Whiskey-Loving Canadian Yankees

An early Canadian writer, Susannah Moodie, immigrated from England in 1832 to homestead in Upper Canada, now Ontario. She published Roughing it in the Bush in 1852 in Britain to document her experiences 20 years earlier. Her sister, Catherine Parr Traill, also wrote on living in the Canadian bush. These works appealed to the British market for their adventure content and as information for those thinking of emigrating.

Moodie is not always easy to read, today. She is somewhat judgmental, “proper” as viewed by the solid middle class of the time. Not that her early years in Canada were easy. The family had little money and no experience in farming before emigrating. Unfortunately, the area they farmed in, north of Peterborough, Ontario, is hardly fertile. The site today is a piece of scrub, probably much like when she first saw it.

After giving up farming the family moved to the town of Belleville, called the “clearings” in her writings. There, her husband worked as a sheriff and she continued to write and publish. This suited their skills and temperament more than the back country.

Noteworthy in her writing is her comments on her “Yankee” neighbours. This did not mean Americans living in New York State, but literal neighbours in her section of Ontario. These people were, or descended from, the American settlers in Canada called United Empire Loyalists. They had departed – some were chased from – the United States after 1776 due to their sympathies with the British Crown. Some settled in townships around the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario, or along the St. Lawrence River further east. Some settled in other parts of Ontario or in other provinces.

In Roughing It Moodie is rather hard on this element. They are portrayed as canny rustics with few manners or scruples. Their love of whiskey is vividly described. In one story, she recounts how the teen daughter of a Yankee family left her an empty decanter to help set up home, until she unpacked. This puzzled Moodie but she treated it as a local custom. When the teen returned to recoup the vessel, she complained it wasn’t filled with whiskey. Moodie called the teen’s father “Old Satan” – the family name was Seaton – and considered him responsible for this trick. The daughter was dubbed Miss Satan.

The nervy girl, when told no whiskey was available, said she would accept “spirits” or rum. Moodie did have a keg of rum on hand, to pay workmen who would help build the homestead. This was a common practice in the United States at the time as well. Rum or whiskey were used to pay workmen who built a barn, cleared land, and for other “bees” as they were called.

The whiskey was probably white or common whiskey, made from rye or corn; the spirits perhaps a better grade of charcoal-filtered whiskey – early whiskey writer Samuel M’Harry wrote of “neutralized whiskey”. The rum likely was imported from the West Indies, maybe similar to overproof rum from the Islands today.

Miss Satan left with the rum. Moodie was constantly badgered by the Yankees to borrow food, which she said was not returned, or items such as plows and yarn. A non-Yankee neighbour told her how to end it. Miss Satan sold milk and butter to the neighbourhood. One day, Moodie paid in a way that required change, and asked her to return the next day with the money. She never did, but so ended as well the impositions.

We see a few things here. Quite possibly, a stereotype of the American incomers. Cultural differences often can be painted unfairly, then as now. Or, maybe Moodie just ran into the wrong American crowd. We also see how whiskey was, even in the 1830s, established in Ontario as “the” drink. Miss Satan made it clear that whiskey was far preferable to rum – she said Moodie would learn this from her workmen later – but rum bested “spirits”. The American usage of whiskey from the late 1700s was a natural precedent to the uptake of the taste in Ontario.

At bottom, today, Canadians really do like Americans. I think each side knows that when it comes down to brass tacks. And vice versa, no doubt.

As to Moodie, she continued to worry over whiskey, and in her writings outlined ideas to ban its use. To achieve this she supported, not prohibition as such but education.