Settlement in the Forest Primeval

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.

From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic, Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie.


The forest primeval, of course, had been inhabited, and in various ways managed, by the indigenous people ever since climate change had permitted the growth of these massive trees.

William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854), Wigwam in the Forest, ink wash, 15.3×18.8 cm, c. 1838. NGC 6585.

This ink wash drawing by William Henry Bartlett (see below) captures intimately the relationship of these Mi’kmaq with the forest that is their home and source of their intense spiritual environment.

Having spent the last 18 or so months gathering maps of Ile St.-Jean and the region of Acadia, and having observed how the French/Acadians settled on the margins of salt marshes, and the English anywhere at all on the Holland geometric grid that chance made their home, perhaps the moment has come to see how first contact with the wilderness of Eastern North America was perceived, described and depicted by artists and writers. There was in the 1830s and ‘40s a tremendous surge of interest in the forest in European art, music and literature. This demonstrated the intensity of the Spirit of the Place connected with the forest, as well as the obstacle to human ventures it represented.



From the Late Eighteenth Century to the middle of the Nineteenth Century a number of vivid phenomena began to appear in all the European art forms and quickly spread, through emigration, to North America. Literature was being transformed through a deep fascination with the mysterious Gothic period. Music was transformed through the quite spectacular moving away from the serene order of Classicism to the wild tempestuous piano and orchestral compositions of Beethoven. Painting became obsessed with wild landscape, probably because of the reports and images brought back in the British Colonial Period of the North American landscape, so dense in places as to appear impermeable and threatening.


William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854)

The most famous artist to depict Canadian scenery at the height of the Early Romantic Movement was W. H. Bartlett, who came from a middle-class family and who had received very fine training in drawing landscape and topography by some of the best teachers available at the time. He was also very skilled at architectural drawings and his early career concentrated on this genre. By the mid 1830s Bartlett’s interests had changed to landscape, probably due to the demands imposed on topographical artists by the Picturesque movement in art, which favoured architecture set in a wider context that involved articulating the landscape with forests and trees. In gardening, the great landscaper Capability Brown (1716-83), and his followers, promoted country houses set in a wilderness, although that “wilderness” was conceived and articulated on the drawing board.

Eventually the call of the New World beckoned Bartlett and he is recorded to have visited British North America and the United States four times between 1836–37, 1838, 1841, and 1852. He was apparently invited by the American travel writer Nathaniel Parker Willis to illustrate his travel narratives. Their first collaboration was on Willis’s American Scenery published in 1840, but by the later part of 1838 Bartlett was in Upper and Lower Canada travelling and sketching for another collaboration with Willis, Canadian Scenery Illustrated, published in 1842.


The 1830s and ’40’s Rage for Illustrated Travel Books

In the relatively quiet and stable years after the defeat of Napoleon, whose wars had killed the old Grand Tour tourist trade in continental travel, an ever-expanding middle class once again showed a great interest in exploring not only continental Europe but also the well-established colonies in Canada and the United States. There had always been a thirst for travel guidebooks, most of them dreadful, that led visitors through foreign cities and their marvels in architecture and art. They were poorly illustrated and the errors of one publisher were included in the books that followed.

By the 1830s there had been wonderful developments in the techniques used in graphic arts. In book publishing the steel plate engraving became the rage and hundreds of travel books, generally for home reading, were produced. Illustrating with those pictures was an expensive option, but it was capable of reproducing scenes in fine detail at small scale. The very fine detail possible with a steel plate allowed for an engraved surface of about 5 x 7 inches on an 8 x 10-inch quarto page. Bartlett, like other artists, drew detailed sketches of the scene before them and a specialist engraver, capable of cutting incredibly fine lines in a steel plate transferred the view to steel which was then used to print the image, such as the one you see below.

There is almost no record of Bartlett’s travels in the Canadas in 1838. He is known to have travelled from Quebec to Niagara Falls at that time and it is supposed that he visited the Maritimes in 1841. He did not visit Prince Edward Island, probably because there was no dramatic picturesque landscape (our highest elevation is 140 metres) and the only significant building was Government House, although there were fine estates in the Charlottetown Royalties.

