Trail Marker Trees Project Proposal
From the 1830s until the 1860s more than 1500 former African American slaves and free blacks, escaping US Fugitive Slave laws, made their way into Canada and up to the Queen's Bush Settlement, a squatter's community in what became the townships of Wellesley (Waterloo County) and Peel and Maryborough townships (now Mapleton) in northern Wellington County, land that was formerly Saugeen Ojibway territory.
The Queen's Bush itself was a much larger tract of land, a crown reserve administered by the Clergy Corporation, a tract that went as far north as Glenelg and Bentink and Amaranth townships in Grey County, where there were also black settlements in places like Negro Creek, Priceville and elsewhere.
Until the building of the roads north from Lake Ontario through Guelph in the 1840s, most of the earliest squatters traveled north on the ancient indigenous trails up the eastern and then southern banks and ridges above the Grand River. Trails that were used by the Saugeen and Coldwater Ojibway well into the late settlement period.
John Connon, who compiled the first history of Elora, notes that the Grand River trail was also the means by which the original settlers in the area came north, the first of whom was a man named Roswell Matthews, who had been adopted by the Mississauga in the Burlington Bay area.
Connon also makes note of an annual trip the Saugeen and Coldwater Ojibway took to Niagara on the Lake to reconfirm their commitment to the Fort Niagara Treaty they had made with the British via Sir William Johnson back in 1764. The various families that composed the two tribal groups would make their individual ways every winter, some of the Saugeen travelling from as far away as Southampton. The two trails converged above the Irvine River north of Elora, where a series of large 'wigwams' were maintained for centuries. From the Irvine south, the two tails became one trail, which made its way around what became Salem, heading for the Elora Gorge Conservation area lands, where the travelers crossed the Grand River at a ford just beyond the fixed trailer camp at the western edge of the GRCA property, a ford that is still used by local horse riders and anglers, a ford that was identified by Connon as a settlement era river crossing.
The south eastern access to the ford is via the top of the unopened end of the 4th line of old Pilkington township, which is now a fishing trail beside Grodzinski's property off County Road 21, a road that essentially follows the south Grand River trail line.
Once on the South/east side of the river heading for Niagara, the Ojibway would follow the Grand South to Galt and thence to Burlington Bay and Niagara-on-the-lake. Later in the winter they would make their way home by the same routes.
Since the Niagara region was a major crossing point for escaping slaves and their allies in the Underground Railroad, it is my belief that the annual round trip of the Ojibway explains how 1500 former slaves found their way through the complex river valleys, flood plains, forests, wetlands and other wilderness realities of colonial Ontario in the days before roads.
Once across the ford on their home every Ferbruary, and after heading northwest to the fork that led to the Coldwater section of the trail, the Southampton-bound trail travelers passed through the lands that became the farms of the black squatters. Peel township (now part of Mapleton) had been Saugeen territory until 1827 when they ceded those lands to the crown. The Elora-Saugeen road, which is now known as county roads 7 and 109, was surveyed in the 1840s, but followed the Ojibway trail all the way from Elora to lake Huron at Southampton.
Sitting as the Queen's Bush settlement did, east and south of the Conestogo River and north above the Canagagigue Creek, the trail northwest from the convergence point above the Irvine River, followed what Connon called the Irvine creek through lands belonging to George Barron (the 10th concession and County Road 7) probably on the north side of the creek through the Cromar and Hay's properties into Pilkington: by that route the travelers would then have skirted the headwaters of the two Carroll Creek branches, towards Creekbank. A no longer extant village that Peel township history notes that was founded on the northern tip of the western branch of the Carroll, which was also alongside a Native trail.
Where the Elora-Saugeen trail went from there isn't so clear, however the long diagonal line of county road 9/109 extending as it does towards Southampton makes it clear the trail would have tended towards a fording place on the Conestogo River near Teviotdale, which river, above north Pilkington, was descending from Arthur.
The south Grand River Trail also extended beyond Elora towards what became Lake Belwood, and more importantly for this topic, led to a ford that crossed on the property of the Black loyalist, Richard Pierpoint's, where a black settlement had existed from the mid 1820s in the 1830s in what is now the eastern end of Fergus, a settlement of former Coloured Corp soldiers who had spent the War of 1812 as both skirmishers and as builders of fort Mississauga and other fortifications, builders, whose role in the early construction of Fergus is only now being discovered.
Proposals: Freedom Trails Into the Queens' Bush Settlement
Restoring the Trails:
Up until the late settlement period when nearly all the primeval forests in the province were harvested, first nations' trails were marked by very specific trees, such as the one in the above image: each tree had idiosyncrasies related to the trail information it was meant to convey, ie, the trees served as guides to berry picking areas, trapping areas, river fords, main trails etc.
Some of these trees may still exist in Centre Wellington, older citizens may remember individual trees on their properties, old photographs may intentionally or inadvertently contain images of such trees. A concerted effort to identify any such lost trees, and to preserve or a least protect any existing trees needs to be undertaken.
A public program to recreate the trail marker trees could be undertaken by local schools, trail clubs, snow mobile clubs, the Guelph Black Heritage Society, and most importantly, with the guidance of trail marker tree specialists and the ceremonial and practical knowledge and blessings of the Saugeen Nation and Coldwater Ojibway. Students could become involved in the process of nurturing new trail marker trees, they could learn to bend, shape and refine the trees over the decades required to create mature trail markers. Prior to those trees coming of age, non-living trail markers could be designed and installed explaining the project. Because of the natural regeneration elements of the project, there would also be environmental education components to be explored by students, since the trail marker trees were used to guide travelers to seasonal wild food sources, fresh water sources etc. The project could also be extended down the Grand River and elsewhere in the province.
Locally, all future land development projects should be designed in such a way that the trails are both protected and serve to celebrate the indigenous/freedom trails, especially on the lands between the Grand and the Irvine Creek trail convergence area northwest towards Creekbank, as well as the trails that would have extended from the 4th line ford to the Carroll Creek fishing grounds and then north from there into the Queen's Bush Settlement. (The site of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Queen's Bush is about ten miles from the mouth of Carroll up the Sandy Hill Road to a spot above Floradale.)
These trails should be given their due, and become part of any housing/community projects, so that the trail system itself could be marketed as both a local heritage attraction connected to the first nations and to their commitment to the 1764 Fort Niagara Treaty, as well as to their roles as Freedom Trail guides for former slaves. Such a project could become part of heritage tourism marketing aimed at Underground Railroad pilgrims - a phenomena that African Americans with slave ancestors - have come to embrace in ever greater numbers in the US. Equally important, however, is that such trails would teach modern African and other Canadians of the debt we all owe to the First Nations of the loyalist period.