Letter of 1834 illustrates tough early times for pioneers

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

One of the genuine pleasures of studying local history is the opportunity it offers, from time to time, to acquire original documents and artifacts.

Not all our historical sources are in museums and archives. Genealogists and collectors preserve a great deal of our heritage.

Although I am not a serious collector, I have picked up a few items over the years, some of them passed on to me by readers of this column. Several history buffs have loaned me items for use in this column, and I am grateful to them all. The sharing of this knowledge enhances our appreciation and understanding of our local heritage.

This week I offer one of these items. It is a letter written in Nichol Township in 1834, by a hired man to a friend in St. Louis, Missouri. It shows only too well that bad luck and pessimism characterized some of the people who came to this area in the initial period of settlement.

The writer, Robert McCrea, was a young Scotsman who had emigrated to the United States. I know nothing more about him other than what can be inferred from the letter. It appears that he was apprenticed as a clerk to a J.T. Sweringen in St. Louis, and that he left this employment under a cloud of some sort. The letter is written to Sam Coale, who apparently was another clerk working for Sweringen.

After leaving St. Louis, McCrea was to have joined another man in a store in Buffalo, but this venture failed before McCrea got to Buffalo. He was left stranded there, knowing no one and without money. He crossed the Niagara River, and worked for two weeks for a farmer. He then met up with a man from his hometown in Scotland, and accepted employment clearing the land on his farm in Nichol Township.

This would have been during the summer or fall of 1833, within a few months of the founding of Fergus, and less than a year after Captain William Gilkison began the first permanent building at Elora. McCrea states that at the time of writing he is living with James Dinwoodie, an early settler in south Nichol, who owned 260 acres on the 9th concession, adjoining the Nichol-Eramosa town line.

He does not give the name of the man who first hired him in Nichol. If he was in the same corner of Nichol as Dinwoodie, the short list would include Thomas Boys, John Bryden, Thomas Dow, Alex McNee, John Gunn, or Robert Scott. These and others came to south Nichol in the early 1830s.

In any case, he left this employment after 10 months because he had received none of the promised $8 wages per month. Dinwoodie had the first sawmill in south Nichol, and is plausible that McCrea may have taken employment there after leaving his first “employer.”

McCrea wrote the letter feeling regret for his brash actions in leaving his job in St. Louis and alienating his uncle, who presumably had arranged the apprenticeship. Despondency fills his thoughts. He owes money to his friend Sam Coale, and fears that he will never own a farm if he stays in Canada. McCrea has no enthusiasm for his work and no hope for the future.

McCrea earned $8 per month plus board, a rate that was typical of the era. Un-cleared farmland sold for $5 per acre. Even if he could save every cent he earned, it would still take more than five years for McCrea to pay for a 100 acre farm, or more than a year to make the minimum 20% down payment. Then there would be living expenses, costs of clearing land and the cost of implements, seeds and livestock. Settlers needed a fair amount of capital to become farmers, certainly far more than McCrea had any hope of acquiring.

I suspect that Robert McCrea did not remain long in Nichol. He does not seem to be connected with the well known McCrea (or McCrae) families of Guelph and Guelph Township, or with Alex McCrea, the father of Alma. However, I have no patience with genealogical research, and I offer the task of searching for family connections to anyone who is interested.

Perhaps Bobby McCrea went to a job in a city, or back to the United States.

The following is a transcript of the letter. I have corrected a few spelling errors, and added punctuation, which is almost completely absent in the original.

The writing shows a reasonable level of literacy and legibility, indicating that McCrea had received a basic education. On the other hand, he is no stylist. He uses few of the formalities and stiff conventions that characterized upper class letter writing 160 years ago.

Nichol Sept. 27th 1834

Mr. S.A. Coale

Dear Sir:

I intended writing you this long time but I always put it off thinking always that I would have been ready to have paid you the amount that I owed you when I came to Buffalo.

The young man that I intended to be there was left and the only account that I could learn of him was that he was gone to some part of Ohio and as I had not his proper address I could not learn where to find him, but as far as I could learn the store he had in Buffalo did very bad for him so I did not know what to do without money or one friend.

I resolved to go to Upper Canada. I went to the Falls of Niagara and I wrought there for a fortnight with a farmer for four dollars, and when I left that place I went about one hundred miles farther up the country, and I met with a Scotch man from the same place that I came from.

I stayed with him for ten months for eight dollars per month, and I have not got one cent from him yet, nor, I am afraid, I never will. He has always put me off, saying he expects some money from Scotland.

He has one hundred acres and it is all wild land, and it is the roughest work that I have ever tried, clearing the woods.

I am living with a Mr. James Dinwoodie. He is a Scotch man too but I am tired of this part of the country and where I will go next God knows. It makes me have very little heart to work when I reflect that it is my own folly that brought me to this. I never had to work hard at home so it makes me to take it worse.

Land here sells for five dollars per acre in its wild state so I think I would have been better to have stayed in Missouri or some part of that country, as I might have been able to have bought a farm some time, but I think here I never shall. I wrote a letter to my uncle in New York, making the best apology I could for leaving St. Louis, but he wrote me an answer informing me of the reason of my leaving St. Louis, so any assistance from that quarter is entirely cut off.

But if I only could get as much money as would pay you and Mr. J.T. Sweringen. It was the worst thing that I ever did leaving him, for I am sure he is as good a master as ever a clerk was with. But it was all my own fault as you well know, but I hope I will be able to pay you all in a short time and as soon as I can I will send it to you.

I would take it as a particular favour if you would write me as soon as this comes to hand and give me all the news about St. Louis as I never have heard a word about it since I left it. And let me know if you are married yet. Give my best respects to all enquiring friends. Let me know if you have heard any thing from Robert Aires and how Hale is coming on, and what Kinnett is doing. Direct the letter to Robert McCrea, care of James Dinwoodie, Mill Bank, Nichol near Guelph, Upper Canada.

No more at present but remains your well wisher,

Robert McCrea

P.S. You must pay the postage over the line otherwise it will not reach me. R. McC.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Oct. 25, 1994. 

Stephen Thorning