Bartlett’s sketches published as steel plate engravings are of very significant value in the history of Canadian topography in the 1830s and have been valued, and avidly collected, since the early 1960s. Living in Montreal at that time I remember the windows of major antique shops filled with hand-tinted framed Bartlett prints. The text was always discarded after the plates had been cut out and framed and that is too bad. Written by an American, Willis’s text has been scorned by Bartlett’s biographer as derived from the writings of contemporary writers in Canada such as Heriot, Cockburn, and Catherine Parr Trail (see DCB). That is regrettable as Willis’s commentary brings the engravings to life and sets them in a valuable social and geographical context. His observations, regardless of their source, described and interpreted Bartlett’s views with great accuracy.


Probably the least popular of Bartlett’s scenes is the one in the second volume called “A First Settlement.” From the start of the collecting boom, it was of no interest to collectors because it did not display a fine city, or vista, or grand house, but rather, in a suffocating manner displayed a shack in the woods. It could be anywhere. What collectors, and for many years scholars too, didn’t see was an extremely accurate and tearing moment in the history of the great majority of all the settlers who came to Canada and had to carve a place out of the dense forest before they could consider clearing more land for what in a generation would eventually become small fields. This tiny work of art is full of integrity and has a fine composition. The virtuoso use of light and dark – chiaroscuro – is probably the best in all the Bartlett series except perhaps for a similar one depicting a settlement on the edge of the Chaudière River, south from Quebec to its source at Lac-Mégantic.

As a document of what exactly was involved in making a home in the dense woods there is none better than this engraving, and Willis’s accompanying commentary elaborates on this in fine detail.


“A first Settlement,” from Canadian Scenery, Illustrated from drawings by William. H. Bartlett, engraved by J. C. Bentley, with text by Nathaniel Parker Willis, in 2 volumes, with a total of 117 steel plate engravings. London, Virtue & Co., City Road and Ivy Lane, 1842.

From this point the settlements on the fertile tracts of intervale land which lie near the river become more numerous, and it is no unfrequent occurrence with travellers in the woods to fall in with a farmer and his family hard at work forming A FIRST SETTLEMENT. These settlers are mostly Americans, or English and Scotch farmers, who have emigrated from the mother country to endeavour by honest labour to obtain a comfortable independence for themselves and their children. It is a singularly interesting sight—one of these new settlements buried in the depths of a pine forest, and proves how many seeming and real difficulties a man may overcome by patience and industry. Who without some strong motive for exertion would not feel discouraged at the sight of the wilderness land covered with heavy trees, which he must cut down and destroy before he can commit to the earth the seed which is to produce food for his family? But with the prospect of independence and comfort before him, the strong-hearted settler falls cheerfully to work, the lusty strokes of his axe ring through the lonely woods, and the monarchs of the forest fall one after the other beneath his vigorous arm. A small space is cleared, and he begins to raise the walls of his future dwelling. Round logs, from fifteen to twenty feet in length, are laid horizontally over each other, notched at the corners so as to let them down sufficiently close, till the walls have attained the requisite height:—the interstices between the logs are then filled with moss and clay; a few rafters are afterwards raised for the roof, covered with pine or birch bark, and thatched with spruce branches; the chimney is formed of wooden frame-work, and plastered with clay and straw kneaded together; a doorway and an aperture for a window are next cut in the walls of the house; the door and sashes are fixed in their places; a few rough boards, or logs hewn flat on one side, are laid down for a floor, and overhead a similar flooring, to form a sort of garret or lumber room. With the addition of a few articles of furniture of the rudest construction, the habitation is now considered ready to receive the family of the settler, who view with unbounded delight their new dwelling, and joyfully prepare, for the first time since their sojourn in the forest, to cook and eat their dinner of venison beneath the shelter of their humble roof. The house being completed, the settler next turns his attention to laying out his farm; and his first object is to cut down the trees, which is done by cutting with an axe a deep notch into each side of the tree, about two feet from the ground, in such a manner that the trees all fall in the same direction; the branches are then lopped off, and the timber is suffered to lie on the ground until the beginning of the following summer, when it is set on fire. By this means all the branches and small wood are consumed; the large logs are either piled in heaps and burnt, or rolled away for the purpose of making the zigzag log fences necessary to keep off the cattle and sheep, which are allowed to range at large. The timber being thus removed, the ground requires little further preparation for the seed which is to be sown in it, than merely breaking the surface with a hoe or harrow. Plentiful crops of corn or potatoes may be raised for two and often for three years successively after the wood has been burnt on it. The stumps of the trees are allowed to remain in the ground until they are sufficiently decayed to be easily removed. The roots of spruce, beech, birch, and maple, will decay in four or five years; the pine and hemlock tree require a much longer time. After the stumps are all removed the land is turned up with the plough, and the same system of agriculture is practised as in England.

