Winter Scene in Lower Canada. 1858

If you lived in a town or city during the 1850s, chances are you might have been caught up in the temperance movement or, at least, know someone who was.  The temperance movement sought a ban on alcohol use.

Women were gaining small freedoms.  New career opportunities, such as teaching, became available.  It wasn’t all roses, however.  The high cost of living in urban areas necessitated a two-income household.

Industrialization quickly improved lives.  New inventions, such as the sewing machine, made the lives of both men and women easier.  This gave rise to large factories, often staffed by immigrants and the poor.

Finally, the strict society rules that we often associate with the late Victorian era started around this time.  This meant there were rules for just about everything.

Photo Credit:  Winter Scene in Lower Canada. 1858.  Public domain.

A view of just how hilly and uneven the foundation of Quebec is from across the St. Lawrence River, 1850

Canada in the mid-19th century was going through an identity crisis.  It was less radical than the United States, but less conservative than the United Kingdom.  It would remain stuck between these nations’ influences until the end of the Great War, when Canadians finally figured out what being Canadian meant. 

What is modern-day Quebec was more homogenous than the other colonies.  Its inhabitants were mostly of French decent and shared a religion, language and cultural heritage.  Other colonies were a mosaic of identities, but there was no political unity among them.

Society was difficult, dangerous and sometimes violent.  Addiction to rum and whisky was common.

Animosity existed between the Protestant and Catholic population.  

Photo Credit:  A view of just how hilly and uneven the foundation of Quebec was from across the St. Lawrence River, 1850. In the foreground Native Americans can be seen interacting with Quebecóis, and on this particular day the St. Lawrence wass especially crowded with vessels heading in all directions.  Public domain.

Camp in winter. 1858.

In mid-19th century Canada, life practically stopped November through April.  Waterways froze.  Farms shut down.  And business partially halted.

Poverty was common in the winter.  Food, fuel and clothing became more expensive.  Farmers prepared by stocking away food and wood (later coal), installing storm windows and putting sod or branches around their foundations. 

Winter wasn’t all bad.  In towns and cities, winter balls and dances were held.  These events led to many courtships and marriages.

Photo Credit:  Camp in winter. 1858.  Public domain.

The locomotive Essex on the Great Western Railway, Canada, at Clifton Depot by the Niagara River in 1859.

Early railroads traveled at the whopping (for the 1830s) speed of 30 to 40 miles per hour. 

The public and businesses loved the new technology.  The public appreciated it because they no longer needed to travel in dirt and mud and could travel in the winter.  Businesses loved trains’ speed and punctuality.  Businesses also took advantage of new markets and offered new goods for sale.

Not every business prospered.  Taverns located every five miles along roads to feed and house travelers began to disappear.

In Ontario, the British-owned Grand Trunk Railway operated between Montreal and Toronto, and between Toronto and Guelph.  By 1880, the line extended southwest to Chicago.

The first rail line in Canada opened in 1836.  The Champlain and St. Lawrence ran from St. Jean to Richelieu.  John Molson, of Molson’s Brewery, provided 20 percent of the railway’s start-up funding.  By 1851, the line operated year around.

Photo Credit:  The locomotive Essex on the Great Western Railway, Canada, at Clifton Depot by the Niagara River in 1859.  Public domain.

The Collins Line steamer SS Baltic (1850).

In the 1840s, the French had been in Canada for seven generations.  Those of English, Scottish and Irish decent, like Rose in Rose’s Assignment, came to the new world for economic reasons.  They generally were young, ambitious, had some money saved, and were from a society too oppressive for upward mobility.  They may have been displaced because of economic difficulty but were not impoverished. 

The exception was during the Irish Potato Famine.  People traveled on ships that normally were empty on the Canadian leg of the journey.  The Irish were in poor health, were ill prepared for their journey, and their arrival caused a stir.

Photo Credit:  The Collins Line steamer SS Baltic (1850).  Public domain.

Sugar Making in Quebec, about 1850.

A large portion of Canadians still lived on farms in the 1850s. 

Farm life hadn’t changed much since the start of the century.  Chores included clearing land, milking cows, feeding animals, cutting and splitting wood, building and maintaining fences, making jams and jellies, spinning, weaving, quilting, sewing and candle making.

Square dances were one form of country recreation.

Photo Credit:  Sugar Making in Quebec, about 1850.  Public domain.

The Miller Tavern, a historic 19th century inn and functioning restaurant, on Yonge Street south of York Mills Road in North York, Ontario.

The Temperance Movement was a political and social movement that sought to make alcohol illegal.  Members believed this would solve many of society’s ills including domestic violence, neglect and poverty.

The movement began in Canada in the 1830s.  It was popular among Protestants who sponsored dances, picnics, suppers and sleigh rides to spread their message.

Prohibition was in effect in New Brunswick from 1850-54.  In 1856, another version was tried and repealed.

Photo Credit:  The Miller Tavern, a historic 19th century inn and functioning restaurant, on Yonge Street south of York Mills Road in North York, Ontario.  Public domain.

Painting of a Collins Overland Telegraph cabin, British Columbia.

The telegraph revolutionize 19th century communication.

In 1847, the Montreal Telegraph Co. connected Montreal to Toronto, Detroit and Portland.

In 1858, the first trans-Atlantic cable was installed, but it stopped working.  It wasn’t replaced until 1866.

