Looking back at 1848 - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Few people who travel the many roads that crisscross Huron County in 2023 can visualize what the landscape would have looked like nearly two centuries ago. Where today there are carefully cultivated fields, sturdy buildings and several municipalities once was an almost impenetrable virgin forest.
The nucleus of European settlement in this area started when John Galt and William “Tiger” Dunlop met at the mouth of the Menesetung River (later Maitland River) in June of 1827. At this time they acted on the plan of the Canada Company, based in England, to profit from opening up the area for settlement.
By 1837, when the first rugged road, into the Huron Tract, was completed, there were 385 men, women and children in the area. By 1842, that number had increased to 7,190 people. “Most of the settlers going to Huron County headed for Goderich as it was the only established settlement during the first four or five years.” (Professor James Scott, The Settlement of Huron County).
Two factors were important to opening up land for settlement: surveying and road building. Early surveyors had a difficult time setting their lines through the dense stands of trees, the mire of swamplands and the daily assault of insects. Areas beyond Goderich were opened up in stages. The first settlers in Ashfield were George May near Nile in 1835, John Runciman near Dungannon in 1836, and William Dougherty at Sheppardton in 1836. In Wawanosh, John Jackman and Charles Girvin settled near Nile in the early 1840s.
Morris had been surveyed by 1849 with the first settlers being Kenneth McBean and William McConnell. Turnberry was surveyed by 1852 and John Messer came in 1853, choosing Lots 39 and 40 on Concession 1 for his new home. Looking further eastward, Howick was surveyed in 1847 and the first settler was probably John Carter in 1851. Grey was first settled by a man with the name of Beauchamp, but he did not register his claim. The second resident was John Mitchell who came in 1852.
It is quite interesting to view the Huron Signal newspapers of 1848 as found on the Huron County Museum’s Digitized Newspapers site. The Signal was published by a Scotsman by the name of Thomas McQueen, an ardent reformer, who often railed against the majority Tory establishment. This newspaper consisted of one large sheet of paper that when folded in half produced four pages of print. McQueen would have undertaken all of the tasks from gathering news to setting type and then running the paper through a press. A liberal application of ink on some pages makes them a bit difficult to read. No matter, the items found on those pages give us a peek at life in Goderich, which was quite different from the experiences of the newly-arrived settlers who were trying to carve out a place in the forests of Huron.
George Miller and Co., a foundry, offered threshing mills, castings for grist and saw mills, waterwheels, bake kettles, cook and parlour stoves, ploughs and bells in the 500- to 1,000-pound range. Alexander Melvin was prepared to receive orders for lumber or light wagons, as well as make harrows or drags to order. T. Gilmour and Co. had “almost every description of hoop and iron bar” and as a sideline, also sold tobacco. To furnish the mid-century homes, Latschaw and Erbe, cabinetmakers, were making sideboards, drawers, sofas, bedsteads, dining tables and Grecian, fancy and Windsor chairs. To brighten homes, Edward C. Watson, painter and glazier, advertised that if “employers were to furnish materials, he would engage to work at the cheapest rate.” He further added that “all types of produce would be taken in exchange for work.”
Mr. A. Naismyth was a “fashionable tailor” who was continuing to make the most approved styles on short notice. Market Square was the focus of most of the commerce at that time. H. Horton was situated there where he had a manufactory of saddles, harness, trunks, carpet bags and valises. Also located on the square was Gilbert Porte, who sold “ladies’ and gentlemen’s fashionable boots.” Dr. Hamilton, a surgeon, was located just down the way, on West Street. M.B. Seymour advertised “chests of tea, boxes of tobacco, kegs of shingle nails and horseshoes” that all had come from Liverpool by way of Montreal.
If a person required bricks, John Halden Jr. and Co. was the business to see. Mr. and Mrs. Nairn ran one of the several private schools in the settlement and gave lessons in English, French and Latin.
In November of 1848, it was reported that John Bignall, the superintendent of the Common Schools, had absconded with 448 pounds and that the teachers were without pay. In the light of communications, once a month, the postmaster, A. F. Mickle, provided a lengthy list of people who had letters waiting for them at the post office.
And we must not forget the farming community. The Huron District Agricultural Society had a “remarkably fine thoroughbred Durham bull standing at Thomas Harris’s farm on Bayfield Road.” The services of this bull came at a cost, per cow, of two shillings, sixpence or produce.
Distance and the lack of passable roads were hindrances for the settlers in the outlying areas to access the variety of goods and services available in Goderich. As well, those beginning years, of hewing out a place to live, were lean years for almost all the people living at a distance from Goderich. What little cash they had probably was used to make payments or keep up the interest installments on their property. As time went on, the roads were improved and crops provided the funds to grant the country brothers and sisters leave to partake in the goods and services that were already taken for granted in Goderich.