(Commentary by Nathaniel Parker Willis, Canadian Scenery Illustrated, Volume 2, pp. 98-100.)



Orsama Turner documents the Settler’s Progress

There is a considerable amount of literature, from several centuries, that describes many aspects of life in the North American wilderness, but there is not a lot of it that describes in detail the progress of the setting up of a lifetime home, with a supporting farm, in the wilderness. We have read Willis’s account, illustrated with a virtuoso steel plate engraving based on Bartlett’s drawing, but in spite of its detail, it does not consider the years, only the moment. However, not long after Bartlett’s book was published, an American editor/publisher called Orsama Turner produced a most extraordinary eye-witness narrative, illustrated with four fact-filled woodcuts that still manage to be attractive works of art. At that time woodcuts, which had become popular in the Middle Ages, were still popular because they cost little, were easy to carve, and in the hands of a master produced works of clarity and beauty. For another generation they would continue to be used in books, magazines, and newspapers. Turner’s illustrations summarise all the things, on a single land grant, that happened in half a century. It is the story of encountering an utterly suffocating wilderness, the first clearing, the appearance of neighbours and more cleared land, and the evolution of farm and community architecture. For years I had seen reproductions of these small woodcuts and had even used a couple in lectures, but I did not know that Turner’s essay existed until Dr. Doug Sobey brought it to my attention. He had discovered it during his extensive research on the history of the PEI forests. It is a highly informative revelation and a delight that I very much want to share with you.

Orsama Turner (1801-1855) was the son of a settler on a massive farm settlement project in western New York called the Holland Land Purchase.

His father, who was a surveyor and kept a tavern, was an agent for the project, but he was a man of great virtue who also held the first religious services in his house and built a local school. Sadly, he died in 1808 and his wife died nine years later, leaving the 17-year-old boy to make his way in the world. He became a printer’s apprentice and would be connected with the publishing industry for the rest of his life. He was also an ambitious man, full of initiative, that brought him much varied work and experience. In time he became an influential editor and publisher in western New York state. In the 1840s a friend of his persuaded Turner to look at his research papers on the history of settlement in that region and he became very interested and gathered enough material to write the Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York which was published in 1849 and again in 1850. It is a huge book, nearly 700 pages long.

Somehow, during the writing of this varied and complicated book, he had an urge to write an essay, from his own eye-witness point of view, and based on recollections of his beloved father’s work as a settler, telling in clear summary the story of a settler’s labours, from youth to old age – a half-century of intense labour, planning and success.


Here is Turner’s wonderfully evocative essay, transcribed directly from the original book. Turner begins with a poem written by another person, which he found relevant to his thinking and so I include it here as well.

Turner carefully selected woodcut artists to illustrate each of the four parts of his essay. We can read the names of three of them and discover that, in their day, they were prominent illustrators. It is not possible to make out the name of the fourth artist. At this time, I will not hold up the flow of this post by including the information I have found on these illustrators as it is, I think, secondary to the main narrative.



“Through the deep wilderness, where scarce the sun
Can cast his darts, along the winding path
The Pioneer is treading. In his grasp
Is his keen axe, that wondrous instrument,
That like the talisman, transforms
Deserts to fields and cities. He has left
The home in which his early years were past,
And, led by hope, and full of restless strength
Has plunged within the forest, there to plant
His destiny. Beside some rapid stream
He rears his log-built cabin. When the chains
Of winter fetter Nature, and no sound
Disturbs the echoes of the dreary woods,
Save when some stem cracks sharply with the frost;
Then merrily rings his axe, and tree on tree
Crashes to earth; and when the long keen night
Mantles the wilderness in solemn gloom,
He sits beside his ruddy hearth, and hears
The fierce wolf snarling at the cabin door,
Or through the lowly casement sees his eye
Gleam like a burning coal.”

