A History of Fires

Pitch fork prodding fire

Fires play an important role in The Haweaters just as they have on Manitoulin Island throughout much of its history.

At several points in the island's past, large swaths of landscape have fallen victim to flames and at the time officials were contemplating opening up Manitoulin for settlement by European homesteaders in the 1860s, reports were floating around that pointed to evidence that extensive historical burns had caused large expanses of land, including much of Tehkummah (where The Haweaters is set), to be badly damaged.

Some of the fires had likely been due to natural causes such as lightning strikes in dry weather. Others were attributed to slash and burn techniques used to clear vegetation quickly for the planting of crops. Still others appear to have been set accidentally through mishaps or negligence. Numerous fires erupted during dry seasons in the 1850s and swept through the thick cedar swamps that dot the island, leaving the land devoid of plants. Homesteaders, who were legally obligated to clear five acres of land for every hundred they wished to gain the patent on, would have seen the lack of vegetation as a positive. However some of those fires had burned so hot they destroyed the soil's structure, leaving the land unfit for agricultural crops.

When the government opened up vast tracts of land for settlement, officials somehow failed to mention the extent of the damage caused by recent and historical fires to potential purchasers. And while there has been some suggestion the surveyors themselves did not understand how badly the soil had been damaged and that this damage could be permanent, there is some evidence that officials did understand and chose to ignore the problem.

Many of those early settlers bought hundreds of acres of cleared or partially cleared land thinking they had hit the jackpot. The less land they had to clear, the quicker they could get the crops they needed to survive in the ground and the sooner they would qualify for the patents on their property. They either did not notice the burnt stumps in the long grass or they did not understand what those stumps could potentially mean. And so many homesteaders found out the hard way that much of the soil on that cleared land had been destroyed.

That didn't mean those tracts of land couldn't be resurrected. In many cases they could, but the badly damaged soil would have been difficult to cultivate, dried out within days of a rainfall, and incapable of supporting the grains that would sustain the settlers and provide them with modest incomes. In the early years, those homesteaders unlucky enough to have been saddled with these burned-out soils would've had to plant them with nitrogen-fixing peas then plow them under in order to increase nitrogen levels and build up organic bulk. After several years of this, they could then grow a wide range of staple grains such as wheat and oats.

I don't mention the fires anywhere in The Haweaters, but I do saddle the Bryan family with soil so poor they have difficulty growing a decent crop, which would have ensured that their first years on the island were achingly harsh, which by all accounts they were.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.