Wrestling in Canada, 1776-1914: The Pioneers

Journal of Manly Arts
July 2001

By Glynn A. Leyshon

Adapted from Of Mats and Men: The Story of Canadian Amateur and Olympic Wrestling from 1600 to 1984 (London, Ontario, Canada: Sports Dynamics, 1984). Copyright © Glynn A. Leyshon 1984. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Since Canada was settled by people with a sports and a wrestling tradition, it would seem logical to assume that when they established themselves finally in Canada, they would maintain these pastimes. Despite the inheritance, there is only evidence of sporadic involvement in sport generally throughout pioneer Canada.

The young men seem to think they can get all the exercise they need in their ordinary occupations. Such games as football, baseball, cricket, hockey, lacrosse and tennis and the like are never seen and even skating and sliding are almost entirely confined to small boys. [EN1]

The statement above is a bit extreme and was written by an American visitor. However, his viewpoint, taken at its most pessimistic, does reflect the fact that if athletics and wrestling existed they were not widespread, popular, or organized.

Guillet, in reference to pioneers in Ontario, states, "But while some had leisure in which they could enjoy such pastimes, most of the settlers were too busy to enter into them." [EN2]

Wood, in describing the French settlers, stated that there was little time for anything easier than gaining a livelihood. The history of the French regime in Canada even to its end was one in which amusements were somewhat notable by their scarcity; where leisure was rare. [EN3] Such as there was occurred at rare occasions such as the wrestling contests held when the French habitants paid their yearly tithe or rent at the seigniory. [EN4]

The usual gathering place for early settlers was at a "bee" such as a barn raising. Approximately 35 men were needed for a barn raising, and the host was expected to supply not only the meals for the two or three days, but also a copious amount of drink. After supper a variety of games were introduced, with various trials of strength: wrestling, running, and putting the stone. [EN5] Considering that there was no indication of temperance and that working 14 hours or more in the sun built a thirst, it is not surprising that many of the men became drunk and that the feats of strength became dangerous. Henry documented on case:

While the men were at supper this evening, a half playful scuffle occurred. Joseph St. Germain was thrown down in the kitchen and melancholy to tell, he received some mortal injury, and in the course of seven or eight minutes expired to the horror and regret of everyone. A verdict of manslaughter was found against Ronald McDonald. [EN6]

Susanne Moody, the English aristocrat who became a pioneer settler in Ontario, abhorred the bees as drunken revels whose productivity did not justify the outlay of food and booze and the great inconvenience and danger they engendered. [EN7]


Bully Boys and Brawls

Both fur traders and later, lumbermen, had reputations for drinking and brawling rather than for athletic participation. One account by a John McLean tells of setting up a Hudson Bay trading post on the Ottawa River in competition with the Northwest Company. The Hudson Bay Company had a hired "bully" from Montreal who "defied the whole of the Grand River." The opposition went to a group of Irishmen working as loggers nearby and with copious application of rum convinced the best fighter to challenge the Hudson Bay man. An altercation ensued but before it got out of hand McLean interceded and appealed to the Irishman as only a good Scot could, by offering drink and a talk of the old country. [EN8]

Another account of the early 1800s indicated that Fort William was famous as the place for wrestling, for it was here that the two companies, Hudson Bay and Northwest Company, met in large numbers. A voyageur received a great honour to be proclaimed the "boulé de tout fort" (bully of the fort) or "le coq d'une brigade" (cock of the walk) and there were epic battles recounted for years. The grand champion received a feather for his hat. [EN9]

The combatants stripped to the waist and tied their hair back with a silk handkerchief. A brief description of the rules indicates that "Greek" rules were used. This probably meant that they fought as gladiators rather than as wrestlers. A Montreal Gazette report as late as 1870 noted that:

wrestling commenced; which was soon succeeded by boxing in the modern style of rough and tumble. This detestable practice is very general in Canada; and nothing can be more abhorrent to good sense and feeling... They attack each other with the ferociousness of bull-dogs and seem in earnest to disfigure each other's faces, and to glut their eyes with the sight of blood. Their whole aim is bent on tearing out each other's eyes, in doing which they make the forefinger of the right hand fast in their antagonist's hair, and with the thumb - as they term it - gouge out the daylights. [EN10]

