Back to the Land, 1830's and 1840's
March 29, 2002:
Back to the Land:
One of the central concepts of the residual welfare state is that the urban poor can
become self-sufficient if they return to the land as farmers. This concept is usually
a "push" factor as governments or large Irish land-holders tried to push settlers onto
unoccupied land in Upper Canada. In Bytown in the 1830's and 1840's there was also a
strong "pull" factor as the goal of most Irish Catholic families, who had a strong desire
to own land after being tenants in Ireland for generations, was to obtain farm land and to
become self-sufficient and escape the urban violence of Bytown. Besides the Irish
community in Lowertown, there were also settlements at the major lockstations along
the Rideau Canal system and intermittent settlements of squatters on Clergy Reserve
land in Gloucester, Osgoode and Nepean Townships. Hog's Back, Black Rapids and Long
Island all had Irish squatter settlements on crown land set aside for canal purposes.
Many people left Lowertown and moved to crown land as an interim stage before obtaining
title to their own farm land. Contact was maintained between the Lowertown families and
the more rural folks – especially during the fall marketing season and in the spring on
St. Patrick's Day. The taverns and boarding-houses of By Ward were clearing houses for
information on available land in the region and some of the inn-keepers
(e.g., Charles Rowan) were active land speculators themselves.
Operating a farm provided a steady supply of food, especially dairy products and potatoes.
The slogan of Osgoode Township became "Where the men are men and their potatoes are big".
Every farm family planted huge gardens for personal consumption and cultivated cash crops
as the land was cleared. There were other benefits to farm life: remnants of the fur trade
still existed in Bytown with fur buyers located in Lowertown. Most farmers supplemented
their farm income by trapping beavers in their neighbourhood, by hunting deer and waterfowl,
and by spearing large quantities of fish in the Rideau River and it's tributaries. Logs were
at hand for building homes and out-buildings and firewood was readily available on their
A large family came in handy for labour-intensive agricultural work. Compared to life in
Ireland and, later, in Lowertown, a family farm provided the first sense of economic
security many of the Irish Catholic families had ever experienced.
One problem associated with farm living for many early settlers, including the Irish, was
one of financial liquidity. Cash was required to pay mortgages and property taxes. At times,
the local church came to the assistance of individuals who were in short-term financial
difficulty. Loans were granted by the church to keep farmers on the farm and within the
parish! Time and again, in those times of unavailability of commercial credit, the church
played a charitable role in the close-knit Irish Catholic community. Some years, each farm
family was asked to donate a pig or calf to the church, in order to build up a cash surplus
for the year.
Early documentation for families who lived in various parts of the Bytown region can be found
in the records of Notre Dame Church in Ottawa, St. Phillip's Church in Richmond, St. Michael's
Church in Corkery (Huntley Township) and in St. Patrick's Church in Fallowfield
(Nepean Township). The census records (1831, 1842, 1852) for Nepean, Gloucester and Osgoode
Townships also show the geographic location and composition of early Irish Catholic families.
Source: Excerpted from an essay prepared for History 356 at Carleton University, March 2002.
This page will be 'fleshed out' with examples from my own family .. someday.
E-mail Al Lewis
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