A tavern in the backwoods

Towns, villages and farms hugged ocean, river and lake from St. John to Niagara Falls in the 1830s while settlers were pouring into Upper Canada to hack out the forests and establish farms farther inland. In taverns and their own first rough shelters, new arrivals faced grim accommodation. Newly arrived settler, naturalist and author Catharine Parr Traill describes a typical country tavern or inn in 1832 near Peterborough, then a village of some 700. Excerpt from The Backwoods of Canada, London, 1836.

The walls were of rough, unhewn logs, filled between the chinks with moss and lichens, green, yellow, and grey; above which might be seen the shingles, dyed to a fine mahogany-red by the smoke, which refused to ascend the wide clay and stone chimney, to curl gracefully about the roof, and seek its exit in the various crannies and apertures with which the roof and sides of the building abounded.

The floor was of earth, which had become pretty hard and smooth through use… Its furniture was of corresponding rudeness: a few stools, rough and unplaned; a deal table, which, from being manufactured from unseasoned wood, was divided by three wide-open seams, and was only held together by its ill-shaped legs; two or three blocks of grey limestone placed beside the hearth served for seats for the children, with the addition of two beds raised a little above the ground by a frame of split cedars.

On these lowly couches lay extended two poor men, suffering the wasting effects of lake-fever… They both had wives and small children, who seemed very miserable. The wives also had been sick with ague, and had not a house or even shanty of their own up; the husbands having fallen ill were unable to earn anything; and much of the little money they had brought out with them had been expended in board and lodging in this miserable place, which they dignified by the name of a tavern…

Besides the various emigrants, men, women, and children, that lodged within the walls, the log-house had tenants of another description. A fine calf occupied a pen in a corner; some pigs roamed grunting about in company with some half-dozen fowls. The most attractive objects were three snow-white pigeons that were meekly picking up crumbs, and looking as if they were too pure and innocent to be inhabitants of such a place.

Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 032


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