New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Surveying Through the Wilderness in 1844

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From the blog at

In the 1840’s, the British wanted to establish a mail road or military road from Halifax to Quebec. The road would go from Halifax to The Bend (Moncton), and thence across the unsettled interior of New Brunswick to Grand Falls and northward from there. In 1844, Sir James Alexander was engaged to survey that part of the route from The Bend to Grand Falls.

The merchants at Saint John thought that it would be a better idea to build from Halifax to Annapolis, then to transport the mail or troops by ship to Saint John and directly up the river. There was already an unfinished road to Annapolis, they argued, and the road across the wilderness in New Brunswick would be avoided. But the route across New Brunswick had already been decided upon and the merchants’ arguments were unheeded.

The exchange with the merchants was interesting in that Saint John always argued in favor of the city and, if it disadvantaged Nova Scotia, then all the better.

The following account joins Alexander at The Bend where he has marshalled men and supplies for the survey, and follows him to the northwest corner of Westmorland County. It is a story of extraordinarily hard work as they slog their way through the wilderness. It is condensed and edited from Alexander’s book L’Acadie or Seven Years Explorations, London, 1849.


The Petitcodiac River at High Tide

From Wikipedia


Surveying Through the Wilderness in 1844

The loads of pork, biscuit, &c., being distributed next morning, each carrier passing his arms through the straps, shouldered his load (about one hundred pounds to begin with) they then walked sturdily off into the forest, each bearing in his hand an axe, kettle, or a fowling-piece. The big cooking kettle, containing the tin plates, knives, forks, &c., was in a black case, and being on a wooden carrier, like what is used in France, was called Satan by the men; and being rather an awkward load, was not a general favourite with them.

We blazed, marked with the broad arrow with M. 0. (miles 0) an old hemlock tree at the edge of the wood in Mr. T. Horseman’s field, set up the circumferenter, and commenced exploring ahead, and brushing out a six-foot path for chaining and for carrying along the loads. All were alert and in good spirits. There was a bird’s cry in the wood, and Andre crept towards the sound, fired, and knocked over a plump grouse, which was drumming for its mate.

After passing some distance through the forest, we came to a small clearing at the last log-house we were to see, and proceeding into the forest beyond it, we made our first camp. It was still rather early for going into the woods, as they were wet from the melted snow; but we picked out as dry a place as we could find. When the fires blazed up, and we had got on dry trousers and moccasins, we felt perfectly comfortable. There is no undressing in the bush, so rolling ourselves in our blankets after supper, we slept soundly.

Next morning, I roused all hands at five o’clock by means of a few blows with an axe-handle on one of the poles of my shed; all turned out of their blankets at once, and shaking themselves (the only toilette till Sunday came round) the breakfast of pork, biscuit, and tea was discussed, pipes were smoked, the tents were struck and packed, loads arranged, and by seven o’clock, the exploring, brushing out the line, and carrying the loads along it, was going on steadily.

There were seventeen packs in all, and six men to carry them. They accordingly moved backwards and forwards along the line, and deposited their burdens after short trips. Mr. McGill, with the chainman, John Bair, measured the line, and kept an account of the different sorts of wood we passed through. I went ahead, axe on shoulder, and with a compass and haversack, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the Indian Andre, or I explored to the right and left as occasion required. So all were at work simultaneously, and all were up at twelve at noon, which was the dinner hour. There was pork, biscuit, and tea again, and at half-past one the work went on as before till five p.m., when all hands made camp.

To vary the evening’s meal, we had occasionally bean-soup, or some salt fish; from eight to ten, I read by the light of my lamp; the men were very glad to sleep after their day’s fatigue, particularly the carriers. The anxious inquirer may now ask how many miles we got over in a day, suggesting eight or ten, and will doubtless be surprised to hear that a mile and a quarter a day or sometimes double that was cut through the bush. This was considered a fair day’s work from morning till night.

Be it remembered that in these primeval forests, we must hew our way painfully and with much heat of body in these hot summer months, with perspiration from eleven o’clock to six.

At sunrise the thermometer was usually 60°, at noon 75°, at sunset 65°; but in the dense forest there is, of course, little circulation of air; we heard the breeze at the top of the trees, but seldom felt it at their roots. In short, the air seems to stagnate there, and the closeness is oftentimes terrible to bear, especially as it is accompanied with, first, the minute black fly, the constant summer torment; the mosquito, with intolerable singing; the sand-fly, with its hot sting; the horse-fly, which seems to take the bit out of the flesh; and the large moose, or speckled-winged fly. Yet, though the heat and flies did not improve one’s appearance, or tend to one’s comfort, there was no unmanly complaining among the men, and their using no brandy helped us much; for those who do so, could not remain in these woods in summer.