Photo Credit:  Painting of a Collins Overland Telegraph cabin, British Columbia.  Public domain.

The Burning of the House of Assembly at Montreal, 25 April 1849.

Rebellions were common in Colonial Canada.  There were two that occurred during Rose’s youth.

  • 1839 – 130 rebels were sentenced to the Australian penal colony for their role in a rebellion two years earlier after a series of bad harvests.
  • 1849 – Parliament in Quebec was burned along with records, paintings and a library.

February 1841 a new constitution was adopted and Kingston became the capital of Canada.

Photo Credit:  The Burning of the House of Assembly at Montreal,  April 25, 1849. The Illustrated London News, May 19, 1849. – Courtesy National Archives Canada.  Public domain.

"Underground" routes to Canada.

Numbers vary widely, but as many as 100,000 slaves escaped north from the United States to Canada via the Underground Railroad, the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America.  Most often, in the 1850s, the destination was Canada West (what is today Ontario).  

The Canadian Act to Limit Slavery of 1793 ensured that any enslaved person who reached Upper Canada (the name for Canada West at the time) became free upon arrival.  While the act sounds like a victory, it did not free enslaved adults living in Upper Canada and they continued to be bought and sold until New York abolished slavery later that decade.  Children, however, were freed upon reaching the age of 25, and newborns were free at birth.  Slaveholders were required to provide security for freed slaves.

By the time Rose joins the abolitionist movement, the number of slaves reaching Canada had increased dramatically.  While many Canadians were willing to help the new arrivals, others believed slaves should be sent back and that the United States needed to deal with its sins.

Photo Credit:  “Underground” routes to Canada.  Public domain.

Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church

Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church was an important centre of 19th-century abolitionist and civil rights activity in Canada. Built circa 1855, it replaced a smaller log church in order to accommodate St. Catharines’ growing community of refugees arriving via the Underground Railroad. Among them was Harriet Tubman, the famous conductor, who lived near Salem from 1852-1857 and personally led many refugees from the southern United States to safety in Canada. The heritage value of this church resides in its exceptional association with the anti-slavery movement and the early  black community to which it bears witness as illustrated by the church with its auditory-hall form, typical of early African Canadian churches.

Photo Credit:   Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Elgin (at Buxton, Ontario)

Elgin (at Buxton, Ontario) was founded by the Rev. Dr. William King in 1849 as a planned community. The settlement demonstrated to pro-slavery supporters that people of African descent could prosper outside the bonds of slavery. Source: Library and Archives Canada

Photo Credit:  William King fonds, MG 24 J 14, item 644 101149.  Public domain.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Toronto, 1853

The French translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin read in colonial Quebec.

This popular book by Harriet Beecher Stowe had a profound influence on the development of the anti-slavery movement in Canada. Dr. Alexander Milton Ross later wrote that “It excited the sympathies of every humane person who read it in behalf of the oppressed. To me it was a command; and a settled conviction took possession of my mind that it was my duty to help the oppressed to freedom.”  Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Photo Credit:  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Toronto, 1853.  Public domain.

A representation of the cholera epidemic of the nineteenth century.

I had this image in mind when writing the scene where Rose fears miasma.  Miasma is the theory that diseases were caused by bad air.

Photo Credit:  A representation of the cholera epidemic of the 19th century. Before 1830, cholera was unknown in the Western Hemisphere. It became one of the most feared epidemic diseases of the 19th century.  Public domain.

The Williams Omnibus

The Williams Omnibus (in use 1850-1862) was the first mass-transportation system in Toronto. Here, it’s shown in front the northern terminus of the line — the Red Lion Hotel, which stood on the east side of Yonge Street, just north of Bloor Street. The southern terminus was the St. Lawrence Market.

Photo Credit:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The third ferry in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto’s third ferry, the Victoria, with a steam engine of 25 horse power. Built by James Good, it ran in the 1850s from Robert Maitland’s wharf, at the foot of Church Street, to the hotel on the Island.

Photo Credit:  Public domain.

Circa 1850 map of West Canada or what is now Ontario

Circa 1850 map of West Canada or what is now Ontario. Includes Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and part of Lake Huron with Georgian Bay. It features five vignettes which include First Nations people on horseback chasing buffalo across the great plains, several natives sitting around a tree with a teepee in the background, two seals, an otter, and in the lower right , Niagara Falls. The whole is surrounded by a decorative vine motif border. The vignettes for this map were drawn by H. Warren and engraved by Robert Wallis. The map itself is the work of John Rapkin.

Photo Credit:  Public domain.

The sawmill that stood in Deseronto, Ontario in the 1850s.

The sawmill that stood in Deseronto, Ontario, in the 1850s.

Photo Credit:  Public domain.

An 1850s interracial couple.

An 1850s interracial couple.   Hermann A. Widemann with his wife Mary Kaumana and two daughters Emma Kalanikauleleiwinuiamamao Widemann (1852–1931) and Martha Pilahiulani Widemann (1854–1933). Not Canadian (Hawaiian) but interesting nonetheless. 

Photo Credit:  Public domain.

What is now Kingston, Ontario, in 1851.

What is now Kingston, Ontario, in 1851.

Photo Credit:  Public domain.

Group of people in front of a house pointing in various directions om Marmora, Ontario, 1850s.

Group of people in front of a house pointing in various directions om Marmora, Ontario, 1850s.

Photo Credit:  Public domain.