

February 6, 2013 at 9:01 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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