The Problem of Trees

ironwood trunk

(Photo: An ironwood tree in McLean's Park on Manitoulin Island.)

Even before Manitoulin Island was opened up for settlement by non-indigenous homesteaders in the late 1860s, there were many who made it very clear they had every intention of exploiting the island for its natural resources and the resource highest on their list was timber.

However, early assessors were dubious about the commercial value of the island's trees. They documented vast conifer forests stretching across the wet lowlands. Those forests were dominated by cedar with a healthy mix of spruce, hemlock, and balsam. Other softwoods, including birch and poplar, put in an appearance along with a moderate number of tamarack, black ash and Balm of Gilead. Pine, which was of great commercial value at the time, was so infrequent on the island that it made little economic sense to harvest it. Assessors felt that the limited pine would join the prolific cedar in being useful for the day-to-day needs of homesteaders, but had little value beyond that. The one exception was in Tehkummah where there were a limited number of commercially viable pine stands.

Manitoulin's upland regions boasted mature hardwood forests, but assessors were quick to point out they tended to be dominated by maples, basswood, and ironwood and only rarely included red, white, and black oak, white ash, beech, and elm. The large number of maples and limited presence of oak and beech suggested limited soil fertility, something that the fragmented, droughty and frequently barren landscape confirmed, meaning that not only was timber commercially non-viable, agriculture likely wasn't either.

The areas surveyed for early settlement consisted of one-third hardwood forest, one-third softwood, and one-third open country, meaning that early homesteaders were faced with a mixed bag of hardwood stands, softwood complexes, cedar swamps and barren ground. If homesteaders wanted to harvest the timber on their land for commercial purposes, stumpage fees were mandated for every tree cut and a forest bailiff was appointed to make sure settlers complied with the regulation.

Some settlers turned instead to tapping maples and selling the syrup to southern markets. By the end of the 1860s, the production of maple syrup on Manitoulin Island stood at around 117,000 pounds per year, a rate so unsustainable that when the decade closed, homesteaders found it challenging to harvest enough to support their households. The sugarbush was, quite literally, tapped out and by 1870 was no longer commercially viable.

However, things were about to change. Markets in Canada and the United States were heating up for posts, poles, and ties for which cedar was perfect. Suddenly, Manitoulin's abundance of cedar and other mixed softwoods became commercially valuable in a way they never had been before. Timber baron R.A. Lyon, who had obtained a lumber license for 22 square miles of land in Tehkummah in 1866, was quick to exploit the new market. From 1868 to 1870, his company cut and shipped in excess of two million feet of lumber annually. Based on the large volume of lumber Lyon was producing and the lack of stumpage fees being paid by settlers, it appears as though early homesteaders may have been illegally selling logs to Lyon.

Soon they wouldn't have to. Since 1866 homesteaders had been complaining that stumpage fees were so high they had no choice but to burn any trees they cut down while clearing their land. They were demanding that those fees be reduced since no one was benefiting from the legally mandated downing of those trees. In spring of 1877, the law was rewritten so that settlers could now profit from their timber. However, they continued to sell timber illegally whenever and wherever they could and many settlers with full legal ownership of their land would put down money on one or two additional lots that had little agricultural value but which had good softwood stands.

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.