Pioneer Life on P.E.I.!

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The following notes, written by my 2nd cousin, twice removed, Jessie Rosina (Norton) Beck, gives a very interesting account of pioneer life on Prince Edward Island, not only applicable to the Norton family, but to all early families on P.E.I. It describes how they lived under difficult circumstances during a time where there were few roads, no schools and churches, no radio and television, and no supermarkets. Survival was dependant upon ingenuity, hard work, self dependance, and a lot of good luck!

In retrospect.....

My father recalled being told by some of the maiden aunts, who lived at Belleview, that when they came to the Island, there were no roads, only a bridle path through the woods, and the sight of a bear was not uncommon. In an 1821 copy of the P.E.I. Gazette it was recorded that there was a bear trapped in the Western Settlement of P.E.I. and they received the bounty of 10 s. by producing the snout.

Nearly all the travel was by boat, so the houses were built near the shore - one could look out on the river and announce, "We are having company! The Moar's boat is coming with four people in it!". The Brudenell Island Road (our lane) was part of the portage used for Indian canoes, between the Brudenell and Cardigan rivers.

The "Little" Island, later named Brudenell Island was chosen for the sight for a church and burying ground, because of its accessability from water. A small Anglican church was built near the spot where the tall 1803-1903 monument stands. I recall being shown a small portion of its old sill southwest of the monument when I was a girl. This monument is of gray granite with a cap and a high cobblestone base. The inscription is in both English and Gaelic. Individual red sandstone headstones marked the graves - two little stones to Jane Norton and George Moar's twins, John and James, who died in 1826 in infancy. Jane, who was born in 1807, was a young mother of nineteen to have such a trajedy. Can't you picture the pathos of the scene - John and Eleanor's first grandchildren, the little group in the centre of the Little Island waiting for the rowboat from "Bloomfield", (as Jane called their home) with the two tiny still forms in it. But they trusted in God, and carried on, no matter what hardship.

My father remembered being told that, if the fire in the fireplace (their only heater in the log cabin) even with expert and experienced banking), should go out during the night, one member of the family would have to be despatched to the nearest neighbour to borrow a live coal (no store to buy matches).

When Father was a boy, lobsters were plentiful. They would harness a horse to the cart, and go behind the "Little Island" and with a pitchfork could get enough lobster off the rocks, to cover the bottom of the cart in a short while. Instead of buying fertilizer, they burned limestone in the lime kiln to make lime, and also used mussel mud, obtained from the shore at low tide.

They lived a very busy and independant life. The only light they had was from tallow candles, which they made four at a time in the long black molds, by melting the fat from mutton. They grew flax to make sails for the boat. The designated area, the flax pond, was still a definite spot in my day.

Sheep wool provided their clothing, blankets, and mats, to a large extent. Men's pants and womens dresses were made from "homespun", a course material died and woven at home (after the shearing of the sheep). It was a long process, spinning the long rolls into different yarns, coarse and fine, then the dyeing, then the weaving, finally the dressmaking.

The wheat was ground into flour, and the homemade bread was activated by home grown hops. Almost everything that was eaten or worn was produced at home, by the clever, ever busy and often tired hands of the first settlers. They made their own soap and they scoured the wooden porch floor, or blackened pots with white sand brought up from the creek (now Comet or Ajax). The creek was first called "Oyster Creek", later "Norton Creek", and the two small creeks flowing into it from the east were called "Little Creek"' and "Delory Creek".

They had no refrigeration, except the "dairy" in the cellar, and the well. The "dairy" was shut off from the rest of the cellar. It had shelves and was used to let the cream rise to the top in large flat pans, then it would be skimmed off. Later, when they used a cream separator, the dairy was a very interesting place, with every kind of jam, preserve, pickles, large bottles of mincemeat, pickled crabapples, large crocks of butter, large crocks of coarse salt, with eggs preserved in them, so that when the hens would stop laying, there would still be eggs available. There was also a barrel of brine with meat in it, and one with fish in it. So it was like a big walk in refrigerator.

In later years, large blocks of ice were cut from ice in the French Creek on the Montague River, and stored in sawdust for summer refrigeration, and ice cream making. In the pantry would be a barrel or two of flour, one of ground oatmeal, a smaller one of bran and shorts, a hundred pound bag of sugar, a cheese, and a keg of molasses. Neighbours would rotate the killing of fat cows or hogs so that by swapping, a supply of fresh beef and pork would see them through the winter.

In the spring, a fisherman selling his wares would appear at the door, announcing "Good news for poor people, the fresh herring has arrived".

Doctors were very scarce and usually a kind neighbour acted as midwife. One had to be one's own veterinarian and be prepared to stay up all night with a sick horse or cow.

There were no district schools and children were taught at home. Some fortunate ones were then sent to town for a year. Books were practically non-existant, so it was no wonder that the Norton library was so well "thumbed" over and attained such an important place in John Norton's will.

The land was laboriously cleared by hand, stumped and plowed, sown with the precious seed. The huge primeval trees were hand hewn for sills and beams for house and barn. Imagine the long hours of hard labour, sweat, and aching backs.

The custom of bushing the ice consisted of placing small spruce trees about 100 feet apart from one shore to the other - the trunk was placed in a hole in the ice. This originated after the death of a man who was caught in a severe blizzard or snowstorm and perished. He had been unwittingly driving in a circle with the horse and sleigh and froze to death. For many years, the Island rivers were all bushed along the travel routes when the ice reached a certain thickness.

Another custom in a blizzard, my father recalled, was that of tying a rope around one's waist, and the other end would be tied to the back door handle. A man at the western end of the island had gone out to the barn to milk the cows during a severe snowstorm and never returned. His frozen body was found after the storm abated. He had walked in a circle, and was not far from the door.

Jessie Rosina (Norton) Beck.

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Last Updated: 9/15/97 10:34:44 PM