Remembrances of Winter in 19th Century Ontario

By John C. Carter



Winter may be considered by many as the least palatable season of the year. With its onset, we often hear “winter whinging,” and evidence a period of hibernation, which is not only limited to animals! Winter, however, should be seen as an important and integral part of our lives. Viewed from a more positive perspective, it can become a vibrant season of constantly changing moods and patterns. This article will investigate primary historical documents which portray various aspects of winters of the past in 19th century Ontario.


From an Historical Perspective:

Winters of the past have been portrayed in various ways and for many reasons. The 1859 British American Guide Book, written for emigrants to compare conditions in England to those in North America, noted the following: “The most erroneous options have prevailed abroad respecting the climate of Canada. The so-called rigour of Canadian winters is often advanced as a serious objection to the country, by many who have not the courage to encounter them – who prefer sleet and fog, to brilliant skies and bracing cold, and who have yet to learn the value and extent of the blessings conferred upon Canada by her world-renowned ‘snows.’ It will scarcely be believed by many who shudder at the idea of the thermometer falling to zero, that the gradual annual diminution in the fall of snow, in certain localities, is a subject of lamentation to the farmer in Western Canada. Their desire is for the old-fashion winters, with sleighing for four months, and spring bursting upon them with marvellous beauty at the beginning of April. A bountiful fall of snow, with hard frost, is equivalent to the construction of the best macadamized roads all over the country. The absence of a sufficient quantity of snow in winter for sleighing, is a calamity as much to be feared and deplored, as the want of rain in the spring. Happily, neither of these deprivations is of frequent occurrence.”

Methodist circuit rider, the Reverend Joseph Hilts, took a rather philosophical position when discussing winter in Bruce County in the 1860’s: “Well, what is a snowdrift? The doctor may say it is the grave of a dead snow-storm. The poet will tell you that it is the downy bed in which the storm-king puts to rest his sleeping children. The thin-blooded rheumatic will say it is that which gives him the heaviest chills and the sharpest pains. The wash-woman will declare the snowdrift gives her nice soft water long after the sunny days of spring have melted the snow off the buildings and the fields. If you ask the mischief-loving boy, that stands peering through the fence, and making faces at the other boy that pretends to be hoeing the corn, he will turn and look at you and then give his suspenders a hitch and say, ‘I like snowdrifts, I do. It is that that gives me the last snowball of the season, and it allows me to take all that remains of itself to wash the faces of Molly and Jennie, as they go tripping to the woods to gather the April flowers. Yes, I like snowdrifts.’ The snowdrift, like almost everything else in the world, has its friends and foes. The aspect of a snowdrift is affected by the standpoint from which it is viewed. To contemplate it from the inside of a comfortable room, with the thermometer ranging among the sixties, gives rather pleasant ideas of it. But to one wading up to his middle in it, with the thermometer down to ten below zero, there will not be much enjoyment. In the one case there is a feeling of security mingled with a sense of the beautiful. In the other there is a sense of increasing weariness along with the consciousness of possible danger.”


Daily Pursuits:

While descriptions of winter often varied, life in 19th century Ontario did proceed. Daily pursuits seemed to be dictated by geography, station in life, and time period. Chief Hudson’s Bay Factor John Haldane, recorded conditions that he experienced around Fort William in 1825: “During the severe Months in Winter many of the Indians with their Families came starving upon the Establishment: this being no uncommon circumstance, and anticipating such might be the case care was taken to have a good supply of potatoes, and in the Fall about 6000 white fish averaging about 1# each from the rapids in the River, and without extra expense, these with some hundred bushels of potatoes were bestowed upon the poor starving Indians. Often there were between 40 and fifty Souls of these to feed including Men women and children; unhulled Corn had also been procured at St. Marys for about 82 cents P bushel this was ground, and much given out to them to attend to their trapping.”

In a far more positive vein, Colonel John Prince described what was probably a typical winter day in his position as elected representative in the Provincial House of Assembly in Toronto. In his January 21, 1840 diary entry, Prince wrote: “A fine & cold day but not much frost. The Sleighing Continues Excellent in & about Toronto. Attended at The House all day & spoke upon several questions. Introduced, & spoke upon, & Carried a Resolution agreeing to grant 50,000 [pounds] for the payment of all losses, claims, and demands arising in Consequence of the late Rebellion and invasions of the Country. Dined at The Ontario and went to bed at 11.”

Prince’s January 7, 1844 diary account detailed his activities for that day, when back home at Sandwich in the Western District: “A very hard frost. About 3 inches of Snow on the Earth. The Most splendid Hunting day I ever knew; but it is Sunday. Violent wind & cold weather all day. No going to Church in the Morng. Messrs. Wingfield, Sloane, & Liberte & his Son waited on me with the Address of the inhabitants of Malden and Anderdon & dined with us at The Park Farm. The boys went to Church in the afternoon, and I went into town and made several Calls. Home to tea, and went to bed at 10 o’clock.”

Eliza Bellamy, the wife of Samuel Bellamy, a prosperous mill owner and farmer in North Augusta Township, Grenville County, also kept a diary. She reflected upon winter in January and February of 1855: “This is and has been the most remarkable winter I ever remember. Yesterday all kinds of weather, with thunder and lightning today wind and snow. My employment varied as usual. At present making flannel Shirts for Father…yesterday Isaiah’s family here to dinner…I had to work pretty much to do. Girl away. 11 Oclock A M after making pies & c. Maryan busy quilting.”

