The Settlement of Johnville, New Brunswick

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER III (3) start of chapter

After having passed the first evening at Frederickton, the capital of New Brunswick, where many Irish are comfortably circumstanced, and steadily increasing in wealth, and the second at Woodstock, where there is also a fair proportion of the race equally thriving, we set out at an early hour on the following morning for the settlement of Johnville, a distance of thirty-five miles, not of rail or water, but of rough road; and about noon on Saturday we were entering the forest avenue which led to the uttermost boundary on the western side. The road over which we travelled had to me all the charm of novelty, and would have appeared picturesque and striking to anyone from the old country, for it resembled rather a cutting through a vast and ancient wood than an ordinary highway.

The Bishop was, as I thought, unnecessarily enthusiastic in his praise of the new road, which, I must confess, I thought altogether fatal to personal comfort, and in the last degree trying to the safety of the springs of our vehicle, though the carriage had been specially adapted to meet such trifling contingencies as deep ruts, profound hollows, occasional chasms, with an abundant variety of watercourses roughly covered over with logs, not always matched with the nicest care. I appreciated the road from a European point of view, and as it affected my individual comfort; but the Bishop retained a vivid remembrance of the mere lumberman's track of three or four years previous, and could estimate at its right value the facility which this new highway afforded to his settlers for the transit of their produce and provisions. As we proceeded through our couple of miles of dense forest—in which the dark green of the pine and the brighter verdure of the spruce contrasted with the prevailing sombre hue of the hard wood, occasionally relieved by the bright yellow leaves of the beech, and the gleaming crimson of the frost-tinted maple—we were met by two or three of the country waggons, laden with grain, and driven by strapping young fellows, roughly but comfortably clad, their stout horses trotting briskly along the Bishop's model highway. These young men were delighted to see their good Pastor, whom they saluted with a mixture of respect and affection, and with whom they chatted with the most perfect freedom. They promised to spread far and wide the grateful intelligence that Mass would be celebrated at eight o'clock the following morning in the little chapel of the settlement.

Before we enter the Irish settlement of Johnville, it will be necessary to explain briefly its origin and the conditions under which it was established.

Deploring the tendency—the ruinous tendency—of his countrymen to congregate in masses in cities, or to 'hang about town,' as it is generally described, and being thoroughly conversant with the many evils resulting from this prevailing habit of the Irish immigrant, the Bishop of St. John determined to employ his influence to induce numbers of his people to settle on the soil, and thus, amid the simplicity and safety of a rural existence, create for themselves a happy home and an honourable independence. Availing himself of the facilities afforded by the Labour Act, he applied to the Government for tracts of unoccupied land on certain conditions, one being that he should find settlers for this land within a limited time. His first application was for 10,000 acres, which were to be occupied in twelve months. For this quantity of land settlers were found within the prescribed period. A second 10,000 acres were then applied for, and similarly occupied; and an additional 16,000 acres, also obtained by the Bishop, were yet to be occupied by those who possessed the requisite courage to face the difficulties and temporary hardships of a new existence. There were then in actual occupation 170 lots, of 100 acres each; and allowing for the settlers with families, and the young men who had not yet entered into the bonds of wedlock, the number of souls in the settlement of Johnville might be fairly estimated at 600 at the very lowest,—a terrible responsibility to the Bishop, if his influence had been unwisely used, but a triumph and a consolation to him if it had been exercised in a spirit of wisdom and humanity. Of this the reader can form a judgment from what follows.

Each settler was required by the State, as the principal condition of obtaining 100 acres of land, to give work, to the value of sixty dollars, on the public road that was to pass by his own door, and was intended for his own advantage; but while, if so inclined, he could perform this amount of work in one year, he was allowed four years for its completion. Before he could obtain the registry of his grant, somewhat analogous to a Parliamentary title in Ireland, he should be returned by the Commissioner as having executed this required amount of work, cleared five acres, built a house at least sixteen feet square, and actually settled as a resident on the land assigned to him. These conditions had been complied with, in all cases, within the four years allowed, but in most they had been satisfied in two years, and by a considerable number of the settlers in a still shorter time. When the return is made by the Commissioner, who visits the settlement once a year, the grant is then formally registered and issued, and the settler becomes the fee-simple proprietor of 100 acres of land, the property of himself and his family, and of which no power on earth can deprive him or them. Should a poor man be fortunate enough to be the father of one, or two, or more sons, of the age of eighteen or upwards, he can procure 100 acres for each of them on the same conditions; and though a large family is regarded with horror by your Malthusians of the old country, it is a blessing of inestimable value in a new country, in which human labour—that grandest of fertilisers and mightiest of civilisers—finds its true appreciation.

The first tenement which the settler in the forest contrives for himself is a camp, or shanty. It is constructed of logs rudely put together, the interstices filled up with moss, leaves, or clay, whatever can best keep out the wind and the cold; the roof consisting of the same materials, further protected by a covering of bark, eked out, it may be, with branches of the pine, the spruce, or the cedar. Warmed by a stove, or carefully prepared fireplace, the camp or shanty is considered to be a dwelling of surpassing comfort by the settler who commences his first winter in the forest. In a year or two, perhaps a longer time, the rude camp is abandoned for the more spacious and elaborately constructed log cabin, or log house; and when the settler arrives at the 'frame house' and the frame barn, he looks upon himself as having reached the climax of earthly comfort, and even the highest point of luxurious accommodation; though possibly in a few years after the frame house gives way to the substantial brick dwelling, porticoed, and pillared—the glory and delight of its hospitable owner.

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:

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