[Notes from Editor: As page numbers in electronic editions do not correspond to those in original printed versions, they are omitted from any Tables of Contents or Illustration Lists in works that we transcribe. Spellings are left as they were in the original work. Sentence & punctuation anomalies are also (mostly) left intact. Footnotes follow the paragraph in which they are referenced, enclosed by square brackets. Richard MacNeil]
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Dr. M'GREGOR'S EARLY LABOURS ---- 1786 - 1788
Hitherto we have had great difficulty in getting anything like clear information regarding the state of society among the early settlers, but Dr. McGregor, in his autobiography, has given a very vivid picture of the condition of the country at this period. We have already published this in another form, but it is necessary, for the completeness of our present work, to give, at least, a condensed view of the state of matters as he found them, and of his early labours.
"As for our population," he says, "Pictou did not contain 500 souls; if Merigomish be included, I suppose they would amount to a few more." These were settled principally along the intervales of the three rivers, and thinly along the shore from Fishers Grant to Merigomish. The site of the town was still covered with woods. The majority of the settlers, having commenced within the previous two years, were in extreme poverty. Squire Patterson's house was the only framed one. Of the rest, but seven or eight had two fire-places. The most were of round logs, with moss stuffed in between them, and plastered with clay, while the roof was formed of the bark of trees cut in pieces of equal length, disposed in regular tiers, the ends and edges overlapping, and kept in position by poles running the whole length of the building, placed on the ends of each range of bark, and fastened at the ends to the building by means of withs. Their furniture was of the rudest description, a block of wood, or a rude bench, serving for chair or table. Food was commonly served up in wooden dishes or in wooden plates, except when discarding such luxuries, they gathered round the pot of potatoes on the middle of the floor. Among the new comers, at least, straw formed the only bed. Money was scarcely seen, and almost all trade was by barter, wheat and maple sugar being the principal circulating medium.
"Not a loaf could be afforded of our own wheat. There was no mill to grind it. We had an imitation flour by the hand-mill, but of oatmills we had not a semblance." These hand-mills, or querns, were in almost every house. They consisted of two stones, about two feet in diameter; the lower was fixed, and the upper surface "picked," as millers say, and a pintle of iron inserted in the center . The upper stone was heavier, being about ten inches thick, with a hole in the center through which the pintle in the lower stone passed, and by which, also, the grain to be ground was introduced. The lower end of an upright pole was fastened to the upper surface of this stone, near its outer edge, while the upper end was fixed in a cross piece of wood between the upper beams of the house. The operator seizing the upright pole in one hand, whirled the upper stone by means of it with a rapidity according to his strength, at the same time, with the other hand, putting the grain into the hole in the center. John Patterson made an improvement upon them, by putting a rim round them and a spout at one side, so that the flour might come off the stone at one place. This was afterward sifted and made wholesome bread. "Grinding on the hand-mill was so laborious that it was let alone till necessity impelled to it. This was the occasion of saving much wheat, for many a meal was made without bread on account of the trouble of grinding."*
[* Mention is made of a grist mill of Kennedy's in the census of 1774, but it must have worked but for a short time, if it ever worked at all, as he returned to Truro in 1776. Certainly, at this time, there was none in operation, and the tradition is, that the first application of any other power than the hand-mill to grinding was by the erection of a windmill by John Patterson, at Norway Point, where he then lived. The wheat which the settlers exchanged with the merchants for goods, was shipped to Halifax and ground at a mill at Dartmouth.]
"There was not a merchant in the district, nor any who commonly kept goods for sale, or made the third of his living by the sale of goods. Little schooners came round in the summer with some necessary articles, to which the people repaired in their canoes, and got a few things, for which they exchanged a little produce. Sometimes John Patterson got a few pound's worth more than he needed, and afterward sold them. We had scarcely any tradesmen of any kind."