(Poem by Alfred B. Street)


Sketch No. 1 – It is Winter.

The engraved view, No. 1, introduces the pioneer. It is Winter. He has, the fall preceding, obtained his “article,” or had his land “booked” to him, and built a rude log house; cold weather came upon him before its completion, and froze the ground, so that he could not mix the straw mortar for his stick chimney, and that is dispensed with. He has taken possession of his new home. The oxen that are browsing, with the cow and three sheep; the two pigs and three fowls that his young wife is feeding from her folded apron; these, with a bed, two chairs, a pot and kettle, and a few other indispensable articles for house keeping, few and scanty altogether, as may be supposed, for all were brought in upon that ox sled, through an underbrushed woods road; these constitute the bulk of his worldly wealth. The opening in the woods is that only, which has been made to get logs for his house, and browse his cattle for the few days he has been the occupant of his new home. He has a rousing fire; logs are piled up against his rude chimney back; his fire wood is convenient and plenty, as will be observed. There is a little hay piled on a hovel off to the right; the cattle and the sheep well understand that to be a luxury, only to be dealt out to them occasionally. The roof of his house is of peeled elm bark; his scanty window is of oiled paper; glass is a luxury that has not reached the settlement of which he forms a part. The floor of his house is of the halves of split logs; the door is made of three hewed plank – no boards to be had – a saw mill has been talked of in the neighborhood, but it has not been put in operation. Miles and miles off, through the dense forest, is his nearest neighbor. Those trees are to be felled and cleared away, fences are to be made; here, in this rugged spot, he is to carve out his fortunes, and against what odds! The land is not only to be cleared, but it has to be paid for; all the privations of a wilderness home are to be encountered. The task before him is a formidable one, but he has a strong arm and a stout heart, and the reader has only to look at him as he stands in the foreground, to be convinced that he will conquer all obstacles; that rugged spot will yet “blossom like a rose;” he will yet sit down there with his companion in long years of toil and endurance – age will have come upon them, but success and competence will have crowned their efforts. They are destined to be the founders of a settlement and of a family; to look out upon broad smiling fields where now is the dense forest, and congratulate themselves that they have been helpers in a work of progress and improvement, such as has few parallels, in an age and in a country distinguished for enterprise and perseverance.


Sketch No. 2 – It is Summer.


No. 2. – It is Summer. The pioneer has chopped down a few acres, enclosed them with a rail fence in front, and a brush fence on the sides and in the rear. Around the house he has a small spot cleared of the timber sufficient for a garden; but upon most of the opening he has made, he has only burned the brush, and corn, potatoes, beans, pumpkins, are growing among the logs. He has got a stick chimney added to his house. In the back ground of the picture, a logging bee is in progress; his scattered pioneer neighbors, that have been locating about him during the winter and spring, have come to join hands with him for a day, and in their turns, each of them will enjoy a similar benefit. His wife has become a mother, and with her first born in her arms, she is out, looking to the plants she has been rearing upon some rude mounds raised with her own hands. She has a few marygolds, pinks, sweet williams, daffodills, sun flowers, hollyhocks; upon one side of the door, a hop vine, and upon the other a morning glory. Knowing that when the cow came from the woods there would come along with her a swarm of mosquitoes, she has prepared a smudge for their reception. A log bridge has been thrown the stream. It is a rugged home in the wilderness as yet, but we have already the earnest of progress and improvement.


Sketch No. 3 – It is Summer.


