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The Life History And Emigration of Mrs. J.J. Hughes


Ed Symington


"A trip around the world, a move to Hawaii; this isnothing with today's convenience. But, as you will see in this story, thatwas not so in my great, great grandmothers's time. She was from Papneville,Quebec, and her name was Catherine Cummings. She could have told you ofmany adventures that she had, but, since she is not alive, I will tell youof her life as it was told to me."

Catherine Cummings, (later Mrs. J. J. Hughes) was bornin the year 1837 at Papneville, Quebec. She was one of a family of sevengirls and one boy, and was never idle. When she came of age, she went toOttawa to learn the millinery, and afterwards did a lot of bonnet making,etc., but since it was mostly for relatives, she received only a hearty"thank you". She next took up school teaching, which at thattime did not require a very rigid examination. A few questions were putto her orally by the trustees, who were not too learned themselves, andshe passed as a qualified teacher, which occupation she maintained for threeyears, and she made money, so that dressing in silk was quite the custom,but, could we do it now on ten dollars a month? This was the teacher'swage at that time, with board thrown in for she was required to "boardaround" as it was called then. The number of weeks she boarded inone place was determined by the number of children in that family that wereattending school, which was unfortunate for the teacher, as the best boardwas attained with the smallest families.

When my great, great grandmother, (who was then CatherineCummings), was a little girl, she remembers seeing her father light thefire with flint and punk, for there were no matches manufactured. I wouldsometimes take over an hour to get a fire started, so the fire was usuallykept going, and sometimes a few coals were borrowed from the neighbors.There was no such thing as coal oil at this time, so candles were alwaysused as a source of light, except by the rich, who had lamps in which theyburned a kind of fish oil. The candle mold which my great, great grandmotherused was a tine frame holding six tubes into which melted tallow was pouredand a cord let down in to it, then left to set. To loosen the candles fromthe molds, she poured hot water over them.

When she was a little girl, her mother made linen fromthe flax they raised, and heavy woolen clothes from the wool of the sheep. Her parents lived in the New England states. She made straw hats duringthe summer and made money selling them for 25 cents each.

Going back to the year when my great, great grandmotherwas married, (in 1860 at the start of the Civil War), she saw a man passthe window that she was sitting by, and, even though she had never met himbefore, these words came to her: "That man is going to make a changein your life." She found out later that this man was John Hughes andthat he lived on the opposite side of the Ottawa River at Plantagenette,Ontario, and four months later they were married. She moved to his homewhere they lived until seven children were born to them. Their names were:Ella,Alton, Harvey, (who was later to be my father's grandfather), Cynthia, Oliver,Walter, and Hulda.

This country, in its season, abounded with black thimbleberries and maple sugar. At times, when great, great grandmother went berrypicking, she would leave Ella, her eldest daughter, who was then the youngestand only child, with a few toys, (homemade of course), and something toeat. My grandmother says she could always come back and see that her babywas asleep, with no tears on her cheeks.

Sometimes in early spring, when there were still patchesof snow on the ground, she walked about a mile and a half to get two pailsof maple sap to boil down for sugar. She made many such trips, and underconditions when mothers or expectant mothers of today would be taking thebest care of themselves. Maple sugar played a very important part in raisingthe family, because whenever she left the kids in great, great grandfather'scare, she just set down a huge cake of maple sugar and let them scramblefor themselves, while he engaged himself with reading the newspaper.

John Hughes chose farming as the means by which to supporthis family. The small piece of land which he cleared was not good soil. He had read a lot about Manitoba being such a good land, that he decidedthey should move.

It was not easy to travel in Canada in those days, as therewere no railroads, but with strong courage they started for Manitoba inthe spring of the year 1874.

When the family left Toronto they came by way of the GreatLakes to Port Arthur, and from there by way of Dawson Route which was apassage cut through by the soldiers of the Real Rebellion to Winnipeg.

The means of travel was very inconvenient compared withtoday. They were transferred from their wagon into one boat, and behindthat they tied another boat into which the horses were loaded. As theywent on their journey by water, the boat behind them with the horses init began to sink. Mr. John Hughes stood near his wife, whose tremblingarms held her precious baby, with a knife in his hand, telling her not tofear. It did become necessary for him to cut the rope, and everyone watchedthe boat sink while the horses floundered and swam to shore, but most ofthe provisions which were on the boat were lost. The supervisor of theboat was supposed to furnish food to the passengers after the first twoweeks. This provision was very poor, and finally he entirely refused toprovide any. My great, great grandmother, then the mother of seven children,heard that those who had tickets could get food. She told all those nearher to present their traveling tickets, which they did, and her scheme workedsuccessfully. On one occasion, they were put off on the banks of RainyRiver with only tents to sleep in and no food. Mr. Hughes managed to catcha fish, which they divided among the nine of them, and then, by asking foodof a stranger, were saved from starvation until they came to a place wherean allowance was given them of one pound of pork and some bread.

