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Defending the ‘Worthless, Unsteady and Villainous’ Cutters of Wood

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Defending the ‘Worthless, Unsteady and Villainous’ Cutters of Wood

Logging on the Nashwaak River, 1871

From the McCord Museum

The New Brunswick economy in the early 19th Century was entirely dominated by the timber trade and shipbuilding, from which vast amounts of money were made and thousands of people were employed. Agriculture, on the other hand, was underdeveloped and the result was that the vast exports of timber and ships were balanced by imports of food which might otherwise have been grown in New Brunswick.

The popular opinion was that lumberers were a vile pack of rowdies who, in addition to not adapting to farm life, were an affront to the moral sensibilities of other classes.

Around this time, Britain was debating whether to continue their preference for colonial timber, or to buy it from European sources instead. The European timber was cheaper, but timber and hemp and pitch were strategic materials for maintaining the shipping industry and the navy and colonial sources were more secure.

Added to all of this, there were more people in Britain than industry could support, and the easiest way of serving this superabundant population was to ship them abroad to work in the North American timber trade.

The following article touches on many of these circumstances, and is condensed and edited from British America by John Macgregor, published in London in 1832.


The trade of New Brunswick consists chiefly in exporting square timber, deals, spars, staves, and a few firs, to Great Britain and Ireland, in return for British manufactures; and in shipping boards, shingles, scantling, and fish, to the West Indies, for which, rum, sugar, tobacco, and dollars, are brought back. Gypsum and grindstones are shipped on board of American vessels, from the free ports of St. John and St. Andrew; and, to the disgrace of the inhabitants of the province, who might be independent of others for bread stuffs by more industrious attention to the cultivation of the soil, from 50,000 to 60,000 barrels of flour and meal, and from 3,000 to 4,000 quintals of bread, besides Indian corn, have been for some years annually imported from the United States, for which scarcely anything but Spanish dollars is paid.

The imports during the speculative year 1824 amounted to £614,557, compared with exports of £432,048. To these exports must be added 74 new ships, which were built during the year within the province, and sent to the United Kingdom for sale as remittances for British merchandise.

The vessels cleared at the ports in the province, for the years 1827, 1828, and 1829, shows an increase in the number of vessels, but a decrease in the tonnage. The difference arises, first, from the timber trade which fell off considerably after the repeal of the navigation laws from its highs in 1824 and 1825; and, secondly, from the great increase in the number of smaller vessels employed in the trade with the West Indies. The average imports for the last three years amount to about £450,000 and the exports, exclusive of about 120 new ships, to about £360,000.

The non-admission of the vessels of the United States into the ports of the British West Indies, has opened a profitable trade to New Brunswick.

The fisheries have for some time received encouragement in the shape of bounties from the legislature, and this branch of trade is gradually increasing.

The timber trade will likely continue to engross the principal attention of the merchants. Great gains were at first realized, both by it and by ship-building; and although the merchants were nearly all ruined when our navigation laws were repealed and free-trade was suddenly introduced, yet it must be recollected that each of those trades have enabled New Brunswick to pay for her imports; and thus have St. John’s, St. Andrew’s, and Fredericton, been built.

To the new settler on wilderness lands, timber presented a ready resource; and it was necessary for him, under most circumstances, to engage in that trade for a few winters to give him the means of stocking his farm, and clothing himself and family. The province, therefore, gained great advantage by this trade; and although it may have been prosecuted much farther than justified by the market, it would, notwithstanding, be folly to abandon it altogether. Agriculture offers the most alluring means of diverting half of those engaged in the timber trade to other occupations, and the fisheries follow next. Let the industry of the inhabitants be divided between agriculture, the timber trade, and the fisheries, and this beautiful and fertile province will probably flourish beyond any precedent. The farmer, the fisherman and the lumberer would do best to keep to their respective occupations.

The changes imposed in 1824 have been terrible for the merchants, and the ill-effects continue. The docks of London and Liverpool were crowded with ships built by the merchants in North America and sent to England for sale. The demand and price for such vessels having increased to an unusual rate, the commercial men of New Brunswick incautiously plunged themselves into debt. They were more extensively engaged in the timber trade than those in other provinces, and paid the price for such reliance upon it.