So it would seem that on those occasions when wrestling took place, it took the form of the Greek pankration or all-out fight rather than a test of skill and strength. Those few who partook were perhaps too close to the savagery of the woods, where life was cheap, to bother with the niceties of rules and sportsmanship.


Civilization, Rules, and Sportsmanship

As the country became more settled, contests became less brutal and more sporting - not just in wrestling, but in other athletic endeavours. [EN11] Many of the early settlers were United Empire Loyalists and the first settlement of any note in Ontario was at Adolphustown, Bay of Quinte, in 1784. [EN12] Guillet gives an account, one of the few recorded, of a wrestling competition which took place in the area:

On one occasion in the 1800s the "Fifth Towners" or the inhabitants of the township of Marysburgh as they were called, considered the "Fourth Towners" across the Bay of Quinte in Adolphustown were "too smart and stuck-up"; so they challenged them to pick out three wrestlers to settle the relative smartness of the townships. Needless to say they were not to be stumped, and sent Samuel Dorland, Samuel Casey, and Paul Trumpour to uphold the reputation of Adolphustown against the chosen men of Marysburgh, whose names have not come down to us, perhaps because they were worsted in the encounter.

The hour was fixed and a nearby field was selected where hundreds were on hand to see "fair play" and help decide which township had the best men. These were all noted athletes and they were then young and in their prime. Samuel Dorland, afterwards a colonel in the militia and a leading official in the Methodist Church, was an expert wrestler and used to boast even in his old days that he seldom if ever met a man who could lay him on his back. He soon had his man down. Samuel Casey, who afterwards became a leading militia officer and a prominent justice of the peace, was one of the strongest men in the township, but not an expert wrestler. He was so powerful in the legs that his opponent, with all his skill, could not trip him up, and at last got thrown himself. Paul Trumpour who was head of what is now the largest family in the township was not so skilled in athletics; but he was a man of immense strength. He got his arms well fixed around his man and gave him such a terrible bear-hug that the poor fellow soon cried out "enough" to save his ribs from getting crushed in, and that settled it. The Fourth-town championship was not again disputed. [EN13]

Despite the gentling effect of settlement, however, there were still few athletic contests of any description. There were good reasons for this. One was the paucity of available contestants; the other, the long and arduous workday. Additionally, travel was extremely difficult. In 1836 there were exactly 16 miles of railroad in Canada and the population from coast-to-coast was 3 million. [EN14]

That Canada had a small population is illustrated by the province of Manitoba. In the period 1891-1916, there was an influx of 961,000 British and 594,000 Ukranians, Poles, Russians, and Germans. Most of Manitoba's future citizens came from continental Europe. [EN15] So the middle class from which the organizers of sport generally spring was not only a small group, but a widely dispersed group with little leisure time.

The workday was long and demanding. Carpenters and other craftsmen worked 14 hour days, six days per week. Farmers, for the most part, used oxen which they walked behind. Thus there was little need or inclination for vigorous games. The only activities recorded in the Swift Current, Saskatchewan area, as an example, were occasional community picnics which might include some foot and horse races followed by an evening dance. [EN16]

The weight of evidence, according to Cumming, suggests that most of the organizers and developers of sport in Canada at the time were not representative of the mass of the Canadian working population. The pushers came from the middle class, businessmen, members of the professions, from universities, and from the military. It was not until approximately the beginning of the twentieth century, when shorter working hours and Saturday half-holidays became the norm, that a working man could participate. [EN17]