No. 3. – It is Summer. Ten years have passed; our pioneer adventure, it will be seen at the first glance, has not been idle; thirty or forty acres are cleared and enclosed. Various crops are growing, and the whole premises begin to have the appearance of careful management, of thrift, comfort, and even plenty. The pioneer has made a small payment upon his land, and got his “article” renewed. He has put up a comfortable block house, but has had too much reverence for his primitive dwelling to remove it. He has a neat framed barn, a well dug, a curb and sweep; a garden surrounded with a picket fence. His stock is increased as may be seen, by a look off into the fields. The improvements of his neighbours have reached him, and he can look out, without looking up. A school district has been organized, and the comfortable log school house appears in the distance. A framed bridge upon the stream, has taken the place of the one of logs. The pioneer, we may venture to assume, is either Colonel of militia, a Captain, a Supervisor of the town, or a Justice of the peace; however it may be, he is busy in his haying. And she, the better part of his household, must not be lost sight of; and she need not be, for the artist has been mindful of her. She is busy with her domestic affairs; there is quiet and even loneliness about her; but, depend upon it, there are in yonder log school house, some half a dozen that she cares for and hopes for.


Sketch No. 4. It is Winter.


No. 4. – It is Winter. Forty-five years are supposed to have passed since the artist introduced the pioneer and his wife to us, just commencing in their wilderness home. The scene has progressed to a consummation! The pioneer is an independent Farmer of the Holland Purchase. His old “article” has long ago been exchanged for a deed in fee. He has added to his primitive possessions; and ten to one that he has secured lands for his own sons in some of the western states, to make pioneers and founders of settlements of them. He has flocks and herds; large surplus of produce in his granaries, which he may sell or keep as he chooses. He is the founder, and worker out, of his own fortunes; one who in his old age should be honored and venerated, for his are the peaceful triumphs of early, bold enterprise, as we have seen; and long years of patient, persevering industry. He has more than comfortable farm buildings, orchards and fruit yards; the forest has receded in all directions; he is prosperous in the midst of prosperity. There is the distant view of a rural country village that has sprung up in his neighborhood; a meeting house, a tavern, a few stores and mechanic shops, and a substantial school house. The stream that was forded, when the pioneer entered the forest with his oxen and sled, has now a stone arched bridge thrown over it. The artist has given us a rural landscape, in which is mingled all the evidences of substantial well-earned prosperity; there is an air of comfort and quiet pervading the whole scene; the old pioneer, true to the instincts and habits of youth and middle age, is not idle, as we can see. He has yet an eye upon his affairs, and a hand in them; and could we look within doors, we should see the young wife that bravely penetrated the forest with him; she who has lightened his burthens, and solaced him in such hours of despondency as will come upon the stoutest hearts; transformed into the staid, aged matron; yet looking to the affairs of the household; and blending precept with example, fitting her daughters for the vicissitudes, the trials and the duties of life.

Such has been pioneer life and progress upon the Holland Purchase. A fancy sketch it may be called; but yet it is a faithful illustration of such realities as will be recognised by all who are familiar with the events that have attended the conversion of Western New York, from a wilderness, to a theatre of wealth, enterprise, and prosperity, such as it is now.



Settlement and the Environment

The settler, arriving in the dense forest to the place he had chosen to build his home, and eventually clear his farm, would have required a lot of wood just to build his cabin and shelters for the animals he had brought with him. Soon wood might be needed for the first fences to keep the animals from the first small crops, and maybe a stream had to be bridged. A lot of wood would be burned year-round just to cook meals, and in winter the amount of wood that had to be burnt in the great open fireplace was enormous. Still, to clear the fields an unimaginable number of trees had to be cut, and what was not used for fencing was burnt. The wood ash helped sweeten the acidic soil of the ancient forest floor that was not expected to produce bountiful crops.

In time the bulk of the wood contained in the settler’s grant would be destroyed, only a small portion of it going to infrastructure. In Prince Edward Island there was not so much overt waste as the virgin forests were cut down to build ships to sell to the English. For ballast, these ships were filled with yet more lumber from the shrinking forests.

There is an illustration from an 1880 issue of the American Agriculturalist that most of us interested in settlement and exploitation have used as a sort of icon. It is an interesting picture whose composition is defined by the great diagonal plume of smoke from burning wood going up from left to right. Every stage of land clearing, and its arduous preparation for cultivation, is clearly shown. It is a textbook example of the perfect teaching picture.

Most people never read the paragraph, probably written by the editor, below the woodcut. It is cut away and discarded, yet the person who wrote it was trying to make a serious and terrifying point: Yes, we are clearing the land and founding settlements, but we are destroying the forests in the process, and what will be the consequences of that? I have appended that text so that you can read it, and look at the image of progress, and meditate.


