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Chapter 3
The European Settlers Arrive
Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Preface
1 The Road through Richmond Hill
2 First Peoples on the Land
3 The European Settlers Arrive
Yonge Street Pioneers
Pioneer Life in Richmond Hill
Pioneers on Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street
The Comte de Puisaye's Thwarted Romance
French Aristocracy in the Highlands of York
4 From Miles' Hill to Richmond Hill: The Birth of a Community
5 Tories and Reformers
6 Stagecoach Lines and Railway Tracks
7 The Neighbours at Mid-Century
8 Fire Brigades and Fence Viewers
9 Picture Post Card Village of the 1880s and 1890s
10 Rails through Richmond Hill
11 The Flowering of Richmond Hill
12 The Village Transformed
Table of Illustrations

Pioneer Life in Richmond Hill

In the late afternoon of a cool but sunny December day in the last year of the eighteenth century, a pioneer Richmond Hill family stands in front of their cabin, located some distance east of Yonge Street on a pathway charitably described as a township concession road. This family arrived in the area from New York State less than a year ago, and only moved onto their land in the spring. Although they are second-generation citizens of the New World, and thoroughly familiar with North American agricultural conditions, this is their first winter in the Upper Canadian wilderness.

The house behind them is a one-room log shanty, hastily erected with help from neighbours already settled in the area. As the years pass and the family proves enterprising and successful, they will replace this shanty with a larger and more comfortable log house. Eventually, their children or grandchildren may build a handsome frame, brick, or stone dwelling on the property.

Meanwhile, on that December day at the close of the eighteenth century, the family waits in front of their settlement cabin. Husband and wife are in their early forties, with five children ranging in age from teenagers to infants. All are wearing rather plain clothing, dull brown and grey homespun made from a combination of flax and wool.

We are the visitors they await - old friends from New York who came to the Richmond Hill area two years earlier. Today, we have walked from our own log house on Yonge Street, across rough-cut Langstaff Road to have dinner with our friends. They greet us warmly in a mixture of English and German, and graciously invite us to enter their cabin.

As we step through the doorway, we encounter a world of cramped but cozy domesticity. Our eyes come to rest on a huge wood-fuelled fireplace used for both heating and cooking. They invite us to sit on handmade wooden benches and chairs and eat at handmade tables. Our gaze takes in the family's wooden beds, a churn in one corner and a spinning wheel in another, and the customary snowshoes, powder horn, bullet pouch, and flintlock guns hung on the walls. As darkness falls, candles are lit from glowing embers in the fireplace.

The evening meal consists of plain but hearty fare, nearly all produced on the family's own land. We adults dig into a plate of salt pork, potatoes, and turnip. The younger children eat a bit of the same, along with large bowls of cornmeal porridge known as "mush." There is plenty of homebaked bread and pumpkin loaf, with berry jam and nuts on the side. We wash it all down with homemade spruce-beer and herbal tea.

The family's diet will grow more varied over the next few years, especially during growing seasons. On other visits to our pioneer friends, we will enjoy fresh pork and beef, wild pigeon, and sometimes fresh fish from the headwater tributaries of the Don and Rouge rivers. There will be peas and carrots, fresh raspberries, strawberries, and currants, as well as honey from the family's own beehives.

After dinner on that first visit, we talk of the back-breaking work we have had to do on our first year on the land. We know we will have to do the same kind of hard work for many years to come.

Trees had to be removed from the fields before much seed could be sown. Our friend averaged an acre of trees (less than half a hectare) after two weeks concentrated chopping. With the help of neighbours, he cut the logs into lengths suitable for cabin building, stacked smaller bits for firewood, and burned away the scrub and branches. Later, when time permits, he will burn the stumps or haul them away to make fences.

At first, our pioneer friend planted seeds almost one by one until enough ground was cleared so the seed could be scattered by hand. That first year, he harvested the grain with a sickle, although in later years he may switch to a longer-handled and more efficient scythe. Once the grain was cut, the stalks were bound in sheaves, then threshed with a flail - a primitive tool consisting of two lengths of wood held together by a leather thong.

His first year's goal was to clear enough land to plant a crop of wheat. As more land is cleared, he will plant other crops such as barley, oats, timothy, and corn. After building a shed or barn, he will store these grains to feed his animals during the winter months. Eventually, the farm will have horses and oxen as beasts of burden, a few cows for milk and cattle for beef, semi-wild pigs (an important source of revenue when fattened on corn), and a small flock of sheep prized for their wool.

We talked that evening of what the future held for our two families. We prayed that each successive year would be easier, allowing more leisure for all. We looked forward to having a church in the area and a school for the children. We spoke optimistically of better roads and easier access to the little luxuries of life that were available in town. We planned to take advantage of a public market that was to open in York the next year, where we could sell any of the surplus beef, pork, oats, or potatoes our farms might produce. We dreamed of someday exporting produce to the larger markets of Britain and the United States.

How well or poorly off were we? In later years, we looked back on those early times with great nostalgia, often forgetting the back-breaking labour and the hardships. Perhaps we also forgot that women suffered more than men, given the hard work, frequent child-bearing, and often mind-numbing isolation.

Still, we were never as disadvantaged as many nineteenth-century British travel writers maintained. They looked at pioneer British North America through upper-class European eyes and found our pioneer conditions wanting.

We, however, with our modest backgrounds, our experience in the New World, and our knowledge of the miserable life faced by the lower classes in the Old World - we had made our choice and we were doing all right, thank you very much, as the pioneers of Richmond Hill.


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Copyright Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991