"There was not a foot of road in the district. There was a path from the West to the Middle River, and from the Middle River to the East, but no path from any of the rivers to the harbor. We had not a dozen of horses,* and for carriage , neither sleighs nor gigs." These roads, if they can be called such, served scarcely any other purpose than to prevent the traveler going astray. Though there were inconveniences in traveling by them from their roughness owing to stones or roots, from the branches of trees which crossed the path, or from wet and boggy ground, yet old people have assured me, that from the soft moss, with which the ground was covered, walking on them was easier and less fatiguing than on an ordinary road. Over most of the district, however, there was not even this convenience. The most there was to direct the traveler between settlement and another was a "blaze," which we presume all our readers know means a chip taken off the sides of the trees along the line of travel. The chief of the travel on land was along the shore or the banks of the rivers, which were often incumbered with trees and stones, and at other places presented bogs, the crossing of which was most inconvenient, or creeks which required a long circuit round, or brooks, which it was necessary to ascend for some distance, to a convenient places of crossing. In winter, the regular mode of conveyance was the snow shoe. It is certain, that whether more snow fell then than now, it lay more continuously through the winter, and as winter advanced, was of greater depth than is now commonly seen, rendering this at that time the only possible way of travelling. In summer, canoes were largely used in crossing harbours and streams on passing along these shores. These were what are in the west called as dugouts, being constructed of a section of a large pine tree, hollowed out and properly shaped. These were large and capable of carrying four or five persons with perfect safety, but from the unskilfulness of many of the settlers, who had not been accustomed to them, accidents frequently happened.**
[*William Fraser, surveyor, says that in 1787 there was only four of five horses between Salmon River and Antigonish. Though there were horses in the settlement, they were still rare enough to be objects of wonder and dread to the rising generation in some places. We have heard John McLean, of West River, tell of the first horse he ever saw. He had heard of a man in the neighborhood having got such an animal, and not long after, being down on the intervale, he was struck with terror at the sudden appearance of a huge beast, which he concluded must be the aforesaid horse. He retained his faculties sufficiently to consider whether it would be better immediately to take to flight, but concluded that if he did so it might lead the animal to pursue him. He, therefore, glided away quietly, till he got some bushes between himself and the horse, when he took to his heels and ran with all his might till he reached home. The late John Douglass, of Middle River, used to tell, with equal interest, of the first horse he saw. It belonged to a man from Truro, who called at his father's house. John, returning home from a short absence, was surprised at seeing such an animal tied to a tree. While peeping curiously at it from behind another tree, he was still more surprised to see a strange man , who came out of the house, mount upon his back and ride away.]
[** I have been surprised in tracing the history of families of the early inhabitants, to find so many cases of drowning by the upsetting of canoes or falling through the ice. On one occasion at the Middle River three men were drowned in attempting to save a woman, She was a Mrs. Cumminger, who lived on the east side. She was on her way to town by the ice on foot, when, for some reason unknown, she took a wrong course and went over to the opposite side, where the ice was bad. When opposite what is now Blairs place, it gave way under her; her cries attracted the attention of three men, who were working in the woods, two named Ross and one named McLean, who immediately proceeded to her assistance, They cut poles which they laid upon the ice, and on which they walked out towards her, but when close to her, stepping on the outer ends of the poles, on the edge of the water, the ice gave way, and they were plunged in. Their cries in turn attracted the attention of two other men, the late Samuel Archibald and a Mr. Hingley, who were going to town on skates. Owing to the state of the ice on that side the river, they had to make a considerable detour to reach the place, so that when they arrived the woman and two of the men had sunk. The third was supporting himself on his pole which he held in an upright position, but just as they approached he let go and disappeared. The next day the whole four bodies were taken out of the one hole. The three men were all young, had not been long in this country; two were brothers, the third a cousin, and one of them had only been about six weeks married.]