American Agriculturalist, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, cover illustration, woodcut, drawn by R. E. Robinson. April 1880.

The history of the first century of the settlement of this country is one of forest-felling and land‑ clearing. The labors, trials, and hardships of those who in early days engaged in a struggle with the wilderness can only be appreciated by those who have made or are now making for themselves and their families a home in the wild, wooded regions still unoccupied. To go into the woods and “clear up” a farm is no easy task; and the scene which is presented in the engraving will carry the thoughts of many of our middle aged readers back to the days of the hardest work of their lives, but days that were bright in the hopes of future comfort and prosperity. Before the corn and wheat could grow, or the green pasture furnish food for the stock in summer, and the meadow its burden of hay for the winter, the trees must be felled, the tangled brush he burned, the virgin soil broken, and the seed sown In the rough, but rich and willing ground. All this demanded toil, and toil of the most severe kind. But what changes were wrought! Every tree brought down opened a new space on the ground below, and a new inlet for the sunlight above; every stump or every stroke of the axe was an encouragement for the next. Look now at the aggregate results of this labor. A wild, savage country transformed into a peaceful, prosperous land of plenty. In some cases the change was slow, and several years elapsed before the land was thoroughly subdued to cultivation; but often the transformation has been so sudden as to almost make one doubt his senses. In the space of a few short months the unbroken forest, known only to the Indian in pursuit of his game, was changed into open fields of waving grain. The wonderful story of the changes that accompanied the progress of the settlement of our forest regions, seems like fiction to him who has always lived in a long settled or prairie country. But to one who returns after a few years absence from the forest-side home of his boyhood days, the change is real. The woods have been swept away as by a whirlwind, and the picture that he has long held so dear in his memory, no longer exists in reality. The land has been “cleared up” and even the stumps of the old trees have yielded to slow decay or the more rapid blasting dynamite, and the mower and reaper run smoothly over the ground. Year by year the “wood lots” have been narrowed in, until they are now in many cases too small to furnish the proper protection from stormy winds to the wide open stretches of country, or against other sudden, violent meteorological changes. The desire to get all the acres into grain and grass bas been too strong, and the results are not to the country’s advantage. We may from necessity be called upon to restore by the slow process of plant-growth what has been destroyed as by fire.



Bringing Land-clearing Home: Meacham’s ATLAS

In my extensive description of the creation and content of Meacham’s 1880 ATLAS I devoted an entire post to the images of the Island landscape drawn by topographical artists at the request of the subscribers to the book.

I wish to return to three of these bird’s eye views of the Island landscape in three stages of land clearing – and exploitation. The Meacham illustrations are exact contemporaries of that wonderful woodcut from the American Agriculturalist discussed above, and while they do not depict in graphic detail the process of land clearing, they show clearly the result of it manifested in productive acres of cleared agricultural land.

In the first lithograph we see what I believe to be the most focussed moment in the settler’s new life on the Island. A generation has not yet passed, and there are very few fields – but productive ones – and the forest still looms in an almost threatening way. The memory of settlement is still so green that the original log cabin is proudly shown in a vignette.

In the second print of the very extensive establishment of farm and sawmill of James Elliott in Lot 21, replete with an obliging train about to thunder over the mill stream bridge, we see that great progress has been made in taking over the wilderness. Mind you, in a great diagonal that intensifies the effect of the artistic composition, the virgin forest is still present, untouched since prehistoric times. But it too will gradually go, and we see traces of logging activities at the horizon where the woods have been turned into a logging area.

The virtue of this drawing, aside from its artistic value, is that it lifts our spirits in a way that the woodcut from the American Agriculturalist never could: the wood is not wasted but is turned into lumber which the train will probably take to the towns and villages along its route so that houses, stores, churches and schools can be built in the glorious post-Confederation era.

In my last illustration from Meacham’s ATLAS I have selected a view that shows a landscape almost completely bare of trees. On the horizon, on hilltops, just like in a Capability Brown country estate garden, are picturesque groves of trees that play a powerful role in articulating the view.

But the forests are gone.



Mapping the forest primeval.

