Among the settler families’ first concerns was clearing trees from their allotments so land could be cultivated and crops grown. The prospect of such an undertaking must have been daunting. The second-growth forests of today are very different from the dense forests and huge trees our fore-bearers encountered. Colonel Strickland wrote about measuring a tree 11 feet in diameter with “the trunk rising like a majestic column, towering upwards for sixty or seventy feet before branching off its mighty head.”
Please enjoy this Wellspring Podcast of How Settlers Cleared Their Land.
It took four or five years for a family to clear 10 to 15 acres required to sustain them. An efficient workman on his own might clear an acre of land in a week with no time left over for burning the wood. But half a dozen men working together could chop and burn an acre in a single day.
Affluent settlers could hire choppers to clear their land for a wage plus meals and lodging, as stipulated in their contract. New settlers with financial means often hired “American choppers”, Irish immigrants, or other inhabitants eager to earn a wage per acre. Once the work was done, the choppers would collect their pay and continue on to work for subsequent families.
Many hands made light work of tasks too onerous for individual families to accomplish alone. Pioneer co-operation often took the form of a logging bee. A family would invite other settler families from within a 15 or 20-mile radius to attend the bee. Each family would bring oxen and implements with them. One of the men would organize the labourers and issue directions.
The early settlers employed a variety of methods for clearing the land for cultivation. Once underbrushing was complete, the work of removing trees began. Slashing was a common approach whereby trees were chopped down and left where ever they fell to dry out and later be burned. In a similar but more organized manner, windrow felling involved cutting trees so they fell into rows.
Sybil Lynde, in her book called To a House in Whitby, wrote about the Yankee method of clearing land. The trees most easily cut down were felled first. The remaining giants were either burned or girdled. In this process, underbrush was cleared from the base of the tree, then a wide ring of bark was cut from larger trees. These trees were left standing until they were dead, then either cut down or burned. Although this method provided a savings in labour, it held no advantage for producing good crops.
Mrs. Anna Jameson’s described a girdled forest she saw on the main road between Hamilton and Branford. “[For] a space of about three miles, bordered entirely on each side by dead trees, which had been artificially blasted by fire or girdling. It was a ghastly forest of tall white spectres, strangely contrasting with the glowing luxurious foliage all around…Without exactly believing the assertion of the old philosopher, that a tree feels the first stroke of the axe, I know I never witness nor hear that first stroke without a shudder; and as yet I cannot look on with indifference, far less share the Canadian’s exultation, when these huge oaks, these umbrageous elms and stately pines, are lying prostrate, lopped of all their hours, and piled in heaps with the brushwood, to be fired,—or burned down to a charred and blackened fragment,—or standing leafless, sapless, seared, ghastly, having ben ‘girdled’ and left to perish.” (Anna Jameson: Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, 1838, Vol. II, pp. 102-3)
Where oxen were unavailable to haul fallen trees, the hand-log method was used. In low-lying areas like Lambton and Glengarry, only slightly above the water level of a lake or river, logging was complicated by the by wet soil conditions. The ground was often so wet that the oxen and logs sank into the abundant mud.
To circumvent these challenging conditions, trees were cut down in the winter. One settler in McGillivray Township reported that he and his wife cut trees on 8 acres over the winter and the next spring they logged most of it by hand. The couple cut logs into short lengths, more easily handled. Trees were cut off close to the ground so the stumps wouldn’t interfere with the soil cultivation. It was very difficult work to cut down prime growth forest with many trees measuring two and three feet across. Another resourceful Bruce County settler said that for four consecutive winters, he chopped trees down. Each spring, he burned and seeded. Then in the summers, he worked for other farmers clearing their land.
Trees were felled in such a manner that they would form heaps where they landed. On each acre of land, a pile grew and, eventually, each log was dragged away by oxen to where men using handspikes manoeuvred the logs into piles up to 8 feet high. Once an area was completely cleared, the piles were set aflame with underbrush and branches acting as kindling. Women and children handled smaller pieces and managed the fires.
Several attempts at burning the new green wood were required before successfully reducing it to ash. The sun and wind of April and May dried the underbrush that had been cut and heaped the previous winter. These were set aflame. If the season has been dry and there is a strong wind, the lighter timber and some larger trees burned down as well. Any trees left standing were felled and chopped into sections for piling. After a first round, half-burnt wood was collected and burned again in a process known as branding. Charred logs and rotten wood were gathered for the second attempt by a group of three or four men leading a yoke of oxen attached to a single chain. A yoke and bow were used for hauling away larger logs.
