The best books about frontier life in early 19th century Canada

Who am I?

When I moved to Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 2001 I was amazed to find how this city, unlike many North American cities, has preserved and celebrated its past. It’s in the architecture, the streets, the fabric, and the soil. As someone with a deep love of reading and exploring history, I immediately began to research my new home. I didn’t discover the sort of bloodless accounts often taught in school, replete with dates and facts. This history simmers and boils; full of tales of pirates and officers, gadflies and ne’er-do-wells, countless plucky frontiersmen and women. There is enough raw material for a thousand novels. 

I wrote...

Bottle and Glass

By Morgan Wade,

Book cover of Bottle and Glass

What is my book about?

Bottle and Glass is a story of survival and escape told from the barstools of two dozen boisterous Kingston taverns at the close of the War of 1812. The novel follows the fortunes of Jeremy Castor and his cousin, Merit Davey, two young men snatched from the Cornish coast by the Royal Navy in the summer of 1813. A year later, they arrive in Kingston, in Upper Canada, a town tense with the fear and deprivation of war. Paid, pent, and thirsty, their first riotous night ashore is spent at a tavern, the novel's namesake, the Violin, Bottle, and Glass.

Jeremy and Merit meet sixteen‐year‐old Amelia Barrett, newly and unhappily married to Colonel Noble Spafford, a Peninsular War veteran many decades her senior. When, later that evening, Jeremy stumbles upon a dead man linked to the Colonel, the lives of these three people seeking freedom become bound together forever.

The books I picked & why

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Roughing It in the Bush Or, Life in Canada

By Susanna Moodie,

Book cover of Roughing It in the Bush Or, Life in Canada

Why this book?

The gold standard source for what life was like for the hardy souls arriving in Upper Canada in the early 19th century. Although writing from a position of relative privilege, Moodie writes of hardships and deprivations that make the modern reader blanch. We wonder whether we could have survived what she and her family endure.  She writes with richness and great humanity so that we can vividly imagine what it must have been like for her to be taken from the relatively comfortable life she’d known and to make a life in the bush.  Despite her trials and tribulations, she comes to have a great love for the beauty and wildness of her adopted home.

A Troublesome Berth: The Journal of First Lieutenant Charles Allan Parker, Royal Marines: The Canada Years, 1838-1840

By Rosalyn Parker, R. Andrews,

Book cover of A Troublesome Berth: The Journal of First Lieutenant Charles Allan Parker, Royal Marines: The Canada Years, 1838-1840

Why this book?

I used Parker’s journal extensively in my research for Bottle and Glass.  It is the account of a British officer arriving in the Canadian wilderness for the first time. Parker’s style is very much modern and journalistic, giving an immediacy to the wonder and apprehension he has for his new surroundings.  The reader is right there with him marveling over the rudeness of frontier life.  A representative quote: “Kingston is one of the dirtiest, or rather muddiest places I have ever been in, even in my extensive peregrinations; it is the worst lighted, and most miserably paved place I have ever been in… the number of masterless dogs prowling about the streets at all times is abominable, the quantity of pigs laying in every corner is disgusting in the extreme, and the number of cattle roaming about the streets with their inexpressive countenances is really, really past bearing!”

Kingston: The King's Town

By James A. Roy,

Book cover of Kingston: The King's Town

Why this book?

Roy’s history of Kingston is a fiction writer’s dream.  It is crammed with colourful anecdotes and amazing descriptions of life two hundred years ago, each one a possible starting point for a novel.  This is not your dry, elementary school history; Roy’s account sweats and stinks, crackles and clangs, chews and spits. He writes of revolting spectacles such as “disfigured or putrified or naked human bodies lying exposed on the shores of the town, or kept afloat and fastened by a rope while the preparations for interment were being made.” Life in a frontier town was not for the faint of heart. 

The Gentleman's Bottle Companion: A Collection of Eighteenth Century Bawdy Ballads

By P. Harris Publishing,

Book cover of The Gentleman's Bottle Companion: A Collection of Eighteenth Century Bawdy Ballads

Why this book?

Bottle and Glass is set in actual, historical Kingston taverns from the early 1800’s. It is said that there was then a drinking shop in town for every seventh male adult and one visitor claimed that two thirds of the people he passed on the road were drunk. In 1812, when Kingston had a population of less than four thousand, it had about eighty taverns.  So, the Bottle Companion, published in 1768, is a perfect pairing. It is filled with all manner of ribald drinking songs and saucy lyrics, paeans to drink and revelry; it helps set the tone for what early 19th century life was really like. A number of characters in Bottle and Glass, at particular moments of high spirits and ever-expanding mayhem, belt out selections from the Companion.   

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry,

Book cover of Lonesome Dove

Why this book?

Lonesome Dove is not, of course, set in Upper Canada. It takes place in the American West. But, it is a wonderful, sprawling epic, featuring a wide cast of colourful characters making their way in the frontier of the 19th century. The story follows Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, two retired Texas Rangers, as they drive cattle north to Montana. Along the way, a fascinating array of people come into their orbit. McMurtry’s portrayal of each character, however minor, is rich and masterful. You find yourself thinking and worrying about them long after you have finished reading.  It’s been twenty years since I first read Lonesome Dove and I still have sudden vivid recollections of it, as though I’d been there myself with McCrae and Call, driving the cattle. When I began work on Bottle and Glass, Lonesome Dove was my model. 

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