New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Diary on the Tobique, 1851

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The following is from the book Adventures in Canada, Being Two Months on the Tobique, New Brunswick (An Emigrant’s Journal). An unidentified man travelled from England to New Brunswick in 1851 in search of a new home. He subsequently died and another person, known only as M.C.S., compiled the traveler’s letters and journal into the book which was published in London, in 1866.

In this segment, the traveler is exploring the Tobique River with Joe, his Indian guide.

Some of the traveler’s words in describing the Indians are in poor taste by today’s standards. However, he was not mean spirited, nor was he and ignorant person, and I have left his commentary as-found.

 Tobique Narrows

Tobique Narrows

A watercolour by John Henry Phair, ca. 1880. From the web site


Diary on the Tobique

The Indians and the Wigwam

Next day, at 3 p.m., we started on our excursion into the wilds of the Tobique, a river with but few inhabitants, as far as sixteen miles up, and those chiefly unauthorized squatters. For about half a mile from the mouth it runs through a wide bed, cleft by two or three pretty islands, then a sudden turn brings us into the Narrows, like entering the gates of death; a deep narrow chasm, cleft through the rocks. High over-head on either side rise the rugged precipitous walls, crowned by overhanging birch and spruce forests.

On our emerging from these Narrows, Joe espied some wild ducks, one of which I hit at a long shot, though without disabling it [Joe was his Indian guide and companion]. I rose, however, several pegs in Joe’s estimation, who bestowed equal praises on the rifle and its owner. “That was a good shot, I tell you; where did you get that rifle? She throws a ball well, I tell you.”

On a rock where we landed to fish, I espied a harebell [a blue flower], the first I have seen for many years; and with its meekly hanging head it told me long and melancholy tales of times gone by never to return; not that old scenes may not be revisited, and the sunshine bright as ever, and the flowers blossom as then; but it is he who revisits them is past and gone—himself and not himself; the heart that saw them is dead, or worse, is changed, for that change kills not the memory, the long lingering gaze after the fading past.

On we go, shut out from the world by pile upon pile of forests, heaped up in heavy masses on the hills, whose feet the Tobique had washed for many years. Now that the sun was sinking, we began to fish with such tackle as we had. How my friend St. —, that scientific and enthusiastic fisherman, would have laughed had he seen us trailing bits of salt pork over the water, to persuade the trout, who we believed to lurk below, that it was a fly; he, the while, preparing his reel and tapering bamboo, and elegant flies, and offering to give me a shilling for all he doesn’t catch, while I give him half-a-crown for all he does. But how would his ridicule be changed to wonder on seeing a splash and a bounce and a trout, as fast as Joe could cast his pork over the stream. I say Joe, for I must confess that the trout with that unaccountable caprice that fish are subject to, persisted in bestowing their custom on him only. Tired at last of fishing, Joe of success, and I of failure, we resolved to make a night of it with our prey on a low gravelly island or bar just opposite.

Then, indeed, the past seemed come again—all the old familiar preparations for “bushing it,” which my life in Australia had made second nature to me. The kindling of a fire, the making up of a bed,—in this instance done simply by throwing the larger stones from the shingle on which we were to sleep,—the boiling of the tea,—the meal so highly relished,—the supremely gratifying pipe after that; then the spreading of blankets, the lying down to sleep with ten thousand stars to watch over us (unless there are ten thousand drops of rain instead), the gazing deeply into infinite space ere sleep closes the eyes, the deep hush of night only broken by the plash plash of the river over the rock, and the thronging memories which in those hours of still solitude come rushing on—oh! I could not think but that I was in glorious, sunny Australia, till I looked round and saw the canoe, under the lee of which we lay, or Joe’s red Indian face glowing in the light of the blaze as he heaped log upon log; and then I remembered I was the Port Phillip squatter camping in the woods of New Brunswick.

I was roused in the beginning of my sleep by a shout from Joe, which he accounted for, as he sat up looking bewilderedly around, by saying he had dreamed that he had hooked so large a trout that he capsized the canoe, and was shouting to me for help.

September 27th.—The four or five of the trout caught last evening remained after our supper: these, with pork and biscuit, formed breakfast; after which we resumed our cruise. We had proposed to add salmon-spearing to the other sports, and having neglected to bring salt to cure them, I climbed up a steep bank to a little house to get some. I found a good old lady,—a motherly sort of body, whose husband was out “lumbering.” My rifle excited much admiration in her little son, who seized it at once with many exclamations of delight at the beauty of the stock; little wild animals these children of the woods are, where there are no schools to teach them manners; scampering about like little beasts; staring at the stranger with the curiosity and surprise of the colt of the desert; active and untamed as squirrels. In reply to my inquiries about bears, the good old woman assured me that they had indeed “been very much afflicted with bears—they had killed three sheep of hers—and her husband had killed two in a trap and had shot one in the grain; oh! the biggest bear that ever was seen; six men couldn’t hold him.”

