The Manitoulin Experiment – by Sue Priddle, Senior Contributor to The M@Gazette

Eons ago, when I was in Public School, teachers always began with, “Good morning boys and girls, and then proceeded to give their lesson. That thought makes me all warm and fuzzy with the memory of it… yes, we are still talking history here… This is my unofficial ode to teachers… .

Good day boys and girls… can anyone tell me what a bateau is? Well, bateau (the French word for boat) is a large open boat, tapered at both ends and used in the early travel of Canadian settlers. This was before the use of schooners or even sailboats, and these vessels were favoured for travel along shorelines and navigation through the maze of channels.

The European settlers, who came to Manitoulin Island to implement the Plan, travelled by bateau. Captain T. George Anderson, the Indian Superintendent at Coldwater, his wife, family, servant, friends and family pets, along with the doctor, teacher, minister, their families, servants and tradespeople embarked on their journey on the 8th of October 1838.

Imagining this trip, I can’t help wondering at the arrogance of these pious fools, who boarded their boat and made the trip to begin the Manitoulin Saga. After all, this was 160 years ago– they had little idea of what or who they might encounter. They were ill suited for the hardships that a trip such as this would entail… and they were starting out in the fall of the year, in an open boat!

The trip from Coldwater to Manitoulin was a distance of 200 miles. The bateau was laden with their belongings, supplies, beds and bedding… 34 people, many of the women and children, made the travel slow, as they could only travel a few hours a day and would stop and find suitable places to spend the night. It was cold, make no mistake of that… Captain Anderson’s daughter wrote in her journal that the spray from the waves would freeze on their clothing and that they sometimes had to chop the ice from around the bateau, before they could get underway in the mornings.

This was not a pleasure cruise! These were certainly not practical, working class people, at least the majority weren’t. They were families, good Christian families, with a faith that bordered on total madness. What other explanation can we have for thier taking their children off to some Godforsaken place (Manitoulin in this case) with very little thought for their lives?

Today, travel to Manitoulin Island by ferry takes very little time, and although the route from Tobermory to South Baymouth* is not the original one taken by the settlers, it is a rather pleasant afternoon jaunt… But anyone who has ever taken this trip can attest to the unpredictable and stormy fall conditions, which can turn this crossing into a horrendous and frightening trip!

These folks and their little Manitoulin Mayflower took three weeks to make their journey… and upon arriving, spied a roaring blaze burning down one of the three rude cabins built for them… Talk about perfect timing! The workers (tradesmen brought along to do real work and instruct the natives in practical trades like carpentry, barrel making, and blacksmithing) were housed in what was to be the school house, while the four main families were housed in the one log cabin which was left.

After their long journey, the roaring fire in the hearth was a welcome change. However, all was not well in Paradise! Four families, sharing one log house… and one that was rather rudely built. Chinked with mud, the frost built up on inside walls and they were often awakened by the cracking of the walls. The morning after they arrived, the eight month old son of the teacher died from a severe cold, brought on by exposure. The schooner with their winter supplies was forced to return to Coldwater, because of ice. So they were on very tight rations, and another child died six weeks into their stay.

The Natives taught them to fish through the ice, shared their store of potatoes and of course their wonderful maple syrup and sugar, brought them partridge, ducks, rabbits and sometimes venison… In return the White folks preached the word of God to them, baptized them and changed their names to biblical ones. The first natives to be baptized were also married by the minister, and named Adam and Eve. One of their sons was baptized and named Abel. If only these people had practiced what they were so intent on preaching, a wonderful knowledge of each culture could have been blended and appreciated, rather than this total dismissal of native ways and insistence on the conversion and whitewashing of their ways. These people were steadfast in their belief in what they were doing, and completely focused on the saving of the poor heathen savages.

The Establishment was not a success for a number of reasons. The Roman Catholic influence at Wikwiikong had made significant inroads with the Natives there, and they were not about to let the Protestants influence their charges in any way. The expected influx of natives rushing to make Manitoulin their home didn’t happen– they tended to favour the areas that were more developed, which gave them access to the trading market.

The natives were, for the most part, nomadic– moving, hunting, and fishing as they wanted. To suddenly live in one spot and have a small piece of land for farming was as alien to them as their ways were to the white people. I am sure that if the situations were were exchanged these fine Christians would not have survived, let alone adapted as well as the Native population did.


* Original route to Manitoulin followed the shoreline from Coldwater. The Ferry today crosses from Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula across open water to South Baymouth on Manitoulin.

– Sue Priddle

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