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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

Drummond Islanders: Penetang, what did it look like?

Small cabin of early settlers in Penetang

We fortunately have a pretty good idea of what things looked like in the early years of Penetanguishene. It may have been a little more rustic then what we envision, such as the cabin above, but the small space was probably easily heated, if not stocked with food. Hunting and fishing added to the livestock, what little there was. But they survived, thrived even.

Some early arrivals to Penetang describe it in word and artistry. An example was George Head and The Hallen sisters (Mary and Eleanor) they give us an idea. George Head uses words when he says in his forest scenes and incidents in the Wilderness a journal of his 1815 travels to Canada:

Sir George Head was assigned to come to Penetang in 1814 and build a proper base. He kept a travel journal. This Journal gives us a different look to Penetang then you might have thought. The early years of the military establishments were in huts, more closely related to native habitations then European. Yet, they being carpenters and shipwrights they were more than capable of building in the European style. This is also reflected in Surveyor John Goessman notes when he did the survey of Tiny and Tay. He describes it as bark huts in a cedar swamp. This description I believe was on the inner harbour, the place where the Drummond islanders would eventually get grants of land and settle, if only temporarily. George Head goes on to say that the Canadians, a term which could be understood to be metis or mixed blood people living in the area. They would build him a primitive shelter, something they had to learn from the native peoples of this continent.

This type of hut he describes was used extensively in the fur trade. Simple in its architecture, it suited the needs very well. The other huts were of simple design as well. It would suggest by the description that it would resemble

a wigwam. Wigwams are far more comfortable then one might think, lined with skins and furs the small space would stay warm in cold weather.

George Head would go on to record in early March that axemen from York arrived and they began making log buildings. So the base evolved from huts to log buildings.

1828 the British Military pulled out of Drummond Island and sailed the personnel to the base at Penetanguishene. The military had a Snow, more commonly called a brig and the Indian department, had a schooner. Following the next summer were the Drummond islanders as we now know them. They were in batteaux and maybe some canoes. They were basically unaided but made the 400 kilometer trip without any loss of life. Also, perhaps due to a sense of pride or through incredible seamanship seemed to have arrived without calamity. These voyageurs as AC Osborne calls them, would have probably came in small groups travelling along the inland North Channel. The military ships were on the outside Lake Huron route.

The Military sent two ships to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island in the late fall /early winter. One of the ships made it and the other is in a shallow bay on an island off Manitoulin Island. That winter those who came eventually, some having been shipwrecked for a spell, took up residence at the military establishments in Penetanguishene. At least one family had already made the trip prior to the military and there is some evidence of there being some living in Penetanguishene prior to that. The Naval base was operational during the war of 1812 and the 1820 survey of Tiny township has John Goessman hiring a crew, albeit a somewhat inebriated one.

The majority of the others from Drummond Island came the next spring/summer and on entering the bay they would have seen some activity at these establishments on the left side of the bay. On the right, they may have glimpsed the fur trade post on the high ridge they called Pinery Point at the time and they may have passed close enough to the rolling white sands just under the surface of the outer bay from which Penetanguishene gets its name. This sand bar runs very far out into Severn Sound, which was aptly called Matchedash at the time. Matchedash is a native word for windy area, and the location fits the name as the narrowing of the "gap" does indeed seem to always be windy.

The batteaux they travelled in being flat bottomed would mean they did not risk hitting the bar as they passed by from Cognashene to the inner bay. T

The voyageurs having travelled along the North Channel where travel in small boats would be easier and safer. They perhaps had sails out when passing the fur trade post up on the hill. This post was recorded in the map made by British officer Captain W.F.W Owen RN who made a chart of the Bay. From this angle the bay doesn't reveal its inner harbor. This would provide some protection from an invasion from the still hostile Americans. Peace was only tenuously attained and further hostilities were very close at hand, but thankfully avoided.

AC Osborne gives a good description in Penetanguishene an historical sketch:THE HISTORIC TOWN OF PENETANGUISHENE, noted as the former site of a British Naval and Military Station in the early days of Canada, is charmingly situated on the eastern shore of a picturesque bay of the same name, a southern extension of Georgian Bay. Penetanguishene signifies "The Place of the White Rolling Sands," so named from an extensive bank of sand on Pinery Point to the right on entering the harbor, which glistens like gold in the summer's sun and which, like the Sand Dunes of Ontario, are ever shifting, changing, rolling to the water's beneath. . .

This poetic designation, which is of A-ben-a-ki origin slightly modified by the exigencies of changing dialects, already swayed its magic scepter over these waters, when the Huron savage first appeared on the scene, and is one of the few names--melancholy relics, sparsely scattered here and there north of the St. Lawrence and the great lakes--which remain, to tell of the Abenaki occupation.