I went down again to the river and found Joe in a rather excited state about some ducks he had seen on an island, and of which, to his great delight, he had got one by a very long shot. After a while we landed again, and Joe discovered a partridge, as they call them here, though they much more resemble the grouse in form, though not in temper, for they will stand to be pelted with sticks and stones, almost too stupid or lazy to get out of their way. I shot this one, and thereby increased still more Joe’s admiration of my rifle. This was the hard-wood or white-fleshed partridge. There is another variety called the spruce or soft-wood partridge, with dark flesh, and a more gamey flavour.

We landed to dine beneath a settler’s hut, on the opposite side of the river. I saw a tall, dark-haired lady of the woods, young and comely, carrying a large spinning wheel, with which she stepped quickly and nimbly over the rough rocks till she stood opposite the hut, where her loud, clear tones rang through the air like a note from an organ; a signal to the house, whence shortly issued a man, who crossed and brought her over in a pirogue.

For fifteen or sixteen miles up the Tobique there are a few scattered settlers. The Campbell settlement, which has made some progress, terminates the permanent habitations on the river. Then come the half-savage lumberers and wanderers like ourselves; and for fifty or sixty miles the river knows no other human guests. Our object now was to find some place where we could get a good supply of trout for our evening meal; then to camp, spread our tents, and be miserable at our ease; but this we could not do,—find a fishing place I mean—for in that pouring rain there was no difficulty about the misery. On the extreme verge of the settlement we pitched our oiled canvas tent, and spite of rain, wet ground, and such disagreeables, spent a night of sound sleep. I had, according to Colonel H—’s advice, provided myself with a pound or two of composite candles—an item in their preparations which I would advise no one to omit. In calm weather and beneath a tent they burn well, and are a great comfort. By their light I read and wrote and passed pleasant evenings, which otherwise might drag on rather slowly with only the uncertain flicker of the camp-fire to show you what you are about.

Joe watches me while I write with admiration and envy; he is learning to read—he has got a spelling book and goes to school. I asked him if there were any books printed in the Indian language; he said there are a few, but was greatly shocked when I asked him (not remembering that the Indians hereabouts are all Catholics) if they had any Bibles, and replied indignantly, “No! not Bibles,” as if he were repelling a charge of crime.

28th,—Next day, under pouring rain, we passed the junction of the Wapskebagan with the Tobique and the “Plaster Rocks,” old red sandstone cliffs, containing gypsum, which, from its great fertilizing properties, will probably give that spot considerable value in the event of a settlement being made on this part of the river. About here I first tried what I could do with the pole. The chief difficulty is simply to learn to stand in the little “tottling” canoe without capsizing it or tumbling out. It is as in skating, swimming, or riding; all the tyro has to do is to overcome his fears and nervousness, and as soon as he has done so the rest is easy. In a short time I began to acquire confidence, could throw my weight on the pole, and shove the canoe along at such a rate that Joe assured me I “did it almost quite right.”

The rain continued with such determination that I got sulky and told Joe I had not come all the way from England to get wet on the Tobique, whereat he laughed heartily. After dinner I undertook to “fix” the guns, which wanted cleaning, but, not having so much as a screw to our ramrods, still less proper cleaning rods, I soon contrived to “fix” the ramrod of the gun in the barrel in such a manner as to get it into “a regular fix;” but Joe having waxed it out, I set to work on the rifle, and in two minutes got that into such a mess with a lump of rag at the bottom that I was about to give up that gun for the rest of the expedition. Joe, however, having examined it, observed, “I guess I can get it out,” and then with a needle and a piece of thread and the ramrod of his gun, rigged up a machine with which I should as soon have thought of pulling up a stump, but with which his ingenuity soon extracted the rag.