After this post was published Doug Sobey contacted me and suggested that I include the single historical map that documents the virgin forests of Prince Edward Island. It is found in Robert Chalmer’s 1895 Report on the surface geology of eastern New Brunswick, north-western Nova Scotia, and a portion of Prince Edward Island. 


Map gscmcm 568 e 1895 from Chalmers, Robert, Report on the surface geology of eastern New Brunswick, north-western Nova Scotia, and a portion of Prince Edward Island, Geological Survey of Canada, Annual Report (New Series, Vol. VII, 1894) 149 pp. 1895. Photo: GEOSCAN ID 297161, Government of Canada.



The technique used by late Nineteenth Century mapmakers to represent the original forest cover is almost unintelligible unless the map is highly magnified. The old forest is represented by thin horizontal green parallel lines while the new f0rests by vertical lines.

To give you an idea of the amazing amount of information contained in this map about the forest primeval, I insert this magnified portion of the Bedeque area. You can appreciate in the detail the enormous amount of accumulated field work that had been done by surveyors on the Island.



For some reason, although the whole Island is discussed in the text, the author chose only to reproduce about half of the Island, cutting off the western tip and everything east beyond Rustico. You can study this map in detail at high resolution if you download this pdf file and using the magnification icon, zoom up to the level you feel comfortable with. After 200% resolution falls off sharply.

1895 Chalmers – Geology Maritimes

And here is a pdf file of the complete text of Chalmers’ Report.

Chalmers – Surface Geology 1895


Jump forward two generations…

I jump to the 1940s and this bird’s eye view of my home village. It was utter wilderness 100 years before but look at the progress that was achieved by eager Acadian and Irish settlers, American fishing entrepreneurs and the Catholic Church!

Photo from MacDonald, p. 18

By 1947 when this photo was taken much of the land has been cleared, the village of Tignish had moved inland from the harbour lagoon and been laid out in a grid with a central street for commercial establishments. The railway terminates next to the splendid brick post office and in the huge area of land owned by the Catholic Church there is the church itself, a magnificent Gothic Revival structure made of local brick, and from the same material a vast Georgian style convent for a school run by nuns imported from Montreal, a priest’s house, and recently built, a vast boarding school for boys, the gift of a local silver fox millionaire.

What did the village and surrounding area burn in their stoves? Expensive coal was brought to the heart of the village by the train, but the majority of the villagers burnt wood, cut in the ever-diminishing forests, and brought to the door by horse and sleigh.

Photo from Tignish Arts Foundation Collection

This was a picture I saw many times every winter in the first fourteen years of my life when I lived in that environment. As a boy I knew these men from Seacow Pond and North Cape who made an arduous task lighter with a jug of home brew. I remember vividly the smell of the newly cut trees, and the horse, in the brisk winter air.



Today oil has taken over from coal in heating our houses although where I live in the country, most people prefer to burn wood. As I look around my neighbours’ yards I see great piles of chopped wood – eight cords is considered the norm for the winter season – that will be burned in the following five or so months. And everywhere in the back forested roads, I see signs of clear-cutting. The pioneer process is still alive and well. This is not the selective cutting of my youth; here all is cut to the ground destroying in the process countless wild habitats.



And what about settlement in the forest today?

I began this post on the forest primeval with a reminder that it was first and foremost, the home of the indigenous people who had moved into the region. The Mi’kmaq are still with us, and, as you will see, still very much at one with the forest even today.

Lennox Island, the home of our chief Mi’kmaq population is a special place, made sacrosanct by millennia of occupation by our indigenous people. The Spirit of the Place is intensely vibrant here, where for all that time the Mi’kmaq have respected the spirit present in all things. Recently I came across a photo that touched me deeply as I rooted through the Facebook photos of Ben MacLeod from Northam, whom I had met recently. Ben and his brother run a heavy equipment company that takes on every imaginable project involved in land clearing, landscaping and settlement. 

This is the photo that caught my attention because it resonated so powerfully with my desire to write this post on the forest and its exploitation, first by the Mi’kmaw and later, by pioneer settlers from France and Britain.

