Farming and the Land in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Farming and the Land in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Over the past few posts I have been working through a series of letters from a Scottish branch of my ancestors and delving into some of the themes that come up. You can check out my introduction to the letters, and look at death and disease, and contemporary thoughts on emigration in my previous posts.

Today I’ll be looking at issues of agriculture and farming, another topic that comes up frequently in the letters. The Gilchrists and Shearers were not strictly farmers. Several worked in service (as servants), for example, and as such I’ll take a closer look at employment opportunities in a later post.

Farming opportunities, the land and the weather, and how the markets and trade in general were doing were of interest to the writers and recipients of these letters. These factors affected their well-being, their diet, their place of residence, and their ability to survive. For today’s post, let’s take a look at how farming and the land in both Scotland and abroad was written about in the letters as the senders described their lives and those of their extended family to family and friends abroad.

In January 1862, James Shearer Sr. was already looking into the practicalities of moving abroad to farm:

“I have frequently conversed with Thomas Lochead concerning your country and farming operations, and I am much better pleased with his account than Robert Davidson’s”

It does seem that my 2x great-grandfather was more of a ‘let’s get to the point’ kind of a guy than one for pleasantries and gossip. We can see that in the one letter I have of his that was also very succinct, even though it’s main purpose was to inform a branch of his wife’s family about her mother’s death.

James was clearly unhappy with the state of things in Hareshaw, a small rural community near Shotts in central Scotland where much of the family was from:

“Last summer the spring was uncommonly dry until July and then the rains were very excessive for four months which made the crops scarcely an average and the supply of the United States being cut off by the disturbance there has caused a great deal of distress among the poor in this country.”

Here we can see evidence that the American Civil War is negatively affecting trade, food, and everyday life in Scotland.

Unlike James, Elizabeth Gilchrist was content to stay in Scotland. She watched as many family members moved abroad and wrote to them several times, but she was also busy setting up a home, starting a family, and taking care of her ailing mother. She married John Wark in the mid-1860s and in May 1869 wrote to her sister Janet in Otanabee, Canada, about life in Muirhead and their plans for the future:

“We would like to get a farm but the little ones are not easily got and we are not able to take a large one and I would not like to go far from Mother. We have a fresh winter here and an early spring. Flour is 40 shillings per load. Oatmeal is 42 shillings per load. Potatoes are six pence per stone.”

Elizabeth had been working as a servant. It’s clear that she and her husband couldn’t find an available, affordable small farm in the area. Her inclusion of food items such as flour, oatmeal, potatoes, and butter tells us about some of the main staples of their diet.

In a letter to his sister-in-law dated 23 September 1871, Robert Davidson, now living near Oneida in Southern Ontario, included a single line about the region he and his wife now called home:

“I understand crops are good in general but there is no farming locally, only great rocks and pine trees growing out of gaps thereof.”

Having visited the Davidson homestead in Haldimand County, I can confirm that his impression was accurate.


Lilac bushes at the site of the Davidson Homestead — Photo credit: P. Dumas

Robert found work in a local quarry, and the soil in the region is very rich in clay. The exact area where they settled is now an environmentally-protected region, a Carolinian Canada Big Picture Core Habitat and a Signature Site, and the woodlands and unique soil have therefore been preserved.

In February 1875, James Shearer Sr. had a great deal to say to his brother Gavin up in Otanabee about everyday life in his new home state of Kansas. One of his first anecdotes was of the 1874 infestation of grasshoppers that had threatened everyone’s corn:

“No doubt but you will have heard of the grasshoppers in Kansas. They were bad eating the corn and taters and causing a deal of starving amongst the poor class. Last year was rather a light crop making things worse. … Generally the grasshoppers don’t eat the grass. Other crops were saved before they came.”

It’s been estimated that the infestation caused $200 million in damages to the crops across the plains. The infestation and subsequent droughts, plus an increase in Russians immigrants to Kansas with experience growing wheat, encouraged a shift from corn to wheat across the region.

James went on to discuss his life on the farm and as a rancher, including the feeding, managing, and selling of cattle:

“We have seventy head of cattle, mostly very good, and steers. … James Angus is still stopping near us. He has 36 head of steers and a horse and is doing pretty well. He has no call for more. They keep him busy. Attending to them when they are fat for selling after about 6 months they will be worth about 40 dollars a head and can be sold all in one lot to a dealer or feed them with corn and make 70 or 80 dollars a head. He is purposing to get land and be a farmer or go back to California. His and ours go in one drove in summer and him and me herd them about with a fine horse and two dogs. I like herding except when it storms.”

James and some of his male family members who had also moved to Kansas had farms that were close together. He was disappointed that the value of his land was not increasing like he had hoped:

“Land is not rising in value as was expected. Although immigration has been great, they are mostly poor and going out west a hundred miles or more where they get free grants in farming.”

James, however, was happy with the condition of soil and it’s ability to be worked year after year:

“The soil is very black in the colour and soft and fine. All the ploughs are of polished and hardened steel or they won’t work the land. Some of it has cropped for 20 years and is as good as ever. It requires to be made corn once in three years or the weeds get bad but no thistles. The weather in the summer is generally pleasant, often a light breeze of wind. There are two days every week in winter when no man ought to work.”

I liked how James noted that there were no thistles to deal with in Kansas; a very Scottish observation perhaps.

Next time I’ll be writing about how the letters give a glimpse into other branches of employment and working life for Scots at home and abroad in the later nineteenth century. As always, be sure to let us know what aspects of life you would like to know more about from the letters in the comments below, or tweet us @IslesAbroad.

Suggested reading:

Lorraine Peters, ‘The Impact of the American Civil War on the Local Communities of Southern Scotland‘, Civil War History 49 no. 2 (2003): 133-152.

Marilyn Garriets, ‘Agricultural Resources, Agricultural Production and Settlement at Confederation‘, Acadiensis Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region 16 no. 2 (2002).

Chuck Lyons, ‘1874: The Year of the Locust‘, HistoryNet, 2 May 2012.

Scots and the American Civil war: So whose side were we on?The Scotsman, 11 Apr 2011.



One thought on “Farming and the Land in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

  1. Pingback: Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

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