Their ships have been disposed of for less than half the prime cost; timber was sold for less than the expense of carrying it to the United Kingdom; and bills drawn by houses of long standing were dishonoured. They had all their funds locked up, and had to finish the vessels then in progress or submit to lose the money they had laid out. In most cases, it would have been well to have taken the latter course. The building of ships for the British market is now nearly altogether relinquished.

The causes of the losses sustained by the merchants engaged in the timber trade are numerous; but they principally arose, first, from the repeal of the navigation laws, and the introduction of the free-trade system; which, from the low price of labour and naval stores in the northern kingdoms of Europe, enables the people of those countries to export timber to Great Britain at extremely low prices; and, secondly, from the lumberers not being able, or indeed willing, to pay the debts they contracted with the merchants, in consequence of the depreciated value of timber.

The most absurd objections are made against American timber, although for most purposes it is superior, to that from Norway. One of these objections is that it is more congenial to the propagation of bugs than other wood. However, there can be little difference between European and American timber in this regard. The durability of American timber is also questioned, while the fact is that American timber will last as long as any wood of the same genus growing in Europe.

A timber crew is termed a lumbering party, and is composed of persons who are all either hired by a master lumberer, or of individuals who enter into an understanding with each other. Supplies of provisions, clothing, &c., are generally obtained from the merchants on credit, in consideration of receiving the timber, which the lumberers are to bring down the rivers the following summer. The stock requisite for a lumbering party consists of axes, a cross-cut saw, cooking utensils, a cask of rum, tobacco and pipes; a sufficient quantity of biscuit, pork, beef, and fish, pease and pearl barley, with a cask of molasses to sweeten a decoction usually made of shrubs, or of the tops of the hemlock tree, and taken as tea. Two or three yokes of oxen, with sufficient hay to feed them, are also required.

When thus prepared, these people proceed up the rivers to the their winter establishment, which is selected as near a stream of water as possible. They commence by clearing away a few trees, and building a shanty, or camp of round logs, the walls of which are seldom more than four or five feet high; the roof is covered with birch bark, or boards. A pit is dug under the camp to preserve anything liable to injury from the frost. The fire is either in the middle, or at one end; the smoke goes out through the roof. Hay, straw, or fir-branches are spread across, or along the whole length of this habitation, on which they all lie down together at night with their feet next the fire. When the fire gets low, he who first  awakes or feels cold, springs up, and throws on five or six billets, and in this way they manage to have a fire all night. One person is hired as cook, whose duty is to have breakfast ready before daylight; at which time the party rise, when each takes his morning, being a dram of raw spirits, immediately before breakfast. This meal consists of bread, or occasionally potatoes, with boiled beef, pork, or fish, and tea sweetened with molasses; dinner is usually the same, with pease soup in place of tea; and the supper resembles breakfast. These men are enormous eaters, and they also drink great quantities of undiluted rum. After breakfast, they divide into three gangs; one of which cuts the trees, another hews them, and the third in hauling them to the nearest stream.

The whole winter is thus spent in unremitting labour till the middle of May when the freshets come down. At this time, all the timber cut during winter is thrown into the water and floated down until the river becomes sufficiently wide to make the whole into rafts.

The raftsmen commence by floating twenty or more pieces of timber alongside each other, with the ends to form the fore-part of the raft brought in a line, and then bound close together by logs placed across these. The size of the raft is increased in this manner by adding pieces of timber, one after another, with their unequal lengths crossing the joints, until the whole lot of timber is joined together in one flat mass. The water at this period is exceedingly cold, yet, for weeks together, the lumberers are in it from morning till night, and it is seldom less than a month and a half, from the time that floating the timber down the streams commences, until the rafts are delivered to the merchants.

No course of life can undermine the constitution more than that of a lumberer and raftsman. The winters, although severe, are nothing to endure in comparison to the extreme coldness of the snow-water of the freshets, in which the lumberer is, day after day, wet up to the middle, and often immersed from head to foot. The intense heat of the summer sun must further weaken and reduce the whole frame, and premature old age is the inevitable fate of a lumberer. But notwithstanding all the toils of such a pursuit, those who once adopt the life of a lumberer, prefer it to any other. After selling and delivering up their rafts, they pass some weeks in idle indulgence, drinking, smoking, and dashing off in a long coat, flashy waistcoat and trousers, Wellington or Hessian boots, a handkerchief of many colours round the neck, a watch with a long tinsel chain and numberless brass seals, and an umbrella. Before winter, they return to the woods, and resume the labors of the preceding year. Many young men of steady habits in our colonies, are in the habit of joining the lumbering parties for two or three years, for the purpose of making money; and, after saving their earnings, purchase or receive grants of lands, on which they live very comfortably, cultivating the soil, and occasionally cutting down the timber on their lands for market.

