Whisky-Loving Canadian Yankees

Formative American Influence in Ontario Including for Whisky

A groundbreaking Canadian author was Susannah Moodie, née Strickland. She was an English immigrant who published books in the early 1850s on her experiences homesteading as a farmer, and then as a town-dweller, in Canada West aka Upper Canada, later Ontario. Her sister Catherine Parr Traill also published books on living in the Canadian bush for wide-eyed English readers. The two are considered key figures in the early history of Canadian writing.

Moodie arrived in the early 1830s and her books cover her experiences starting from then.

She is remembered for her mordant, rather critical perspective on her adopted country. Perhaps it fed an English proclivity at the time to view the colonies as inferior and dependant, as numerous travel and guide books of the period paint the New World in similar droll terms.

A profile of Moodie in the Canadian Encyclopedia explains that she saw as her purpose to guide prospective English emigrants, so they would have an accurate idea of what lay in store for them.

Be that as it may, it is not always easy to read Moodie, the asperity gets to you after a while. She was a bluenose, and seems to have represented a particular type of the educated-but-stuffy English middle class. Still, I cut her some slack as the books make clear her early experiences here were hard-going. The family had little money and no experience farming before they came to Canada. Unfortunately the area they settled, off a lake north of Peterborough (following a year on a farm near Cobourg), is hardly fecund. The site today is a piece of scrub much like when she first saw it.

After the farming debacle, the family moved to the town of Belleville, called the “clearings” in her writings. There her husband John Dunbar worked as a sheriff and she continued to write and publish.

A facet of her writing noticed in particular by Ontario social historians is her comments on her neighbours, who were mostly of Yankee origin, in other words the American incomers known as United Empire Loyalists. This group had left America after 1776 due to their sympathies with the Crown. They settled in a band of townships around the Bay of Quinte easterly on Lake Ontario, and along the St. Lawrence River further to the east. They also settled in other parts of Ontario and Canada.

In her first Canadian book, Roughing It, Moodie is hard on this element, treating them as canny rustics with few manners or scruples. These Americans or their progeny were sometimes called Canadian Yankees.

One part of their identity was the love for whiskey, vividly described by Moodie in an incident which occurred shortly after arrival to the new home. A teenager loaned them an empty decanter to help them set up home, which puzzled Moodie but she treated it as a local custom. When the teen returned to fetch the vessel, she tried to finagle whisky from the family, clearly at the instance of her father whom Moodie called Old Satan (the family name was Seaton).

Three types of spirits are mentioned in the account: whiskey, rum, and spirits. While it is hard to parse their place in the local league table, whisky by my reckoning came first, then rum, then spirits. So what was the spirits? Perhaps distilling writer Samuel M’Harry’s (1809) “neutralized” whiskey, run through the charcoal and leaving little taste according to him. The importunate girl implied you don’t serve rum to workmen, so perhaps in her view spirits was the cheapest thing to serve them. It’s not clear though because presumably spirits cost more than whisky due to the further processing to render them neutral and higher proof.

Another read of the alcohol hierarchy: rum first as it is imported and therefore the most costly, then whiskey, then plain spirits.

In any case, when the origins of the whiskey culture in Ontario are considered, here you see direct evidence of the Canadian Yankees’ love for whiskey. And they were a substantial element in the social matrix of settled Ontario for a long time. I have discussed that rye and corn were key components of the whisky made here from early days, just as they were over the border. Indeed Moodie makes the point in her writings that “Canadian whisky” was “different” from the whisky she knew at home.

This American transplant group must have stimulated a good part of the market for Canadian whisky, maybe even its make-up. Loyalist-settled Port Hope on Lake Ontario alone had eight distilleries at its peak in this industry before 1850 and its whisky had renown.

British immigration, much of it from Ulster – the Scots-Irish to the Americans – finally reduced the influence and identity of the Ontario Yankees. The Crown was always worried that the supposedly loyal citizens of American origin would turn on them. In the 1812 War some did in the sense of deserting to join American forces over the frontier. When the war ended they came back, not always to open arms.

Today, Canadians can exhibit mild anti-Americanism, almost as part of their identity. Ontarians seem especially prone. You see it in a lot of our humour, on CBC, and in many other ways. I always find it strange given that the U.S. quite literally played a large role in forming Ontario society.

We share so much after all, both countries were outgrowths, excepting the indigenous, French, and some other strains, of Mother Britain. In language, culture and institutions the influence of Britain has been hugely influential everywhere in North America.

At bottom, Canadians really do like Americans, for the things that count certainly. I think each side knows that when it comes to brass tacks.

And so, while it is not the whole story, the American role in forming our whisky ethos is significant. And of course some key founders of the industry were literal Americans, notably Hiram Walker and John P. Wiser. (Wiser succeeded to a Canadian, Payne who founded the first distillery on the site in Prescott – of his origins we are unaware). Incidentally another locus of Loyalist settlement was along the Detroit River…

Back to Susannah Moodie: once in Belleville she continued to worry over whisky, regarding it as mortal threat and she outlined her ideas to extirpate it from society. She supported, not prohibition, but education, and in this sense was remarkably prescient. She said children in schools should be warned against its abuse. She also thought severe addiction was akin to mental illness, in this sense forecasting the abandonment of a moral prism through which to view the problem. About our forthcoming legalization of marijuana, she would probably be horrified, but that’s another matter.

To get the full flavour her early encounters with Canadian Yankees, read the full account starting from page 60.

Note re image: the image above is from Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It linked in the text, courtesy the digital library HathiTrust. All intellectual property in or to image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image appears for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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