We talk a lot about the men’s Life in the Talbot Settlement, as it is their story that is often written down, and their legal right to do interesting and world-shaking things. But this settlement was not run by men alone; today we’re going to talk about the myths, the legends: the ladies of the Talbot Settlements.
The mid-1800s were an interesting time for the women immigrating to the new world. A large portion of our records come from upper class women who had been taught “luxury subjects,” such as reading, etiquette, and piano. That means that many of them were unprepared for the trials of settler life; many had never had to cook or clean for themselves, much less cook on an open fire with one pot. Those who failed to adapt died soon into their settlement, and others were able to survive miserably. It was only a few women who reveled in the challenge, finding the ordeal interesting and worthwhile. They were the ones who successfully made a log cabin feel like home.
The societally determined priorities for young women in the Talbot Settlement were largely the same as they had been; marriage, childbearing, and maintaining a household. A lot of female settlers were recently married or sent to marry men they had never met. For the girls who grew up here, there was time to take for casual courting before serious courtship. And yes, those two words meant very different things. In either case, common “dates” included the boys walking a girl they fancied home from church or attending dances and parties. For serious courtship, a young man would visit the woman’s family and attempt to win their favor, and the woman would work on her wardrobe and linens. Although it was still custom to ask the father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, the woman had more of a say in who she married. If she turned a man down twice, it was taken as a serious refusal, and the matter dropped.
This was very important, because for a woman, choosing to marry meant surrendering all worldly property and earnings to her husband, and swearing an oath of obedience that would never be equaled by her partner. Besides the socially expected cooking, cleaning, gardening, mending, and child-rearing, a woman had to do any extra work her husband asked for. That was why they took the time they could to choose a man who could be trusted to hold up his part of the marriage.
Childbearing and maintaining the house were things a girl was expected to pick up throughout her life by shadowing her mother and older sisters/relatives. Almanacs and other such books were also full of housekeeping advice. Things like cooking, cleaning, and even medicine were recommended by recipes and neighbors without much professional guidance and under the philosophy, “eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or go without.” These practices hadn’t been updated much since the 16th century, and they did not account for the many new germs and strange foods they faced, making sickness very common. Doctors had yet to become reliable, so what medicine you got had to be homemade or purchased from travelling salesmen, who were often only scammers. Few of these concoctions worked, leading disease to be the number one killer of the age.
While those were the primary purposes the Talbot Settlement women filled, it was not the only ones. Because pre-made clothing and materials were ridiculously expensive, women were relied upon to make a large amount of it themselves. This involved knowing how to work a spinning wheel and loom, knowing how to sew, stitch, knit, crochet, make their own gloves, and add any fashionable details they wished for, like embroidery or lace. Quilting became a largely communal skill, as groups would gather for a quilting bee around weddings and sometimes coming-of-age events.
To the Irish settlers, women played an important role in “keening for the dead,” at funerals. Originally a job for close family, it eventually became a skill, and old women well-versed in keening would be sought out to sit by the casket and wail a song for the deceased.
Women were able to use these talents when needed to earn money, and as you’ll see in the next section, they could sometimes even own their own property.
Now that you know a bit about the general life of settler ladies, we’ll get into individual stories. Starting, funnily enough, with one of the earliest Talbot Settlement legends, Mary Storey. The recently widowed mother, she was possibly the only woman to make decisions about a land grant from Colonel Thomas Talbot she co-owned with her son Walter Storey. She originally left Ireland for the United States but came north like many others when the American’s Loyalist hatred grew violent. They settled temporarily in several states, and a few of her relatives even found homes there, but Mary continued to move north. It is possible that by selling her starter homesteads she made some money, and that that is what encouraged Colonel Talbot to give her a chance. She received a plot of land on what would be Lakeview Line in 1809 at 51 years old. Andrew Backus was her oldest male heir, so she left part of her property to him and his wife, Mary Jane. Another 10 acres was donated to the establishment of a proper church. That church, St Peter’s Anglican Church, is one of the oldest churches still in use today.
One of the other early settlers, arriving around the same time as Mary Storey, was Isabella Crane. The wife of George Crane, who was a great assistant to Colonel Talbot, Isabella had some lofty, perhaps slightly Marxist ideas about what the colony should be, and that what belonged to one person ought to belong to the whole settlement. She was also known for having a short, Scottish temper and standing firm in her beliefs, as she demonstrated to Colonel Talbot himself when she threatened him with a carving knife over whether she could borrow one of his horses or not.
Another household name is Jane Hopkins Moorehouse, known in the museum for bringing the Moorehouse doll over in 1824, known in the area as being everyone’s grandmother. She emigrated when she was 41 years old, with her husband Thomas (52), and eleven children; John, William, Joseph, Anne, Jane, Henry, Eliza, Thomas, Sarah, Maria, and Susannah. Their ages ranged from 20 years to only 5 months old. They settled at Plum Point for a brief period but moved to what became Euphemia in Lambton County after the death of their three-year-old daughter, Maria, drowning in the river when she tried to fetch a pail of water. That is where Thomas and Jane lived until their deaths, in 1844 and 1869 respectively. Her family continued to grow after her passing, and by the year 1900 she was recorded to have 188 grandchildren. A lot of the larger families in the area (Pearce, Backus, Dobbyn, and Francher) as well as anyone born into the Moorehouse name is likely her descendant.