After we had “fixed” our dinner and arranged our difficulties, we again strolled away into the uninhabited wilderness— uninhabited save by the “wild beasts” Joe is now keenly looking out for (being encouraged by a dream to expect to see a moose before night), or by lumberers scarcely less wild than they. These lumberers, many of them farmers or their sons, others men hired by dealers in lumber, go into the “wilderness” in the fall of the year, taking with them supplies for some months’ abode in that savage land; endure hardships and severe toil, flies in unendurable numbers, rains, cold winds, and then frost and snow-storms of Arctic severity. When the ice breaks up and fierce torrents rush down from the hills, they launch their logs—stream-driving them, as it is termed—in the water half the time, and risking their life when at some narrow spot the crowding logs get heaped up into a jam. When once in the wide river, they are joined into a raft, and the lumberers start on their voyage down the rapid stream; their six months of toil completed, their pockets filled with money (I speak of hired men, not farmers, whose pockets are generally pretty well emptied by the process), they give themselves up to the unrestrained enjoyment of their supreme luxury—an unlimited supply of the vilest whisky—till their money is gone; and they pass the summer as they can, till their season of toil returns. There seems to be a charm in this forest life, independent of the wages or the hope of large gains, which makes it difficult for those who have once entered on the pursuit to abandon it. Already the margin of the stream is strewn with spruce logs waiting for the first fresh; boats loaded with supplies are being towed up by horses; and now and then we pass a camp, and canoes, with two or three rough-looking men in red shirts, pass up and down the river.

Deep and wide and still and dark was the river, stretching away in long reaches like beautiful lakes—in many instances bringing before one the lovely scenes of Cumberland. Joe was now anxiously looking out for likely places to find the tracks of the moose where they came to drink; and with this view made the canoe glide gently into a quiet nook we saw among the alder groves—the entrance into a network of canals and water passages, through a thick forest of alders and low bushes. Into that death-like stillness we softly stole—not a sound was heard, save the lightest whisper in the water as Joe’s paddle just touched it—the overhanging trees slept silently in the twilight their leaf-laden boughs produced. So almost awe-inspiring was that unnatural quiet, that Joe and I instinctively abstained from speaking (as though we dared not break the silence); or if we spoke, it was scarce above a whisper. And as we entered the gates of that stilly labyrinth, a huge owl glided noiselessly by, like the presiding genius of silence, swiftly vanishing into the gloom beyond. With my rifle in my hand, and sight and hearing at their utmost stretch, we explored these secret ways till our progress was stopped by the shoaling of the water; and we returned without having seen anything save the old owl and a big lonely trout, who had probably chosen that quiet spot to meditate in—nor heard any sound save what we made ourselves.

Returning to the open river, we saw so many trout shooting about that we got out and began fishing. We offered them our apologies for flies manufactured with a couple of partridge feathers, tied to the hook with some coarse thread; and in two or three casts Joe had landed as many of the speckled beauties. My wooing was all in vain, and in my spleen I had a good mind to try no more; but Joe insisted, and laying down his rod, guessed he’d let me catch some now, taking his paddle and guiding the canoe over the capricious crowd below. Perhaps it was the advancing evening which made the fish more eager to feed, or, perhaps, that I had begun to place my fly in a more tempting manner; at any rate, a trout was soon plunging at the end of the line: the spell was broken, and now Joe resuming his rod, we fished away, pulling up sometimes each a fish at once, till I thought we had enough for several meals—as I am not sportsman enough to enjoy killing for killing’s sake.

Joe had selected for our camp that night a brow over the river, where the lumberers had cleared a small spot to place their logs in, preparatory to rolling them down to the river. It was like a chamber walled in on three sides by the matted forest, roofed over with the blackness of night; before us and beneath us ran the deep river and rose tall elms in the island it embraced with its clinging folds—but we saw them not from the edge of our little platform. It was like standing on the brink of the world—infinity might have been beneath us for all that we could see. At the foot of a huge dead old pine-tree, on the damp and oozy ground, we made our beds: the fire flashed on the grim trunks and branches and nodding boughs, which walled us in. and this was all that we could see. But here in good humour with the world, I sat and watched Joe frying the trout, which half an hour before had been dancing merrily in the current. That is the way to eat fish—to whisk them, as it were, out of the water into the pan.

For the sake of those who object to fishing as cruelty, I may state what seems to me proof of the insensibility of the trout’s mouth, as well as of its voracity and boldness. I had hooked one of these gentry, and just as I was lifting him from the water to the land he wriggled off the hook, and fell back just at my feet; and there I saw him plainly waiting for me to give him another chance, looking up as though he disputed the fairness of such doings; and on my dropping my fly over him, I wish I may never see another trout if he did not instantly “jump at the chance,” and succeed in hooking himself so securely, that he never saw the Tobique more. Now will any one tell me that fish suffered tortures from the hook? No! it would be too much for even Martin to believe.

Joe became rather chatty this evening, regretting his not having brought his spelling-book, and singing book giving me some account of his domestic affairs, telling me, amongst other things, that he is a Yankee coming from the Penobscot; he discoursed on hunting and fishing, moose, bears, and salmon, and appeared on the whole to relish the fun of the thing.

