Going to Lake Huron – The Letters of the Reverend William Fraser, Part 1

By:  John C. Carter


The familiar phrase “Go West, Young Man,” is generally attributed to American author and newspaper man Horace Greeley. Greeley issued this statement in 1854, but the original quote actually came from John B.L. Soule, editor of the Terre Haute [[Ia.] Express,in an 1851 editorial that he wrote then. Pinpointing the date of this quotation is important to the central character in the following article, namely the Reverend William Fraser.   


Fraser was born in Strathspey, Inverness-shire, Scotland on November 29, 1808.In 1828 he married his wife Janet, and the couple had and raised 3 sons and 2 daughters. The notion of moving west first came to Fraser in 1832, when he and his family emigrated to the Scottish settlement of Breadalbane, Glengarry County, Upper Canada. There Fraser was the pastor of the Baptist congregation for 18 years. The need to move westward came to him again in 1851. Wanting to procure land for his sons, Fraser resigned from his position as minister in Breadalbane in the summer of 1851. He then travelled through portions of the American western states, and western sections of Canada West, looking for a new place for him and his family to settle and farm. These travels were documented in a series of letters written to relatives who still lived in Glengarry County.* He described his journey westward, as well as recording the state of things and the prospects for emigrants from the east coming to what are now Huron and Bruce Counties in Ontario.

Image of the Reverend William Fraser from a period postcard.
Credit: Krug Collection, Bruce county Museum & Cultural Centre, Southampton.

Letter #1:

Fraser recounted his departure which began on May 2, 1851. He noted that there was still a great deal of snow in the bush, and that the road to Martintown, which would be his first stopping place, was in a very bad state. On the second day of his trip, he reached Cornwall, and then took the steamboat Comet. The vessel grounded in the Williamsburgh Canal, but after a great deal of effort, was able to get off, before calling at Prescott and Brockville. After taking on wood at one of the Carson Islands, the Comet arrived in Kingston. She remained there for a short time and then travelled through the night, making Cobourg the next morning and Toronto that night. There she remained Sunday over Sabbath, as laws prohibited landing. Fraser wrote that he hoped that this restriction would be instituted across the entire province, as it “…would bring the masses from the wharfs to the Chapel & Sabbath School.” He observed that Toronto has “…come to be a place of great importance, wealth, and commerce, of 23,000 inhabitants.” He left Toronto on Monday morning and reached Hamilton by 2 p.m. Of Hamilton, Fraser said it; “…is a place of great trade and destined to be a great city, and that the Great Western Railroad “…will give it new impulse,” and serve “…that large and important tract of country to the west.” 

Here horses and wagons were waiting to take passengers going to the country. Fraser engaged a large span of horses and a wagon to take him and his family and 1,600 pounds of their possessions to London, C.W. for 4 pounds sterling. In less than two days, the group made it to London. Fraser noted that; “the character of the horses and the roads,” made this possible. He wrote that these roads were all Macadamized, but had a heavy tax on the travelling public using them. He added that; “…the rich country between the Lakes will ensure it a due portion of the trade of Canada West.”

He observed that London, C.W. had become a very important place, which featured a military station, and “amazingly no small share of the western trade,” and that a large Free School had been recently constructed. While his family stayed in London, Fraser made a trip to Toronto for the opening of Parliament, and joined over 10,000 people there participating in a ceremony led by Lord Elgin. After this event, he was off to Buffalo to attend the northern Baptist Convention. He commented on the temperate habits of the people of the Queen City, and noted the construction of a canal connecting Buffalo with Albany, saying it was “a grand undertaking,” which would greatly facilitate lake shipping.

Letter #2: 

Fraser left Buffalo on May 26 aboard a small steamboat, passed the mouth of the Welland Canal, rounded Long Point, and eventually landed at Port Stanley. He noted that it was “…a fine looking place, but not too large, and it may be called the sea port town of London.” He took a stage coach from there and travelled through St. Thomas to London. He departed from London on his way to Detroit. On reaching Chatham, he recorded that it was “…a fine looking place, at the head of navigation of the river Thames, and the low-seat of the Western District.” He added that; “…the very weather here emits a bad smell, a nest of fever and ague perhaps the worst in Canada.” Fraser wrote that the lands in the vicinity of Chatham were owned by the Canada Company and other speculators, and that settlers could only procure property by going several miles back into the bush. Even then the land was “…generally very low, and almost universally sickly.”   

