Protecting Point Pelee
The same early surveyors who noted the presence of Native camps at Point Pelee in the 1790s, also reported forests along the northwest shore of Lake Erie, containing timber suitable for the masts and spars of the British fleet. In order to protect these tall, straight pines and oaks from damage by settlers, the British set aside certain areas as naval reserves.
The southernmost 1 554 hectares (3 840 acres) of the Pelee Peninsula were accorded naval reserve status in the late 1790s. The boundaries of the reserve were established in Abraham Iradell's 1799 survey. Interestingly, over 100 years later, these same boundaries were used to define the limits of Point Pelee as a national park.
The DeLaurier homestead as it appeared at the turn of the century. Note the curved header over the door in the shed. Its shape suggests that it was salvaged¸ from a shipwreck, indicating that the DeLauriers, like many poorer settlers, let nothing go to waste.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-52
Surveyors reported that between "Round O" (Rondeau) and "Point Pele" (Point Pe lay) there were 311 square kilometres (120 square miles) of swamp and morasses. In their opinion all of them were "perilous, thickety places" and the water throughout them was "stagnant and ruinous."
Neither these "incurable marshes," nor the penalties for trespassing on naval reserve land stopped settlement on Point Pelee. The arrival in the early 1830s of the DeLauriers, LaFleurs, and a few other families, ushered in the era of the "squatters," the first white settlement within the Point Pelee Naval Reserve.
Point Pelee fishermen mend their nets at one of the Park's early commercial fisheries.
© Parks Canada
The waters around Point Pelee were well known for their abundance of fish. The "pointers," as the squatters came to be known, took full advantage of this. At first their catch went mostly to fill their own needs, but later they followed the example of the Americans and began commercial fishing.
By 1891, 22 commercial fisheries were operating from the naval reserve, but many were short-lived. Ten years later, over-fishing and other environmental stresses had brought about the decline of the most marketable fish: the lake trout, whitefish, and lake herring.
The pointers (squatters) cleared small plots on which they grew basic foods such as potatoes, beans and corn. Later as commercial fishing declined the pointers turned more and more to cash crops. They cleared more land, in some cases even levelled the rolling dunes. Vineyards were planted, and it was reported that they produced enough grapes each season to keep them supplied with wine. Asparagus and peaches did well too, but the crop for which Point Pelee became best known for was apples, with its Jonathan variety winning many agricultural prizes.
Pointers also kept livestock, mainly cattle and pigs, which they let roam. Visitors to Point Pelee in 1911 reported that they were "surprised by the number of hogs and cattle they saw roaming there, a practice which had (apparently) been indulged in for a long time." They continued, "... hogs could even be found in the drier parts of the marsh, uprooting trees and tearing sod, while cattle browsed on the trees and shrubs of the Peninsula."
Two of the Moody family's children find fun in riding on a pig, just one of Point Pelee's livestock.
© Parks Canada
Roving livestock and the clearing of the land obviously had a dramatic impact on Point Pelee's natural communities. But these "agricultural improvements" appear to have been a major factor in the government's decision, in the 1880s, to allow the naval reserve residents to purchase their land. This was a major victory for the squatters. They had pressed for over a decade to get the government to sell.
The first European explorers to visit Point Pelee reported, "the woods are open and full of game. Bear, deer, wild turkey, beaver, passenger pigeon and ruffled grouse are abundant."
Reinforcing this, in 1721, Charlevoix noted:
"There are a great number of bears in this part of the country and last winter more than 400 were killed on Point Pelee alone. They are fatter and of better flavour than the most savory pigs of France."
Champion swan hunters, Bert and Max Girardin, pose with their bag, typical of the large numbers of waterfowl shot each year from Point Pelee marshes. Bert remained a fine hunter even after the loss of his left arm in an earlier hunting accident.
© Parks Canada
It is hard to believe that there could be so many bears in an area as small as Point Pelee. Perhaps what Charlevoix was describing was the kill for all of Essex County. Whatever the case, by the time settlers arrived on Point Pelee, much of the wild game was gone. What survived still remained an important source of food.
"Much of the time was spent hunting and at that time there was almost an unlimited supply to be had. Deer lived on Point Pelee in large numbers and thousands were killed by settlers and used for food."
As can be expected in such a small area, hunting had a devastating effect on many of Point Pelee's animals, especially the larger mammals. Indications are that by the late 1800s, deer had been completely wiped out. Today's herd may be the result of a reintroduction from the surrounding countryside in the 1940s.
Trapping at Point Pelee.
© Parks Canada/CD-0277-26
Muskrats were special to the pointers. To them "hunting rats" was a sport. Not only were their muskrats pelts an important source of money, but they were also welcome on the dinner table. "Rats" were generally taken in March when their fur was at its prime. In April, an auction was held in Point Pelee to which each trapper brought his pelts.
During the years preceding the declaration as a national park, 10 000 pelts were taken from the marsh each spring.
Reproduced with permission of The Friends of Point Pelee, from Where Canada Begins by James Robertson Graham.