"It was no little discouragement to me that I saw scarcely any books among the people. Those who spoke English had indeed a few, which they brought with them from their former abodes; but scarcely one of them had got any addition to his stock since. Almost all of them had a Bible, and it was to be seen with some of the Highlanders who could not read. Few of them indeed could read a word. There was no school in the place . Squire Patterson had built a small house and hired a teacher for a few months now and then for his own children. In three or perhaps four, other places three or four of the nearest neighbors had united and hired a teacher for a few months at different times, and this was a great exertion. What was more discouraging, I could not see a situation in Pictou where a school could be maintained for a year, so thin and scattered was the population. Besides, many of the Highlanders were perfectly indifferent about education, for neither themselves nor any of their ancestors had ever tasted its pleasure or its profit. But afterwards I found that children made quicker progress in the small and temporary schools, with which the people were obliged to content themselves, than they did at home in large and stationary schools; and I found it easier than I had thought, to rouse the Highlanders to attend to the education of their children, so far as to read the Bible."
Dr McGregor , we may here observe, was a native of Perthshire, born at what is now the village of St. Fillans, at the foot of the romantic Loch Earne, in December, 1759, His father had been brought to the knowledge of the Saviour under the celebrated Ebenezer Erskine, when a young man laboring near Stirling. He returned to his native parish, to be an earnest friend of the Gospel, and continued active in promoting its extension during the rest of his life. His son was early devoted to the ministry, and, possessing strong natural powers, an earnest spirit and active habits, he passed through his college curriculum at Edinburgh with credit, studied theology under William Moncrieff, at Alloa, then professor in the Antiburgher branch of the Secession, and was in due course licensed to preach the Gospel. Believing that duty called him to preach the Gospel to his Highland countrymen, he gave himself to the study of their language, and became a most accomplished Gaelic scholar. He not only spoke it with ease and fluency, but wrote it with precision and elegance, so that before leaving Scotland he had been employed in preparing a corrected version of the Gaelic Scriptures. We may here observe that he had somewhat of a poetical genius, and in his later years, with a desire to benefit his countrymen, he prepared a small volume of Gaelic poems, in which he exhibited the doctrines of the Gospel, in verse, adapted to the sweetest melodies of his native land. The work is still popular in many parts of the Highlands.
Now commenced that course of protracted and energetic labors, which endeared him to the hearts of the people of that generation, which established the moral and spiritual character of the country and built up the Presbyterian cause through the eastern parts of the Province and in the other Maritime colonies. We have in another work described these labors at some length, but as his history is for some time the history of Pictou, a brief account if them is necessary in this place.
On the second Sabbath after his arrival (July 30)] preaching was at the East River, at the head of the tide, a little below the present Albion Mines, and he complains that the conduct of those in attendance was as disorderly as before. "Their singing and whistling, and laughing and brawling, filled my mind with amazement and perplexity. I took occasion to warn them of the sin and danger of such conduct." During the service one man stood up and, in a loud and angry voice, told him that he was good for nothing and did not deserve the name of a minister, and that he would never pay him a shilling, as he had refused to baptize his child.
The following Sabbath he preached at the lower part of the Middle River, at what was then Alexander Frasers place, near where Samuel Fraser's house stands. Service was under the shade of a large elm tree. At first it was contemplated to erect one church here, as being central for the whole district. This idea, however, was soon abandoned, and it was resolved to erect two, one on the East River and the other on the West.
During the summer preaching continued thus alternately, with some improvement in the conduct of the people, but not very decided, till the cold weather led the gentlemen of the army to dispense with their presence. He remarks that though public worship was conducted in the open air till they were compelled by cold to go into houses, they were never disturbed by a shower.
Early in October he first visited the upper settlement of the East River. The only mode of travelling to this quarter was by walking along the edge of the river till they came to a brook, and then ascending it till they reached a place where it could be crossed. His first sermon was preached at James McDonald's intervale, under the shade of a large tree. "On Sabbath," he says, "they came all to hear me with wonder and joy; for they had not indulged the hope of ever seeing a minister in their settlement . They had very poor accommodations. I had to sleep on a little straw on the floor."
