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On the Tamiscouta Portage from Lake Tamiscouta to Just Above Grand Falls, 1834

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This story is from A Subaltern’s Furlough, Descriptive of Scenes in Various Parts of the United States, Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia during the Summer of 1834, by E.T. Coke.

Coke had been touring the Saint Lawrence River, and had turned inland onto the Tamiscouta Portage running from near the Pilgrim Isles just upstream of Rivière du Loup toward New Brunswick. For this story, I have joined him as he approaches Lake Temiscouta because of the startling beauty of that place. He visited the homes of several settlers along the way, and named them for the interest of future family historians. We find families living in the wilderness without neighbours, and children playing then as now. This was 181 years ago, but Archie Bunker’s remark about children applied even then: “Lord, you made them all the same.”

Madawaska River Map

The Madawaska River, New Brunswick, 1750-1800

From the McCord Museum


On the Tamiscouta Portage from Lake Tamiscouta to Just Above Grand Falls, 1834

We proceeded on foot, and by mid-day we arrived at the river St. Francis, a small stream which is involved in the boundary question between Great Britain and the United States, where we met the royal mail upon its way from Halifax. The letter bags were fastened upon a dray or low sledge drawn by a single horse, which was moving quietly along, cropping what little grass grew by the road-side. The guard, fifty yards behind, was taking it equally leisurely, amusing himself by blowing through his tin horn, and listening to the echo of the unmusical notes he produced, as they resounded amongst the distant hills. The meeting was unexpected on both sides, and as he came suddenly round a turn in the forest, raising his hand to salute us, he slipped over a stone, and fell upon his back in a mass of mud and water; but rising again immediately, with the most enviable unconcern, he stood up to his knees in it, answering our numerous queries. He travelled over the road, or seventy two miles, once a week, without meeting a human being in three months, and I will bear witness he had no sinecure.

At three o’clock we reached the first hut, where the guides proposed passing the night, but the interior was in such a filthy state, and so crowded by a large family, that I. preferred trusting to the weather in the woods, and, as an inducement to proceed, urged the possibility of arriving at a farm house upon the lake, fifteen miles farther. The Canadians willingly assented; so once more we toiled away over the rough hills, gathering the bilberries, nuts, gooseberries, strawberries, and other wild fruits, which grew in abundance on every side. Partridges too crossed the path frequently, almost within reach of our sticks, with the greatest impunity: for never were there such peaceably disposed travellers in the woods before: we had not even a pistol, gun, tinder-box, or, as Sheridan says, “a single bloody-minded weapon” with us.

Throughout the day we were journeying in a kind of no-man’s land. The British Government claim is partly by the right of possession (which, as everyone knows is nine points in law,) and have the credit of having expended at various times within the last dozen years, upwards of £1000 in forming this road, (which is the only one between Quebec and Halifax) out of an old Indian hunting path. A traveller has some difficulty in accounting for the expenditure, unless he comes to the conclusion that it has been sunk in one of the marshes, or frittered away upon a corduroy. The United States claim the debatable land by right of treaty (which same treaty each party construes according to its respective interests,) though it will be evident to anyone who will refer to the map, that brother Jonathan wants to possess it merely in order that he may serve as a thorn in the side (to which indeed the form of the tract in question bears a strong resemblance) of the British provinces, thus cutting off the direct route to Quebec, the key of British North America in time of war, dividing the lesser provinces from the Canadas, and probably erecting fortifications upon a frontier which would extend within thirteen miles of the St. Lawrence. The intrinsic value of the land is next to nothing, and can be but insignificant to a nation already in possession of 1,205,000,000 acres of land, or 2,000,000 of square miles.

Three hours after sunset the guides, who were ahead, hailed us with the cheerful sound of “une bonne espérance.” This was followed by a charge of several cows, which, rushing past, were greeted also by us as a happy omen. Scarcely more exultation could have been expressed by Xenophon and the 10,000 Greeks of old, when the ocean again displayed its broad waters to their view, than was by us when we saw the light surface of the Temiscouta Lake lying far beneath us. But a few minutes before we had held a council of war about bivouacking in the woods, the want of the requisites for striking a light, and a sprinkle of rain, alone causing us to persevere in our journey, which came to an end by eleven o’clock, when we arrived at Mr. Frazer’s house and farm, after eighteen hours of most fatiguing toil, over twenty-four miles of ground, and through forest where we could never see twenty yards from the road, the only object worthy of notice being the majestic hemlock trees, or the branches of the pine, with long streamers of green moss hanging from them. Although the hospitable owner of the house had retired to rest some time, he rose immediately upon our knocking, and gave us a hearty welcome, with a cup of excellent tea, and a shake-down upon the floor. He told us he had lived there nine years, but the land was poor, and he was so tired of his solitary life that he inclined to leave his farm, and retire to some property he possessed on the river du Loup, situated in a district of which he was Seigneur.

