Lamentation upon the climate of Canada

Editor's Note: This dramatic account of the Upper Canadian climate (and of the "ague," a type of fever, is taken from Early Days in Upper Canada, Letters of John Langton (1926). John Langton was the youngest son of a wealthy businessman in Liverpool, who had immigrated to Canada in 1833. He had a long government career in later years. This letter was one of many written to his father.

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October 10th, 1835

Here followeth a lamentation upon the climate of Canada. Last summer but one they say was an extraordinary summer; it was very hot and dry, so much so that the lakes and rivers were hardly navigable in parts and that potatoes and turnips produced very ill. Very hot it certainly was, but upon reference to my journal I find, that after a spell of fine weather that had long since melted the snow and caused on the vegetation, on the 14th of May there came a frost, the Lord only knows how many degrees below the freezing point, but such as to cause the icicles to hang a foot long from the roofs and the spray to form a cake of ice on the oars and paddles. The poor plants which were beginning to show their noses above ground in the gardens and fields!

It appears also that on two or three mornings in the latter end of June there was ice of tolerable thickness at sunrise, which or course would prove satisfactory to corn, cucumbers, kidney beans and other tender vegetables. It appears too that on the night of Sunday the 28th September there came a frost that laid my potatoes as flat and turned them as black as if they had never been either green or upright.

From the 14th May to the 28th September is four months and fifteen days to which this extraordinarily hot summer was limited, for the two frosts which bound this period were sufficient to kill any vegetable thing of moderate delicacy of constitution which might be above ground, not to mention the slight warnings of their fate which they received in June. By a further reference to the same authority I perceive, that being on our road down to Peterborough on the 30th October we were stopped by ice and on the 12th December the lake bore for the first time from McAndrew's, and even then it would not have borne a much heavier weight than mine, or indeed myself, if I had not been on snowshoes. Here then is a period of one month and thirteen days when we had neither ice nor water to travel on.

Last winter they say was an extraordinarily cold one. Cold enough certainly; a great many potatoes were frosted in their pits and root houses through the country; my calf lost an ear and would have lost his nose if we had not taken him to live in the kitchen, and many mornings my cattle, having lain down during the night, were so stiff that we got them up with difficulty when the sun had been an hour or two up. In this helpless state it is said many cattle were eaten alive by the pigs. Well, but it was extraordinarily cold last winter; likewise I suppose it was extraordinarily long, at least the navigation was stopped on the 20th October and on the 25th April I had to break through the ice to get my boat launched when going down to Peterborough, giving a period of five months and twenty-six days of winter, and for upwards of a month the ice had ceased to be safe for anything by foot passengers.

This spring there was no remarkable late frost but the weather long continued cold, and seeds sown in the latter part of May soon got the start of those sown earlier. It may be too much to attribute to the climate the caterpillars that destroyed my wheat and the pigeons which commenced upon my peas and oats and, as far as they went, cleared the ground so effectually you never would have guessed anything had been sown, more especially as they were said to be in unusual quantities this year. And I suppose I must be content with the same excuse for my grass and clover seeds having failed, for the fly having eaten three sowings of Swedish turnips and two of mangelwurzel, and notwithstanding repeated sowings having left me in the garden one solitary eatable radish and not a plant of any kind of cabbage; not to mention the nameless insect or whatever it is that ate off day by day as they appeared above ground the young plants of celery, lettuce, carrots and onions (N.B. onions from seed – from top onions I have a good crop – did you ever see top onions in England?) so that I have none of the two former and not above a handful of each of the latter.

The next black day in my calendar is the 5th or 6th August when we had a frost, which though it did me little or no harm, killed many an acre of potatoes in low situations back in the bush. It is one great advantage that we have near the lake and in high and dry situations, that we feel no ill effects from frosts which destroy everything in back clearings when one would have thought the bush would give them shelter. I say nothing of our wet harvest because I believe that it at any rate is an almost unprecedented occurrence, and I must acknowledge that that inexorable fellow the frost has treated us on the Lake shore at least very leniently this fall. My kidney beans and tomatoes only yielded to his power the morning I began this letter.

I wonder that I can have written this Philippic against the climate of Canada at a moment when for a week past (to-day is the 15th) I have been enjoying weather which if I looked only to my comfort I would wish to last all the year round. We are in the middle of the Indian summer, with slight frosts at night and the thermometer seldom above fifty-four or fifty-five in the day, but the sky is without a cloud and the lake unruffled by the slightest breath of air, so that you may hear the wild ducks splashing about at a mile off; a slight haze spread over the fact of the country is perhaps all you would wish away. I don't know whether this Indian summer is as healthy as it is agreeable, at any rate I have somehow or other caught a cold which may perhaps have inspired me with a little extra acerbity, but I give you simple fact and "facts are chiels that winna ding An downa be disputed."

Oct. 16. One more drawback to this climate I must mention is – ague. We used to think Sturgeon Lake almost exempt, and certainly it is better than Ops and some other places, but Need, Boyd and both Mr. and Mrs. Frazer set the example this spring at the lower end, and after having sent down both major Hamilton and one of his sons with an attach during the summer it has now fairly commenced amongst ourselves; McAndrew and both the Macredies have had slight attacks. I don't believe that care is of any avail in keeping off the ague, at least we have now been for two summers oftener wet than dry I believe and yet we felt no ill effects, whilst other cautious people – Need and Boyd for instance – took it. It must be acknowledged however that the night when McAndrew's symptoms first appeared he had been up to the knees in the lake and sat all evening and slept all night in the same clothes; and in consequence of this warning I have since been more cautious.

The Macredies were always rather given to changing stockings, and Jameson's projected marriage had already wrought a wonderful change in him. When I first came up the lakes I carried a spare pair of socks, and they were alternately on my feet and drying in the sun, but I soon got tired of that. In fact in summer one cannot keep dry; if you walk in the bush you come occasionally upon a swamp, if you go in a canoe you have on shallow shores to step into the water to avoid hurting the bark; and our boats, what with the original imperfection of their structure, the cracks which the heat of the sun forms and the rough usage they get in drawing them up on stony shores, by concussions in rapids, etc., by which their seams are opened, are never so tight but that our feet get wet in them; not to mention the wading which we are not yet free from. However it does not much signify if the only ill effect is an occasional fit of ague, form which even otherwise we could not reckon upon being free.

You will plainly see from the whole tenor of this letter that Canada is not in my opinion that Eldorado which most of the books you see at home would fain have it believed, but still I have not given the county up. The greatest difficulties are now over and I will give it a fair chance before I condemn it. The settlers who have come out within these last few years are falling off by degrees; but new ones are still coming, as confident and high in hopes as their predecessors were. I am told that numbers are deserting Lake Simcoes and other pet settlements. As for us, numbers have never come amongst us as yet, but we are losing some of our few. Dudley is off, to join Col. Evans in Spain I believe, the Macredies are still putting off their departure but they will not linger through next summer; Jameson, it if had not been for his projected marriages, would have been off too, and McAndrew you will see in little more than a month after you receive this. He having been sanguine had gone I think into the other extreme, but still intended trying the country one year more. The news however of his brother's failure in Liverpool has decided him and he will leave us almost immediately. He will be a great loss to our society; however society will be a very secondary consideration with me next winter. I am going to keep no servant, and as I shall have twelve pigs and the cattle to look after I shall never be able to leave home. Perhaps Dennistoun and the Macredies may come to see me once a fortnight, but otherwise I shall be my own company.


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