1816 – The Year with no Summer

At a recent meeting of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario’s board, Laureen Harder-Gissing, the archivist at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, reminded us that 2016 was the 200th anniversary of the “Year with no Summer.” It was a good reminder.

Mount Tambora

Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption. Photo by Jialiang Gao (peace-on-earth.org) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia tells us that the unusual weather patterns in 1816 resulted from “severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.” The article goes on to say that “evidence suggests that the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.”

The Mennonite settlement in what became the Region of Waterloo was still very small.  “Block 2,” which had been purchased by Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania, Mennonites from land developer Richard Beasley, became identified as Waterloo Township in 1816, in honor of the British victory over Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815. By some estimates there were less than 60 people living in the township at the time.

Ezra E. Eby

Ezra E. Eby (1850-1901). Source: Waterloo Region Generations

On the bottom of page 45 of Ezra Eby’s Biographical History of Waterloo Township there begins a detailed account of the township in 1816:

The summer of 1816 was what is called the “Cold Summer.” There was frost every month and in June and July there were seven heavy frosts. On the 1st of June it was frozen so hard that men and wagons could cross the mud-puddles on the newly formed ice without breaking through. On the 21st of June quite a lot of snow fell. All kinds of provisions were exceedingly scarce. Wheat was from two to three dollars per bushel. The only hay that the farmers could secure was made from the wild coarse grass which they cut on the banks of the river, in marshes or beaver meadows. Food for both man and beast was at starvation prices. The hardships these early settlers had to endure during this cold and inclement year, are almost indescribable.

In this year Joseph Bowman and family of twelve children, Dilman Ziegler and family, Samuel Eby and family, Joseph Clemmer and wife, who settled to the west of J.Y. Shantz’s sawmill dam, John Brubacher and his mother, and Henry Weber came from Pennsylvania to Canada. The Bowmans had 2 four-horse teams and 1 two-horse team. The Zieglers had 1 four-horse team. Joseph Shantz and his mother, old Barbara Shantz, returned to Canada with this company. They were to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on a visit. In all there were thirty-three individuals in the company, and the number of horses brought with them was twenty-eight.

1816 was also the year that Abraham Erb, founder of the city of Waterloo, built a grist mill to accompany his saw mill.

The corduroy  road that has been discovered under King Street in Waterloo during the construction of the Light Rail Transit system in Kitchener-Waterloo, likely was built prior to this time. But it reminds us we’re not that far removed from the settlers who transformed this land purchased from the Crown supposedly on behalf of the Six Nations.

To learn more about early life in Waterloo Region, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Mennonite and First Nations Relations at the Grand River

The First Nations people Mennonites encountered in the early 19th century in the Grand River Valley were primarily the Ojibwa, for whom the area was traditional territory. The stories of positive relationships between the Ojibwa and Mennonites have traditionally been told only from the Mennonite side, with little notice taken or questions asked about why the aboriginal people disappeared from the community in the later 19th century.

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway People

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway Indiana

The story of Jacob Bechtel being led in 1799 to the Grand River by an Ojibwa scout is doubtless correct. Samuel S. Moyer wrote that his mother, Barbara Shantz Moyer, as a child “would run out in the bush and play with Indian children, and how the Indians would be all around them and bring venison (deer meat) for a loaf of bread, etc. When the nights got cold many of the Indians would come in and lie on the floor with their feet toward the fireplace and sleep until morning. . .” Lorna L. Bergey reported that her grandparents, Norman and Susannah Cassel Shantz, lived on a farm in Wilmot that was annually visited as late as 1900 by aboriginals wanting to harvest ginseng. After the birth of Norman and Susannah’s eldest daughter several abor­iginal women gave the family a handwoven doll cradle made from black ash wood. Elizabeth Betzner Sherk recalled the fall council meetings of Mohawk braves across the Grand River from her home early in the nineteenth century. Generally, the Ojibwa seemed to trust the Mennonites to be honest dealers, as indicated in a story told by Peter Jones, an Ojibwa chief who had converted to Christianity and become a Methodist minister. In his History of the Ojebway Indians Jones told of a chief who accepted a lesser price for a piece of land from a Mennonite who had never cheated the aboriginals, as opposed to a “Yankee stranger.”

Ezra Eby, in his Biographical History of Waterloo Township, described in positive terms how “Indian Sam” Eby, an 1804 immigrant from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania “spent much of his time among the Indians and taught them many good things, in fact he was their law-giver, minister, interpreter and peacemaker.” The memory of aboriginal writers was much less positive. Eby had established a still soon after he arrived, and traded alcohol to the aboriginals in exchange for furs. Thomas McGee wrote in 1829: “I used to live here de Waterloo—All time get drunk—I go some times on dis road in the night, some times midnight—go up de river to Still house, after de whiskey. You know up to Sam Aby’s Still-house. Me was very poor, me hungry, me naked….”

Alcohol addiction among the aboriginal population became a significant concern after white settlers, including Mennonites, introduced alcoholic beverages to them. By January 1808, twenty-seven petitioners, probably mostly Mennonite, asked the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada to prevent the trading of alcoholic beverages with aboriginals, both because their drunkenness left the children hungry, and because it gener­ated behavior that frightened the white settlers. They recalled an October 1804 incident in which Abraham Stauffer was shot by an Ojibwa man they believed was drunk. John Erb, Abraham Weber, and Stauffer had been investigating a mill site below Block 2 when the man ordered them away from the site, and in the confusion shot Stauffer in the arm.

In the early years of the Mennonite settlement at the Grand River,  E. Reginald Good, who has written extensively on this issue, says the Mennonites and aboriginals appeared to mutually benefit from their contact. In the long term, however, their economic interests conflicted, and the Mennonites and other European settlers contributed to the colonization of the Ojibwa people. Increasing Mennonite economic development deprived the aboriginals of access to their traditional lands and the resources required for an independent existence. “Finally, Mennonites participated in forcing the Mississaugas out of their community and out of their history.”

To learn more about Mennonite relations with First Nations read In Search of Promised Lands.

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