Surveys are nothing new. In 1876, a forward-thinking group on Prince Edward Island sent a questionnaire to the province’s oldest residents.
An 1876 questionnaire offers a glimpse of early settler life on Prince Edward Island.
IN 1876, SEVENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD PRINCE EDWARD ISLANDER John Brooks recounted his first view of the colony more than half a century earlier. He had been standing on the deck of the barque
Mary coming from Bristol, England. The island “presented the appearance of a forest,” he wrote. “A few green fields, like oases in a desert, were to be seen along the shore.” The capital, Charlottetown, “had the appearance of a small village in England. The buildings were principally in the centre of the town, the outskirts of which resembled a common, with here and there a small cottage.”
Brooks was answering a survey that had been sent in the mail to him and to all of the oldest residents of Prince Edward Island by a group of heritageminded citizens. “The object,” explained Donald Currie, the leader and only named member of the group, was “to collect everything of historical value relating to the early settlers of the Colony, to be preserved and utilized hereafter.” Currie, the editor of the Charlottetown Patriot, did not explain exactly how the group planned to utilize the material. But a contemporary article in another island newspaper, the Examiner, titled a story about the survey efforts “The Nucleus of an Historical Society.”
Thankfully, today we understand the importance of preserving the past for the future, and that awareness seems only to be growing. The sudden realization some years ago of the urgent need to interview veterans of the First World War before they died has been replaced with more systematic projects to interview those of later wars. Unmistakably historic events such as the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States are now preserved and memorialized almost instantly.
But in the mid-nineteenth century the notion that the past had to be recorded and saved if it was not to disappear was still in its infancy. Historical societies began to emerge across North America. The 1870s were important in that history, with provincial societies created in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, for example. On Prince Edward Island, the sense that the pioneer generation was rapidly passing away had many Islanders looking over their shoulders to a world that had also vanished. Only a year before the 1876 survey, journalist and historian Duncan Campbell had sold over twenty-seven hundred copies of his History of Prince Edward Island.
Elsewhere, historical societies launched surveys to seek out military memorabilia, local political papers, or Indigenous artifacts. But the 1876 survey was unique in its breadth and in its interest in everyday existence — what today we would call
social history. In ninety-nine questions ranging from the prosaic (“How were the first houses lighted in the day time?”) to the abstract (“Were they formerly happier than now, as a rule?”), the survey encouraged respondents to call up all their memories of pioneer life at the beginning of the nineteenth century and to express how times had changed since then.
We don’t know how many responses the survey received, but the nineteen that have made it down to the present are filled with information and opinion of pioneer Canadian settlement, the text in shaky script often spilling far beyond the space allotted. What’s more, the questions tell their own story, demonstrating what Islanders, just three years after joining Confederation, wanted to retain or to recapture of their heritage before it was lost. The survey offers a past within a past: a vision of the early nineteenth century through the historical interests of those living in the latter part of that century.
The survey opened with the question still paramount to Islanders: “Are you a native of P.E. Island?” Twelve of the nineteen respondents said yes, signalling that much of what even these pioneers described would be about the generation that preceded them. Perhaps not surprisingly, when asked “Who was the first settler in your part of the country?” most answered in terms of British settlers; a few mentioned the Acadians, and George Brace of Charlottetown drily replied, “No doubt one of the Micmacs.” But if the French and Mi’kmaq were an afterthought for most of the respondents, they were even more so to the surveyors. There are only two questions about the French period, and the sole one about the Mi’kmaq asks, “Have you ever seen any weapons of stone used by the Micmacs of this Island in their savage state?” To this, seventy-nine-year-old Yorkshire-born Richard Hudson could only reply, “what they were in their savage state, I do not know, but I have known them for 59 years, and I never saw any amongst them that disgraced them more than the white people.”
