Preface to Heart of the Great Lakes

The birth

It seems that one book leads to another. In 2010 I published my first local history, Southampton Vignettes. Following the success of Vignettes people asked what I had in mind for a second book. My idea was to write a prequel: fill in the missing history of the town before 1850.

Right away, a problem: Southampton didn't exist before 1848 ... but Saugeen Village did, just two miles upstream from the mouth of the Saugeen. I could tell the story of the people at the river mouth, not just the Ojibway but everyone who passed through.

After that it grew like Topsy. Didn't fur traders live among the Saugeen Ojibway? Perhaps records of the Hudson's Bay Company could shed some light. And the Methodist missionaries who came to Saugeen — they wrote religiously about their accomplishments. What was life like for an evangelist?

Although, maybe we should start with the explorers. Mapmaker Henry Bayfield visited in 1820 and chatted with the fur traders, but let's back up to the first cartographer, Champlain, and then see how he and his successors portrayed the river mouth in maps. No, let's widen that to the whole of Lake Huron, and throw in some background on how the lake was born and where water levels are going.

For the dramatic finale, the struggle between the Ojibway and those who invaded their fishing grounds at the Fishing Islands: the commercial fishermen. And surely no-one would object if I included the story of how Alexander McGregor, fisherman and polygamist, managed to acquire four wives.

So now you hold Topsy in your hands: it starts in 11,000 BC (I wanted to be thorough) and ends up far past 1850, despite what the title says.

The method

Many documents can now be read in digital form, which made the internet my major research tool. The other one was visits to libraries and museums, and especially archives in Bruce County, Ont., Toronto, Ottawa and Somerset UK.

Over the last four years I've cast the net wide for anything about the people who frequented Lake Huron 150 and more years ago. I've checked diaries, maps, books, journal articles, newspapers and web sites. Each of my sources — and there are 320, listed at the back — provided at least a snippet of information, and sometimes reams. A little deft editing and voilà, a book is born.

The story

Lake Huron lies at the heart of the Great Lakes: to the west, Michigan and Superior; eastward, Erie and Ontario. I tell its story by gradually tightening the focus: from the whole lake, to the east shore, to the mouth of one river.

In the Prologue, Huron is born of an icecap, and surprisingly recently: barely 13,000 years ago. The birth was difficult — at one point during a centuries-long drought the lake almost dried up. In fact a forest once grew where today the ferry sails to Manitoulin Island. The preserved tree stumps are still there, deep underwater.

In Part 1 a dozen mapmakers struggle to make sense of the convoluted shoreline and tens of thousands of islands. Samuel de Champlain, explorer and cartographer, didn't see the whole lake, only Georgian Bay, but his map of 1616 does give us our first glimpse of the "Mer douce". He also described the people he met: the Huron of the Penetanguishene Peninsula; the Petun, their neighbours near present-day Collingwood, Ont.; and the Ottawa of the Bruce Peninsula.

The life of a mapmaker had its dangers. Champlain was hit in the leg by two arrows during a Huron raid on the Iroquois. Jesuit priest Bressani lost three fingers while a hostage of the Mohawk. Henry Bayfield suffered through scurvy and malaria before completing his definitive survey of 1819-1822.

A fur trader didn't need a map; he knew Lake Huron like the back of his hand. The lake lay at the crossroads of the eastern fur trade. Birchbark canoes carried trade goods into the interior and returned with pelts of beaver, marten and bear.

On the Canadian side the Hudson's Bay Company dominated the trade, or rather, tried to: it had to compete with a breed of men of an independent turn of mind, the free traders. These lone wolves of the fur trade roamed the east shore, skirmishing constantly with the Company. The HBC threw more men into the fight, eventually opening nine trading posts around the lake, but the opposition wouldn't go away. In short biographies I reveal the lives of 16 tenacious and freedom-loving traders.

By focussing in Part 2 on one HBC trading post, at the mouth of the Saugeen River, we see how well company men resisted the assault of opposition traders from Goderich. Not well, it turned out: outmaneuvered and outbid, the post closed after six years. The Saugeen Ojibway meanwhile profited from the competition by driving hard bargains.

Inevitably, the fur trade on Lake Huron declined because fur-bearing animals were slowly eradicated ... and also for another reason, according to the post manager at Saugeen: the Ojibway were kept from hunting by the distractions of a certain Methodist preacher.

The missionary influence spread into the frontier of Upper Canada in the 1830s. In order to reach the Saugeen mission Methodist saddle-bag preachers had to take to the water and become paddling preachers. Ten of them served there, up to 1850, including the famous Peter Jones and the unfortunate George Copway, who overspent on a camp meeting and was jailed for stealing band money. Artist Paul Kane arrived in time for the camp meeting, sketched the chiefs and visited the site of the Ojibway victory at the Battle of Skull Mound.

Missionaries (and the colonial government) tried to "civilize" the Saugeen Ojibway by turning them away from hunting and fishing and toward farming. The effort was misguided. Farming wasn't a large source of food; it was fish which fed the people, and the best fishery on Lake Huron was at the Fishing Islands, just north of the Saugeen River mouth.

The arrival of European entrepreneurs spelled the end of thousands of years of bountiful fishing. Alexander McGregor, fur trader turned fisherman, founded commercial fishing at the islands. He was followed by Tiger Dunlop, William Cayley and the luckless founders of Southampton, William Kennedy and John Spence. They all tried and failed to make their fortune with their nets; they succeeded only in devastating the fish stocks.

Robin Hilborn
          Southampton, Ont., July 1, 2015

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Box 1203, Southampton ON  N0H 2L0

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For more information




Heart of the Great
    Lakes: Lake Huron
    and the Saugeen to

ISBN 978-0-9809468-
214 pp., hardcover,
    bibliography, index
$40, from Robin
    Hilborn, Box 1203,
    Southampton ON
    N0H 2L0