From Chatham, Fraser started off for Detroit, travelling on the Thames River, aboard a steamer. He wrote that the first 30 miles of navigation was through “…a beautiful country full of orchards.” Further on in his journey, he recorded that prairies and marshes on Lake St. Clair were inhabited by French settlers, who raised a great number of cattle and horses. He added that much of the country that he passed was unoccupied, and that this could be purchased for $3 per acre. Some lands in the interior, south of the Thames River, were also still available for $3-4 an acre.

He reached Detroit, and observed that it was; “…a large, beautiful and populous city, a great trade [done] both by the land and Lake.” Acting as a regional transportation hub, the fare for a railroad trip from Detroit to Chicago was $7 for first class travelers, and $5 in second class cars. Two trains left daily on this journey.    Steamboats connected with the railroads, and Fraser wrote that; “The trade by both lines is immense and fast increasing.” Fraser departed from Detroit by railroad on his way westward to Chicago.

Early image of the Goderich Harbour (circa 1860), taken by an unknown photographer, several years after Rev. William Fraser’s arrival. Credit: Huron County Museum and Historic Jail Collection, Goderich

Letter #3:

On reaching this destination, Fraser said that Chicago was; “…more rapid in its advancement than any other city in North America.” It had 23,000 inhabitants, and the population was expected to be 100,000 in a few years. Chicago’s central position, its great navigation, and valuable back country, all contributed to the city’s great and rapid growth. But Fraser advised emigrants not to buy property in Illinois or Wisconsin, warning that speculators had come previously, and that no good land was left. He detailed other challenges he saw there, and warned that farmers in the vicinity; “…have as much difficulty in making cash as in Canada, more especially since their fall wheat has failed them.” Not a place for him to settle! 

The memorial marker dedicated to the Reverend William Fraser, Tiverton Cemetery. Credit: Dorne Fitzsimmonds, Tiverton, Ontario. 

Letter #4: 

Fraser continued to make observations about emigrants from the East. He suggested that very few of them; “…are well schooled by the change they have made,” by moving to Illinois, and that many of them had gone on to Wisconsin. He continued his trip by steamer. The route from Chicago to Detroit was 700 miles, and the trip by boat usually took 3 days. He stopped briefly at Mackinaw at the head of Lake  Huron, before arriving at Detroit. On a positive note, he added that the American government had shown more care than the Canadian government for shipping and maritime intercourse, by constructing a string of light houses along their inland seas. He concluded by saying with these structures, it allowed “the Lake craft [to] make their way as by high way by night and day.” This was something that had not yet occurred along the Canadian shores of Lake Huron. 

After this journey, he travelled through a good deal of the Huron Tract, noting that the area was now settled by about 20,000, but that all the best land there had already been taken up. Settlers were advised not to go further north, as difficulties in the winter there were expected to be very great. Fraser finally arrived in Goderich, staying there for only a short time, before proceeding with his family by boat to Kincardine on July 18, 1851. 

Photograph of a painting showing a Toronto harbour scene at the foot of Church Street, 1850
Archives of Ontario


While Fraser’s stay in Huron County was to be short lived, the letters that he wrote and which were later published, provide fascinating, first-hand observations and comments of his 1851 trip westward to several locations in the United States, as well as to Canada West. He and his family would finally move on to Kincardine.**  They would eventually settle in Kincardine Township, where he would reside and contribute to his community and Bruce County, until his death on August 30, 1883.


*A total of 8 letters were written by Fraser. They were subsequently published in issues of The [Goderich, C.W.] Huron Signal, between March 11 and April 29, 1852. The first 4 letters described his circuitous route to Goderich, and the following 4 focused on his move to and eventual settling in Kincardine Township in Bruce County.

** See John C. Carter, “Settling in Bruce County – The Letters of the Reverend William Fraser, Part 2,” in the next issue of Wayback Times.   

Bibliography/Suggested Reading:

L.N. Bronson, “Kincardine Winter, 1851,” Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook (1970).

Ruth Dimmick. Tiverton Baptist Church, Tiverton Ontario, 1855-1995 (Tiverton, Ont.: n.p., 1995).

Charlotte Gall, “Kincardine Baptist Church,” Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook (1977).

Isabelle Munro & Wanita Fletcher. Toil, Tears and Triumph: A History of Kincardine Township (Kincardine, Ont.: Kincardine Township Historical Society, 1990).

Norman Robertson. “Township of Kincardine,” in The History of Bruce County (Toronto: William Briggs, 1906).


The author would like to thank Dorne Fitzsimmons, Michael Molnar, John Schreiter, Rhea Seeger, Bill Stewart, and Deb Sturdevant for their assistance in preparing this article.

Dr. John C. Carter is a regular contributor to Wayback Times. He can be reached at drjohncarter@bell.net.   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *