Canada’s Hungry Year


From the Daily British Whig June 7 1909


The Time When U.E. Loyalists Went Empty


Three Years After the Pioneers Settled Down in Upper Canada There Was a Lean Year –

Hungry Men Knocked Game Down With Poles – Ate Basswood Buds and Indian Cabbage –

Next Year Plentiful


   A few days ago when, although May had come, the sun refused to shine, and the snow failed to stay away, for the sake of something to talk about besides the political scandal and the criminal sensation of the week, people asked one another what would happen if real spring failed to come; if the cold, rainy weather should continue for weeks, and seed-time pass without the seeding being done. Of course, anyone can give a partial answer, for such abnormal and gloomy conditions would at least produce one result as certain as day is to follow night.


   And yet our history tells of a “hungry year” in Canada, especially in that part which now forms the garden of the Dominion – the Great Lakes region of Ontario. But that year is long ago and Upper Canada was then a wilderness except in a few places along the lakes where the recently arrived United Empire Loyalist were endeavoring to carve out new homes in the Canadian forests.


   “In the year 1783,” writes C.D.G. Roberts, in his excellent history of Canada, “the great exodus took place and the loyalists flocked across the border into the land which they and their descendants have made great. They divided into two main streams, one moving eastward to the Maritime Provinces, the other flowing westward to the region north of the Lakes.”


   Those who went west settled along the sunny banks of the Niagara, around the head of Lake Ontario, in the peninsula, that lies between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, along the shore of lake Ontario and down the banks of the St. Lawrence. They made little clearings in the virgin forest, with the logs they constructed huge habitations, and between the stumps they planted corn and sowed wheat. Such was the beginning of Ontario. In 1787, three years after their arrival, and just as they were thrown on their own resources by the Government, “the stubborn soil rebelled against its new masters, and the crops on all sides failed.” The remainder of that year and the first half of the following one became “the hungry year” in our history. The condition of things that year among the Loyalists of Upper Canada is described by Mr. Roberts, who writes: “The people had to dig those wild, tuberous roots which children know as ‘ground-nuts.’ Butternuts and beech nuts were sought with eager pains. The early buds of the basswood were gathered and boiled with the weed called ‘lamb’s-quarter’ and pig-weed and wild Indian cabbage. Game of all sorts was fairly abundant – deer, rabbits, turkeys, pigeons; but powder and shot were scarce. Gaunt men crept about with poles, striving to knock down the wild pigeons; or they angled all day with awkward, home-made hooks for a few chub or perch to keep their families from starvation. In one settlement a beef bone was passed from house to house, that each household might boil it a little while, and so get a flavor in the pot of unsalted bran soup. A few of the weak and aged actually died of starvation during these famine months; and others were poisoned by eating noxious roots which they grubbed up in the woods. As the summer wore on, however, the heads of wheat, oats and barley began to grow plump. People gathered hungrily to the fields to pluck and devour the green heads. Boiled, these were a luxury; and hope stole back to the starving settlements.”


   In the following autumn plenty was again showered upon the land, and from that time onward, the settlers made steady progress. Of course, for years their lives were those of a frontier people in a wilderness. Their homes were log cabins, their farms patches from which the trees had been removed, but still bristling with stumps; their food was simple and limited in variety, and their clothing coarse and often scanty. Pork, beef and mutton were scarce because the supply of live stock was small, and increase in numbers was checked by the depredation of the wolves. A staple article of diet was Indian cornmeal, from which was made “Johnnie cake,” the bread of the frontier. One of the delicacies of the cabin household was a pudding, made by boiling together pumpkin and cornmeal sweetened with maple syrup. Venison and wild turkey were plentiful, and so it was that to the musket and the shotgun, and not to the butcher, that each family looked for its supply of fresh meat.


