OPINION: A glimpse of early pioneer life in Sarnia

George Mathewson

In the year 1827 an intrepid 16-year-old named Freeman Talbot disembarked at “The Rapids” as part of a survey team tasked with plotting out the future Sarnia and Moore Townships.

Over the next five months, Talbot explored the dense and unbroken hardwood forest fronting the St. Clair River, blazing trees, wading across streams and killing rattlesnakes as they appeared from under decaying logs.

Much later in life Talbot recorded his memories of that adventure, offering a rare and firsthand glimpse into Sarnia’s earliest days.

He found scatterings of French and British squatters farming along the river, living in small frame and log houses, the gaps filled with lime and sand and the homes whitewashed inside and out.

The survey team hired several strong axemen from among the European families living where Sarnia stands today to hack survey lines through the forest.

“Those people had no laws, no schools, no post office, no newspapers, very few books, no taxes, no customs duties, no doctors, no markets, no officers to direct them municipally or otherwise, and no title whatever to the land they had so long cultivated.

“And still they appeared contented and fairly prosperous,” he wrote.

Talbot spent most of his time in the bush. He was often soaking wet and battling “myriads of mosquitoes” while sleeping under the stars. But he managed a little sightseeing as well.

“The first American soldiers I ever saw were across the river at Fort Gratiot. Several times we boys crossed the river in a canoe to see the soldiers on parade, and we thought it was a grand one,” he said.

Talbot is silent about the Chippewa who already lived here, but his account suggests the settlers had learned a great deal from them.

Tea was brewed from sassafras trees and sweetened with maple sugar or honey from bee trees in the forest.

“Fish from the river and the lake, ducks and pigeons on every hand, thousand of good fat muskrats in the marshes and lake immediately east of (Sarnia), with the pork killed in the autumn, were sufficient for the largest family all of the year,” he wrote.

And for the things nature couldn’t provide the settlers organized trading parties.

“Six or eight men would prepare for a visit to Detroit twice every summer, two canoes would be laden with butter, eggs, fruits, furs, feathers and a few smoked hams, sufficed to purchase all that their families actually required. The trip to Detroit and back again was made in good weather in about eight days. On the downward trip paddles were the only propelling power used, on the homeward trip when the winds were favorable a blanket was hoisted for a sail …”

Freeman Talbot would later marry and have 10 children. He died in Saskatchewan in 1903 at the age of 92.