They had to stay for weeks in Winnipeg, which was thenFort Garry, a small place, and Mr. Hughes looked about examining the soilfor they were then more tired of traveling than we would be now after threetrips around the world. In fact, we could do this now with the presentmeans of travel much faster than they did it with much less distance. Mr.Hughes decided that it was not good farming country around Fort Garry either. The farm that he finally chose lies in that fertile strip of land alongthe Red River, which for its productive powers cannot be surpassed, nay,equaled, in the whole continent of North America.

Mr. Hughes made many inquiries about land, only to findout that each piece of land was either an Indian Reserve or a MennoniteReserve. He finally, after many tries, filed on land in Morden, but Pembina,North Dakota was the nearest railway center, so John Hughes changed hismind, and moved to Pembina, even though this meant changing his nationality.

Three months had now gone by since they started, and thebaby little girl of eighteen months, had taken summer complaint while inFort Garry, and by the time they reached Pembina, their little girl wasdead. For many days her mother and father were burdened with grief. Onlythose who have gone through this kind of thing can measure the pangs ofa mother's heart at such a crisis. All this happened among strangers ina strange land - but, did they act like strangers. No, men helped dig thelittle grave and make the coffin, and the women helped prepare the bodyfor burial. Mr. Hughes felt a deep feeling of gratitude, and remarked,"I believe we'd like living among the Americans: so saying, he movedtwenty miles west of this town and took a homestead of 160 acres and a treeclaim was also given to him if he would plant five acres of trees. Thehomestead was on the Pembina River with a fine shelter belt to the North. There were oaks, elms, bass wood and box elder, with many wild fruit bushes;cranberry, raspberry, gooseberry, saskatoon, and plums, and often have visitors(such as myself), remarked upon the beauty of the spot. "The housestill stands, but trees have been grubbed out." At first, (my grandmothertells me), the only visitors were Indians. The oldest members of my grandmother'sfamily can remember their dialect and strange manner of squatting on thefloor near the wall, not knowing the use of chairs; and, different fromthe present inhabitants of the country, they would point at flour or whateverthey wanted in exchange and by holding up so many fingers, signify how muchthey would expect. John Hughes's log house, which was the best dwellingin the country, was sturdily built of the logs which he hewed from the forest. It was located on an Indian Trail, which was then the only kind of road. The Red River carts were the most popular vehicle at this time. My great,great grandparent's first winter in North Dakota was a cold one. It frozeup on November 9th, and did not thaw once until spring. On November 11ththeir eighth child was born, and it was John Benton. The next child wasAlvin, who died of typhoid fever at the age of fourteen. All in all, therewere twelve children born to by great, great grandparents. Great, greatgrandmother had children to take care of for twenty years, and after herown children were grown up, she raised three grandchildren in the house.

How often do present day mothers have to call a doctor,engage a nurse, or at least have a servant girl, but there was never a doctorin Mrs. Hughes's house for a period of about forty years. She once cuther leg seriously with a sharp hewers broad axe. Her husband sewed it up(and that with a rusty needle), as best he could, and it healed. She hadto carry it in a sling the whole summer. The child that was born soon afterthis once snatched at what his sister was washing, and received a cut whichalmost severed his four fingers from the rest of his hand. Mrs. Hughesbandaged the fingers and they grew back almost as perfect as before.

During the summer of 1879, Mr. Hughes took sick, and theywere not able to get a doctor. One disease led to another, and he was inbed the whole summer. The oldest boy, who was about seventeen at the time,was responsible for his crops, but he received a bad cut in his right handthat partially disabled him too. Some help was received from the few neighbors. When the new child came August 31, he began to revive, thanking God forhis good health.

The old log house served as home, though all in one room,with five beds upstairs and one down, till the youngest child was ten yearsof age. Today we would think this was hardship, but my great, great grandmotherliked the country and was most patient in spite of every obstacle that stoodin her way throughout her lifetime. Her motto in life was this: "Dowhat is right yourself, and you will come out right in the end."

My great, great grandmother used to make cheese and continuedto do so until well over eighty years of age. One summer she made $500.

It was a great help in the early days and the grain profitscould be expended for the purchase of horses instead of oxen, a binder insteadof the cradle, and in 1894, a nine room house. Now, instead of taking twodays to go and come from Pembina with a load of grain hauled by oxen, Mr.Hughes could hitch up horses, only owned by the well-to-do, and drive toa new town, Neche, only six miles distant. All in all, my great, great,grandmother had a busy life, and came out well in the end when she diedin November, 1923. "I am proud to be one of the family."


Biography, of Hughes, Mrs. J. Life Report, January 15,1973

Symington, Mrs. Lyle, Interview, December 23, 1973


Biography, of Hughes, Mrs. J. Life Report, January 15,1973

Symington, Mrs. Lyle, Interview, December 23, 1973