One final point may be made. While it is easy to imagine a rustic emigrating from England or Scotland to Canada and establishing the same mode of life that witnessed the bucolic scene of wrestling on the green sward of Britain, this was simply not the case. A community is required for such wrestling to thrive and be practiced. Canada was not settled "en masse" but by dribs and drabs, by highly different groups in small pockets. For example, a mixture of United Empire Loyalists, Acadians, immigrants from various parts of Great Britain, and German Protestants settled in Nova Scotia and set up an interplay of differing cultural heritages, social groups, and religions. [EN18] For many decades there was little sense of community similar to that which the settlers had left behind. Also, these same embryonic communities were too young to have developed their own traditions or new forms of their old cultures.

Cumberland/Westmoreland match
"A Cumberland/Westmoreland match at the Grasmere Games"

The pioneer settlers of Canada left a small legacy of wrestling tradition for the very good reasons already enumerated. Still, despite the apparent lack of recorded evidence, wrestling styles such as Cumberland and Westmorland were to be found in remote places. The only conclusion to be drawn is that some pioneers did import their wrestling knowledge and impart it on rare occasions to others born in Canada. One piece of evidence to support this contention came from a gentleman named Jack Segren.

Segren grew up on a farm in Manitoba and became an amateur and then a professional wrestler. He was introduced to the sport during harvest time when, in his words, "We scuffed around in the stubble raising dust. We used Cumberland style. Throw the man down and the match was over." [EN19]

Since Segren had no association whatever with the normal sources of wrestling at that time, the YMCA or a club, one can only conclude that someone in the past had passed on the simple rules and structure of Cumberland and Westmorland style from its birthplace in England to the country folk of Manitoba, and Segren, a typical farm boy, learned it as folk culture is normally passed on.

The pioneers also provided a rich legacy of physical health, endurance, and strength. The very act of pioneering is, after all, a form of natural selection. First, only the most adventurous take the risk and they in turn are exposed to many hardships which tend to weed out the weakest. This leaves a tough, resilient, tenacious core - an inheritance from which Canada still claims dividends.



EN1. W.P. Greenough, Canadian Folk-Life and Folk-Lore (New York: Richmond, 1847), 45.

EN2. E. Guillet, Pioneer Days in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1933), 149.

EN3. W. Wood, ed., The Storied Province of Quebec, vol. II (Toronto: Toronto Dominion Co., 1931), 1017.

EN4. Encyclopedia Canadiana, vol. 10 (Ottawa: Grolier Co., 1958), 384.

EN5. C.M. Strickland, Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West (Edmonton: Hurtig Ltd., 1970), 37.

EN6. L.J. Henry, Pioneer Days in Ontario (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1938), 115.

EN7. S. Moody, Roughing It in the Bush (Toronto: Beck & Cockburn, 1913), 341.

EN8. W. Wallace, ed., "John McLean's Notes of a Twenty-Fife Years' Service in the Hudson Bay Co. Territory," Champlain Society (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1932), 21-22.

EN9. E.Z. Massicotte, Athletes Canadiens-Français (Montreal: Beauchemin Ltd., 1910), 70.

EN10. Montreal Gazette, Sept. 29, 1870. For comparative purposes, see also Elliott J. Gorn, "'Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry," American Historical Review, 90 (February to December 1985), 18-43.

EN11. E. Guillet, Pioneer Farmer and Backwoodsman, vol. 1 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), 146.

EN12. S. Davidson, "A History of Sports and Games in Eastern Canada prior to World War I," unpublished doctoral thesis, Columbia University, 1951, 22.

EN13. D. McGowan, Grassland Settlers (Regina: University of Regina Press, 1975), 16.

EN14. G. Cumming. Canadian Sporting Heritage: A Selection (1807-1914) (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1975), 1.

EN15. J. Jackson, The Centennial History of Manitoba (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart Co., 1970), 157.

EN16. Davidson, 1951, 8.

EN17. Personal communication from Mr. Jack Segren, April 1984.

July 2001