The Loyalists and Their First New Brunswick Winter
The first winter in New Brunswick was long remembered by the loyalists. Those who came early in the season were able to build log houses which, though rude structures in comparison with former dwellings, enabled them to pass the cold weather with comfort. But the later arrivals were not so fortunate. When they arrived they found that scarcely any preparations had been made for their reception. At Parrtown, Portland and Carleton every habitation was crowded, and up the river S. John the houses of the old inhabitants at Gagetown, Sheffield and Maugerville were in many cases filled to overflowing with as many of the loyalists as could find accommodation.
During the month of October many of the disbanded soldiers pushed their way up the Saint John transporting their few possessions in boats provided by government. But the season was cold and wet and the hardships and exposure very great.
Mrs. Mary Bradley in her curious old autobiography describes the effect produced in her mind by the arrival of the loyalists. She was living at the time in the lower part of the township of Maugerville, now known as Sheffield. "My heart," she says, "was filled with pity and affection when I saw them in a strange land without house or home, and many of them were sick and helpless. I often looked at them when they passed by in boats in rainy weather and wished for them to call and refresh themselves and was glad when they did so." She adds that during the winter one of the loyalist families occupied a part of her father's house.
Colonel Richard Hewlett seeing the impossibility of disbanding the loyalist corps at their several locations, as originally intended by Sir Guy Carleton, was compelled to disband them at St. John, urging them at the same time to make the best provision they could for the approaching winter. The more adventurous spirits pressed on up the river, some finding shelter in the houses of the old settlers, while others took possession of the abandoned French settlements at Grimross and St. Anne's Point, where they set about building huts and repairing the ruined dwellings of the Acadians, but before they had made much progress the snow was on the ground and the winter frost in the air. They then endured the greatest hardships, their situation being at times rendered well nigh desperate in consequence of the non arrival of supplies expected up the river before the close of navigation. Frequently the stout hearted fathers and sons of the little colony at St. Anne's had to journey from fifty to a hundred miles with toboggans through wild woods or on the ice to procure a precarious supply of food for their famishing families. Women, delicately reared, cared for their children beneath canvas tents rendered habitable only by the banks of snow which lay six feet deep in the open spaces of the forest, and as one said who had as a child passed through the terrible experience of that first winter: "There were times when strong proud men wept like children and lay down in their snow bound tents to die.
A few of the pioneer settlers doubtless found shelter among the French Acadians of whom there were then several families living near Springhill, others may have passed the winter at Prince William where the disbanded men of the King's American Dragoons had been sent sufficiently early to finish their log cabins and provisions for passing the winter in comfort. It has commonly been supposed that a party of de Lancey's men under the leadership of Lieut.
Benjamin P. Griffith arrived at Woodstock before the close of the year 1783, but in the absence of any positive evidence on the point this appears improbable. True, it is barely possible that by prompt and decisive action a party of men might have gathered the necessary supplies and pushed up the river nearly 150 miles before the close of navigation, and then have contrived in some way to exist through the winter, but the undertaking seems such a rash and even perilous one, that the writer is disposed to think it was not until the spring of 1784 that the actual settlement of Woodstock began.
Very many men from all the loyal American regiments spent their first winter at St. John. Some of them drew town lots there and became permanent residents, others removed to their lands up the river the following year. For lack of other accommodation many were forced to live in bark camps and even under canvas tents pitched upon what is now known as the barrack square. These tents were trenched around and covered with spruce brought in the ship's boats from Partridge Island but even then they were a pitiful protection against the biting cold of a New Brunswick winter. Still it was wonderful what the brave hearted founders of this province endured. The late Hon. John Ward, who died at St. John, Jan. 2nd, 1875, at the advanced age of 92 years, was born in a canvas tent on the barrack square Dec. 18th 1783.
In his little work on New Brunswick history, published in the year 1825, Mr. Peter Fisher (father of ex-Mayor Fisher of Woodstock) speaks of the tribulations endured by the pioneer settlers in the words following, "The privations and sufferings of these people almost exceed belief. The want of food and clothing in a wild, cold country, was not easily dispensed with or soon remedied. Frequently in the piercing cold of winter a part of the family had to remain up during the night to keep fire in their huts to prevent the other part from freezing. Some very destitute families made use of boards to supply the want of bedding; the father or some of the elder children remaining up by turns, and warming two suitable pieces of boards, which they applied alternately to the smaller children to keep warm; with many similar expedients. . . . I have received the above facts with many other expedients, which were at that time adopted by the settlers, from persons of undoubted veracity, and who had been eye witness of what they related." Quite a number of officers and men of De Lancey's first and second battalions drew lots in Parrtown, and amongst them were Major Joseph Green, Captain Jacob Smith, Captain Thomas French, Surgeon Nathan Smith, Quarter Master George Everett, Lieut. Benjamin Lester, Ensigns Nicholas E. Old, Ralph Smith, Geo. Brewerton and Henry Ferguson; Sergeants David Newman, Daniel McSherfry, Patrick McNamara, Thomas Fowler and Edward Neil; Corporals Richard Rogers, Thomas Stanley, Jonas Highby; Privates James Craig, Daniel Cummings, Lawrence McDonald. Most of their lots were side by side extending along the south side of Britain street from Wentworth street eastward to Canterbury bay and also including adjoining lots on Broad street where the "Old Ladies Home" now stands.
Early in the year 1784 pioneer settlers of Woodstock proceeded to the place allotted them for settlement. The leader of the party was Lieut. Benjamin P. Griffith -- afterwards Colonel Griffith of the York county militia. He was born in the then province of New York, July 4th, 1754, and the fact that he received a commission as lieutenant in Lt. Col. Stephen de Lancey's company of de Lancey's brigade, when about twenty-three years of age, shows him to have been a young man of spirit and decision. One of the first engagements in which his company saw active service was in repelling an attack made by the Americans on King's Bridge at the head of Manhattan Island, August 22, 1777, where the 2nd de Lancey battalion was then stationed. The "rebels" were beaten off, but the youthful rashness of Lieutenant Griffith led to his being captured by the enemy. He soon after effected his escape or was exchanged and served gallantly through the war including the southern campaign, to which reference has already been made. At the peace in 1783 he came with his company to St. John. Lt. Col. de Lancey who commanded the company did not come to the province, having received the appointment of chief justice of the Bahamas, and governor of Tobago. Lieut. Griffith's influence with his men is seen in the fact that a larger number of his company were grantees at Woodstock than any other company in the brigade, and more of them became actual settlers.
Doubtless the pioneer party found it a difficult task to propel their heavily laden boat against the strong current of the upper St. John, the navigation of which was then more difficult than now. The Meductic rapids were a much more serious hindrance to navigation than now owing to the occurrence of dangerous rocks in the channel. During the ensuing summer the grant for the de Lancey battalions was surveyed and the lots for the officers and men were drawn in the usual manner, after which the grant was recorded at Halifax.
W. O. Raymond