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German Heritage in Canada

by Alidë Kohlhaas
Part 37

Accidental Canadians, II

Alidë Kohlhaas

The new settlers’s life had its ups and downs. A letter, now in the possession of the National Archives in Ottawa, well describes what it was like, although it puts a fairly rosy glow on the hard work that faced the new colonists. Written in 1831, these conditions applied well into the 20th century for any settlers, who chose to live in rural communities, who bought land in unsettled areas in Ontario, in Manitoba, in British Columbia and in the Territories. The letter’s author is one of those accidental Canadians, a Philip(p) Lautenschla(e)ger, and it is addressed to his father, brother and sisters in Herchenrode, a village in the southern-most tip of present-day Hesse, then the Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt.

Philip left from Bremen and arrived in New York 51 days later. He made his way to Albany from where he travelled on the 584 km long Erie Canal to Buffalo, and in the process passed through 82 locks, which provided a lift of 210 m. "There we boarded another boat which was pulled by horses," he wrote, referring to Albany. "In this manner we went uphill by water." He tells his family of the locks and gates on the canal on the way to Buffalo. Once there, he failed to find employment. Someone suggested he try Waterloo County in Canada. Sure enough, he found a job with a cooper, and earned $9 a month in winter, and more in the summer.

His description of women is interesting. "A woman makes 4-5 dollars a month. Women do not dress over here as they do over there. They all dress like high-ranking people in Germany." Later he states: "The women are lucky, they do not have to work in the fields. They do not have to cook food for the livestock, either, only for the farmhands."

He tells his family that farm animals are kept outside most of the year to save on hay, and that many farmers own "100 acres, others 200, 300, even 400. Everyone lives by himself and tends to the fields around him." He explains that farmers pay few taxes, that little barley, rye or oats are grown, and that the threshing is done with horses and machines. "They manage to thresh 100 bushels a day. That’s much better than your manual threshing." Then: "The fields are not as beautiful as yours, because not enough bush has been cleared. There are still a lot of stumps in the fields." He also describes the difference between German and Canadian ploughs, and harrows. "When horses pull the harrow, the farmer rides one of them, which saves him walking. They fell trees in the winter and leave them for the summer to burn."

He confesses that "We wanted to go to Pennsylvania but couldn’t make it. We sent letters there from New York but we do not know whether the mail got there. We also wanted to go to Ohio, but we heard that Waterloo was better than Ohio. Fruit and cattle are said to be less expensive there, but one does not earn as much in Ohio as one does in Waterloo." He then tells his family what they must do if they want to join him in the new world, even down to the clothing they must buy to not appear ill-dressed. He concludes with "We have heard there is another war over there. We do not have to be afraid of war over here. Everyone is free. Much money can be earned; you can make money easily as you can make hay, if only you want to work for it."

Philip still travelled mostly by water and the cart or coach. Later immigrants, from the 1850s onward, who arrived in Quebec or Montreal, took a train inland part of the way, and eventually right across the country.

Tired of drawing mostly accidental immigrants from Germany, the Canadian government (first the Province of Upper Canada, later the Federal government of Canada) began to actively recruit immigrants for settlement in the Ottawa Valley. These attempts attracted 12,000 Germans in an effort to stem the flow of American westward expansion. The movement westward by its southern neighbour alarmed Canada, which feared loss of control over the uninhabited border. Hence the drive was on to establish permanent settlements in an area called the Huron-Ottawa Tract. It also wanted to create a viable lumbering and agricultural industry in the region between the lower Ottawa River and Georgian Bay.

The first documented German settlers in Renfrew County appeared in 1857 and within three years their number reached 600. That number rose to 5,000 by 1870 and eventually reached 12,000 by 1887. After that the increase in the German population in the area came through natural increase. Germans were the predominant ethnic group in 15 townships in the upper Ottawa valley, of which 11 were located in Ontario’s Renfrew, and one each in Frontenac, and Lennox and Addington counties, as well as one each in the Quebec counties of Pontiac, and Labelle. German place names appeared, such as Augsburg, Hoffman, Kramer, Rosenthal and Woermke, all of which still exist as unincorporated, but approved communities. The settlers also gave German names to 22 lakes, creeks and physical features. It must be noted, however, that the about 300 German settlers, who arrived in Bowman Township (Labelle County), stayed there only because the outbreak of the American Civil War prevented them from migrating to the American Midwest.

1894 train disaster at Beleoil, Quebec, in which 97 newly arrived German immigrants diedTrains became an important, fast mode of moving immigrants westward, but some Germans were not so lucky in reaching their destination by this means. While travelling west on the Grand Trunk Railway from Quebec City to Montreal in late June 1864, a train filled with new German immigrants came to a swing bridge that crossed the Richelieu River at Beloeil. Someone forgot to close it and the train plunged below, taking 97 of the immigrants to their death. How many were injured or maimed is not recorded.

In Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery stands a monument to these victims with the following inscription:

"To the memory of 52 German Emigrants buried here and also 45 more, who are interred in the Catholic cemetery, having lost their lives on June 29, 1864 by the precipitation of a train of 11 cars with 500 German emigrants through the open draw bridge over the Richelieu River."

The graves of these immigrants are also marked with their names, which seems an irony. There they rest in the soil of a country they never got to know, while in their homeland the graves of their parents and siblings most likely have long been forgotten, rased to make room for new generations of dead. In Germany, because of lack of space, it has become customary to exhume the dead and sell the plot unless the family pays forbiddingly high fees every 25 years to keep it as a family site. There exists another memorial to these train disaster victims. This accident spurred American inventor George Westinghouse to create the automatic air brake. He first demonstrated the effectiveness of this safety device in 1868.

Canada conducted its first census in 1871. It counted 2,110,502 persons of British origin and 202,991 of German. While at one time Germans far outnumbered both Irish and Scottish, by the time of the census they were a mere quarter of the first and were exceeded by more than double by the latter. In that same census 24,162 persons of foreign birth came from Germany and 102 from Austria. Ten years later, the new census reported 524,319 persons of German origin, both native born and of foreign birth. Strangely enough, in 1901 the census recorded only 310,501 persons of German origin, but in 1911 the figure rose to 403,417. The effects of WWI can be seen in the 1921 census, when only 294,635 persons admitted to a German background. The numbers rose to 473,544 in 1931, dropped to 464,682 in 1941, but increased sharply to 619,995 a decade later, and by 1971 reached 1,317,200.

To be continued . . .

Copyright ©2000 Alidë Kohlhaas

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