Selected Perceptions of the Land by John Galt and Tiger Dunlop

The following is from pages 249-250, in the Notes section, of The Canada Company and the Huron Tract, 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics by Robert C. Lee. Published in 2004 by Natural Heritage / Natural History Inc., Toronto. This is an excellent book for those who want a good understanding of the people involved in the settling of the southwestern Ontario.

This British Fraser’s Magazine of November 1830 carried a description of the founding of Guelph “this second Rome or Babylon” based on a letter Galt had written to a friend on June 2, 1827: “The site chosen was on ‘a nameless stream’s untrodden banks,’ about eighteen miles in the forest from GALT …. Early on in the morning of St. George’s Day, I proceeded on foot towards the spot, having sent forward a band of woodsmen with axes on their shoulders to prepare a shanty for the night — a shed made of boughs and bark, with a great fire at the door. I was accompanied by my friend Dunlop, a large fat, facetious fellow of infinite jest and eccentricity, but he forgot his compass, and we lost our way in the forest. After wandering up and down like babes in the woods — the rain raining in jubilee — … we came to a hut of a Dutch settler .. We hired him for our guide.
It was almost sunset when we arrived at the rendezvous; my companion, being wet to the skin, unclothed and dressed himself in two blankets, one in the Celtic and the other in the Roman fashion — the kilt and the toga … “I kept my state” (as MacBeth says of his wife at the banquet) of dripping drapery. We then with surveyors and woodmen … proceeded to a superb maple tree, and I had the honour and glory of laying the axe to the root thereof, and is soon fell “beneath our sturdy strokes” with the noise of an avalanche. It was the genius of the forest unfurling its wings and departing forever. Being the king’s name-day, I called the town Guelph — the smaller fry of the office having monopolized every other I could think of; and my friend drawing a bottle of whiskey from his bosom, we drank prosperity to the unbuilt metropolis of the new world.” Robina and Kathleen Macfarlane Lizars, In the Days of the Canada Company 1825-1850 (Toronto: William Briggs, 1896) Appendix, 481-82.

And, from page 32 of The Canada Company by Thelma Coleman with supplement by James Anderson published in 1978 by the Perth County Historical Board, Stratford comes another description of the founding of Guelph:

“I took an axe from one of the woodmen and struck the first stroke, ” John Galt states. “To me at least, the moment was impressive, and the silence of the woods that echoed to the sound was as the sigh of the solemn genius of the woods departing for ever. The Doctor followed me, and then Mr. Pryor, and the woodmen finished the work. the tree fell with a crash of accumulated thunder, as if ancient nature were alarmed at the entrance of social man into her innocent solitudes with his sorrows, his follies and his crimes.”

John Galt was a writer and you can see that he was sensitive to the changes he was causing in his capacity as Superintendent of the Canada Company. It is too bad that he wasn’t forward thinking enough to set aside a small section, even a few acres, of forest as a reserve. The forest was everywhere, like passenger pigeons, and perhaps everyone thought there would always be some left.

And here’s another quote from Appendix D of Lee’s book. This is a quote from a verbatim description of the Huron Tract by Dr. William “Tiger” Dunlop, ‘Warden of the Company’s Woods and Forests in Upper Canada’, in 1841 as he was preparing to run in the election as representative in the new legislature of the united Canadas.

The land generally, is of a loamy description; sandy loam with limestone gravel on the verge of the lakes, and clay loam towards the interior, and everywhere covered with a considerable depth of vegetable mold…
The whole of the land is of excellent quality. There is an extensive cedar swamp, which commences in the township of Ellice, and running through Logan, Mackillop [and] terminates in Hullett. This, to be made available, would require to be drained, but that would be no difficult matter, as it is the summit level of the whole country, and from the springs in this swamp arise many of the rivers which fall into Lakes Erie, St. Clair and Huron. Once drained it will be the richest land in the country. …
The principal timber is maple, elm, beech and bass, and in lesser quantity cherry, hickory, ash, oak, hemlock, and pine, the latter however being very scarce. Black Walnut grows in the South part of the tract. The rivers and lake abound in fish, among which may be enumerated the sturgeon, river trout, pickerel, pike, muskellunge, mullet, carpe etc. …

Dunlop, for all his eccentricities (for more on this see Chapters XV and XVI of Volume I of Twenty-seven Years in Canada West or The Experience of an Early Settler by Samuel Strickland and Edited by Agnes Strickland. M. G. Hurtig Ltd., Edmonton. 1970 (Originally published in 1853). You may recognize this book as one I quoted from in an earlier blog posting), was considered a very capable man and


Historic Trees in the Guelph area – Part 2

Go to Part One

So according to the biologists who like to categorize broad ecosystems or biomes, Guelph is just in the Mixed Deciduous/Coniferous Association of the Deciduous Forest Zone. OK. But what do other sources tell us? I’ve begun gathering references from various sources.