The next day began with a damp, clinging, wreathing fog; very dismal looks a forest in a fog; in fact, nature is then in a fit of the vapours, and the very trees look desponding, as though the damp “put their hair out of curl.” Joe’s dreaming had now put him on the qui vive for moose, which he was confident of finding ere night, though my own expectations of such luck were very slight. Wherever a shelving bank or muddy spot on the margin of the river occurred, there he shoved his canoe; but especially he looked out for the little lagoons where the moose came to drink and crop the water weeds and the herbage which here and there they find along the banks. We came on one of these, a narrow shallow piece of water, between a little, low, alder-clothed island and the river banks; at the lower end, in a deep dark pool we saw such numbers of trout that I could not help seizing my rod to try a cast, when, in a low, sharp whisper, I heard Joe exclaim, “There’s a moose!”

Down went the rod, and all eagerness I caught hold of my rifle; crouching down I gazed through the fallen timber which crossed the narrow channel, and at a distance of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards, I saw a dark reddish-brown animal in the water. The eagerness which went near to prevent my taking aim I managed to restrain for the few seconds, during which I drew an imaginary line from my eye along the barrel of my rifle to the glossy flank of my destined victim; the sharp crack roused the echoes, and in three minutes the unfortunate creature, who scarce stirred six paces from where he received the shot, lay dead in the water. Then came hurry and excitement, and jumping ashore, and looking for the flask, balls, and knife, none of which in our haste could we find; while Joe, whose impatience could no longer be restrained, disappeared in the matted alder grove between us and our prey. Having at last found our ammunition exactly where it ought to be, I reloaded my piece and followed him; diving and ducking beneath the branches, and scrambling and plunging through till I reached the spot.

The moose lay in the water where I had shot him; the bottom was so muddy that Joe could only reach him by cutting down branches to step on, then making a piece of rope fast round his neck, we contrived to drag him on to a few yards of clear turf, and there we cut his throat. He proved to be a young one, probably about two years old, a bull, and very fat, weighing perhaps about 200 lb., while a full-grown bull, standing about sixteen hands, might weigh 2,000 lb. This first moment of quiet showed me that we had got into the very head-quarters of the most venomous little demons of flies I ever was enraged by. My first cry was for a fire, to keep them off a little by the smoke, my first act to try and fill my pipe as a further defense; I was then obliged to walk incessantly about our narrow bit of turf, and began to wish I had never seen the moose, or at least had been lucky enough to miss him. Even Joe, who had before asserted that the flies never troubled him, could hardly endure their stings. Each of them raised on me a lump which lasted for days, and caused by their number a burning feverish heat. A mixture of tar and oil rubbed over the exposed skin is, I am told, a very good protection from these ministers of evil; but this I had not procured, being told that at this season there was no fear of them. The calm, warm, muggy weather must account for their numbers.

Well, we skinned the moose and cut him up, and scolded at the flies, and put the joints in the canoe, and drank some grog, and while I pushed back the canoe out of the shallow channel, I began to reflect on my position. Here I was with a moose to begin with, which it would be a sin to throw away, but which could only be saved by camping for a couple of days and smoking him, that is, if I resolved to prosecute my journey up the river. But the incessant rain or fog almost defeating my chief object of traversing the woods and exploring the country, damped my energies, and finally, as I could only half do my errand at present, I thought it better to wait for a more favourable time. So away with the pole, Joe, take your paddle, or if you like it better, drift down the strong stream, and eat your raw pork if you are hungry, for here among the flies will we not dine.

But now Joe began to take an inexplicable fancy into his head. While we were skinning the moose, there passed on the other side of the island, hidden from us, a canoe full of lumberers loudly singing and laughing; he even then looked up with some apparent uneasiness, and hoped they would not be uncivil to strangers, he guessed not. I asked him if they were likely to be, and thought no more of it. But when, while floating down, another canoe, with two men poling and one man paddling her along with great speed, appeared coming after us, then he became, or seemed to become, seriously alarmed, talked of a gentleman having been robbed and murdered on the river by such men as these; took his paddle, and working hard, soon left the imagined pursuers behind. All this put me in a state of uncertainty. I had never heard of a word of danger to be feared from lumberers, had indeed heard only of their hospitality. But then Joe knew them well, and I not at all. The lonely river was well suited to deeds of violence; no doubt the greatest ruffians of the country are occasionally to be found in the lumberers’ camp; and, after all, if these fellows should fancy we had grog with us, they might insist on our yielding it up to them. So, at any rate, I’ll keep our fire-arms in a state for service. Joe meanwhile can go two miles to their one; and, even if he be humbugging, as I suspect, he is at all events hastening our homeward progress.