Photo courtesy of Ben MacLeod

When I asked Ben for information about this photo a most interesting story emerged. A client on Lennox Island, a Mi’kmaq, wished to settle on this lot which was completely covered with woods. A clearing in the woods had to be made, but the essence of the original land had to be kept, so that you would always be reminded that this was the equivalent of a camp in the forest. Because it is sacred to the Mi’kmaq, Ben was not allowed to cut down any black ash because non-natives are not allowed to cut it on the reserve. Aside from that, he and his colleagues designed and created the clearing in the woods following their instincts, and their feel for that spot. I think that, even at this early stage of construction, this picture represents a very special moment in creating a woodland settlement that acknowledges the indigenous Spirit of Place in the creation of a new home.

The project is also special and moving in that there has been a great reversal in the historical actors of settlement: a white man does not displace a Mi’kmaq from their primeval forest but is hired by a Mi’kmaq to create a settlement, full of sacred associations, in a world that has changed politically, but spiritually has not changed.

Settlement in the Island’s Forest Primeval has gone on for centuries, and will no doubt continue into the future in what is left of our new growth forests. There will always be those attracted to the mystery and quality of light found in the forest, as well as the proximity of the many wildlife communities found there. Meditating on this settlement continuity is both rewarding and pleasurable.


Special Thanks

Over the years I have had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Doug Sobey various pictures and written material that pertain to the history of the forest in North America and Prince Edward Island. He is extraordinarily well-informed and his published work on Island forests, beginning in 2002, is definitive. I am grateful to him for sharing much information with me which has helped to mould my vision of the ancient forests.


Bartlett, William Henry and Willis, Nathaniel Parker, Canadian Scenery Illustrated, from drawings by W. H. Bartlett; the literary department by N. P. Willis Esq. Two volumes published as one. James S. Virtue, City Road and Ivy Lane, London, 1842.

Chalmers, Robert, Report on the surface geology of eastern New Brunswick, north-western Nova Scotia, and a portion of Prince Edward Island, Geological Survey of Canada, Annual Report (New Series, Vol. VII, 1894) 149 pp. 1895.

Cosgrove, Denis, Geography & Vision, I. B. Tauris, London, 2008.

Lowenthal, David, “The Pioneer Landscape: An American Dream,” Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 5-19.

MacDonald, D. Scott, Prince Edward Island Then and Now, The Acorn Press, Charlottetown, 2016.

MacLeod, Ben, JBM Earthworks, Tyne Valley. (Photograph and discussion about a landscape project.)

Ross, Alexander M., William Henry Bartlett, Artist, Author and Traveller, containing a reprint of Dr. William Beattie’s Brief Memoir of the Late William Henry Bartlett, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1973.

Sobey, Douglas, Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island – A Source Book – Part I, The French Period 1534-1758, Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2002.

Sobey, Douglas, Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island, Part II, The British and Post Confederation Periods, 1758-c. 1900, Part A: The Analyses. Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2006.

Sobey, Douglas, Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island – A Source Book – Part II, The British and Post Confederation Periods, 1758-c. 1900, Part B: The Extracts. Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2006.

Sobey, Douglas, Early Descriptions of the Forests of Prince Edward Island – A Source Book – Part III, The Early Twentieth Century, Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2008.

Sobey, Douglas, Shipbuilding and the Forests of Prince Edward Island: An Analysis of the Types and Amounts of Wood used in Island Ships – Based on the Surveyor’s Reports of the Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping, Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2011.

Sobey, Douglas & William Glen, Mapping the Pre-Settlement Forests of Prince Edward Island: An Analysis of the Forest and Tree Descriptions on Historic Manuscript Maps in the Prince Edward Island Public Archives, Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Charlottetown, 2014.

Sobey, Douglas, “Log Houses on Prince Edward Island”, Manuscript for publication in the Island Magazine, 2020.

Turner, Orsamus, “The Pioneer Settler upon the Holland Purchase, and His Progress,” inserted in Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, embracing some Account of the Ancient Remains … and a History of Pioneer Settlement under the auspices of the Holland Company … etc. etc., (pp. 562-567), Geo H. Derby and Co., Buffalo, 1849. Reprinted in facsimile by Heritage Books Inc., Maryland, 1991.

Turner, Orsamus, “The Pioneer Settler upon the Holland Purchase, and His Progress,” Introduced by S. George Ellsworth, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct. 1975), pp. 425-435.