John & Isabella's Odyssey to Canada

John & Isabella Munro – From Inverness to Vespra Township

  The leaving of Inverness, the voyage to Canada, and the trip overland to their first domicile in Penetanguishene in 1831 are vignettes in John and Isabella’s story about which we have to mostly speculate—for now, at least.  We continue to dig in old historical databases for clues as to how it all came about—and who knows, we may one day get lucky.  Much of the following dissertation is comprised of educated imagining, providing a rich crop of leads for future family historical researchers.

  A young immigrant family from Scotland is not lured to a camp in the Canadian wilderness by looking at a tourist brochure; more likely, the obscure destination of Penetanguishene in Upper Canada  (Penetang) was somehow ordained.  A look at the history of the time gives us two clues as to why this may have been:

  Firstly, we know that in 1831, Scotland, including the Inverness area, was suffering from an outbreak of cholera and that Highlanders by the thousands were embarking for Canada to avoid death from this terrible disease.  Glowing reports sent to home by emigrant Scots encouraged family and friends to join them in North America.  A second, more likely clue, concerned the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain’s Canada. The Treaty of Ghent in 1814 set out how the two countries would interact when that war ended.  In particular, the border was established, at least in the eastern half of the country.  The British had had a long-established garrison on Drummond Island which is at the point where Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior come together.  After Ghent, it was settled that Drummond Island would be on the U.S. side of the border and accordingly, in 1828, the entire British garrison had to be de-commissioned and relocated.  It was decided to  re-establish it at Penetang, which boasted an excellent harbor.  At the time, Penetang consisted of only a few shacks and a small military/naval detachment. Thus, with more or less 200 men, some with families, requiring to be accommodated and an entire garrison to be built, a call was sent out through military channels for tradesmen.  We set out this background to suggest a reason why John & Isabella Munro’s first domicile in Canada was Penetang.  Simply put, they were probably sent there by military authorities which were in effect, the government of the time.  Many veterans of the British military were rewarded for their service by offers of land in Canada, and in particular, the many farms along the present-day Highway 93 (Barrie to Penetang) were settled by superannuated military officers, kept on half-pay in the event of more nastiness with the U.S., in which case they would be called up.  The building of the military/naval establishment at Penetang was just getting into high gear in 1831, the year John & Isabella emigrated.  It is a good speculation that John, as a military officer and a ‘wright’, was offered work on the project as well as his allotment of land.  We would contend that it was probably all arranged before he ever left home.  It would suggest that whlle the circumstances of their emigration were arduous in the extreme, they at least arrived as people of some means i.e, already on half pay and with a job waiting. 

  We do not know where John and Isabella embarked.  Ships sailed regularly from Inverness, Cromarty, Aberdeen, and Dundee to mention a few ports.  But ships also sailed that summer from many British and Irish Ports, with Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia as destinations.  The duration of the trip could be as long as three months in less than comfortable conditions.  There were rarely passenger lists. The Salmes left Inverness in May of 1831, bound for Quebec with 250 passengers.  The voyage took 75 days.  The Baronet and the John left Cromarty in June with 116 and 120 passengers, respectively.  The Clio sailed from Cromarty about June first.  The Munros could easily have embarked on any of the above three and been in York by early August. (Future historians may wish to concentrate on digging up more on these three vessels.) Typically, emigrants would be ‘cleared’ at Gros Isle in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, but the Munros probably did not stop there as the facility was not set up until 1832 (Wikepedia).

  We can surmise that the odyssey from Inverness to Penetang was a trial to everybody concerned.  Ship owners of the day gave little thought to the welfare of the passengers.  We can read first-hand accounts of emigrant men, women and children stuffed into crowded ships’ holds with no sanitary facilities save wooden buckets; of having to man the pumps on the storm-tossed north Atlantic; of weeks of squalor and  sickness and death in a freezing, stench-ridden hold with no place to escape.  John, a veteran of the wars, was no doubt used to privation, but we can only wonder at the trauma of poor Isabella, whose life, as far as we know, had been one of relative comfort.   Caring for the terrified little Alexander and Christiana in the dank prison of a pitching, rolling ship, week after week, was but the first of the trials that lay ahead of her.

  We have the family anecdotal account of the ship in which John and Isabella travelled, sinking in Montreal harbor as they arrived (or was it Quebec?) whence John was said to have lost his tools.  We have not found a record of the sinking, but it may yet turn up.  They had to have been accommodated somewhere in Montreal for at least a short time, prior to heading upriver for York (Toronto.)  We can presume that they would have been in the care of the military authorities.  The trip to York would probably have begun by embarking on a small steamer from Montreal.  They were in luck that the canal around the rapids at Lachine had been opened six years before, saving them an arduous portage.  They would probably have disembarked the steamer, which couldn’t navigate it, and travelled through the canal by ‘bateau’ or ‘Durham Boat’ i.e., barge-like vessels pulled along by draft animals walking on the bank.  It was far from comfortable, but better than walking the portage while packing all their gear.  They would have re-embarked on a steamer to York at the terminus of the canal.  Again, at York, they would probably have been billeted as military personnel, so aside from the mud and disorder of the budding townsite, they probably suffered discomfort, but no grave hardship while there.  As we know, during their stopover at York in August, 1831, they swore an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and were given a grant of 100 acres of land.  These important papers in hand, they headed on toward Penetanguishene.  One may wonder why they had to swear an oath of allegiance when they seemed clearly already in the service of the King.  At the time, Upper Canada was rife with malcontented settlers, whose loyalty to the crown was far deteriorated due to perceived ill treatment at the hands of the British authorities.  As history tells us, this underwelling of discord culminated in outright rebellion six years later.  The King’s representatives, by demanding oaths of allegiance, were just taking stock of who they could count on should push eventually come to shove.

