THE DARKER SIDE OF PLANTER LIFE (October 4/02)

“Although the greater part of these settlers were respectable people, yet there were many idlers among them, whose chief inducement to visit Nova Scotia was the provision they were entitled to receive, as a bounty for their emigration.”

In 1829, Thomas C. Haliburton wrote this observation of the settlers who took up the prime agricultural land of the Acadians after the latter’s expulsion. The Planters, as they came to be called, are rightly portrayed as sober, religious and hard working people who uprooted themselves in New England and risked everything to settle here. However, as Haliburton points out in his two-volume “Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia,” there was an element that wasn’t quite so glorious and sober.

Haliburton further observed that “when the most industrious could not obtain the necessities of life without the greatest exertion, it is not surprising that persons of this class availed themselves of the first opportunity of quitting the country, as soon as the government rations were withheld.”

But even when “persons of this class” returned to New England, a dark element remained that is rarely mentioned in history books. The Planters lived in an age of “strict puritanism,” when laws placed restrictions of every kind on people. Failure to attend church, working around home on Sundays were offences; there were laws against swearing, blasphemy, lewdness, disturbances of the peace and immoral behaviour. Within a year of the Planters arriving in Nova Scotia, the provincial government passed a Lord’s Day Act, which among other things, forbade tradesmen and Innkeepers from operating on Sundays.

However, despite indication that all the settlers were law-abiding, bible-carrying people, this wasn’t the case. In 1764, only a few years after arriving in Nova Scotia, the settlers built the first jail in Horton Township. As early as 1761 so many complaints about debt-dodging came from the settlements that the government was forced to appoint Magistrates from among prominent settlers in each county.

Occasionally when I’ve written about the seamier side of settler’s life I’ve had readers take me to task. However, history isn’t all about heroics. The Planters were people who lived close to the soil and there was a rough, coarse element that could not be contained by religious and social restrictions.

This being said, I’d like to quote from the excellent thesis on the Planters by James S. Martell. It would be a mistake, Martell said, to picture all the settlers in the pre-Loyalist period as respectable, law-abiding people. “The records of the Court of Quarter-Sessions tell a darker story. Cases of assault, seduction, illegitimate children, theft, usury, forgery libel, profane swearing and disturbances of the peace were common,

“So was Sabbath breaking and there many amusing charges against persons who went fishing or swimming on the Lord’s Day. Some person even went so far as to grind grain at their mill on Sunday. Murder was not unknown. But assault and illegitimate children were the most prevalent cases before the courts.”

But despite what I quoted here, crime wasn’t rampant and most offences were of a minor nature. That this was the case is indicated by the fact that the government didn’t find it necessary appoint Sheriffs for the Minas Basin region until 1781.

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