He furnished us, the next morning, the 8th of September, with two canoes and a man in each, and, parting with our Canadian guides, we paddled down the lake until we arrived at the residence of Mr. Blazer’s next and nearest neighbour, six miles distant. We presented him with some late newspapers, and his wife in return soon provided a comfortable breakfast. The settler, when we arrived, was sitting at the window, poring over an old number of the Sailor’s Magazine. He had served twenty-four years in the 49th regiment, and three years in a veteran battalion, when, receiving his discharge, he was settled with several other soldiers on the borders of the lake and upon the portage, to keep open a line of communication with the St. Lawrence. All the others, despairing of making a livelihood after the first two or three years, when their rations of flour were withdrawn, had migrated to some more populous and promising country. Sixteen years had expired since he landed in the thick forest, on the spot he then occupied, with his wife and two boys. He said that for the first twelve months he much felt the loss of his barrack-room society: but, setting to work with a good heart, he built a log hut, which was now occupied as a pig-sty, and persevered in clearing the ground until the seventh year, when disease attacked his cattle, and carried off every head. This so discouraged him that he quitted the place, and returned into the inhabited part of the country, but soon again visited his old farm and commenced anew. From that time everything had gone on in a flourishing manner. He now possessed nine cows and a hundred acres of cleared land, and was perfectly happy and contented. His sons were grown up men, and were mowing a few acres of grass, but the corn was yet green, and did not appear as if it would ripen before winter. It did not, however, seem at all to concern the worthy veteran, who said “he must hope for the best.” I asked him how he disposed of the produce of his farm, and his answer was that “his farm did not yield anything more than would provide his family. Butcher’s meat they did not require, and were well satisfied with salt pork and vegetables.” His maple sugar was most excellent, and he had made 400 lbs. from 800 trees the preceding year; but the land in the vicinity was generally poor, and upon the headlands (to use his own expression) “there was not enough to feed a mouse, though there was a good farm here and there away from the lake.” He was a true Corporal Trim in the first instance, he fought the battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, for my edification, upon the white hearth stone with a piece of charcoal, but, finding my undivided attention was bent upon something more substantial, he transferred the scene of action to the breakfast table, where he most gallantly carried the heights of Queenston upon the top of the loaf of bread, and stormed Fort Erie through the spout of a tea-pot. He talked with the greatest pride of having served in the same regiment with Lord Aylmer and Sir Isaac Brock, regretting much that the former was not at home when he made his biennial trip to Quebec for his pension during the summer. To show, however, his esteem for him, he had a large proclamation respecting the cholera, and the performance of quarantine, with the signature of the Governor General, nailed up against the wall of his house.

Wishing him success, we again pushed on, lashing the two canoes together and keeping close under the lee-shore, there being so fresh a breeze that we were several times in imminent danger of being swamped, from the frequent strong gusts of wind which swept down the valleys between the highlands with which the lake is skirted. In the widest parts, the lake does not exceed a mile and a half in breadth, and is about twenty-five in length. After entering the narrow and rapid stream of the Madawaska River (the outlet of the Temiscouta Lake) we glided swiftly along between undulating and beautiful banks, the hills rising from 100 to 500 feet in height, and covered with every description of forest tree, but touched only here and there with the dark foliage of the pine, while, at the very margin of the water, the white trunks of the birch were most prominent. We rested an hour at mid-day for the purpose of dining, our table and couch being one of the veteran’s hay-cocks, in a cleared spot of ground twenty miles from his house, the first open space we had seen since quitting it. Ten miles farther we heard the merry chattering of some children, evidently Irish, from their accent, and, rounding a point, found a parcel of little urchins in high glee throwing pebbles and sticks of wood at another who was angling in a most artist-like manner, as he floated down the stream in a bark canoe. In the background, a party of five or six newly-arrived emigrants were sitting round a fire superintending the cooking department, their log huts being in an unfinished state. The ground for the space of an acre was covered with the smoking trunks of trees, and blackened logs, and here and there the murky skeleton of some decayed giant of the forest was gradually consuming away as it retained its erect position. From this small settlement there were partial and new clearings for an extent of five or six miles, when the thick forest again closed in upon the river.