   The clothing brought by the Loyalists from the “States” was made to last as long as possible by means of working clothes being made of deerskin. Nearly every woman wore a leather dress. It was very durable, but with constant use became glazed with grease. It was the practice to use strong lye in washing clothes, and it is told that a girl attempted to clean her deerskin dress by washing it in such a liquid, when, to her amazement and great distress, it shriveled up to a bit of crisp leather. In her predicament she had to take refuge in the potato-cellar until her mother could fetch a blanket, with which the girl could cover herself. Most of the household utensils were of wood, the white, fine-grained wood of the poplar being preferred. From this were made the forks, spoons, plates, and trays in use in every frontier farmhouse. Gradually these wooden dishes were replaced by pewter supplied the pioneers by Yankee peddlers, who, with packs on their backs, went from house to house and from settlement to settlement. With much scouring this pewter ware was made to shine like silver.



The Hunger Year


From the Daily British Whig April 1 1921


The Bay of Quinte District Suffered Severely From Famine


      The magnificent record of production of 1920 in Prince Edward County recalls a time when failure of crops created hardship in this country.


   The following reference to Canada’s “hungry year,” is taken verbatim from an address delivered on September 20th, 1848, before the Agricultural Association of Upper Canada, by H. Ruttan, Cobourg, president of the association:


   “I myself am one of the eldest born of this county after its settlement by the Loyalists, and well remember the time when, as Bishop Berkely observes, a man might be the owner of ten thousand acres of land in America and want sufficient means to buy himself a breakfast. One half of the land on the Bay of Quinte, the garden of Canada, could within my remembrance have been purchased for five pounds for a two-hundred-acre lot, and many a one has been sold for a “half Joe.” All of this cannot be a matter of wonder when I tell you that a great scarcity of provisions prevailed for two or three consecutive years, in consequence of failures in the crops and what brought on the famine or scarce year (about the year 1790 if I am not mistaken) was the almost entire destruction of the deer by the wolves for two consecutive years. The snow lay upon the ground from December until April at a depth of from four to five feet.


   “In the month of February of the last of these years, a near relative of mine sent all the way to Albany, in the state of New York, a distance of more than 200 miles, for four bushels of Indian corn. And this was brought all that distance by two men on snowshoes. It took about eight weeks to accomplish the journey and about one-third of the quantity was necessarily consumed by the men. The residue of this priceless cargo, pounded up in a mortar made of a maple stump, with the wintergreen berry and miscellaneous roots, the latter boiled with a little milk, constituted the principal food for two families, consisting of seven souls, for the space of four or five months. It was remarked, I have heard some of the oldest of the settlers assert, that even the usual supply of fish failed. The few cattle and horses which the settlers, at great cost and trouble, had collected, were killed and used for food. The faithful dog was in some instances sacrificed to supply that food which he had so often been the means of furnishing to his then kind, but now starving master. The famine that year was general throughout the Bay of Quinte, and such was the distress that during the winter several persons died from starvation.


   “In the Hay Bay settlement one of the most heart-rending occurrences took place. Some time during the month of April, the husband and father was found dead, buried in the snow which lay upon the ground at a depth of five feet, while within the shanty was exhibited the awful spectacle of the dying mother pressing to her bosom her dead infant.


   “In 1871 [sic] Providence began to smile upon this small band of settlers. The winter began to assume a somewhat milder aspect. The wolves in their turn became a prey to the famine which by their own devastation among the deer they had caused. The Indians, who about this time began to be very troublesome, keeping the settlers in a constant state of alarm, and at every opportunity carrying off their cattle, were either through some new treaty or otherwise, so propitiated by the government, that the settlers from this time began gradually to increase and to generally improve in their circumstances.”


   Dr. Canniff in his historical references of the same period, says: “One who settled in the sixth township of Sophiasburgh, Prince Edward county, and who was afterwards, for twenty years, a member of parliament, with his wife and family endured great suffering. Their flour being exhausted, he sent money to Quebec for more flour, but his money was sent back as there was none to be had. His wife tried the experiment of making bread out of some bran, which was bought at a dollar a bushel. This was eaten as a stirabout. Upon this, with Indian Kale, a plant with a large leaf, also wild potato or ground nuts, the family lived for many weeks.”


   Dr. Canniff further states that in Adolphustown, upon the sunny side of a hill, there was grown the following summer an early field of grain. To this people came from far and near to eat the milk-like heads of grain, as soon as they were sufficiently grown.


