Dunedin’s own women of the wilderness
By now many Creemore Echo’s readers will have read The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Creemore’s Cecily Ross. “A really good book” has been the comments I have heard from several people who have read it. That exactly has been my reaction but in addition, with my interest in local history, I find it a great help in understanding the hardships and isolation experienced by the settlers in this area.
Susanna Moodie’s experiences in the backwoods began in 1834, about the same time as the earliest settlers came to Dunedin and the Fourth Line (Fairgrounds Road) north of Creemore.
Nottawasaga Township (now part of Clearview) was surveyed in late 1832 and that same year Israel Bowerman came to what is now Dunedin to consider the prospects for settlement. The Upper Canada government of that time (now Ontario) was eager to bring in immigrants to populate the area. Arrangements were made for men to act as land agents in remote spots. Israel Bowerman was one of these men. He was to guide settlers to land good for farming, to establish saw and grist mills, to answer questions and often to provide tools such as axes and saws.
Early in 1833 Bowerman, with his family and belongings, moved from Prince Edward County to Orangeville. They made the move with wagons, horses and oxen. The story that has come down to us is that he travelled the rest of the way to Dunedin by sleigh. I find this hard to believe as the township had just been surveyed and there was no one around to make a road, only stakes at corners and blazes on tree. It is likely that Bowerman walked the distance with a pack of supplies on his back. As in many cases he went alone and built a shelter and then returned for his family. As it was March he had to dig out a great pile of snow to erect his family’s shelter.
In time he established mills and Dunedin became a reality. It was first called Bowerman’s Hollow. We have the facts describing when the Bowermans came, how they helped establish a village and a list of their children but we don’t know how they felt about being so far from other settlements and about their difficulties.
We may learn a little more about the early years of settlement that was on the hill north of Creemore. For this we thank Agnes Douglas who published an interesting and complete history of the Dowling family in 1994. Matthew Dowling purchased one hundred acres of bush on the north half of Lot 13, Concession 5 in Nottawasaga. He planned to clear the land, build a house and grow grain.
Agnes Douglas wrote “It was in the early autumn of 1834 when two pioneers [Matthew] Dowling and [Edmund] Duggan arrived to claim their land and began cutting trees to be used as the logs to build a shanty. These men were not woodsmen by trade and the work was difficult with only the crudest tools. The building took much longer to erect than they had anticipated and bitter weather set in before they could put a roof in place and they were forced to return to their family in Adjala for the winter months.
“In March 1835, unaware of what weather conditions would be like in the area, but anxious to continue work on the shanty, they returned to find the building half full of snow.
“Matthew and Bridget Dowling and their seven month old daughter, Mary, spent their first night on a bed of balsam branches sheltered by trees… They had brought iron kettles to use when cooking over an open fire and as many provisions as they could carry on their backs on that long and tedious thirty mile tramp through the forest.”
The first shanties were cold and draughty, often with only a dirt floor. Beds, stools and tables were crudely made from logs. Food was in short supply and the diet did not have much variety. They brought in grains and dried peas and perhaps some cured pork. With a gun they were able to have some fresh meat. Both the Bowerman and Dowling families had to tramp many miles with sacks of grain on their backs to have it ground into flour for bread. The nearest mill for the Bowermans was at Hornings Mills. Mrs. Dowling is known to have carried baby Mary and a sack of grain to be ground into flour at Lorreto. Medical help was non-existent and many died without it.
But they carried on. In many cases there was no alternative. Eventually the families thrived. Alvin Metheral who lives west of Dunedin is a descendant of Israel Bowerman. The Giffen family of Glen Huron are descendants of Mary Dowling Giffen.
If you haven’t read The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moody put it on your list and imagine the shanties in Dunedin and along the Fourth Line and the families making a life for themselves in the bush.