To a person accustomed, like myself, to severe exercise from boyhood, there would be no great difficulty in walking ‘right on end’ through the woods, with moccasins on feet and bearing a compass, axe, haversack, and blanket, any number of miles say twenty or thirty a-day, though to the uninitiated in forest walking, the constant lifting the leg high and striding over the prostrate trees, wading through swampy places, getting oneself severely scratched and bruised, and the occasional pitch forward on one’s face are sore trials. In surveying and chaining we require to go differently to work; we cannot chain over the bushes, but clearing them away, and all other obstructions, we measure carefully along the ground in the following way.

The person at the head of the chain is provided with a number of pointed sticks; he carries the chain ahead to its length, and calling out to the man at the other end “set!” he at the same time plants a stick, and the other answering “down” lays his end of the chain on the ground. The first goes on again, the second takes up the stick, and the same “set,” “down,” are repeated till all the sticks are expended by the first man, when he calls out “tally;” the second then keeps his reckoning by cutting with his knife a notch on a piece of wood hanging from his waist. Slow progress is occasioned in the forest by everything being carried on men’s backs, and heavy loads are necessary for a lengthy explorations.

On Saturday night there was some conviviality, yet without the assistance of ardent spirits. I encouraged the men “to tell the tale and pass round the song”, and one played the flute.

On Sunday, there was no work done, the camp on the previous evening had been selected with some care, near a clear stream, and where the tall trees were not too closely set. Every one now shaved, washed and put on clean clothes: after breakfast we had prayers and a chapter of the bible was read.

A Christian spectator would have been interested our small congregation trying to offer up praise to the Creator of the mighty forests, which lifted their lofty stems and green tops on every side.

In the afternoon the people rested, or mended and washed their clothes, and read to one another. The wash-tub was a square hole cut deep with an axe in a prostrate log. I usually went out from the camp in the afternoon to walk, and look about with Andre to see what sort of country we had next to encounter; the Indian as we strode through the dark forest, ever and anon broke off a twig to mark our way back, and watched always how the sun shone upon his shoulder, as a guide for our direction.

At our evening meals the moose bird would sometimes perch singly or in pairs on the branches, and flit down to peck up a chance morsel. This bird is so fearless, that sometimes it is pecking at one end of a slain deer when the hunter is engaged at the other.

Sometimes Andre and myself had hard work over the logs and entangled twigs of the moose wood (a shrub with large heart-shaped leaves and white blossoms, a species of guilder rose) to make an offset to avoid a stream. We would see traces of the large-footed caribou or reindeer, on swampy ground, then we might hear bark being stripped off a tree, followed by the sudden brushing aside of branches. It was a bear which had been enjoying a meal off the inner bark of some of the fir tribe, which was soft at this time and full of sap. At various distances and with different degrees of loudness, the woodpeckers would interrupt the dead silence around.

I remarked to Andre one day whilst we rested at the foot of a tree, and were rolling the black flies from our foreheads, that there was not much to eat in these woods, neither roots, fruits, nor berries, and I asked him what he would do if left without gun or fishing-tackle, he answered, in French, that going down a stream might lead to a river, and a river to a settlement, or an Indian camp.

On the 1st of June at mid-day, we ate our meal where large trees lay prostrate, decayed, covered with a thick coat of moss, and on which young fir-trees grew. The old logs looked as if they had been laid low seventy or eighty years.

Two of the mountain settlers, of whom Bryan Martin was one, came after us on our track, guided by the blazes on the trees. They wished to see how we were getting on, as they were anxious to see the proposed military road and the access that it would bring to their area.

I did not feel particularly comfortable after some days of unusual salt pork, the weather at the same time being hot, but I left it off for a couple of days and took some boiled rice, whilst my hunter got two or three spruce and Savannah grouse. Soon all was well again, except our wrists which were so swelled with the black flies that I could not sometimes button the sleeves of my red flannel shirt.

On the 3rd and 4th of June we saw some good land and some spruce barrens or swamps. I wondered at first what end these spongy plains could answer, producing neither trees nor grass, but only wet moss on a sandy bottom. I found that these so-called barrens were, in this region, without mountains, the sources of the streams; the moss collecting, retaining, and giving out the moisture when overcharged.

The trees round the edge of these barrens have a singular appearance, from the green and black hair-like moss hanging from their stunted branches. This is the lichen usually called Absalom’s hair. In two or three places on our route, we drove a pole six feet into the soft moss of the barrens, but the average depth was one or two feet. On them we saw the tracks of the caribou deer, whose broad feet are well adapted for moving across the barrens without sinking into them, whilst we sometimes were wading and struggling through them up to our knees.