A little before winter set in he paid his first visit to Merigomish, preaching and visiting. The people solicited a share of services, and for about thirty years he continued to give a portion of his labors to that settlement. To attend his ministry, a number were in the habit of travelling to his church at the lower settlement of the East River, going in canoes to the head of the harbour, and thence on foot through the woods to the church. It was not, however, till two years after, that they were fully organized as a congregation, by the ordination of Elders, the first being Walter Murray, John Small and George Roy.
The winter following was the severest known among the early settlers for many years. It set in on the 15th November, There had been snow previous, which had melted, but what fell on that day remained till the middle of April, and some of it till the month of May. Before the end of the month, the harbour was sufficiently frozen for persons to cross on the ice. "When winter came on," he continues, "preaching was in private houses. People could not sit in a house without fire, and they could not travel far. It was therefore agreed, that I should preach two Sabbaths at the East River, two upon the Harbour, two upon the West River, and two upon the Middle River, and then renew the circle till the warm weather should return. The Upper Settlement of the East River, being unprovided with snow-shoes, were excluded through the whole winter from all communication with the rest of the people, as effectually as if they had belonged to another world, excepting one visit by two young men, who made a sort of snow-shoes of small tough withes, plaited and interwoven in snow-shoe frames. This circulating plan of preaching was no little inconvenience to me. For six weeks in eight, I was from home almost totally deprived of my books and all accommodation for study, often changing my lodging and exposed to frequent and excessive cold. But it had this advantage, that it gave me an easier opportunity of visiting and examining the congregation, than I could otherwise have had, for I got these duties performed in each portion between the two Sabbaths on which I was there."
With this winter began his regular course of family visitation, and catechetical instruction. "I resolved not to confine my visitations to Presbyterians, but to include all of every denomination, who would make me welcome; for I viewed them as sheep without a shepherd. The purport of my visitations was to awaken them to a sight of their sinful and dangerous state, to direct them to Christ, to exhort them to be diligent to grow in religious knowledge, and to set up the worship of God in the family and closet, morning and evening . I did not pass a house, and although I was not cordially welcomed by all, my visits were productive of more good than I expected; and I trust they were the means of bringing to Christ several who were not Presbyterians." He also, annually held meetings in each section of the congregation, at which young and old were duly catechised according to the old Scotish mode.
This course of labour, both in preaching, visiting and catechising, he regularly fulfilled over the whole district during the nine years he was sole minister of Pictou. With the state of traveling as we have described it, it may be understood that this involved a large amount of toil. "I had to learn ," he says, "to walk on snow-shoes in winter, and to paddle a canoe in summer, and to cross brooks and swamps upon trees overturned or broken by the wind, and to camp in the woods all night ----- for there is no travelling the woods at night, where there is no road. " But he possessed an ardent temperament, and an active, wiry frame. People have said, that they never saw one brought up in the old country, become so good a traveller on snow-shoes, and such were his powers of endurance, that he outdid many who were accustomed to labour and travelling in the forest.
He was also subjected to serious privations. For weeks he was from home, and in the poor huts of the settlers, he suffered extreme cold and had to partake of the poorest fare. Often the plank was his only bed, and a potatoe his fare, but never did he complain. Cheerfully he went in and out among them, cheering them with the message of life.