   Although the year 1790, traditionally spoken of as “the hungry year,” was the only occasion when actual starvation faced the people of Canada, there were other seasons also when the crop filed. The year 1816 has gone down into history as “the summerless year.” Tradition states that snow fell the middle of June, and that until the following spring there was no month in which there was not frost. There was so little vegetation of any kind that the people subsisted chiefly upon meat and fish. Cattle had to be slaughtered because there was no feed for them, and many sorry stories are told also of that year.


   Hay was shipped from Ireland to save the starving cattle and sold at Quebec for $45 a ton. Flour sold at $17 a barrel at Quebec, and potatoes for a penny a pound.


   The late Walter Riddell, of Cobourg, left this record of the summerless season of 1816:

   “The war of 1812-15 was followed by several bad seasons, especially the year 1816, which was very cold, and when there is said to have been frost in every month in the year. No corn ripened. Fodder and provisions were scarce and dear. In many respects it was a very hard year and greatly retarded the settlement.”


   Then it is recorded that the army worm swept over Ontario like a plague of locusts in 1833. The insects swarmed over the trees, which were soon entirely denuded of their foliage, covered the roads and fences, and the broom had to be kept busy to keep them out of the houses. The grain crop was practically destroyed, as that which was not eaten was unfit for human food.



There Was Famine


From the Daily British Whig March 22 1905


In the Land After the U.E. Loyalists Came

Intense Suffering, and Sometimes Death From Starvation – Kingston Mills Built 17832 –

Napanee Mills Few Years Later – Robert Clark, Contractor



   A fact in connection with the early history of this part of the world, and probably almost unknown, was brought out at the meeting of the Historical Society on Tuesday evening. It was contained in an extract from Canniff’s history, read by Dr. Walkem, and refers to the “hungry year,” which beginning in 1787, made miserable the lives of the U.E. Loyalist settlers for more than a year and the effects of which were felt for a decade.


   The Yankees, enraged with the loyal British subjects, for leaving the rebellious republic, cut off the food supply along the frontier, and the early settlers were dependent on the rations of grain dealt out by the government for three years. During this time but few were able to clear enough land, on which to raise crops of roots, and grain sufficient for their needs, and many of the incomers, disbanded soldiers, had an idea that “Old George’s” provisions were going to be a permanency.  There were also failures in the working of the commissariat department which brought up stores from Lower Canada.


   The result of all this was that famine stalked through this fertile belt, and that not alone intense suffering was caused, but that there were deaths from starvation. The instances of privation are pathetic in the extreme. In one case a little girl stole out a night to dig up the potato peelings which had been planted for seed, (the potato being saved for food) and eating them. Beef bones were passed about from one family to another, to flavor the bran porridge. Roots, the bark of trees, beech leaves, the young buds of trees, chaff, everything that could in anyway sustain life was eaten by the starving people. In one place the milk from a young cow kept a family from death for a winter. When the crops began to come up in 1789 the young, milk-like grain was boiled and eaten, numbers coming from far and near to satisfy their hunger from a field of oats growing on the Prince Edward shore.


   The grinding of grain in those pioneer days was a difficult matter, as there were no grist mills. The first mill, in this section was put up, by government order, government supplying the materials, at Kingston Mills, in 1782, by Robert Clark, of Ernesttown, soldier settlers doing the work, a second one going up a few years later at the falls of Napanee Mills. This afterwards was sold by Capt. Macdonald, of Marysburgh, Prince Edward County to Hon. R. Cartwright. Home-made grist mills were constructed by hollowing out the trunks of large trees, burning the cavity smooth with red-hot cannon balls, etc., to form a mortar and making a pestle, usually of ironwood and pounding the grain in this primitive way. These were called hominy blocks. The grain was afterwards passed through a horse-hair sieve, one sieve serving a whole community, and the work of grinding very often fell to the lot of the women.


   Altogether, this first page of the history of the “ten townships” which covers the district close about here and up the Bay of Quinte is a tragic one, brightened only by instances of heroism and the generous sharing of scanty provisions with fellow sufferers.