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Clyde River History Committee member Joanne Turner has found another gem about the early history of the James McCabe family that settled in what would become Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1767, 251 years ago. The writer of this family history, Layton McCabe (1854-1944), married Annie Tyler Fraser (1871-1953) of Clyde River and his brother Spurgeon McCabe married her sister Harriett Crawford Fraser. Annie and Harriet were sisters of Edith Rebecca Fraser who married Charles D. MacLean. An earlier story on the MacLeans of Meadowbank is featured here. The history of the Fraser family on the Linwood Road was featured in, “The Old Homestead on the Linwood Road”.

Although the following writing is about the Fraser in-laws’ heritage, we do share ancestral connections to Pictou County, and the early stories of settlement would present similar challenges no matter which side of the strait one landed. So let’s take a little visit over to Pictou and back two centuries.

Hardships of Pioneering in 1767 – written by Layton McCabe

From different sources, but chiefly from Reverend George Patterson’s history of the settlement by pioneers of Pictou County, N.S., I have gathered the following facts in regard to the coming of our great, great-grandfather, James McCabe, a man who had been educated in Ireland for a Roman Catholic priest, but instead, had become acquainted with and married a Protestant girl of a good family of some means, and had emigrated from Ireland to a British colony in Pennsylvania, North America, some time previous to 1767. (He notes that it may have been only a short time previous, or it may have been fifteen or twenty years.)

At this time there was a small town at Halifax, a village at Truro, and settlers had taken up land on the St. John River, and had occupied the borders rich in marshlands of the Bay of Fundy. But, as yet, there were no European settlers on the north shore of Nova Scotia from the Strait of Canso to Bay Verte, and possibly as far as the Miramichi River.

Large grants of land were held by companies farther south in which is now the United States of America, who were continually sending out families to occupy their lands in Nova Scotia. Such a land company in Philadelphia, who owned a large tract of land in Pictou County gave a power of attorney to John Wykoff of Philadelphia (merchant), and Dr. John Harris of Baltimore empowering them to sell, in the name of the company, their lands on such terms as they should see fit. They also dispatched a small brig called “The Hope”, Capt. Hull of Rhode Island, with six families of settlers, with supplies of provisions for their use. One of these families was that of James McCabe, his wife and six children, one servant and two slaves.

The Hope sailed from Philadelphia toward the end of May, 1767, called at Halifax to get information regarding the coast round to Pictou. They reached Pictou on June 10th.

The people of Truro had heard of their coming, and five or six young men set out through the woods to meet them to aid in building camps and commencing operations. Two of these young men were Thomas Troop and Ephriam Howard. These young men in passing two of the mountains on the western border of the country named one Mt. Thom and the other Mt. Ephraim (names by which they are still known).

Reaching the harbour on the same afternoon in which the vessel arrived, they made large fires on the shore to attract attention of those onboard, who seeing them, supposed them to be made by natives of whom they stood in terror. The vessel accordingly stood off, and on, until next morning, when they saw by the aid of spy glasses that they were men who cheerfully hailed them. During the night, a baby boy was born, who lived to grow up, and who died in 1809, and was buried in Pictou graveyard, where his monument may still be seen, describing him as “the first settler English-born in Pictou County”.

At the time of the arrival of these first settlers of Pictou, a great unbroken forest-covered the whole surface of the country down to the water’s edge, pine and hemlock and spruce on all the lower levels, and hardwood, birch, maple and beech farther up on the highlands.

The natives had been hostile to the new settlers up to this time claiming the land and constantly tried to prevent their settlement on the north shore of Nova Scotia. The small group of settlers spent the first night on shore under the trees, without even a camp, feeling lonely and discouraged at the prospect of toils and danger before them, and made up their minds when daylight arrived to go on board the little vessel and return to Philadelphia, but when morning came, there was no vessel to be seen. The captain and the land agent had slipped out of the harbour in the night and left them to their fate.

So with mattocks (an axe on one side and a hoe on the other) they commenced the erection of rude huts in which to live. A half-acre was assigned to each family, and they thus proceeded to lay out a town and Lot no. 1 being James McCabe’s, he immediately set to work to clear his half-acre, which he accomplished, his descendants boasting that he cut down the first tree felled by a new settler in Pictou County. He cleared his land by digging away the earth from the small trees and cutting the roots, hauling them out into the tide water to be carried away by the current.

He planted his lot of potatoes, using a mattock, placing the seed under the moss, which served as manure. The land seemed poor, and the tubers did not grow larger than potato balls. The settlers later got farm lots, McCabe having been shown better land up the West River about five miles, a place now called Loch Broom.

Owing to having been educated as a priest, McCabe gained an influence over the natives, who led him to take up land where they claimed was more fertile, which proved to be true. But he, being Roman Catholic, could not hold a title to any land, as the company’s grant bound them to settle their lands with Protestants, and for this reason the deed of his land was made in his wife’s name; her maiden name had been Anne Petigrew. The six families with their six lots was the beginning of the town of Pictou.

In the following Spring, 1768, the settlers having no seed potatoes had to go to Truro, on foot, by a blazed trail, a distance of fifty miles or more, requiring three days to go, and three to return, each man bearing a bag of seed potatoes on his back. This seed produced a quantity of good potatoes, but these were consumed almost before the winter set in, leaving the families only way of procuring food by hunting and fishing. Moose and bear and rabbits were plentiful, the meat of which was used for food, while the skins were used for clothing and footwear.

They also added to their larder by fishing in the streams and lakes for salmon and trout, which were plentiful, but were often taken from them by the natives who claimed all the land and all the game. The natives would shoot to kill on the least provocation, but the native women would often go out of their way to warn the settlers not to come near their camps when there was danger.

In the Spring of 1769, the settlers had to once more make the long wearisome trip to Truro for seed potatoes, but this time they cut the eyes out, and thus succeeded in carrying back a larger supply which produced enough food during the following winter, with seed enough left for another year’s crop.

I visited the old homestead where James McCabe settled at Loch Broom; on my last visit to Nova Scotia, I found the sixth generation of the name now occupying the farm. It was very interesting to me to be shown over the place, to see the old relics, some of which had been brought from Ireland so long ago, and also to be shown the spot where the first Presbyterian Church was built in Pictou County, the land donated by an old pioneer, and where the people are now about to erect a monument.

The present dwelling house is a three-story French-roofed building, and the land produces good crops, especially hay.

These lines give us an idea of the hardships and dangers endured by our forefathers in carving out homes for future generations.

Layton McCabe, Alexandra, PEI

More resources:

  • The Hope People
  • History of Pictou
  • The Log Church at Loch Broom – The current Log Church at Loch Broom is a replica of the original built in 1787. Under the direction and initiative of Rev. Frederick Pauley a stone cairn was erected and unveiled on August 15, 1965 to mark the site of the church. The land for the cairn and the church was donated by Alvin McCabe – a direct descendant of James McCabe – the pioneer who donated the property for the original log church. July 29, 1973, as a result of the dedication and untiring efforts of numerous volunteers and Rev. Pauley, construction of the replica log church was completed. (sourcePhotos of the Loch Broom log church
  • Genealogy: James McCable married Ann Pettigrew, 2nd generation – John McCabe married Eleanor Moore; 3rd generation – James McCabe married Nancy Whidden; 4th generation – Edward McCabe married Sarah Higgins, 5th generation – Jacob Layton McCabe married Annie Tyler Fraser of Clyde River.
  • The writer of this article, Layton McCable, was born in Higginsville, NS, where his mother Sarah Higgins was born. He later lived in Alexandra, PEI.

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