Col­lect­ing Memories

Sur­veys are nothing new. In 1876, a for­ward-think­ing group on Prince Ed­ward Is­land sent a ques­tion­naire to the prov­ince’s old­est res­i­dents.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS 20 - By Alan MacEach­ern and Ed­ward MacDon­ald

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.

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