Pathways to British North America

Document 3: The Life and Adventures of Wilson Benson

Source: Wilson Benson, The Life and Adventures of Wilson Benson, (Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1876)


The author presents this little volume to the public, hoping that the perusal of its pages may afford amusement where it does not otherwise interest ; that, in reading the ups and downs of life incident to myself, others may be nerved when buset with apparently insurmountable difficulties ; and to the student of nature it may serve to guide him clear of shoals upon which I have ran aground. A review of my past life convinces me of the necessity of a well-matured, well-directed course of action laid down in youth for the guidance of our future lives, combined with an unwavering purpose in execution ; it is the only true road to prosperity and social greatness.

In publishing this volume, I have no ambitious end to serve ; my humble aim has been to preserve, from oblivion and the ashes of the past, a sketch which might serve future generations in the compilation of a future History of Western Canada (Ontario). When the first portion of this work was written, it was not intended it should ever be printed ; but the solicitation of friends, whose opinions prevailed, induced me to revise what 1 had written, and add such additional items of interest as might conduce to the information and amusement of the general reader.

Looking upon the history of one’s country as an heirloom, to be preserved at all hazards, has been the chief incentive to my taking up my pen, in my humble way, in that behalf The fruits of perseverance, the results arising from energy and enterprise in the prosecution of our daily business, is one motive I have endeavoured to inculcate in the substance of the following pages.

Arrival in Canada

The customary preparations for an Atlantic voyage were soon made; leave-taking — messages from friends in Ireland to friends in Canada. A voyage across the Atlantic in those days involved many discomforts and privations totally unknown in these days of rapid steam navigation. Seven, eight, nine, and as high as thirteen weeks were not unfrequently occupied by sailing vessels on the voyage ; and the consequent suffering experienced on such occasions, the news of which, when transmitted by the sufferers to relatives at home, had spread an universal dread of a trip to America, and I must confess that I was not without my misgivings; but the incentive to brave the danger was caused by my desire to achieve a home and independence in the Western World which the force of circumstances denied me in the land of my birth.

Myself and wile took passage in the ship Sarah Stewart, of Belfast (Captain Lowe), bound for Quebec. We cleared on the 28th March, 1841, and had a pleasant voyage for four days, when a storm arose, and during the next three days we every moment expected to go to the bottom. A sum of five hundred sovereigns was raised amongst the passengers and offered to the captain if he would return to Belfast, but he declared that he dare not do so for any consideration, although we were up to the knees in water on the lower deck. The terrors of that period of three days cannot be described by pen of mine ; it must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

When three weeks out, disease made its appearance, and eight children and one man fell victims to its ravages. I had frequently heard of sharks following ships which contained a corpse, and attributed the remark to superstition; but certainly, whether by accident or otherwise, a shark followed us during two days previous to the burial in a watery grave of the man just mentioned, and was seen no more by us. About this time we experienced a dead calm, which continued for three days…

With the exception of a storm in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there was not much worthy of note on the trip up the river, the beauties of which have been so frequently described by abler pens than mine. The grandeur of its natural scenery, and picturesque beauty of the many charming villages which stud its banks, and the glittering tin roofs of the houses, in the effulgent rays of an April sun, forms a panorama not readily forgotten. Arrived at quarantine, we passed the same day, on our way to Montreal, where I arrived with two sovereigns in my pocket. From thence we took barges for Kingston, being towed up the river by oxen and horses. On two occasions, in ascending the rapids, the current was dragging the boat and teams out into the river, when the drivers were compelled to cut the hawser with an axe. It occupied ten days between Montreal and Brockville. There was a delay here of an hour before the steamer that was to take us in tow to Kingston, and myself and wife went into the town, but before we got back the boat had left. I followed next day, and found the chest containing my luggage in the boat, but it had been broken open, and the most valuable portion of my own and my wife’s clothing, bed clothes, &c., were stolen. I returned to Brockville next day with my chest, and concluded to reside there. My wife hired out to do general house work. However, times were so bad I could not find a stroke of work to do, neither in the town nor the country round about. My money was exhausted, and the first night in Brockville I took lodging in a tolerably respectable looking tavern; but after getting to bed, the fleas and bed-bugs appeared to be at war which of them should take possession of me. This was my first experience of bed-bugs, and the torture was so great that I arose, dressed myself, and went out into the street. I wandered on, to the burying-ground, and laid down under a pine tree, where I slept soundly. Such was my first night’s experience in Brockville, which I continued nine nights in succession.