My first source was:
Thompson, Robert. April 21, 1877. A Brief Sketch of the Early History of Guelph (by A First Year’s Settler). Mercury Steam Printing House, MacDonnell St., Guelph.

  • Description of the maple Galt and crew cut down to found Guelph on page 2:
  • “large bird’s eye or sugar maple, about two feet in diameter”

  • A Description of the firing of a ‘wooden cannon’, presumably made in Guelph, and then of the food at festivities after the first year on page 3:
  • “These were made of beech and maple logs about two feet in length and one-foot in diameter, with a two-inch bore, and bound with three strong iron bands, generally bursting after the first or second shot.”
    “Two pot-ash kettles of potatoes were by this time also ready for serving up, together with plenty of bread, hemlock tea, and whiskey.”

    Another source I found was a government document from 1953 looking at the past and present forest conditions in the Speed River Watershed:
    Department of Planning and Development, Government of Ontario. 1953. Speed Valley Conservation Report 1953. A.H. Richardson, Chief Conservation Engineer, A.S.L. Barnes (B.Sc.F.), Assistant Director and Forestry, R.V. Brittain (B.Sc.F.), Forestry. Toronto.

  • from Introduction to the Forestry Section, page 2:
  • “Mr. J. McDonald, who surveyed the Township of Guelph in 1827, described most of the dry land sites as covered in beech, maple, elm and basswood. Where the survey line of the south-east boundary line of Guelph Township crossed the Speed River at the south boundary of Divisions E and G, the forest cover is described as cedar, black ash, beech, maple, basswood, with large cedar timber and here and there a few large pine. Over the nine miles of this boundary the forests are generally described as beech, maple, elm and basswood stands.”

  • Chapter 3 in the Forestry Section describes Forest cover in 1953 and I quote liberally from this section below from un-numbered photographic plates and from the text (pages 7 through to 17):
  • “A large portion of the woodland area in the Speed Watershed is located in valleys… The tree cover is mostly white cedar and poplar, with smaller proportions of tamarack, balsam fir, white elm, soft maple and black ash.”
    “Type 4. Aspen: Aspen is a pioneer species which often follows clear-cutting, fire, or overgrazing. It is distributed throughout the meltwater channels and on the moraine it forms 25 per cent of the woodland in the watershed.”
    “Type 24. White Cedar: Cedar is the most abundant cover type on the watershed, comprising 26 per cent of the woodland area. It occurs on wet to swampy sites in the valleys and low areas and also to some extent on dry sites on the slopes of the moraine…. A total of 9,034 acres or 25.9 per cent was mapped. Although most of this type was mapped as pure white cedar, tamarack, yellow birch, paper birch, black ash, red maple, white elm, white pine and hemlock appear as associates.”
    “Type 57. Beech – Sugar Maple. This is regarded as the typical association of the climax with red maple, red oak, hemlock, white elm, basswood, shagbark hickory and black cherry. This type was undoubtedly the most extensive of any in the Speed Watershed but, because it occupies the more fertile land, its area has been further depleted… Originally most of the upland areas of the Speed Watershed were covered with beech-sugar maple. Much of it has been cleared for agriculture until now it comprises only 5.8 per cent of the remaining woodland.”

    This document also boasts a map which shows the entire Speed Watershed area. I’ve pinpointed my particular area of interest on it and there may be some mistake as it labels the forest cover there (immediately adjacent to the Speed River where Marden Creek runs into it) as being White Elm. It is possible that Elm existed there at one time and was, since, eradicated by Dutch Elm disease as it can grow in swampy areas but its preferred habitat in my experience is on drier land. But the best evidence of the mistake is that there are certainly many large cedars there now that must have been there in 1953.

    So I’m getting a better picture of what was likely the forest cover. To summarize: Sugar Maple, Beech, Basswood and Elm with associates (including Hemlock) on dry uplands and Cedar and Black Ash in the wetter areas. But I still have more material to go through.

    To be continued

    Historic Trees in the Guelph area – Part 1

    A common wish for many amateur and professional historians is to take that special trip back in time to see what was with their own eyes. But when they alight back in reality they have to do what everyone else does: find source material. That means slogging through records and books and microfilm/fiche and, if you’re not going back too far, interviewing those who were there. But everybody has a different version of the facts and that can make it difficult to pin anything down.

    I’m researching the types of trees that grew in the Guelph area before colonization by Europeans. The City of Guelph dates back to April 23rd, 1827 when John Galt, Tiger Dunlop, Charles Pryor and several woodsmen chopped down the famous sugar maple in the rain. The site was beside the Speed River just upriver from where the tributary Eramosa River joins it. Of course, being the confluence of two rivers that flow year round, the future location of Guelph would likely have hosted many before the maple was cut down. Among surveyors, explorers, missionaries and millennia of native peoples, there had to have been a great deal of impact by humankind on the forestkind of Guelph. But forests, through most of human history, have been tough to completely eradicate. Then, in the last 200 years, we invented technologies and have really tried our leveling best. And that did the trick and to a nearly self-destructive degree. So here I am, on the midst of the end of that insanity wondering what it was that we lost.

