On Oct. 8,1783, the first settlers arrived at Fredericton. They were of Dutch origin and try as they may, their efforts to build some shelters were not enough to help most of them pass the hard cold winter and many were buried along the river.
The founding of the City of Fredericton dates from the spring of 1784, when the United Empire Loyalists settled in St. Anne’s Point (site of present day Fredericton) after the American Revolution. At the time of the Loyalist settlement, St. Anne’s Point was occupied by only three families. About 2,000 Loyalists settled in the area of present day Fredericton including several army regiments. The first winter was harsh with early and severe snowfalls. Bedding was in short supply and many perished during that harsh winter. Those who perished were buried in what became the Loyalist Provincial Burial Ground, which is still found on the south bank of the Saint John River.
W.O. Raymond wrote a story entitled Founders of Fredericton — The Story of a Grandmother, and published it in the Educational Review Supplementary Reading; Canadian History, No. 6, edited by G.U. Hay in St. John in June, 1899.
The story was about the evacuation of the New Jersey Volunteers, a British American Regiment, from New York and the settlement of some of them at St. Anne’s Point (Fredericton) in the autumn of 1783. I have not included Raymond’s introductory remarks about the New Jersey Volunteers, but the grandmother’s story given below.
A fleet left New York with the New Jersey Volunteers and their families on September 15, 1783. One of those ships, the Martha, was wrecked on its way and more than half of the 170 people on board were drowned. The remaining ships arrived in Saint John on September 27, twelve days after having departed New York, except for the Esther which had nearly lost her way and arrived several days late.
The passengers on the Esther included Lodewick Fisher, and his family, including Grandmother Fisher who chronicled this story of survival.
Raymond adds, “The story that follows does not pretend to be quoted verbatim from the lips of the good old lady who was the narrator, but is based upon the notes made by one of her granddaughters containing recollections of her grandmother’s story of the founding of Fredericton.”
The Grandmother’s Story
Your grandfather, Lewis Fisher, joined the New Jersey Volunteers on the 7th of December, 1776, and was taken prisoner by the rebels a few weeks afterwards along with his brother Peter and fifteen others. After an absence of a year and nine months he returned to his duty October 2, 1778, having made his escape from confinement.
When the war closed the New Jersey Volunteers lay encamped at New Town creek near Brooklyn, Long Island. We sailed in the ship Esther, with the fleet for Nova Scotia. Some of our ships were bound for Halifax, some for Shelburne and some for St. John’s river. Our ship going the wrong track was nearly lost. When we got to St. John we found the place all in confusion: some were living in log houses, some building huts, and many of the soldiers living in their tents at the Lower Cove.
Soon after we landed, we joined a party bound up the river in a schooner to St. Ann’s. It was eight days before we got to Oromocto, and there the captain landed us, being unwilling on account of the lateness of the season or for some other reason, to go further. He charged us each four dollars for the passage. We spent the night on shore and the next day the women and children proceeded with some of the party to St. Ann’s in Indian canoes; the rest came on foot. We reached our destination the 8th day of October, tired with our long journey, and pitched our tents at the place now called Salamanca, near the shore. The next day we explored for a place to encamp, for the winter was at hand and we had no time to lose. The season was wet and cold, and we were much, discouraged at the gloomy prospect before us. Those who had arrived a little earlier in the fall had made better preparations for the winter; some had built small log huts. This we were unable to do owing to the lateness of our arrival. Snow fell on the 2nd day of November to the depth of six inches. We pitched our tents amidst the shelter of the woods and tried to cover them with spruce boughs. Stones were used for fire places. Our tent had no foot but the ground. The winter was very cold, with deep snows which we tried to keep from drifting in by putting a large rug at the door. The snow that lay six feet deep around us helped greatly in sheltering us from the cold. How we lived through that awful winter, I hardly know. There were mothers that had been reared in a pleasant country enjoying all the comforts of life, with helpless children in their arms. They clasped their infants to their bosoms and tried by the warmth of their own bodies to protect them from the biting frost. Sometimes a part of the family had to remain up during the night to keep the fires going, so as to prevent the rest from freezing. Some destitute people made use of boards which the older ones kept heating before the fire and applied by turns to the smaller children to keep them warm. Many women and children, and some of the men, died from cold and exposure. Graves were dug with axes and shovels near the spot where our party had landed; and there in the stormy wintry weather our loved ones were laid to rest. We had no minister, and had to bury them without any religious service. The first burial ground continued to be used for some years until it was nearly filled. We called it the “Loyalist Provincials’ burial ground.”
Among those who came with us to St. Ann’s, or who were there when we arrived were Messrs. Swim, Burkstaff, McComesky, three named Ridner, Wooley, Bass, Ryerse, Paine, Acker, Lownsberry, Ingraham, Buchanan, Ackerman, Vanderbeck, Donley, Smith and Essington, with some few others.
When the Loyalists arrived there were only three houses standing on the old St Ann’s plain. Two of them were old framed houses, the other a log house. [This stood about at the lower gate of the late Judge Fisher’s place.] The houses must have been built by the first inhabitants, who were French. There were said to have been two bodies of people murdered here. It could not have been long before the arrival of the Loyalists that the last party were murdered.