When Joe perceived that he could run away with ease, he relaxed his exertions, and so we drifted away till night fell on us, and between the piles of blackness, shapeless and undefined, we slid away silent and serious till we reached our second night’s camp, where we resolved to pass this drenching one too. But Joe’s constant watchfulness and listening for noises produced the same restlessness of ear and eye in myself which I used to feel in the hush of Australia when camping out where the assaults of the wild “black fellows” might he expected; at last, after some false alarms, I went to sleep. Joe declared next morning he had scarcely slept through the night, nor held his hand off his gun. After breakfast and waiting an hour or two to see if the rain would stop, away we went down the river, stopping sometimes to fish, on one of which occasions I caught a trout of over two pounds weight, which excited Joe’s admiration and jealousy. To-day for dinner we first tried our moose, a steak of which I found to be perhaps even superior to the best beef-steak I ever tasted. Such indeed is the general opinion of this tender, sweet, and juicy meat.

I was more struck by the gloomy grandeur of the Narrows even than when I first saw them, a narrow chasm rent asunder in the rocks into which the broad noble river was suddenly crowded and crushed up, its placid smooth lake-like character changed to that of a dark mud torrent. The entrance is at a sharp turn, and on approaching it seems as though the water ended under the steep cliff, but on reaching it the narrow gate way is seen and the awful gulf opens before us; we look up, half expecting to see written over us “lasciate ogui speranza voi che entrate.” Even Joe was impressed by it, and remarked that “this was a curious sort of place.”

Joe invites me to lodge at the Indian village on leaving the Tobique, telling me he could put me in a clean and comfortable house, though he could not promise me a bed. I agreed at once, as I am fond of seeing “human nature in all its infinite varieties.” On landing, we were soon surrounded by a crowd of swarthy spectators, admiring the big trout held up to them by the exulting Joe, and the rifle which killed the moose, which I could see he was praising in no measured terms. The moose too occasioned some excitement; every one that heard of it came to see it, the rumour spread among whites and Indians, and I began to be pointed out as “the man who shot the moose.”

While writing all this I am sitting in a rude little hut resembling very much the usual shepherd’s hut in Australia; before me sits a squaw (Joe’s sister) busily plaiting up a basket, which she never raised her eyes from on my entrance; beside her stands a small child crying bitterly because I looked at him, and now and then an Indian comes in and looks over my shoulder while I write, a process which I always find especially excites a savage’s surprise. Not that these Indians can really he called savages; still they have some of their original nature left, unfortunately much mixed with civilized vices.

After dining on part of our big trout, Joe introduced me to a brother-in-law of his named Michelle, to whose house I was escorted in the evening by himself and a number of his friends and relations, who, after a short chat with each other, wished me politely a good night and left me to myself. And here I am recounting the events of the day in a rude little hut, &c.

Michelle’s hut is neatly built and painted, and consists of a room about fourteen feet square, with the usual stove in the middle, where the family live, and another smaller room which is given to me, neatly floored and the windows furnished with glazed sashes. The furniture consists of a chair and a table with a few trunks and boxes; I have spread my blankets in the corner on the boards. Round the walls are hung some of the gowns and shawls of the squaw (I was going to say lady) of the house, whom I hear conversing quietly with her husband in the next room, in their own soft sounding language, especially soft when spoken in the gentle tones of the squaws. Indeed it must be a language strangely deficient in melodious capabilities which sounds not sweet and soft from a woman’s lips when she speaks quietly.

The village consists of two rows of houses, about twenty in number; between them is the village green where, in fine weather, before their doors family parties are cooking their meals at bright fires. There is a chapel and burial ground in which the graves are simply marked with a cross, and there is also some little land fenced in, and in a measure cultivated; but the Indians have no great genius for agriculture. This village is perched on a high bank in the angle formed by the junction of the Tobique with the St. John, commanding a very pretty view down the river and of the high hills beyond. It has altogether surprised me, as I had no idea of the extent to which the Indians are actually civilized, being in many instances good tradesmen, with a correct (in fact a very keen) appreciation of the value of money, talking English well and fluently, and having hardly more, if so much, of the savage as the peasantry in some of the remoter parts of England, and still more Ireland, among the mountains of which may be found perhaps as complete savages as any in the world.

[Thus ends his adventure on the Tobique. He then returned to Fredericton, via Woodstock]


Written by johnwood1946

March 5, 2014 at 10:01 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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