We are all aware that pioneer women often had lots of babies, and Jane’s eleven children is not an uncommon amount, but we rarely acknowledge exactly how much time, energy, and physical strain that that would take. In the 21-year period when all her children were born and weaned, Jane would have barely four years total where she wasn’t carrying or nursing a child, only four years where all her body had to sustain was herself. And that’s assuming she had no miscarriages in between. Truly, to be a mother in the 1800s took its own kind of strength.
The Moorehouse Doll, which she brought over, was made in 1799, and became a precious family heirloom, passed from mother to eldest surviving daughter as a coming-of-age gift. She still wears her original clothing (a black Sunday dress), kid leather gloves, and has human hair stuck under her bonnet with gum. She is displayed in the northwest bedroom of the Backus-Page House Museum; come for a tour and see her for yourself!
Strong-willed women were found deeper into the Talbot Settlement as well, such as Sarah Burwell and Mrs. John Mitchell of Burwell’s Corners. When their homes were attacked during the war of 1812, Sarah managed to flee the house with her two boys and elderly in-laws. She then hid her in-laws in the woods and walked with her two young sons to Iona, where she received sanctuary for her boys and assistance to rescue her in-laws. Mrs. Mitchell was in her house when the raid began and fled upstairs to fetch her baby girl. When the Americans stormed the house, she jumped out of a second story window. A local group of indigenous found her and assisted in her escape.
Also during the war of 1812, Kettle Creek town (now St. Thomas) saw American raiders camped on the farm of Daniel Rapelje’s family. The family decided that the best way to deal with it was to continue as if they were not there. The second eldest daughter, Aletta Rapelje, marched outside for water from the well, paying the men no mind until one of the tried to grab her. At that she kicked, punched, and beat him away with her water bucket, until he went rolling down the hill. Then she finished getting water and marched back to the house, where she screamed at the men and their general, calling them names a “good Christian girl” would have fainted at, demanding that they get off the property. Her family had to physically restrain her, lest she singlehandedly attempt to murder them all.
Amongst the Aldborough settlers in 1845 were Mr. Mrs. Summersville, living in a temporary shelter with their children while they were building a proper home. One night, Mr. Summersville had gone to town to gather supplies, and his wife heard wolves approaching the shelter. To protect her children, she built a fire in front of the doorway and threw brands at any approaching wolves. They fled back into the woods, and for one night, the family was safe.
But of course, not every woman gave their life to marriage, children, and family. The Talbot Settlement, like anywhere else, had its share of spinsters, content in other pursuits. One story is recorded of Mrs. Garner of Calton, who made a living for herself by selling rugs and carpets. She also collected wild herbs, including skunk-cabbage, for treating sickness. While this did disturb many of her neighbors, our local settlers were more likely to increase their prayer and gossip than cry, “witch!” Sarah Moorehouse, one of Jane’s youngest, spent her life unwed, caring for her older siblings’ children, and caring for her elderly parents. Though she stayed closer to home than Mrs. Garner, living with her family all her life, she was still a strong independent woman.
While plenty of women on their own made a mark single-handedly, it would be impossible to tell the story of the women of Southern Ontario without also discussing the Ontario Women’s Institutes. Established in the early 1900s, Women’s Institutes made a space for women to learn from each other, to learn the things they were expected to know in an academic way, not just whatever bits your mother remembered to teach you. It was also an important space to socialize amongst each other and a platform to interact and make changes in their communities. Many Women’s Institutes, including our local branch, are still in operation to this day.
None of this would have happened without the work of Adelaide Hunter Hoodless. After the very personal loss of her fourteen-month-old son in 1889, Adelaide was shaken by how little she was able to do for her baby. She decided she needed to make domestic science available to rural women, so that other families could prevent such tragedies themselves. She had speeches in every community that would hear her, and eventually a man named Erland Lee heard her. He asked her to speak at the Stoney Creek Farmer’s Institute meeting, where she got the idea that women could benefit from something similar. Adelaide, Erland, and his wife Janet, began to grow the idea, and one week later the first Women’s Institute Meeting was held. 101 women were in attendance, and Erland was the only male.
Proud of what had been started and confident that the rural women could make it continue, Adelaide went back to her talks, encouraging that skills for girls be taught in school, and soon Domestic Science and Sewing were being taught. She even wrote a textbook for the program, called the Public School’s Domestic Science, or “the little red book”.
In the 1920s, once the WIs were getting strong, the concern of recording public history came up. Lady Tweedsmuir was one individual who very adamantly insisted that the Women’s Institutes should have a say in what history is recorded. Thus, the Tweedsmuir History Books became a popular WI project. Those who could got printed and bound books, others had what was basically a communal scrapbook. They all took the time to record events of the town, fundraising escapades, and (of course) individual and institutional histories for their local organization. The Tweedsmuir histories in our collection are often sought out by staff for research for our collections, personal curiosity, and episodes of our podcast like this one!
As with many aspects of history, there are still many gaps in our knowledge. Alongside gender barriers, class, race, and sexuality are subjects often glossed over in written records or hidden for safety. Rural communities (like ours) also have very different histories, because the priorities and were very different. This podcast can only tell a fraction of the stories of the women who settled here. That being said, we hope it fills a fraction of your understanding of those who came before us, and that it will encourage you to learn more.