Many of the Loyalists who came in the spring had gone further up the river; but they were little better off for provisions than we were at St. Ann’s. The supplies we expected before the close of navigation did not come, and at some time starvation stared us in the face. It was a dreary contrast to our former condition. Some of our men had to go down the river with hand sleds or toboggans to get food for their famished families. A full supply of provisions was looked for in the spring, but the people were betrayed by those they depended upon to have supplied them. All the settlers were reduced to great straits and had to live after the Indian fashion. A party of Loyalists who came before us late in the spring had gone up the river farther but they were no better off than those at St. Ann’s. The men caught fish and hunted Moose when they could. In the spring we made maple sugar. We ate fiddle heads, grapes and even leaves of trees, to allay the pangs of hunger. On one occasion some poisonous weeds were eaten along with the fiddle heads; one or two died, and Dr. Earle had all he could do to save my life.
As soon as the snow was off the ground we began to build log houses, but were obliged to desist for want of food. Your grandfather went up the river to Captain McKay’s for provisions and found no one at home but an old coloured slave woman who said her master and his man had gone out to see if they could obtain some potatoes or meal, having in the house only half a box of biscuits for themselves. Some of the people at St. Ann’s who had planted a few potatoes were obliged to dig them up again and eat them.
In our distress we were gladdened by the discovery of some large patches of pure white beans marked with a black cross. They had probably been originally planted by the French, but were now growing wild. In our joy at this fortunate discovery we called them at first the “Royal Provincials’ bread,” but afterwards the “staff of life and hope of the starving.” I planted some of these beans with my own bands and the seed was preserved in our family for many years.
There was great rejoicing when the first schooner at length arrived with corn meal and rye. In those days the last passages up and down the river took from three to five days. Sometimes the schooners were a week or ten days on the way. It was not during the first year alone that we suffered for want of food, other years were nearly as bad.
The first summer after our arrival all hands united in building their log houses. Doctor Earle’s was the first that was finished. Our people had but few tools and those of the rudest sort. They had neither bricks nor lime, and chimneys and fireplaces were built of stone laid in yellow clay. They covered the roofs of the houses with bark bound over with small poles. The windows had only four small panes of glass.
The first store opened at St. Ann’s after our arrival was kept by a man named Cairnes, who lived in an old house on the bank of the river which stood near the gate of the first church built in Fredericton. [The site was in front of the present cathedral.] He used to sell fish at a penny each, and butternuts at two for a penny. He also sold tea at $2.00 per lb., which was to us a wonderful boon. We greatly missed our tea. Sometimes we used an article called Labrador, and sometimes spruce or hemlock bark for drinking, but I despised it.
There were no domestic animals in our settlement at first except one black and white cat which was a great pet. Some wicked fellows who came from the States, after a while, killed, roasted, and ate the cat, to our great regret and indignation. A man named Conley owned the first cow. Poor Conley afterwards hanged himself, the reason for which was never known. For years there were no teams, and our people had to work hard to get their provisions. Potatoes were planted amongst the blackened stumps; in the little clearing, and turned out well. Pigeons used to come in great numbers, and were shot or caught in nets by the score. We found in their crops some small round beans, which we planted; they grew very well and made excellent green beans, which we ate during the summer. In the wintertime our people had sometimes to haul their provisions by hand fifty or a hundred miles over the ice or through the woods. In summer they came in slow sailing vessels. On one occasion Doctor Earle and others went to Canada on snow shoes with hand sleds, returning with some bags of flour and biscuit. It was a hard and dangerous journey, and they were gone a long time.
For several years we lived in dread of the Indians, who were sometimes very bold. I have heard that the Indians from Canada once tried to, murder the people on the St. John River. Coming down the river they captured an Indian woman of the St. John tribe, and the chief said they would spare her if she would be their guide. They had eleven canoes in all; and they were tied together, and the canoe of the guide attached to the hindermost. As they drew near the Grand Falls, most of the party were asleep; and the rest were deceived by the woman who told them that the roaring they heard was caused by a fall at the mouth of a stream that here joined the main river. At the critical moment the Indian woman cut the cord that fastened her canoe to the others and escaped to the shore, while the Canada Indians went over the fall and were lost.
In the early days of the settlement at Fredericton, some fellows that had come from the States used to disturb the other settlers. They procured liquor at Vanhorne’s tavern and drank heavily. They lived in a log cabin which soon became a resort for bad characters. Here they formed a plot to go up the river and plunder the settlers’ provisions being their main object. They agreed that if any of their party were killed in the expedition they should prevent the discovery of their identity by putting him into a hole cut in the river. While endeavouring to effect an entrance into a settler’s house, a shot was fired out of a window, wounding a young man in the leg. The others then desisted from their attempt, but cut a hole in the ice and thrust the poor fellow under who had been shot, although he begged to be allowed to die in the woods, and promised if he was found alive he would not betray them, but they would not trust him.
The narrator of the foregoing incidents, like the majority of the old loyalist matrons, evidently possessed sterling qualities which she transmitted to her descendants. To her son, Peter Fisher, who accompanied his parents to New Brunswick in 1783, appertains the honour of being our pioneer historian. A grandson, the Hon. Charles Fisher, Attorney-General of the province and Judge of the Supreme Court, has left his impress on the pages of our provincial history. Descendants of the fourth generation are now numbered among our most active and influential citizens.
Source: John Wood
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