The effects of his labors soon began to appear. The people generally began to awake to the subject of religion, many were found turning to the Lord, and a great change in their religious habits passed over the whole population. Family worship, and family religious instructions became almost universal, and people flocked from all quarters to attend on the preaching of the word, young women even walking in summer from the West to the East River, a distance of ten miles or more, for that purpose. When the settlers thus became in earnest on the subject of religion, a most bitter feeling of opposition was raised against him by a set of profligates, at the head of whom were the retired army officers. These men were living in drunkenness and disregard of the marriage tie. The Dr. as in duty bound, spoke to them about their conduct and induced one to reform, but the rest were hardened.* As the influence of his labours was felt, the people reprobated their conduct in the plainest language. Besides they had hoped to exercise over the soldiers the same authority as previously, but now as he says, " time, intercourse with the other settlers and doubtless an increase of knowledge, induced them to withdraw their subjection." Of this he had to bear the blame, and their animosity against him was excited to such a pitch, that before the end of the first winter they threatened to shoot him, and burn the house in which he lodged. The following winter they held a meeting with a view to send him bound to the Governor, hoping that their mere word would be sufficient to procure his banishment. But, as he says, they went fast to destruction, and on the breaking out of the French war in 1793, all the drunken among the old soldiers enlisted, so that he could look upon Pictou as purged.
[*One of them, who lived on Robertson's Island, had bought a soldier's wife from her husband (for selling wives was one of the venerated institutions of the olden time), and was so jealous, that when he left home, he was in the habit of taking her out in his boat and leaving her on a small island off the main one. Dr. McGregor urged upon him the duty of separating from her. " But what will become of the children." " Oh" said the Doctor, " You should do your duty, and leave them to the care of Providence." " They would be the better of my help."]
He also labored to promote the educational and social interests of the community. Parents receiving Baptism for their children were put under pledges, to give them as good an education as their circumstances would permit. He encouraged them in establishing schools, and when established, frequently visited them. And though for a length of time they were poor enough, they were the means of giving the young at least the elements of learning.
Among the settlers there were three, who had been ordained elders before leaving Scotland, Thomas Fraser and Simon Fraser, in the parish of Kirkhill, and Alexander Fraser (McAndrew), in the parish of Kilmorack. These were called to exercise their office here, and soon after, the following were elected, and on the 6th of May, of the following year, were ordained, viz: Donald McKay and Peter Grant for the East River; Robert Marshall and Kenneth Fraser for the Middle River; John McLean and Hugh Fraser for the West , and John Patterson for the Harbor. These first elders, from all we have heard of them, were men eminent in godliness, and a large proportion of their descendants now occupy positions of usefulness in the community and are active members of the church.
This summer (1787)] were built the first two churches in the country. " During this month" (July), he says," the men were chiefly engaged in building the two meeting houses; but, instead of employing contractors to build them, they agreed to divide the work into a number of lots, and appointed a party of themselves to every lot. One party cut the logs and hauled them to the site; another hewed them and laid them in their place ; a third provided boards for the roof and floors; a fourth provided the shingles; those who were joiners were appointed to make doors and windows, and those who did not care to work provided the glass and nails. Moss was stuffed between the logs to keep out the wind and rain; but neither was one of them seated otherwise than by logs laid where seats should be. Public worship was conducted in the open air all this summer, and part of harvest, till the churches were finished, and we had the same kind Providence preserving us from wind and rain and tempests as we had last year; but no sooner were the houses built than great rain came on the Sabbath."
" Such were the first two churches of Pictou, and for a while they had no pulpits, purely because they could make a shift without them, and when they were made they were not of mahogany, but of the white pine of Pictou." These two churches were some thirty-five or forty feet long, by twenty-five or thirty wide. The only seats in them at first were logs of wood or slabs supported on blocks; there was a gallery, or rather, an upper story, with a floor seated in a similar manner, to which the young went up by a ladder. The one on the East River was situated on the west side of the river, a short distance above New Glasgow, an a rising ground between the old burying ground and the line of the present railroad. The one at Loch Broom was situated near the head of the harbour, on the farm owned by William McKenzie, still held by his descendants. It was situated near the shore, close by a brook that there enters the harbour.