When asked, “What traces of the French occupation are you acquainted with?” ninety-two-year-old Neil McCallum of Brackley Point replied: “When Louisbourg was taken, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. fell to the British. On the Black River are the remains of four or five cellars where a number of the French were hid for years. They lived on eels and trout which were very abundant.” But when asked “Who do you think built the dykes around the marshes, and what were they intended for?” McCallum replied, “I think the Indians built them for the purpose of capturing game.” Could Prince Edward Island have so utterly forgotten its Acadian past within just a century? Apparently, yes, because those who answered were equally split in attributing the dykes to the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians, and nature itself.
The simple austerity of bygone days was often mentioned. The early settlers persevered, in the words of Dr. John Mackieson, “by pinching and poverty, industry and strong faith!” According to John Brooks, having eaten fish and potatoes one night and potatoes and fish the next, “sometimes they had nothing but lobster to eat.” Lobster was not considered the delicacy it is today.
The first houses were humble affairs, with roofs thatched with birchbark or seaweed, floors uncarpeted or just dirt, and windows few or non-existent. Often a hole that could be stopped up at night provided the only lighting during the daytime. McCallum told of his schoolteacher’s house burning down, after which the wife asked, “Is the axe saved?” “Yes.” “Is the wheel saved?” “Yes.” “Is the hoe saved?” “Yes.” “Then thank God,” she said, “we can live yet.”
As interested as both the surveyors and respondents were in capturing how life had been in the past, an important motivation was seeing how lives had changed since then. Travel was therefore a recurring topic, because it demonstrated how greatly society had progressed over the course of the nineteenth century. When much of the island was still interminable forest, there was as much travel around the colony as through it. The chief modes of transport were, in summer, canoes paddled along the shore and, in winter, sleighs pulled by horse, ox, or dog.
Roads were initially nothing more than blazes on trees to mark a trail; bridges, as one anonymous respondent put it, “were canoes and fallen trees.” Those who did travel by land
might make fifteen to twenty-five kilometres per day. At night, they would put up at one of the very few governmentbuilt way stations — essentially, a stable for the horse and a loft for its owner — or one of the privately run wayside taverns that replaced them. Some simply found a house to stay in for the night. Others opted not to travel in the first place. John B. Schurman wrote that he could say little about early Charlottetown because, it being fifty kilometres from his Bedeque home, he did not visit it until he was twenty-three.
Some questions were about the colony’s “firsts”: first house, newspaper, threshing machine, brewer, and turnip variety, to name a few. These were presumably intended to create a roster of true pioneers, those people who had introduced to the island something that was still present. (Respondents, however, credited a suspicious number of firsts to their own fathers.)
Other questions focused on what was gone forever. The topic most discussed by those answering the survey was the island’s loss of wildlife. To the question “What wild animals were in the Island in your young days?” eighty-one-year-old Hon. Alex Anderson replied, “Bears, wild cats or loupcivears [ loup-cervier is French for lynx], foxes, [martens], rabbits, minks, muskrats, otters, squirrels, &c.”
Other respondents confirmed this list — and, notably, all mentioned bears first. There were still a few bears on the island in 1876, but their dwindling numbers were rapidly making them a source of historical interest. Schurman devoted six hundred words to recounting stories of settlers who had been threatened or attacked by bears, or of killing three or four bears in a summer. No one wrote either cheerfully or wistfully about wildlife decline; it was just a fact. William Jenkins confirmed that passenger pigeons were once plentiful by noting that on one occasion he had killed fifteen with a shot.
Still other questions sought to resolve historical mysteries or arguments. For example, “Was there any fox hunt ever held on the island…?” Yes, according to two of the seventeen respondents, although the great majority had never heard of one or didn’t answer.