    Guelph is in the Deciduous Forest Region but within that it is close to the border (probably a little north of it) of the two northernmost associations: the Maple-Beech and the Hemlock-White Pine-Northern Hardwoods. The latter zone is considered by many to be a transition between the conifers of the Boreal Region to the north and the Deciduous Region.

    Maple-Beech Association


    • Sugar Maple – Acer saccharum
    • American Beech – Fagus grandifolia
    • Other species (varied in numbers depending on location)

    • American Basswood – Tilia americana
    • Ashes – Fraxinus spp.
    • Red Maple – Acer rubrum
    • Elms – Ulmus spp. (prior to the disease, of course)
    • Oaks – Quercus spp.
    • Hickories – Carya spp.

    Hemlock-White Pine-Northern Hardwoods Association

      Deciduous Stand Dominants

    • Sugar Maple – Acer saccharum
    • American Beech – Fagus grandifolia
    • American Basswood – Tilia americana
    • Paper Birch – Betula papyrifera
    • Yellow Birch – Betula lutea
    • Trembling Aspen – Populus tremuloides
    • Coniferous Stand Dominants on Dry Sites

    • White Pine – Pinus strobus
    • Red Pine – Pinus resinosa
    • Jack Pine – Pinus banksiana
    • Red Spruce Picea rubens
    • Mixed Stand Dominants

    • The Deciduous Stand Dominants above plus
    • White Pine – Pinus strobus
    • Eastern Hemlock – Tsuga canadensis
    • Other species (varied in numbers depending on location)

    • White Spruce – Picea glauca
    • Black Spruce – Picea mariana
    • Tamarack – Larix laricina
    • Eastern White Cedar – Thuja occidentalis

    My sources:

    1. Vankat, J. L. 1979. The Natural Vegetation of North America. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 261 pp.
    2. BioImages Website
    3. Wikipedia:

    4. Biomes
    5. Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests

    Continued in Part Two

    Old Growth Forest in Ontario

    I’ve been gathering these factoids as part an old growth restoration project in Guelph.

    Ontario’s Old Growth Forests to be published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside in early 2009. Authors are Michael Henry and Peter Quinby.

    Here’s a site for the Oldest trees in Ontario.

    Quote from The Last Stand by Peter E. Kelly & Douglas W. Larson (2007: Natural Heritage Books, call # 585.4 Kel at Guelph Public Library):

    By 1978, only 0.07% of southern Ontario’s land base supported forest stands with trees older than 120 years.

    A very interesting book to read with incredible pictures and sketches. Most amazing factoid to me: The oldest cedar found in their survey of the Niagara Escarpment (called “The Ancient One”) is at Lion’s Head and is now 1,321 years old.

    If any has any more good links please comment below.

    The Old Growth Forest Project

    The Old Growth Forest Project is a new and unique (as far as I know) initiative involving the Ignatius Jesuit Centre (here in Guelph), the Guelph International Resource Centre and the Ontario Farmland Trust.

    I learned about this project from a friend and attended their launch party. There was quite a big turnout with people lining up into the street. I think far more attended than were expected.

    The basic idea is that 40 hectares of land (around 100 acres), currently owned by the Jesuits, will be protected from development in perpetuity through a conservation easement. I bought a square metre for $20, which is matched by the Jesuits, so somewhere between Highway 6 and close to where the Marden Creek meets the Speed River there’s 2 square metres of land that will be left alone in forever in my daughter’s name. I feel I can certainly be proud of that. So out of 40 hectares that leaves 199,998 square metres to go although I know they sold quite a few when I was there.

    Fr. Jim Profit of the Society of Jesus, Bill Barrett from GIRC (a friend from junior and high school), Melissa Watkins of the Ontario Farmland Trust and Jennifer Duggan (the administrator) spoke. I was impressed by their passion for this cause. As they say… many of the most ambitious projects of mankind take many generations as will this.  In 500 years we’ll have something special and I certainly want to be there to see it.  However I may be detained along the way.  I volunteered to help so you may hear more from me on this topic in the future.
    I think this is a great idea and I hope it spreads to other communities!

    They can be reached at:


    519-824-1250 x224


    Box 1238
    Guelph, ON N1H 6N6

    Of course there are locations in Ontario and in other parts of Canada and the world where old growth forest still exists.  When I did my M.Sc. in plant ecology out east one of my research sites was in a reputed ‘old growth forest’ near Mabou on Cape Breton Island.  But it can be difficult to prove such claims.  A forest remnant could be old growth and have young trees.  The expected period between hurricane and fire devastation in Nova Scotia is somewhere in the 300 year range.  And old growth may not be a forest after all.

    Here are some interesting links:

    • Excellent site for seeing the biggest trees in Ontario
    • Good site for Ancient Forest Research