"As soon as the meeting-houses were built, the people set themselves to make roads to them, that they might be as accessible as possible by land; but these roads were nothing more than very narrow openings through the woods, by cutting down the bushes and trees that lay in their line of direction, and laying logs, with the upper side hewed, along swampy places and over brooks which could not be passed dry, by way of a bridge. The stumps and roots, the heights and hollows, were left as they had been. The chief advantage of this was that it prevented people from going astray in the woods. During winter the roads and meeting houses both were totally useless, for the preaching was in dwelling-houses where there was a fire."
It was in November following that he received the first payment of stipend. He should have received £40 in cash and as much more in produce; but he actually received only £27 of the former, and about £30 of the latter. And yet, of this £27, about £20 was expended in an act of charity, which, we venture to say, has rarely been surpassed, and which , as connected with the early social state of the Province, we must here notice. As already mentioned, some of the settlers from the old colonies had brought with them slaves, and retained them as such for a number of years. Among others, the late Matthew Harris was the owner of a colored girl, afterward known as Die Mingo, and a mulatto man, named Martin. The question of the slave trade had, just previous to the Doctor's leaving Scotland, begun to agitate the public mind of Britain. His feeling had been warmly enlisted on the subject, and he now interested himself in securing their freedom. For this purpose, he actually agreed to pay £50 for the redemption of Die, and of the £27 he received in money the first year, £20 was paid toward this object, and for a year or two a portion of his produce receipts went to pay the balance. He also persuaded Harris to give Martin his pardon, after a period of good service. He also relieved a woman, who was in bondage for a term of years, paying £9 or £10 for her freedom, and, in addition, aided in supporting and educating her daughter.
Fired with zeal on this subject, he soon after wrote a severe letter to a clergyman in a neighboring district, who held a black woman as a slave. This letter, enlarged, was published in pamphlet form in the following year, and led to an epistolary controversy .
In the year following (1788,) the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was dispensed for the first time in Pictou. The spot selected was a beautiful piece of intervale on the Middle River, partially shaded by an overhanging bank. This was chosen however as central for the whole district, and as accessible by boats from the harbour and coast. Here the ordinance was observed with all the services then customary in Scotland. These were all performed by Dr. McGregor himself, who preached every day from Thursday till Monday, both in Gaelic and English. The number of communicants was 130. In this spot the supper was observed annually and with the same solemnities, during the whole time, that he was sole minister in Pictou, and people came from long distances, even from the County of Hants, to attend them.
The same summer he commenced that series of missionary labors, which rendered his name so venerated and beloved among the older settlements throughout these Lower Provinces. There was not at that time another minister of any denomination on the north shore of Nova Scotia or Cape Breton, and not a Presbyterian minister, scarcely any other in New Brunswick or P .E. Island, and from this date, for a period of forty years, he employed a portion of every summer, and even of winter, in visiting the settlements throughout these regions. For this work he possessed the highest qualifications. From the first loving the gospel, all the energies of a very ardent nature were aroused, as he saw the destitute condition of those who dwelt solitarily in the woods, and his preaching grew in impressiveness and power, so that it would be impossible to convince the old settlers that there ever came to America one so eloquent. He possessed the special gift of directing conversation into religious channels, so that whatever subject was started, he gave it a pious turn. When he visited a settlement all gathered, and days and nights were spent for weeks together, in preaching, praying, religious conversation, and traveling from place to place. In this way he traversed the eastern part of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and New Brunswick, and was the means of founding or cherishing in their infancy all the older Presbyterian congregations throughout this widely extended territory. In this work he spared no fatigue, and readily endured hardship, finding pleasure in the work, and the richest reward in the joyful reception of the gospel by the solitary dweller in the wood.
The Highlanders having now surmounted the first difficulty of settlement and, above all, having the gospel preached in their native tongue, now invited their relations over from Scotland, and they continued to arrive in greater or less numbers till all those portions of the county most desirable for settlement were occupied. Others who settled in other parts of the Province were so attracted by his preaching, that they sold their farms and removed to Pictou to enjoy his ministry.