The Region of Peel’s First Settlers
With the construction of Dundas Street, the area that was to become the Region of Peel was opened for settlement. The first immigrants were the United Empire Loyalists, who fled the United States after the American Revolution, fearing persecution for supporting Britain during the war. Following the War of 1812, the British actively encouraged immigration and settlement to Upper Canada. Many of these first settlers in the Region of Peel were Irish and Scottish farmers, displaced from their homes by the Highland Clearances, the Irish Potato Famine, and the widespread economic depression that occurred following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. These factors resulted in a 500% increase in the population of the Region of Peel between 1812 and 1835.
Many settlers had to earn their land, pay for all of the farm equipment, seed, food and other supplies needed to get a farm up and running. The largest plots that were given out to immigrant farmers were 200 acres; however most would have been given significantly smaller plots of land. Settlers were also required to fulfill certain obligations in order to keep their land. These included building a house that measured 4.8 x 6 meters, clearing and fencing 5 acres of land and clearing the road in front of their property, with all obligations to be met within 1 to 3 years.
An early settler of Chinguacousy refers to the dense forests as ‘wolf country’. The cutting down of trees was a long, backing breaking process that proceeded very slowly with only 3 to 4 acres of land being cleared every year. Farmers would sometimes begin by burning the land they wanted to work in order to speed up the process. Collected ashes from this slash and burn technique were sometimes sold to nearby soap factories, thus providing extra income.
Early settlers living in Peel were subsistence farmers, only growing enough to support themselves and their families, with a little left over to sell or trade for items that they were unable to produce on their own. As such the farms that existed during the1820s and 30s were small, but highly diversified operations. Farmers would grow vegetables in the garden in order to feed themselves, while planting wheat and other grain crops to sell for cash. They also kept small amounts of livestock such as pigs, cows, and chickens in order to provide meat, eggs, milk and butter.
Some pioneer families in contrast were very well off. The Magrath family from Ireland was able to purchase a large amount of supplies, plus the labor to clear the land for them. The Magraths eventually settled on the Credit River in Erindale, 18 miles west of Toronto.
Privileged immigrants such as the United Empire Loyalists and veterans of the British Army received free grants of land by statutory right. They were given grants of land that ranged between 100 and 5000 acres, as well as agricultural supplies and rations for 8 months.
Early settlers also learned from the Mississaugas and other First Nations groups living in the Region of Peel. The First Nations possessed extensive knowledge of local geography and weather patterns. They shared their knowledge of medicinal plants, as well as which plants would grow best in local growing conditions. The most common of these were corn, beans and squash. These plants were sometimes referred to as the Three Sisters, because the corn stalk provided support for the beans and the squash while the beans shaded the corn and the squash.
By 1825, 6 mills had been built on the Credit River. Most of the settlers who lived in the area had also completed their settlement obligations and had their land under cultivation. The farmers took their grain to local mills where it was ground into flour. The miller would take a certain percentage of the flour produced as payment for his services. Access to water was vital for milling in the 19th Century, as water was used to turn a waterwheel which powered the heavy grind stones used to turn wheat kernels into flour.
The early shanties that first housed the family as they worked to clear the land started to be replaced with log cabins. The shanties were often turned into chicken coops or pig sties. The log cabin would have had several rooms in addition to a partial cellar. The family would live in this house while they cleared the rest of the land, and acquired additional seed and livestock.
After ten or fifteen years, when success had been assured, the log cabin was torn down and a much larger residence was built.. This was often of stone, brick or wood frame construction and two or three stories high. Such homes would have had many rooms with high ceilings in order to accommodate the maze of pipes needed to carry heat from stoves and ovens on the ground floor to the upper stories.
The introduction of labour saving mechanized farm equipment in the 1860’s, such as horse powered threshers signaled a change in the way that farmers approached agriculture. These innovations also had wider effects for the people in the Region of Peel. Inns began to spring up along the main roads in Peel, providing rest to travelers. In 1826, Peel’s first post office opened in Derry West, with later ones in Cooksville and Streetsville. By the turn of the Century 75 post offices existed to serve the needs of local communities.
In 1879, a new rail line was built through the Region of Peel. This railway line opened up new markets to local farmers and brought tradesmen and skilled workers into the area. By the 1880’s the Region of Peel had hydro-electric power and a telephone service, both of which lead to further development in Peel. By the late 1880’s, with a more diverse agricultural base, skilled tradesman, increased industry, and the coming of railway, the pioneer era was over.
From the 1880’s until the 1960’s, the Region of Peel was a major agricultural center, with Brampton, in particular being dubbed Flowertown for its role as the site of the Dale greenhouses which were the largest commercial rose nurseries in the British Commonwealth.