  The route to Penetang from Toronto is today a just less than three-hour drive.  In 1831, it was probably closer to two weeks, if nothing went wrong.  John and Isabella and kids would have take a horse-drawn conveyance of some type, possibly a military supply wagon, through the forests from York to Holland Landing on the south shore of Lake Simcoe.  From there, they would have boarded a small lake steamer which would have carried them to Kempenfeldt Bay, the terminus for Barrie—all rigorous travel  (what were the bathroom arrangements?!) but doable.              

  Samuel Thompson, along with his family, made the same trek in 1834, and the following excerpt from his book will give you an approximation of the arduous trip the Munros had made two years before:

The Thompsons purchased a location ticket for twenty pounds sterling, and set out for the Lake Simcoe district "in an open wagon without springs, loaded with the bedding and cooking utensils of intending settlers." After a day's journey, they reached Holland Landing and from there crossed to Barrie in a small steamer. Barrie, at that time, consisted of "a log bakery, two log taverns—one of them also a store—and a farm-house, likewise log. Other farm-houses there were at some little distance hidden by trees." So desolate was the prospect that some members of the party turned back, but the Thompsons pressed on "for the unknown forest, then reaching, unbroken, from Lake Simcoe to Lake Huron." To the Nottawasaga river, eleven miles, "a road had been chopped and logged sixty-six feet wide; beyond the river nothing but a bush path existed."

They toiled on until nightfall, covering a distance of eight miles and at a clearing in the forest came on a bush tavern, "a log building of a single apartment." "The floor," writes Thompson, "was of loose split logs, hewn into some approach to evenness with an adze; the walls of logs entire, filled in the interstices with chips of pine, which, however, did not prevent an occasional glimpse of the objects visible outside, and had the advantage, moreover, of rendering a window unnecessary; the hearth was the bare soil, the ceiling slabs of pine wood, the chimney a square hole in the roof; the fire was literally an entire tree, branches and all, cut into four-feet lengths, and heaped up to the height of as many feet." As the dancing flames lit up the apartment, they revealed "a log bedstead in the darkest corner, a small red-framed looking-glass, a clumsy comb suspended from a nail by a string,. . . stools of various sizes and heights, on three legs or on four, or mere pieces of log sawn short off." The tavern was kept by a Vermonter, named Dudley Root, and his wife, "a smart, plump, good-looking little Irish woman." The pair evidently knew how to cater for the occasional guests, as the breakfast provided for the Thompsons proved,—` `fine dry potatoes, roast wild pigeon, fried pork, cakes, butter, eggs, milk, `China tea,' and chocolate—which last (declined by the Thompsons) was a brown-coloured extract of cherry-tree bark, sassafras root, and wild sarsaparilla."

On through the forest they trudged looking about for a favourable location, and finally selected a hard-wood lot in the centre of the township of Sunnidale.   

  Sunnidale was many miles short of Penetang, so one can appreciate the ordeal the longer journey had to have been for the Munro family.  We can presume they found accommodation at the military establishment already in place there, such as it was.  John’s duties would have been building barracks and service buildings for the garrison.  Reading present day publications of the Penetanguishene historical society tells us that of those original buildings, none exist today.  John’s work  in Penetang seems to have been completed in two years or less.  We have the Pioneer Papers placing the Munros (or at least John) back in Barrie in about 1834, whence they lived in a rude log hovel while John was engaged building Sandford’s store and doing the carpentry for the Shanty Bay Church. (We can see his handiwork still in existence there.)  Son Robert John, we believe, had been born in 1833 in Penetang.  Daughter Anne Isabel, said to be the first white baby born in Barrie, we believe came along in 1835.  This was the year (as told in the Pioneer Papers) that John Munro took up his grant of land, being Lot 14, Concession 7, of Vespra. 

  There is one puzzling glitch in the above sequence of the Munros’ movements:  My father (Robert Pratt, great-grandson of John & Isabella) told us the story again and again, that his grandfather (Robert John Munro, first son of John and Isabella) ‘ . . . walked all the way from Penetang to Minnesing when he was only four years old . . .!’   This gives rise to the question: when John first removed from Penetang to Barrie, did he take his family with him?  Or leave them behind where they were presumably safe and somewhat comfortable while he got resettled in Barrie?  If Dad’s story is true, it would put four-year-old John’s trek into 1837.   If so, how does that square with Ann Isabella being the first white baby born in Barrie?  The thing is, we don’t know for sure her birth date.  It’s all just minor detail, but it would be interesting to one day sort this out. 


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