“With a blazing sun overhead and ashes heated like unto a fiery furnace underneath, the men looked like a lot of chimney sweeps after a day at branding,” an early Cobourg settler once said (Reminiscences of Walter Riddell, Hamilton Township, in Farmer’s Sun, Aug 4, 1898). Add to his description, the sound of men hollering at oxen. Blackened by smoke, the men would return for meals prepared by the wife of the family hosting the lumber bee.
The sole aim of settlers was to dispose of the trees quickly. No thought was given to conservation. However, in later years of clearing, the best quality timbers were held back for use in building shelters or for rail fences.
In newer settlements, July was a prime burning month. Heavy smoke would hang over the land by day, and at night the burning fires and sparks shot upward to illuminate the sky. The spectacle of a hundred such fires could be seen blazing as one on a dark night. In Backwoods of Canada, Catherine Parr Traill shared her account of a “glorious burning” that took place on her family’s allotment. Her husband and men servants set fire to the lumber heaps, once they were assured that the wind was blowing away from the Traill’s home. In dry conditions, a strong wind could speed a fire across hundreds of acres. This was not considered a successful clearing strategy because the fire would devour the underbrush and light timber necessary to a strong sustained burn.
In the later 1800s when farmers had more time, the best ashes could be collected and either made into potash or sold to a potashery. The ashes were gathered from the land before rain fell to maintain the integrity of the ash. Small log houses were built for storing ash and keeping it dry.
Ashes collected after the burning of good hardwood could fetch enough money to pay for the original land purchase. Ten acres might yield 5 barrels of potash (500 pounds). A single barrel could be sold in Montreal for $30. In 1831, author Joseph Pickering wrote in Inquiries of an Emigrant, that when potash prices was high, the sale of ashes from land covered in timber would pay for the clearing of that land.
Stumping, or removing the stumps from land that had been logged, was extremely difficult work. They occupied roughly one eighth of the field, so the first crops were usually planted between them. The presence of stumps not only wasted space but proved a disadvantage to the crude agricultural methods of the day. Many softwood trees stumps rotted away after a year or two, but hardwood stumps persisted eight to ten years, and resinous stumps of pine trees even longer. Stumps, particularly of resin trees like pine, resisted burning and peppered the landscape for many years.
In early York streets, stumps were prevalent and hampered comfortable travel until the Stump Act was enforced. Any person found intoxicated might be sentenced to the task of extracting a prescribed number of stumps. The law so effectively reduced the number of problematic stumps and public drunkenness in York, that other localities imitated it.
Much like with logging bees, settlers found stumping bees helpful in ridding their fields of stumps. Some stumps could be chopped out with an axe, but others were dragged out by oxen whose chains had been fastened around the root. Some settlers resorted to burning or blasting difficult to remove stumps like those of pine. Some districts used a stumping-machine, a mechanism supported by a log tripod. A chain was attached to the root and also to a vertical screw which was sunk into the middle of the stump. Oxen hitched to the machine walked in circles thereby turning the screw so it raised and slowly pulled the chain upward. which in turn drew the root from the ground.
In some areas, stump fences remain a distinguising feature of the rural landscape.
In An Account of the First Settlement of the Township of Hull (1823), Philemon Wright, founder of Hull Quebec, had this to say about stumping: “In 1815 I employed some men in taking out the small stumps and roots, and levelling of the roughest places as rots began to decay according to the size of the stumps Beech and rock maple stumps are much more readily taken out after the seventh year; pine, elm, basswood, and hemlock are less liable to rot, and therefore require about fifteen years before they can be taken out, especially those of the large size. Every season I set apart a certain number of days, and take from two to six pair of oxen, harnessed with strong chains, which are fastened round the stumps and drawn up, collected together into piles, and burnt upon the ground.”
I’ve really enjoyed researching this piece. It’s helping to put me in the shoes of the settler as I continue writing my novel set in Bytown, Upper Canada, in the early 1800s. The history lessons I received as a child did not include charred landscapes and stump ridden roads. This clearer view causes me to reflect on the challenges faced by the new arrivals, and the resulting consternation of First Nations peoples.
Lead Photo Credit: Logging Bee in Muskoka, May 1, 1880, Artist Weston, James L., ca. 1815-1896, Library and Archive of Canada
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