About eight o’clock we were moving along with increased velocity, having passed over several Rapids most gallantly, and shipping but a small quantity of spray, when I heard a hollow roar ahead, which I was well aware must arise from some cataract, and hinted to the boatmen that they had better keep a sharp look out ahead. They, however not pleased I suppose at being dictated to by a greenhorn in such matters, ran on in the same course, until we could not well make the shore, and had a good chance of taking a leap over some falls of 12 or 14 feet, had not a rock 20 or 30 yards above them luckily intervened, and brought us up with such a shock as nearly to throw Mr. Reid out of the bottom of the canoe, where he lay fast asleep, into the water. I was on the point of throwing myself in to swim, when I observed that our headway was stopped, and after some difficulty we succeeded in gaining a little inlet formed by a rock on the verge of the Falls. Taking out our baggage, we carried it as well as the canoes over the rocks to the level below, and, again stepping in, were in a few minutes at the settlement of Madawaska at the confluence of the Madawaska and St. John’s Rivers. It was formed by the Acadians, after their expulsion from Nova Scotia about the year 1754, and is situated in a pretty and rather fertile spot, but with no regular village. We could obtain some tea and beds at a small inn, the landlord of which also filled the twofold occupation of grocer and retailer of rum; but, as elsewhere upon our journey, there was no butcher’s meat, not more than half a dozen travellers visiting the settlement in the course of the year.

When we arrived the landlord was superintending the erection of a grist mill, some miles distant; but his son rode off and summoned him to attend his guests: and, before we had dressed in the morning, a tall, dark, but sanctified and clean shaved man, walked into the room, and announced himself as our host and humble servant to command—Simeon Abair by name. After the creation of many difficulties upon his part, he agreed (as the Rapids were too dangerous to attempt paddling ourselves down the St. John’s) to provide us with a canoe and man for £5, assigning “harvest time” as the reason for making so exorbitant a demand. As he would not abate anything, the money was paid him; but upon proceeding to the river, to which, as we subsequently remembered, he hurried us, without allowing the boatman to approach, or even to speak to us, we found a little cockle-shell which would have filled and swamped in the first cats-paw or a slight summer shower. Protesting that I would not run the risk of my life and loss of baggage for a distance of 150 miles in such a craft, sooner than loose such good customers he furnished us with a more capacious one and we proceeded on our course down the St. John’s. Two days afterwards, we had the curiosity to inquire of the boatman whether he had been paid for the trip; he said. “Yes; that he had received £3.” The sight of the man’s features, when informed of the sum the landlord had charged us, was worth the other £2, and we could not forbear bursting into a hearty laugh as he told us, with the most piteous face imaginable, that he “should not have so much cared if anyone else had cheated him, but that the landlord was his godfather,” that he had said we were fatigued, and wished not to be annoyed by seeing the boatman, but would make a bargain with him; and “that though he had made a good thing of it, he could screw only £3 out of us.” Had not our time been so valuable, scarcely anything would have given both of us so much pleasure as returning and ducking the old bear, making him refund the money, and then handing it over to our honest hard-working boatman.

Our canoe was a long one, 24 feet in length by 3 in breadth, so that with our baggage and three heavy people, its sides were within four inches of the water. As we floated along, numerous fair damsels at work in the fields on the river’s banks, waved their large black hats to our boatman, or gave him innumerable commissions for ribbons and other finery to be purchased at the capital. Although he answered “oui, oui” a hundred times, yet still, as he paddled along, there was a last request, until we were so distant that nothing but an indistinct murmur reached our ears. The day was squally, with heavy showers of rain, so, coming in sight of a respectable looking farm house, about twenty miles below Madawaska, we pulled in shore and landed, for the purpose of seeking a few minutes’ shelter from a heavy storm which was threatening to burst over us momentarily. Upon entering the house we found half a dozen men and women most earnestly engaged in discussing a substantial dinner, and drinking tea at the same time. The whole party were crowded round a little table where there was just sufficient space for them to squeeze their elbows in, while a rear rank or corps of reserve, was formed of ten or twelve hungry looking young children whose countenances expressed the greatest anxiety to be called into action. Although we took our seats on a bench fastened to the wall, with the usual salutation, not the slightest notice was taken of us by any of the party, so intent were they upon the subject before them; nor was any offer made about partaking of their cheer, though we were drenched to the skin, and might reasonably be supposed to have no distaste for the good things we saw upon the table. At intervals we heard one of them addressed by the title of Captain, and I must acknowledge, though I had seen many strange captains in the United States. I had never before been in the presence of such a libel upon a military rank. The noble commander had a face as round and as red as the rising moon, with little grey eyes protruding from his head like those of a boiled lobster; a few white hairs scantily covered a forehead whose capaciousness would have puzzled Spurzheim himself, and his rotundity would have even put old Falstaff to the blush. Our boatman wishing to consult him upon some military matter, he waddled down to the water’s edge with us after the shower had passed over, and laid down the law in the most direct terms. As we proceeded on our voyage, the boatman informed us that he carried a musket in the captain’s company in the militia, and had been called out on duty the preceding year to check some aggression of the Americans; but, not having received any remuneration for his services, his captain had given him the requisite directions for obtaining it by making application at Fredericton. Excepting the lately arrived Irish upon the Madawaska River, these were the first British settlers we had seen since leaving the veteran’s house upon Temiscouta Lake, and from this specimen we were almost justified in forming but a mean opinion of the New Brunswickers’ hospitality.


Written by johnwood1946

July 10, 2015 at 9:50 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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