An argument has lately been used by some people in power shackle the timber imported from our colonies with an additional duty of ten shillings per load, which would, with a proposed reduction of five in the duty on foreign timber, entirely annihilate the colonial timber trade. The argument is that those engaged in cutting timber are worthless, unsteady, and villainous characters. Many lumberers and raftsmen are of this stamp but, likewise, a vast amount of timber is cut by the permanent and industrious people in the colonies.

The new settler clears the land of the smaller trees, while the larger are hewn down, to sell for food; and when he at last raises a superabundance of agricultural productions, the operations of the timber trade create a market for them. Sir Howard Douglas has written in allusion to the proposed alteration in the timber duties that “the pursuits of the emigrant are, it is true, essentially agricultural; but let it not be overlooked that agricultural operations in a country covered with forests, must commence and be accompanied by the operations of the lumberer. The poor emigrant begins his labour with the axe, and his greatest, his chief resource in earning money, wherewith to buy what he wants, is in manufacturing shingles or staves, or in felling timber. Let this measure pass, let the British North American trade languish; let the inter-colonial trade with the West Indies be unprotected; and the miseries, and the distresses, which the emigrant may have endured as a pauper at home, would be nothing to those to which he will be consigned in the wilds to which he has been removed.”

It is gross ignorance to argue that the timber business is so demoralized that agriculture should be forced in the colonies, especially as that is only partially true relative to the professed lumberers and raftsmen.

The importance of our colonial timber trade is far from being justly appreciated, and least so by men in office. The trade employs about one-third of all the British tonnage trading beyond the seas, or about 300,000 tons, navigated by 16,000 seamen. Further, British manufactures of more than £2,000,000 are required in the colonies, to pay for the timber and deals imported from them. The quantity of timber and deals imported from the colonies, on an average amounts to about 400,000 loads annually; the freight of which goes first to the British ship-owner, and the benefits of which are received by various classes, such as sailors, riggers, rope-makers, ship chandlers, carpenters, anchor-smiths, and all those employed in manufacturing the many articles required in the building and fitting out of ships. A very great share also goes to landed interests, in payment of bread stuffs, and fish, and salted provisions.

The timber ships also carry out emigrants at less than half the fares they otherwise could. Of about 40,000 new settlers that arrived in North American during the year 1830, more than 30,000 were carried out by the timber ships.

When we also consider the greatly increased employment given to those engaged in our manufactories, and to the vast numbers who relieve the industry of the United Kingdom, by finding employment in our colonies, chiefly through the operations of the timber trade, its importance must be still more apparent. Nor must we forget its immense consequence in training hardy sailors, who may, when we least expect to want them, be required to defend our country from foreign invasion. All the duty expected by the government from the additional impost is relatively small, and we would still have to import from the Baltic, in addition to what is received now, a quantity equal to half of what is imported from the Colonies. The competition will be destroyed; the price of timber will rise, and the consumption consequently diminished. Foreign ships and foreign merchants would alone enjoy the benefits of the monopoly.

That our ships would not find employment in the foreign timber trade, is obvious. The reason plainly is, that the Prussians, Russians, and Norwegians mostly employ their own ships; and can build their vessels at half the cost, and victual and man them at one-third the expense of British ships.

Let our government, therefore, establish the proposed alterations in the timber duties; and, laying aside all regard for our colonies, the effect will assuredly be, ruin to British ship-owners, an extraordinary decrease of demand for our manufactures, consequent distress by throwing vast numbers on the parishes, who cannot escape the evils of poverty by emigration; driving thousands of our sailors into the service of the United States to find employment which is denied them at home; and, in the event of a war, to become, in desperation, on board of the American navy, our most deadly enemies.


Written by johnwood1946

May 3, 2017 at 8:31 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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