Visit of Sir George Head to the Madawaska Settlement
January 1815


Sir George Head was an Assistant Commissary General in the British Army. Following service in the Peninsular War, he was sent to Canada in the fall of 1814 to assist in the establishment of a post at Penetanguishene in Upper Canada, now Ontario.

He arrived in Halifax at the end of November 1814 and, because the St. Lawrence River was closed to shipping due to ice, he had to travel overland to Canada via the Grand Communications Route that ran up the St. John and Madawaska Rivers and then over the portage to Rivière du Loup. He returned to England in the summer of 1815.

His journal -- Sir George Head. Forest Scenes and Incidents, in the Wilds of North America; Being a diary of A Winter’s Route From Halifax to the Canadas, And During four Months’ Residence in the Woods on the borders of Lakes Huron and Simcoe. 1829, reprinted 1838, reprinted 1970 by Coles Publishing Company, Toronto -- relates the story of his time in British North America.

This excerpt tells of his passage through the Madawaska Settlement in early 1815. He arrived at Grand Falls in 12 January 1815 with his servant and two Canadian mail couriers who were both acting as his guides and pulling his two toboggans with his luggage. They spent the night at the home of Sergeant Charles Stewart of the 8th Regiment of Foot, who was in charge of the military post, Fort Carleton. Although he was suffering from mal d’raquette, Head and his party continued their journey the next day:

Thanks to Gary Campbell for providing this text

January 13th. – We left the serjeant’s house very early in the morning, which broke clear and cold. We walked a little more than two miles, and then came upon the river, along which we pursued our track. Not a particle of a cloud was to be seen, and that morning’s walk exhibited a loveliness of nature peculiar to the Canadian climate, and sufficient to dissipate every sensation of pain and weariness; a rare combination of frost and sunshine, such as, without being seen and felt, can hardly be imagined. The wind was hushed to perfect stillness, and, as we walked along, our hair, our seven days’ beards, and the edges of our caps, our eyebrows and even our eyelashes, were as white as a powdering of snow could make them. In the meantime, the warmth of the sun gave a sensation of peculiar purity to the air.

We continued all the way on the river, till we had completed fifteen miles from the serjeant’s house where we had slept, and had arrived at the Grande Rivière. We were now at the Madawaska settlement, composed altogether of French Canadians; a narrow strip of a village, where we sought the house of an aubergiste, Rouen Croix, where I was gratified and surprised to find I was to be treated to a bed. Being perfectly lame, I was delighted to hear, that I had done with the snow shoes, at least for a day or two, and that for twenty-one miles the snow was sufficiently beaten to bear a horse and sleigh, which were to be had in the village. I of course lost no time in engaging one; and, considering the state of extreme necessity I was under, it is worthy of remark, that I found no inclination in the owner to cheat me. I agreed to pay fifteen shillings for the twenty-one mile, - a sum by no means exorbitant in the state of the road. I was much refreshed by a good mess of soup, with the meat in it, besides other ingredients I did not stop to inquire about: with all (sundry pieces of packthread excepted) I was perfectly well satisfied, for I was well persuaded of the possibility of faring much worse.

January 14th. – When the driver made his appearance with the sleigh, I found it to be of a different construction from any I had hitherto seen, and better calculated to pass over deep snow. It was, indeed, nothing more than a wooden box, having the runners or sliders so low, that the vehicle was dragged along as much on its own bottom as upon them. The snow was so deep, that it was quite as much as the horse could do to get on, stumbling and floundering at every step, while the driver, with my servant, walked by the side of the sleigh, driving with long reins. The whole apparatus was so bad, that I would ten time rather have walker; but I had hopes of recovering from my lameness by rest, and would have submitted to any inconvenience for the sake of being able to start sound once more. Certainly I was in a helpless condition, and the roads within the limits of this small settlement were so partially broken, that the sleigh was overturned five or six times in the course of the morning, when I lay still and suffered myself to be righted together with the vehicle each time, as the shortest way, lame as I was, of helping myself. After all, it was a tedious slow drive, and I should have been overturned much oftener if the driver’s strength had not been frequently applied on one side of the sleigh to prevent it.

The twenty-one miles were at last accomplished, and we arrived at the house of an auberigste, where the only spare room was already full of people; so that we were obliged to apply elsewhere, and were finally received into the house of an inhabitant, David Dufour, where two travellers had already established themselves. The room was exceedingly small, but there was no other, and this was to contain these two persons, ourselves, and the host and his family. The latter consisted of a wife and six children, all of whom were dreadfully afflicted with the hoping cough. As I was provided with some good mutton broth, I had not much to complain of till night; but then the crying and coughing of the poor children was very bad indeed. The noise, however, did not deprive me of sleep; and I awoke in the morning refreshed and even eager to undertake the day’s journey.

January 15th. – A party of persons had collected for the purpose of proceeding with our guides towards Quebec; and so we all started together. It was with very great satisfaction, that I now saw my snow shoes tied fast on the outside of the baggage on the tobogin, having suffered so much by their weight; however, I very soon found, that the relief had come a little too late, for I was completely lame, and could not move a step without considerable pain. I contrived, notwithstanding, to keep up tolerably well with the party to the end of the day’s journey, which was twenty-four miles. About a mile from the house where I slept we took our leave of the St. John’s river, upon which we had travelled for so many miles, and, turning to our right, pursued our course along the Madawaska river, which empties itself here into the former.

The narrative continues of his journey to Rivière du Loup, via Long’s house at the start of the Temiscouata portage, and then on to Quebec and eventually to Penetanguishene.

Transcribed by Gary Campbell, March 2008, from Sir George Head. Forest Scenes and Incidents, in the Wilds of North America; Being a diary of A Winter’s Route From Halifax to the Canadas, And During four Months’ Residence in the Woods on the borders of Lakes Huron and Simcoe. 1829, reprinted 1838, reprinted 1970 by Coles Publishing Company, Toronto.

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Last revised 6 March 2008
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