The 1876 survey ends on a strange note. Question 91 is a catch-all request for any other information not yet covered; 92 asks for contact information; and then the survey, seemingly over, revives, launching a final series of seven additional and more intensely probing questions, which in turn yield some of the most revealing responses. When asked “Were drinking habits more prevalent…?” most answered in the affirmative. “[I]f a neighbour came to see you, he would not think he was kindly treated unless treated out of the decanter,”
stated Schurman. “The first drink a child got when born had rum in it. At frolicks, weddings, births and funeral — rum must be there.” Some of the respondents noted there had been less drinking to excess in the past — although Brace pointed out that fires in the capital have always occurred on Saturday night or Sunday morning, when excessive drinking was most likely to occur.
People in 1876 were already decrying the societal decline in sociability. Answering “What amusements were prevalent in old times….?” and “What changes have taken place in regard to amusements….?” the elders wrote with nostalgia about the many frolics that were no longer held — wool-thickening, stumping, spinning, or simply dances. They even wistfully recalled the mischievous pranks that were no longer played — such as fencing up the roads, filling wells with debris, or putting wagon wheels on the roofs of barns. Now, “Instead of travelling in moccasins, we skate in illuminated rinks!” wrote Mackieson in a fit of curmudgeonliness. “[We] live on the fat of the Land. Idolize strangers, and drench them with champagne!” Victorian Prince Edward Island was apparently more debauched than we might think.
Were people of the past happier? The pioneers gave more varied responses to that question than to any other, but the general consensus was that Islanders of 1876 were both more comfortable and less happy. Eighty-six-year-old Peter Sinnott of Morell concluded his survey by marvelling at how far he had come: “In 1821, when I came here, I had neither horses nor cattle. Now I have: 9 horses, 16 cows, 41 sheep, 20 pigs; 1 Irish pig; 4 mares — good breed; 2 waggons, 2 sets harness; 1 cart, 1 truck; 2 iron ploughs; 1 drag harrows; 1 cultivator; 1 mowing machine; 1 threshing machine; 1 horse rake; 2 Barns, 300 acres of land, 170 acres under cultivation.”
Schurman wrote, “People lived as well, that is, had as good victuals when I was a boy as now. But did not dress so fine, and had not such fine houses or carriages or household furniture. Each person made his own chairs, tables, and bedsteads, and cariole…. I think they were more contented and happy then than now and I know they were more friendly and obliging.”
Only nineteen of the surveys are known to have been filled out, and it may have been because of this apparently poor response that so little was ever done with them. They were never published in a local newspaper, for example, and never cited by later historians. Currie, who had launched the survey, died of tuberculosis in 1880 without having done anything with the responses. The following year, a Prince Edward Island historical society was finally established, but it died quietly in its infancy without following up on Currie’s work. However, Judge George Alley, one of Currie’s historically minded compatriots, did use details from the surveys in public lectures. The responses ended up in his archival papers at the provincial archives and, as of 2017, online.
The histories the responses tell bear all the failings of longafter-the-fact first-person accounts. They make the past both better and worse than it likely was; they dwell more on the unusual than on the day-to-day; and they rely on the vagaries of memory. But they are still a wonder.
One hundred and forty one years ago, William Sencabough began writing about his early life solely because a letter in the mail asked him to. He told of being born in Three Rivers, P.E.I., in 1796; of a time when Gaelic or French was spoken by all; of winters with twice as much snow; of a nearby 1802 forest fire that would show its effects “to the end of time”; of a sea captain named Lemasuier teaching night school in 1807; of horses first brought to the community in 1813; of moccasins made of untanned cow skin; and of almost sixty other matters. “I have given you scribbling as far as memory will serve me,” he concluded.
Those memories have now travelled across more than two centuries, bridged by a survey conducted in 1876.
Prince Edward Islanders gather for a picnic at the shore, circa 1880 to 1906.
Left: A page from the 1876 survey as filled out by an island resident.
An 1880 map of Prince Edward Island.
An oil painting of Charlottetown Harbour, circa 1830, by George Godsell Thresher.
A revolver issued to the Bank of Montreal staff in Regina. A person travels on a snowy Prince Edward Island road by horse and sleigh, circa 1860.