Pinery Point and the whole of the bay would show a heavily wooded area, this would probably be very dense close to the beach, but as you delved deeper would show an old growth still yet to be logged. As you travelled along you would pass Whiskey Island, then known as Dodd Island where reputedly the trade with the native people would take place. Legend has it that trade in alcohol was forbidden at the military base, so they would paddle out to this island to complete the trade and obtain native goods andd supplies for whiskey. Dodd Island was named after Doctor Dodd an early doctor at the establishments.

Would the Drummond islanders see the potential opportunities in fishing these waters? I would imagine ducks and geese and loons would be out and about, maybe otters or beaver could be spotted busying themselves in the cool waters. Or had they been hunted out?

I believe some had already made plans to fish, and many would turn to fishing, some for the American fur company who we know bought fish by the barrel in Penetang. Some voyageurs would stay on in the fur trade, but the job market for fur trade positions was certainly waning.

It is entirely possible that they would have seen a navy vessel either inbound or out from the establishments, and native canoes could also probably be seen entering the Harbour. From there they would pass Baps Point, which is a rocky peninsula stretching out into the bay narrowing its opening with the Northwest Shelf, where the cross now sits. In the future this area would be dredged, but at this time the deep water zigzags through these shelves and points. Baps point is now known as Asylum point.

From here the bay opens up to the right and a small bay, called the Northwest Basin makes an appearance. Could they have seen remnants, or even contemporary native people at this location. The Northwest Basin was once occupied, and at the very least a trail would still be seen (but probably only up close) leading up into the interior of the land. Where did this trail go? We see only the beginning of it on Owens Map, but it could have gone up into Lafontaine.

On their left would be Tart Island, now known as Magazine Island. (It was also called Burying Island, as Dr Tart was buried there and later Strawberry Island). Tucked in behind the island would be the establishments with its wharfs. The first wharf was along the shelf, which was a shallow sand bar and probably was used for canoes and batteaux and one further in front of the large warehouse used for the larger Navy vessels. A few years later a steamship would ply these waters out of this wharf, but for now it was schooners and other navy vessels.

Bryan Gidley in "And they settled in Penetang, gives this description:The first Block-house twenty-one feet by eighteen feet was erected by Sir Geo. Head, the first week in March, 1815, on the site now occupied by the Superintendent’s handsome private residence and commodious grounds...The remains of extensive docks, long since swept away, may still be seen beneath the water, connecting Magazine Island with the mainland. At the head of these docks stood the "Depot of Naval supplies" known (corrected) as the "Old Red Store", once a noted landmark in the military demesne, half way up the bank, stood the Guard House with the sentry box on the terrace above, while on the pinnacle of (the) hill, perched for many years a noted Caravansary, the "Masonic Arms" where some distinguished travelers were entertained at various times among them the Duke of Northumberland and Richmond, Lord Syndenham, Sir John Ross of the Royal Navy, and Sir John Franklin the ill-fated explorer on his way to the Arctic regions. Near the dock in front of Mr. Band7s residence [originally the officers' quarters] is

the former site of the old Block-house Fort and Soldiers Barracks, which was later superseded by stone and ultimately dismantled the material being transferred to the Reformatory building. The Officers' Quarters have been converted into a private residence for the Bursar. Of peculiar interest is "Gordon's Post" on the point a short distance east, where Sir Geo. Head procured cedar for shingles for his block-house. The "Post" was established ten years later, and was first known as "The Place Pen-e-tang-gou-shene." Traces of the foundation and outlines of graves may still be seen.

Getting back to our trip up the bay. Occasionally, where there were shelfs (shallow sandy areas that jutted out into the bay) there would be cattails and other shallow water plants sticking up out of the water. There was a certain amount of buildings at the establishments prior to 1828, but the influx of those leaving Drummond Island must have meant much more housing needed to be built. We see on Wilmot's map that the huts were but remnants. Settler and military alike were probably putting hammer to nail and saw to log all along the bay.

My ancestor, Jacques Laramie was one of those who by fortune had received a whip saw also known as a pit saw. In the absence of sawmills, pit saws where one sawyer stood on top of the log and the other down below, sometimes in a pit was the only way to get sawed boards. He must have seen the construction as a boon to his future living.

Mary Hallen and Eleanore Hallen, daughters of Reverend George Hallen, Chaplin of the establishments provide us with images and descriptions of early Penetanguishene as well. Mary in particular sketched and painted Penetanguishene and it's environs as early as 1837.

Some of the work of Mary and Eleanor Hallen, sketches and watercolours.