We saw also the tracks of bears, wolves, porcupines, skunks, martins, &c. on our line, and of birds; besides the grouse, woodpeckers, and moose birds already noticed, we observed kingfishers, loons, plovers, night hawks and owls. The cry of the last Andre imitated at night, in order to discover its locality, and he would then steal up and shoot it for his own private eating, though it is merely a bundle of feathers.

The prevailing rock was of a coarse sandstone, stratification horizontal. I also saw boulders of granite and hornblende rock, also some manganese, whilst the banks of streams showed indications of coal. I made a herbarium of dried plants and collected every portable thing, and noted and sketched everything of interest on our route.

In deep and retired places in the woods it was interesting to creep upon and watch the partridge, or more properly the ruffed grouse, drumming on a prostrate log; after a pause he would elevate his ruff on his neck, ruffle up his brown feathers, spread his tail and strut like a turkey-cock. Then at first slowly, afterwards rapidly, he would strike the log with his wings, and thus produce the drumming sound, which has a remarkable effect when heard in the solitude of the forest.

On the 6th of June, near low wetland, the flies, which had all along been very tormenting, became insufferable. At mid-day when we halted to eat, we were obliged to sit in the middle of half-a-dozen “smokes” made by laying damp moss over small fires, and the same thing happened several times afterwards. Our foreheads, necks, and wrists particularly suffered. Fortunately for settlers, with the progress of clearing, black flies and mosquitoes immediately disappear.

Sometimes with, and sometimes without the assistance of the creeping irons, I ascended large trees to look out. The prospect was everywhere the same. One day I saw Butter Nut Ridge to the south, but no ridges north of our line were visible. It was a great relief to sit on the cool top of a pine, out of the reach of the flies below, though I have even there been followed sometimes by a hungry mosquito or two.

On the 9th of June, on exploring for a mile and a half to the right of our line, I found a branch of the New Canaan River running to the S.W. sixteen feet broad, one and a half deep. We reached this river, a beautiful clear stream, flowing briskly between banks covered with tall trees; fir, spruce and birch; on the margin of the stream, which resembled such as might be seen in a nobleman’s domain, there were white and blue violets and strawberries. The breadth of the river was here about sixty feet, apparent rise of freshets five feet. There is sandstone in the bed of the stream and on the banks, and the abutments of a bridge might here be of stone. We forded the river, and caught chub and trout. But fishing in gloves and through a veil, and with countless tormentors buzzing about one’s head, is not very pleasant. The camphorated oil helped a little, but it required constant renewing. At meals the men used the last bit of pork to grease their faces. From that process and from smoke they did not look very prepossessing, still they were better looking than those woodsmen who, to protect their faces, use tar and oil.

On the 12th of June we were on the edge of a large caribou plain of a hundred and more acres, and afterwards crossed with our line a part of it. Water was scarce after leaving this Savannah, and we searched about and dug for it with our hands and axes for some time before we got any. One way I adopted was to dig a hole in the moss and make a couple of men stamp round it and so squeeze the water into the hole.

On the 13th of June we passed over two fertile tracts where settlements could be made. We had now a good deal of thunder and rain which saved our moss treading. On the 15th, we came to a very fertile meadow where fifteen or twenty families might be well settled. I explored for a mile and a half up a clear stream to the right, and the land was good all the way. There were no traces of Indians, or of any human being having ever visited these solitudes.

The black bear is irritable, and attacks vigorously when molested. It is impossible to hurt him by striking at him with a club, as he so dexterously wards off the blows from his head with his fore paws, whilst to strike his thick, hairy and fat body, would inflict as little injury on him as striking a sack of grain. Firearms are best, but it is cruel to molest any wild thing unless pressed by hunger.

After passing over land of good and of middling quality, on the 19th of June, we reached a fair meadow of excellent land, with a fine stream running through the midst. We saw about eighty acres clear of trees, and it probably extended much further on our left. I heard one of the men say to his comrade, “This is first rate; we must keep this to ourselves, and come back here and marry and settle.”

After this we were on a ridge of very noble trees of the ancient forest, where there were no marks of former fires. The trees of one hundred and ten feet in height, as fir, pine, maple, beech and hemlocks, rose from the ground like the pillars of a pagan temple.

On the 21st of June, after crossing a blazed line, being that run in 1841 from Shediac to the N.W. angle of Westmoreland, and dividing Kent and Northumberland Counties from Westmoreland, we reached with our line within half a mile (and to the north) of the N.W. angle of Westmoreland. This I hope will be considered reasonably good steering from the Bend,— distance thirty-three miles in twenty five days, including the halts on the Sundays.


Written by johnwood1946

February 15, 2017 at 7:48 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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