An 1880 letter between two friends, offers us an insight into one young lady’s perception of a winter in Bowmanville: “It is Tuesday & a very cold night – the coldest we have had yet – I think at least I was more cold coming home from school. Have you had a sleigh ride yet? I had one on Saturday. Hannah Thompson & Ada were in town and I went for a little ride with them. I did not go to church Sunday morning it rained & took all the snow away but I went to the Methodist Church in the evening with Mrs. Bell…Have the girls got their mottoes finished yet?”


Winter Works:

Did the climate have an effect upon the type of work done, how was it recorded, and did any re-occurring patterns emerge?  From his Williamstown farm, former explorer, cartographer, and fur trader, David Thompson, recounted his activities at the close of 1827: “ Nov. 23 Friday – Light snow it is now 3 inches on the ground. Cut elm…then small cedars & began making a place for a Work Shop in the woodshed. Nov. 27 Tuesday – Clear & fine Snow thawed in the Roads…Put up the Porch began the Door & helped Mr. Cameron with his men & cut Brushwood. Nov. 28 Wednesday – 2 Men cutting brushwood. Josh edging slabs for a workshop ground 2 Bush. Oats & 2 ¾  of Pease for fattening cattle. Dec. 1 Saturday – Finished the small workshop Dec. 14 – Made 2 was tubs of a 40 Gal. Wine cask and began a Shed for ashes”

Farmer Douglas McTavish, a resident of Stanley Township, Huron County, related his experiences during mid January of 1884: “8 – Sawing wood in the bush all day. Snowing a little. 9 – Sawing and chopping a little in the bush in the forenoon – in the afternoon did nothing, it being very stormy 10 – Sawing in the forenoon – in the afternoon split some wood in the bush. Rough with snow in the afternoon 11 – Killing pigs in the forenoon in the afternoon went to Clinton. 12 – Cutting up and salting pigs in the forenoon…In the afternoon fixing up the pig pen for the calves 14 – Husking corn and cleaning wheat. Sunday School Anniversary in Clinton tonight. 15 – Cleaning grain in the forenoon and in the afternoon took wheat to Trick’s [mill].”


Winter Travel:

Travel during 19th century winters had special challenges, perils and pitfalls. Methodist preacher Anson Green experienced treacherous conditions during his 1833 travels. He wrote: “During our quarterly meeting in the Augusta Church on the 5th, a January thaw set in, but took all the frost out of the ground. My appointment for the 12th of January was on the Ottawa Circuit, 150 miles off. On Tuesday night the weather changed to piercing cold, with the mercury below zero. On Wednesday morning I was obliged to leave my cutter and robes at home, and mount my horse for a long journey. I managed to crawl along about twenty-five miles the first day over hubs and frozen mud, all the more dangerous because partially concealed by a sprinkle of snow. At times my poor horse would stop and look round towards me as if to say, is there no way of avoiding these conical projections? If not I can go no further. I guided him on to the banks and by the side of fences at times, until we reached a good resting place at the house of the kind-hearted brother, Michael Brouse, Esq. of Matilda.”

Writing to his brother Theodore from St. Catharines on March 24, 1835, entrepreneur and shipper Thomas Park vividly described travelling conditions and the expected consequences of his return to the Western District: “Dear Brother Dont you think I started on the tramp at a pretty season of the year the first days half frozen and jolted to death the last three days of my journey neck deep in mud and the only consolation I has was that your old cloak got the worst of it and was fast approaching to its latter end poor thing it is in the last stage of decay and if it ever lasts to see Colchester I do not think it will be recognized by its oldest and dearest friend and alas such will be the case with all my outward apparel, by the time I return to Colchester I shall be naked of clothing as a birds arse of feathers.”

The passage of time seemed to have very little positive impact on winter travel conditions. Eugene Hill of Aylmer, recorded conditions there in his diary for March 1899: Mar 1 – Thursday It is still snowing and drifting. This is the heaviest fall of snow we have had for a great many years The roads are drifted so that the mail did not come today 7 – Wednesday Colder and the roads in very bad shape.”


Winter Recreation:

Recreation during the winter months came in many forms. Anna Magrath of Toronto Township wrote on November 29, 1844, and described her favourite winter recreational activity: “We have good sleighing, a great fall of snow on Wednesday last. We promised ourselves a nice drive tomorrow in the large sleigh, with the boy. Don’t you wish you may get a drive in the same style down Sackville Street.”

Sporting activities were also popular. The Brockville Central Rink was first opened to skaters in December, 1865, and was described in the December 28 edition of the Brockville Recorder: “The occasion was enjoyed by a very numerous company. The Brockville Brass Band and the Fife and Drum Corp were in attendance, which added much to the pleasure of skaters and visitors…On Christmas the rink was crowded, and skaters enjoyed themselves amazingly.”

A variety of recreational pursuits and other activities were recorded in the diary of eighteen year old Whitby Township resident Frances Tweedie: Tues. Jan 1, 1867. Boys away at shooting match. Hislops here for dinner. Bain here to tea. Spent a very quiet day for the beginning of a New Year. Wed. Jan. 9 Jim took Mother and I to Whitby. She stayed at Campbell’s. Jim didn’t come for me, had to stay all night. Went skating for the first time. Mon. Jan 14 Still threshing. Went to Opera, veru beautiful music, a great crowd. Pretty cold. Wed. Jan 23 All the old people went to Sinclairs to visit. We went to Irvings in the evening, had a gay time. Rode down with Jim & Mary.”



These selected accounts give only a brief snapshot of winters in 19th century Ontario. They do however provide some insight into winters of our past from primary documents which portray first-hand accounts and remembrances. Visit your local library, archive or museum to find more about the history of winter in your community.


Dr. John C. Carter is a frequent contributor to Wayback Times, and is a Research Associate, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania. He can be contacted at