Sketch of the Bay with the Gore at the dock

As we go along further the bay meanders a bit and some shallow bays and some small creeks can be seen along the shore. Looking up towards what is now the main street of Penetanguishene would be a scar of a road ran from Shanty Bay in Lake Simcoe to Penetang in as straight a line as Tiger Dunlop could run. I have to wonder if they knew of his folly, or of someone's folly in running the road there instead of where it is supposed to be, which would be 4 miles to the right and past the head of the bay. The road where it currently sits runs into the bay, a situation caused by Tiger starting the road at Crown Hill, a location that Samuel Wilmot ran a road, but not where the road was intended to run. But alas, that is another story for another day.

The yellow section the old portage, the blue travelling along the beach and the red the old Nine mile Portage.

The early settlers would not primarily use the Penetang road for travel until major renovations were made to it. Instead they would continue to use the portage road to Cawaja Beach, then follow the beach to Wasaga beach, where the McDonald's restaurant is now, and onto the Nine Mile Portage. Those unfamiliar with the Portage Road, don't feel alarmed. No remnants of this portage exist...unless...

See there is a cemetery seemingly in the middle of nowhere that was once the old Gidley farm. The cemetery is now known as Copelands Hill Cemetery but I believe it was adjacent to the old portage road. It was known by the early settlers as Gidley Farm Cemetery, and was a pioneer cemetery having no religious affiliation at that early date. Looking at old maps, some of the many of the properties are owned prior to the 1828 date.

The concession road in modern times is bent, when most concessions are dead straight. Could this be because it follows the old portage? Interestingly the old portage meanders along and isn't straight. Archeological sites seem to indicate that maybe the path was deviated to hit on these villages over prehistoric times. Alas we will never know...

Travelling on foot along this trail the later arrivals would probably see some lots already starting to be cleared. Native shelters like wigwams would probably house the settlers. Many had native wives and would make up what would become the metis community at Penetanguishene. Therefore the native shelters would probably be what they would spend the summer in. This would mirror what many would have lived in on Drummond Island.

Eventually they would be replaced by log cabins, most of the wood still being cut by hand,. Mary Hallen gives us this water color of one of those early cabins.

Map of area where they settled

Entitlted French farms, where the Drummond islanders settled\(by M Hallen)

Near side is the townsite where Military personel got land, the far side is where the Drummond islanders received theirs

On one side of the Bay would be those employed by the Military or Indian Department while the other side would be those who were granted land from the half-breed (Metis) community at Drummond Island. The intent was to have an agrarian (farms) community. However the British military's intent to have them protect the portage route meant for an awkward placement of this community. In typical military fashion they did not fully realize either goal. The lots were small for farm lots, and the land was not as good as it could be. Some areas were arable, but not all the land was. And the British went back on their word, or so it seems by making the land taxable and putting a fee on the purchase. This led to many selling or losing it due to the burden of those taxes. See money was scarce, they were not as poor as it would seem, there is no mention of starvation. But acquiring money was a difficulty county wide, AF Hunter mentions it in his history of Simcoe County.

Before long, Penetang would build a steamboat, the Penetang. It wasn't universally liked but it provided a connection with their native friends in Coldwater. It was the first try at building a steamboat, as all other ships or boats built in Penetang were sailors.

These native friends also had the first grist mill. This route also provided another alternative to the Penetanguishene road which was serviceable, but lacked a proper base. The road was just hacked through, and in some places like Orr Lake, it was Corduroy. (Logs placed horizontally)

Steamboats would travel between Penetang and Coldwater and you could take a stage to Orillia, where another steamboat would bring them to Hollands Landing. A small trip to Newmarket would return you to the outside world. This was closer than the Penetang road route, but steamboats were alot smoother and luxurious a means of travel.

Labatte house built in the 1830's. Probably typical of the time.

Pensioners cabin

The early days of Penetang must have been quite beautiful, if not a little archaic. At the time, the 1820's and 30's , the rest of the world would have been slightly more advanced then these simple abodes. Although simple the small space inside made them cozy. Fireplaces were common and wood being available, cold nights would be kept at bay.

Priests shanty 1837

Eventually with places like the King's Mill at Cawaja Beach and other mills springing up the ability to build better housing, with availability of windows and such "normal" houses would come along. In the 1870's when the railroad would come to town and Penetang would be connected to the rest of the world. It would no longer solely be the retirement community for the British Military. Hockey and baseball would become staples of the community. Logging and fishing would replace the fur trade and a little later along following the mills, came tanneries. The tourist trade, which Penetang had long been apart of would continue and thrive, ships would bring sightseers and travelers where canoes, one particular one metal, around the Great Lakes.

Art Duval Pipesmoke of the Past

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3 comentarios

david bradley
david bradley
09 jun


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Patrick DeCoste
Patrick DeCoste
24 may

i am enjoying reading your work. thanks

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22 feb

Thank you so much for sharing. I am learning about my Penetanguishene heritage through people such as yourself and am passing it on to my children and grandchildren.

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