The First Man and Woman

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER III (5) start of chapter

In the fall of 1861 the first settlers, a man and his wife—Mr. and Mrs. Hugh M'Cann—entered the forest, bringing with them provisions for the winter, and a very moderate stock of furniture and other valuables, which the prudent pair had accumulated by their industry in the city of St. John. Through a mere track, the oxen, lent by a kindly Irish family, slowly dragged after them the entire worldly wealth of this stout-hearted couple, the pioneers of the civilisation so soon to follow in their footsteps. Right in the midst of the forest—never before trodden save by the Indian, the lumberman, or the wild animal—the M'Canns settled down, resolved to brave the severity of the approaching season. The first thing to be done was to erect a log cabin, and for the rougher portion of this indispensable work the thrifty pair were able to pay; but they had to cover their dwelling by their own labour, which they did with great pieces of bark and branches torn from the trees under whose shadow they took up their abode. Here then they were, in the heart of what to them was a wilderness, more than two miles from a human habitation, and even uncertain of the way by which they could reach the outer world; their only guide being either a faint track, or an occasional mark, or scar, made on the bark of a tree. Still they were not in the least degree discouraged.

Mrs. M'Cann had pluck and cheerfulness sufficient for a more hazardous enterprise. With a good stove, and an occasional quilt or blanket, suspended on the walls as tapestry, the cold was effectually kept out, and the lonely hours made comfortable during the bitter winter. Armed with his keen axe, Hugh cut and chopped through the months while the snow covered the ground; and so resolutely did he work, that when the white mantle vanished from the earth before the warmth of the spring, the M'Canns had cleared several acres of their land; and in the autumn of 1862 they gathered in their first produce—an abundant harvest of potatoes, oats, and buckwheat. A proud woman was Mrs. Hugh M'Cann, as she did the honours of her forest home to the settlers of 1862; and prouder still as she afforded hospitality and the shelter of her warm roof to many who had yet to raise a dwelling over their heads.

I could well appreciate the brave and cheery nature of this humble Irishwoman, as the Bishop and I—after a lengthened and somewhat laborious tour through the settlement—sat before the well-replenished stove which had so often warmed the limbs of the wayfarer, and smiled its ruddy welcome to the heart of the exile; and I listened to Mrs. M'Cann while she chatted gaily to her guests, making light of trials and difficulties that would have daunted many a lord of the creation. She laughed, as she told of her furniture being flung by a surly captain on the shore of the river; how she lost her temper 'with the fellow,' and did not recover it for ever so long; how tartly she replied, in a spirit not of the mildest theology, to the kindly-intentioned queries of a Free-will Baptist; how 'it was as good as any theaytre' to see Hugh and herself tramping after the lumbering oxen, and all their cherished property nodding and shaking on the jolting waggon; how Hugh spent a portion of his first Sunday—'after saying our prayers, Bishop, by all means'—in making the frame of the door, while she constructed the door 'with her own two hands;' how happy they felt as, the cold being effectually barred out, they sat down before their bright stove, and drank a rousing cup of tea; how, as time rolled on, and the forest receded before the resolute axe, and the fields grew in dimensions, and cattle lowed round their house, and hogs grunted in the piggery, and roosters and their wives strutted and clucked, she had a tremendous battle with a skunk that assailed her chickens, and how, single-handed, and appealing in vain to unheroic or sleepy Hugh, she slew the invader of infamous odour, and then nearly fainted through fatigue, excitement, and the overpowering stench it emitted; how as many as sixteen used to lie at night on every available spot of the floor, and the priest was curtained off by a quilt in a corner to himself; and how, with the help of God, the more she gave the more she had to give. A pleasant hour's chat was that with Mrs. M'Cann, who did the honours of her log cabin with the ease of a duchess.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America