March 2014 – Guest Blogger Elizabeth Ritchie

This month we hear from Elizabeth Ritchie who lectures at the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her particular interest is the social and cultural history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Highlands although she has recently been working on a project about Scottish emigrant women in rural Canada. If you like this post you might be interested in the local history blog Elizabeth edits:

The ‘dreadful hard work’ of Nancy Smibert in Upper Canada

Agnes, or Nancy, Smibert was talked into emigrating from the Borders first to Pennsylvania and then to Upper Canada (today’s Ontario) by her husband, a master weaver from Innerleithen.  A grueling overland trip to the old growth forests of London Township with four children was followed by James breaking his leg.  The last of the hundred pounds they had brought from Scotland evaporated and the two horses died so they sold the waggon and almost all their ‘bed and body clothes’.  Road building work paid for a deposit on a hundred acres as James singlehandedly felled enough trees to build a log house and plant in Spring 1819.  Without the assistance of friends or family,Nancy gave birth to Marion.  Between housework and childcare duties Nancy would have  organized the children to stack and burn the smaller bits of brush James cleared, and to plant the 4 ½ bushels of potatoes and Indian corn (maize) that was their first crop.

 Melons, watermelons and cucumbers meant they didn’t go hungry.  Such food would be new to Nancy but she discovered the vast crop of 500 thirty to hundred pound pumpkins which grew among the corn made a type of molasses and a sauce which made their usual fare of potatoes and bread more appetizing.  It may have been the next spring they learned how to tap maple trees and they made a year’s worth of sugar in the two week window.  Despite their efforts, it was impossible to be self-sufficient in these early years.

Money was necessary but neither James’ forest clearing nor Nancy’s household work produced cash.  James had been a master weaver and Nancy could spin and sew so they invested in a flock of sheep which grazed in the woods.  Despite occasional losses to a wolf, this method cost little. Nancy had meat for the table, tallow for candlemaking and wool.  Woolen cloth would bring in cash.  Nancy and the children probably carded as her husband worked outdoors during the day then built the loom and wove in the evening.  Spinning would certainly have fallen to Nancy with the help of the children.  The thread James wove was fulled, dyed, and dressed at the mill.  Nancy made clothes.  James wore ‘coarse cloth trousers, waistcoat, and surtout, of home manufacture, dyed a dark reddish brown by the produce of the butternut tree, and ornamented with well worn brass buttons.’  The rest of the fabric was sold to neighbours and the Smiberts pocketed as much as two dollars a day.  Although James took all the credit for cloth manufacture, it was the family’s ability to keep most elements of cloth production in-house through Nancy’s skilled labour and the unskilled labour of the children that maximized their profit.

Like spinning, the very dailyness of food preparation means most women’s work is rarely mentioned in letters or farm diaries.  Working with food was not half an hour’s cooking over the oven and fifteen minutes washing up, with an hour’s grocery shopping each week.  Cattle were milked, hens fed and eggs collected each morning.  Churning butter and cheese was physically demanding.  Stores were laid in for winter.  The Smiberts’ log house had ‘numerous festoons of dried fruit which hung from the ceiling’, the produce of the orchard James planted in the 1820s. Nancy doubtless rounded up the children in late summer to cut apples in pieces and string them onto threads to hang in the warm kitchen.  One of her boys had a mechanical turn and, probably fed up with endless apple processing, he invented a peeling device.  Food was a vital element in the family economy not simply for fuelling the labour of its members, but in order to participate in the informal economy of neighbourhood ‘bees’.  One day ‘we had a great many men and oxen collected … to clear a piece of land by rolling the logs together in large heaps, and then setting fire to them.’  Bees were a reciprocal method of doing big jobs which required more manpower and equipment than one family could provide.  Food and drink were vital to their success so Nancy, her daughters and daughters in law would spend several days preparing vast meals for the men.  Unlike the heroic efforts and clear masculine achievement at a barn raising or logging bee, the ordinariness of food preparation means the considerable female skill and labour involved usually remains invisible.

 By the mid 1830s the family farm was on a secure footing.  The Smiberts had two hundred acres, a house, a pair of horses and a selection of livestock.  For the previous ten years or so the older children had been contributing to the family economy.  William and young James had taken over the farm management and heavy work while Betsy was, ‘a stout well-grown woman’ with responsibility for poultry and dairy.  She produced butter and cheese from their five cattle for family use.  Her flock contained ‘many geese, turkeys and guinea fowls’. Nancy probably passed this work on as she had her hands full after the birth of baby Margaret, and in order to train Betsy in running a household before her marriage in 1836.

 This sort of delegation freed Nancy up when there was a new baby and when her naturally ‘delicate constitution’ gave out in the mid 1840s.  Visits to Dr Anderson from Aberdeen were of no avail and she was largely housebound.  She did little jobs around the house and the rest of the time sewed and knitted stockings.  Despite her daughters easing her burdens,Nancy died in 1855, aged sixty.  Despite all the family memorabilia being focused on her husband, enough clues about this reluctant emigrant peep through to appreciate Nancy’s lifetime of productive and reproductive work that made the Smiberts a prosperous family of farmers in mid nineteenth century Upper Canada.

4 thoughts on “March 2014 – Guest Blogger Elizabeth Ritchie”

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for an interesting post. I am a Collections Assistant at Fanshawe Pioneer Village in London, Ontario and came across a book in our collection with a note that it previously belonged to “Smibert the weaver” from London Township, so your post is also very timely for me! I am trying to find more information about the Smibert family to improve the provenance of the book. I am just wondering if you might have more information about the Smibert family?

    Thanks so much,


  2. Hi Amber,

    Sorry for the delay in responding – I only just saw your message. Yes, the infomration I found was int he University of Guelph’s archives. If you pop along ther they have a number of cuttings from newspapers including hte interview I drew much of my information from. What book did Smibert possess? Are you fairly confident it is the same person?

    Kind regards, Elizabeth

  3. Thanks for your reply, Elizabeth, and sorry for my delay – I also just saw this message. There are two books, a gospel primer and “Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children” which belonged to Smibert’s grandchildren. I have been able to confirm that the donors are ancestors of James and Agnes Smibert.

    Thanks again for your help!


    1. Hi again Amber, can I clarify then that the books you mention have ‘Smibert the weaver’ written in them? I’d be most interested to know what books they owned. Thanks, Elizabeth

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