Scottish settler’s diary recounts visit to Fryfogel Tavern in 1834
George Elmslie was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1803. He immigrated to Canada in 1834 and was one of the first settlers in the Bon Accord area just north of Elora in Nichol Township, Wellington County, Ontario. He served as a school teacher in Elora, Guelph and Hamilton. He died in October, 1869.
His complete diary has been transcribed and is available in the archives reading room at the Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus, Ontario. The diary details his journeys throughout southwest Ontario in search of a suitable block of land and farm stock. It includes his travels, meals he ate, books he read, encounters with slaves who escaped to Ontario, thoughts on race relations, comments on Brock’s monument at Queenston, Niagara Falls, the Welland Canal, first nations people and others met, types of trees and flora noticed, differences between Old World and North American English, difficulties attempting to follow surveyors’ blazes — and, adventures at a stagecoach stop called Fryfogel’s Tavern.
What follows are excerpts from a narrative and diary entries written by George Elmslie in the summer and the period from Monday, September 8 to Wednesday, November 4, 1834.
George Elmslie set sail for Canada aboard the Fania under Captain Wright out of Glasgow on June 30, 1834. The voyage went pleasantly enough until a fire had to be extinguished in the spirit hold of the ship. A drunk steward tried to steal rum that spilled and caught fire, endangering the lives of all those on the vessel. Passage up the St. Lawrence was “very rough.” He travelled from Quebec City to Montreal, up the Ottawa river to Bytown, the Rideau Canal to Kingston, where he boarded a steamer that docked in Toronto on Sunday, August 14, 1834.
“The cholera had preceded us, and there had been a great many deaths daily … The most strange and appalling thing to us was the sight of the carts for the dead going their rounds several times a day.”
Encountering Sebastian Fryfogel
George Elmslie carried with him a letter of introduction from the Secretary of State for the Colonies which he used to meet His Excellency Sir John Colborne, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, “who seemed but little past his prime, … who wore a plain blue surtout, the one sleeve empty and attached to his breast, for he had left the left arm in the Peninsula.”
The entry later adds: “In the afternoon, I called on Archdeacon Strachan and spent two hours very agreeably with him. Our conversation turned more on Scotland than on Canada and was now and then carried on in the ‘guid auld Mither tongue.”
His search for arable land on which he and three friends still in Scotland could settle led him down the Huron Road and an encounter with Sebastian Fryfogel.
“He (Sebastian Fryfogel) was the original busy Canadian settler… When we called, he was making a belt to put a small bell around the neck of a young time doe he had found in the woods” that was running about with his children — “a stock in which he was anything but deficient.” (The Fryfogels arrived in Canada with five children in 1828 and eventually had 12 children in all).
“We had some remnants of dinner only consisting of potatoes, soup which being hungry and nothing else to be got, we ate up . . . The evening was fine . . . His wife had returned and some provisions had been procured, still we drank our tea without sugar.”
Setting out on a footpath through the bush to look at lots the next morning, Elmslie and two friends encountered a porcupine. “With the help of a stick and an umbrella, we soon killed it, not until the end of my umbrella was struck full of its quills.” In all the excitement, their mare ran off and could not be found.
Returning to the tavern after a visit to Stratford, “we found an Indian skinning two deer he had shot … showing great dexterity, having skinned one of them in two minutes. Fryfogel bought the hinder and quarters of both at 6 shillings York 3/9c. … At tea, we had excellent deer steak but a little over down (sic).” Elmslie tells us the celebration which followed at the tavern that evening involved much merriment that benefitted from the consumption of something called C.whiskey.
Venturing off the Huron Road to follow trails blazed by surveyors often proved misleading. “You are very apt to take the wrong blaze” and if old blazes do not mislead you “they are sure to perplex you exceedingly.” A compass was essential.
It was “most fatiguing work.” Heavy rain had fallen. Within an hour, “our feet, legs and thighs were soaking… Soon, we encountered a cedar swamp, of which there were several …” It took over two hours to pick up the “blazes” again. “You step upon a slippery root and in the twinkling of an eye find yourself flat on your back.” Springing from one fallen tree trunk to another, you “land on a rotten one and sink up to your knees.”
Fryfogel serves as interpreter
The group thought they had found good land with tall elm, beech, maple and cherry trees in black lome soil, only to be disappointed at the lack of water.
“It was between 5 and 6 p.m. We made the outskirts of the wood as it became quite dark, fatigued, hungry and faint… We were still 4 miles distant from Fryfogels.” A Perthshire Highlander fed them pea meal, bannocks and buttermilk. “We reached Fryfogels at 8, got an excellent supply of eggs and tea, and went to bed.”
Sebastian Fryfogel — a Swiss German immigrant — acted as an interpreter for George Elmslie a couple of days later when the pair sought to negotiate the purchase of land from a “Dutchman” (Mennonite) and two of his neighbours. None of the three could speak any English. It seems no agreement could be reached, even though negotiations were conducted over stiff drinks of brandy. (We are indebted to Elysia De Laurentis, Archives Assistant at the Wellington Museum and Archives, for drawing our attention to George Elmslie’s diary.)