vanessa farnsworth's blog

Farming the Unfarmable


By the second half of the 19th century, the settlement of Manitoulin Island by non-indigenous homesteaders had become inevitable. There were precious few affordable acreages left in southern Ontario by the late 1850s, a circumstance that led to a tidal wave of land speculation that pushed northward through Ontario until most of the arable land on the Bruce peninsula had fallen into private hands.

The Problem of Trees

ironwood trunk

(Photo: An ironwood tree in McLean's Park on Manitoulin Island.)

Even before Manitoulin Island was opened up for settlement by non-indigenous homesteaders in the late 1860s, there were many who made it very clear they had every intention of exploiting the island for its natural resources and the resource highest on their list was timber.

The Slow Pace of Settlement

Stump with coffee mug

Once the decision was made to open up the ceded portions of Manitoulin Island to settlement by non-indigenous families, it's safe to say things did not go to plan. Although the first lots were slated to hit the market in 1865, multiple complications led to land sales not actually beginning until 1866. Even then, there were few takers and by 1867 less than 5,000 acres had been sold. By 1870, that figure had risen to 33,000 acres, which represented just a quarter of the land that was available for purchase at the time.

A History of Fires

Pitch fork prodding fire

Fires play an important role in The Haweaters just as they have on Manitoulin Island throughout much of its history.

At several points in the island's past, large swaths of landscape have fallen victim to flames and at the time officials were contemplating opening up Manitoulin for settlement by European homesteaders in the 1860s, reports were floating around that pointed to evidence that extensive historical burns had caused large expanses of land, including much of Tehkummah (where The Haweaters is set), to be badly damaged.

Unfamiliar Words

(Photo by Pisit Heng | Unsplash)
Words are interesting things. Over the centuries their definitions can change. And certain words, once common, can fall out of favour, rendering them unfamiliar just a generation later.

Poultices Cured Pretty Much Everything

Apothecary jars

Nineteenth century medicine was an interesting topic to research in preparation for writing The Haweaters. Doctors were in short supply on Manitoulin Island in 1877, the year The Haweaters is set, and I could find reference to just one who was in permanent residence on the island. So if a settler found themselves needing medical care, they or someone close to them could have to travel significant distances, often by foot, to track down that sole doctor or wait considerable time for him to make his way to them.


August brings with it the long awaited publication of The Haweaters following a four month delay due to COVID-19.

What's in a Name

Bishop's Barn, Manitoulin Island

I knew when I gave my historical novel the title of The Haweaters that I was saddling it with a term that most Canadians are unlikely to have heard of before, but I was convinced that it was the correct title for my book, so I went with it even knowing that I would have some explaining to do when the book eventually hit bookstores.

She Said What?


Ellen Sim is one of the more enigmatic characters to appear in The Haweaters. A sworn deposition she gave in Manitowaning on June 28, 1877 about the deaths of William and Charles Bryan at the hands of her boss and his son is recorded in the "Murder on the Manitoulin" pamphlet put out by the Manitoulin District History and Genealogy Society in February 1993.

The History Keepers

Old photos in a bin

Researching the murders of William and Charlie Bryan took me many places, both physically and virtually, that are dedicated to the preservation of our collective history. Peripherally, I was aware these places existed, but I had never really found myself in a position where I needed to avail myself of their services.


Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.