For a new beginning (Part One) - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
It must have been so very, very hard to make the decision to leave homes and family to immigrate to “the new land”. The reasons were varied and as the result of different degrees of hardship. The “Great Migration to Canada” from the British Isles occurred between 1815 and 1850 and involved 800,000 people.
The reasons for leaving Britain were many. The Industrial Revolution had brought with it improved living conditions, population growth and consequently, a lack of jobs due to mechanization. The potato famine in Ireland led to starvation and a need to find a better place to live. Wealthy English landowners decided that the lands they controlled in Scotland would be put to more profitable use as sheep pasture than as homes for the tenant crofters. During the “Highland Clearances” homes were burned and the people displaced. For other folk, it could have been the lure of having their own land at a relatively inexpensive cost or perhaps as a result of a sense of adventure.
People in the British Isles might have seen pamphlets, such as the one penned by William Tiger Dunlop. He wrote Statistical Sketches of Upper Canada for the benefit of Emigrants in 1832 to induce immigration to the lands controlled by the Canada Company in the Huron Tract that encompassed much of southern Huron, as well as Middlesex counties.
Dunlop advised to bring clothes, books, gardening tools, medicines and sturdy boots packed in wooden barrels. For the voyage across the Atlantic, it was advisable to bring “large amounts of oatmeal, potatoes, onions, vinegar and pickles”. One’s worldly possessions needed to be carefully thought about and packed in wooden barrels or chests.
Our son now owns a handmade wooden chest that was used by his great-great-grandfather, over 140 years ago, for his voyage from Scotland. It was ironic, when our son’s family relocated last year, that just one of the items, being transferred by a van company, was that humble wooden chest.
To cross the ocean, it was necessary to travel by ship. Earliest travelers would rely on sailing vessels from ports in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Ireland and England and would land in Quebec City or Montreal during the months that ice did not block the passage. Alternative ports were Halifax and St. John, New Brunswick and ports in the United States.
At first, the ships were wooden ones, powered by sail. The length of the voyage was dependent on the winds and could be hampered by storms, causing a great variation in time to cross the Atlantic, from several weeks to a few months. Two types of accommodation were available: cabins for those who could afford them and steerage for those who could only afford the cheapest rate. The steerage, or between decks, section was made up of temporary partitions and bunks. Once the passengers had disembarked, these furnishings were dismantled and destroyed and the ship would be prepared to carry cargo on the voyage back to Europe. Conditions in steerage were cramped and unsanitary.
Some ships required the passengers to bring their own food while others provided only meager provisions. Berths that were used for bunks were stacked on two or three levels and two to four people would be expected to share each bed. In addition, the only fresh air in the steerage section came from hatches that were closed during rough seas or storms. Washroom facilities were on the main deck and buckets were used in steerage human waste and by those who became seasick. These buckets easily overturned and the result of all these factors was an unhealthy area that had a continual stench.
Many people died in steerage quarters as a result of typhus and dysentery. Sometimes as much as 10 per cent of the passengers did not survive the crossing and there were many burials at sea. Once ships arrived in Quebec, to prevent the spread of diseases, ill passengers were quarantined on Grosse Île. This facility operated as a quarantine centre from 1832 until 1937.
By 1855, steamships in the Allan Line were scheduling the voyage for every two weeks. Crossing times shortened through the years to be measured by days. By the 1950s, intercontinental air flights were measured in hours.
There are scanty records of the people who were among the earliest immigrants. By 1865, entry to Canada had become more documented. Library and Archives Canada has a website called “Passenger Lists for the Port of Quebec City and other Ports 1865-1922,” which can be found at bac-lac.gc.ca. On this site is a database of passengers’ names that entered Canada through official ports of entry during that period. A separate database exists for the ships that carried the immigrants. After the ships’ manifests had been copied, the originals were destroyed. Unfortunately, not all copies are legible and not all people who immigrated to Canada can be found in these databases, but it is worth a search if one’s ancestors came in this era. The majority of passengers, arriving in Canada, first set foot on land in Quebec City with others landing in Montreal and Halifax. It must be noted that some immigrants arriving in American ports such as Boston and New York and then making their way to Canada are not documented.
After making the difficult decision to immigrate to Canada and to endure the hardships involved in making that trip, new Canadians were still not settled in a home. That part of the journey will be a story for another column.