I went out to the ” Tin Cap,” some miles from Brockville, but not finding employment, and being too proud to beg, I slept at night in the fence corner. I returned to town dispirited and gloomy, as the times were not only bad, but the prospect ahead was far from reassuring. The country was not yet settled into business working since the disturbance of Mackenzie’s rebellion, and no part of Canada had felt its effects more severely than in the neighbourhood of Brockville and Prescott. Although the rebellion scarcely deserved the name, in its insignificance, compared with that which was opposed to it, yet it carried with it a significance which was not to be misunderstood. The negotiations for the union of Upper and Lower Canada had prevented the authorities from entering upon any public works; this, no doubt, tended to increase the general stagnation in business.

Shortly after my return I received employment from a gentleman named Manhardt, living about three miles from Brockville, at weaving a web of full-cloth. Woollen goods were entirely new to me, being differently arranged in the loom, and a hand-shuttle. However, I accomplished my task, producing a fabric which my employer pronounced superior to anything of the kind ever before woven for him. This was the first work I obtained in Canada. I next engaged with a man named Phillips to work on his farm. He asked me if I could plough, which I, in my eagerness to obtain employment, answered in the affirmative, trusting to luck as to how I should succeed; for be it known I never guided a plough in my life, except once in Ireland I held a plough after a rude fashion down one side of a field…

Soon after my arrival I engaged with a man named Lusher, a hotel-keeper, of Yankee origin, to act as porter, attend the arrival of the steamers, &c. On one occasion, when on my duties, taking luggage off the steamer bound to Ogdensburg, the boat moved out into the river before I was aware of it, and I was unwillingly taken to that place, and compelled to wait till the next day before another boat came along, bound to Brockville. Lusher’s house had been the head-quarters of a volunteer troop of Canadian horse during the rebellion of 1837-38, but owing to information having been learned that he had been in secret communication with the rebels, he was never paid a farthing of the debts incurred. It was a standing joke in Brockville for many years afterwards that “the British sucked in Old Lusher.”

I then engaged with a Scotchman named James Nicholson, to learn the baking and confectionery business. At this time I was located so that I saw my wife every day; for to the outside world we passed as brother and sister, without producing the evils which a similar ruse on the part of Abram and Sarah of old brought upon the House of Egypt. My time here was spent very pleasantly, and I soon acquired a good practical knowledge of the art of making my own bread, by making bread for others. The thought of returning to Ireland, however, I had never abandoned, and my only desire was to acquire a trade which would serve me better there than weaving. Experience taught me that a journeyman baker was not that profession, and after a stay of six months I abandoned the business.

I next engaged with a Dublin man, named O’Brien, to learn shoemaking; but a two days’ apprenticeship convinced me that “lasts” and “pegs” and “wax ends” would not last me in pegging out an existence to the end of my days.

In 1842 I engaged with Mr. Geo. Chaffey, of Brockville, who carried on an extensive agricultural implement manufactory, employing a great number of hands, and he was, without exception, one of the most gentlemanly employers I met, either before or since. The times were dull, and his manufactory suffered in consequence, and in the fall of the year he commenced discharging his employees. He called me into his office one day, and informed me of his determination to reduce his expenses, but that if I was unemployed in the spring he would then give me employment. I asked him why he discharged me, “for,” said I, “it takes very little work to keep me going.” He burst into a hearty laugh, and gave me employment till spring. I would here mention, that from the time I engaged with Mr. Chaffey, my wife and 1 had kept house on our own account. My wages were $14 per month and board myself, and my wife found constant employment at her profession of dressmaking; so that we lived comfortably and saved money.

In the spring of 1843 Mr. Chaffey paid me in full, and said that as he was going to Toronto, I had better accompany him, as I intended going West; but while on our passage on the steamer Brockville, I engaged as cook on board the vessel, at $10 per month…

Our route was principally between Kingston and Dickenson’s Landing, and the varied scenery on that part of the Thousand Islands was delightful in the extreme…

The fall was now approaching, and as the steamer was about to “lay up” for the winter at Kingston, and as I had the promise of a continuance of my services upon her next season, I resolved to move my wife to that city…

Arrived at Kingston, I rented a house on lot 24, Stewartsville, Kingston, where I opened a small store, stocked it with groceries and other miscellaneous articles [illegible] to the trade of the locality, and was tolerably successful…

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