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  • Ontario, Canada

The 1840’s and the Plague Ships

The American’s Who Settled Here

“When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, Upper Canada had a population of nearly 100,000, four-fifths of whom were American-born. The Upper Canada Militia and Indians who joined the British regular troops to resist the invasion were defending their homes and farms, as had their fathers and grandfathers in the American Revolution. Their success in turning back the invaders who would have severed the eastern provinces from the future western provinces ensured the development of Canada as a nation.” – from United Empire Loyalists – Canadian MysteryPedia.

EH?  Would you have guessed that in 1812,  8 out of 10 Canadians in Ontario had been born in America? Really?

The American Revolution,  between 1765 and 1783,  played a very important role in the population of Westmeath Township. How are the two related?  The Thirteen Colonies and their revolt against their British Empire caused some settlers  to make a difficult decision to not stay and become Americans in the new Republic. Those people loyal to the British Crown were helped to resettle in the north; either in Lower or Upper Canada and the Maritime areas. This was wrenching – many were leaving settlements and lands where they had lived and prospered for two or three generations. Now they came into the wilderness to begin from scratch to make a living and provide for their families.

These Loyalists were recognized by the then Governor of Quebec and the Governor General of British North America Lord Dorchester and allowed to use the letters U.E. affixed to their names. They settled in what was initially Quebec (including the Eastern Townships) and modern-day Ontario, where they received land grants of 200 acres (81 ha) per person, and in Nova Scotia (including present-day New Brunswick). Those who had served in a British garrison received some preferential treatment but often the process would take months and years to sort our the paperwork and  red tape. See Crown Land Patents, Grants & Purchasing  to read the list of soldiers and militiamen that came to Westmeath Township.

Caught up were natives who had fought with the British such as the Iroquois who came into Upper Canada and settled as the Six Nations of the Grand River and around the Bay of Quinte. As well, free Black Loyalists and slaves who had worked for the Loyalist side came into Canada; the subject of “The Book of Negros” by Lawrence Hill.

An excellent overview of the hardships faced is found in United Empire Loyalists – Canadian MysteryPedia:

“Tens of thousands of Loyalists left the Thirteen Colonies to return to England, to settle in the

West Indies, and in the other North American Colonies.

“Approximately 30,000 Loyalists settled in the Maritimes and 10,000 in the Colony of Quebec (including many in what is now the Canadian Province of Ontario). Those Loyalists coming from the east to this region were transported up the rapid-filled St. Lawrence River in sturdy, flat-bottomed bateaux to the general area where they were to settle. The raw land granted to them by the Crown was to replace the well-developed farms they had lost, left behind.

“After division of the land by surveyors and the random drawing of lots, the families, with a tent and a few tools and modest supplies issued to them by the King, proceeded to their forest properties. The first task was to build a log shanty to provide shelter for the first winter. These huts were small, only 10 or 12 feet long, built of round logs, and frequently with only a hole in the roof to serve as a chimney.

“This crude beginning was followed by laborious clearing the land, building of a log house, and cultivation of the virgin soil. All of these advances were accomplished with extreme hardship, primitive tools, great determination, and faith in British institutions.

That Canadian MysteryPedia entry also points out the findings of a study done into the origins of the incoming U.E.L. which will surprise those who assume them to be exclusively from the British Isles:

The multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity of the Loyalists is often ignored and they are stereotyped as ‘English’ because of their support of the Crown and their spoken language. But in a review of its members’ records, the Toronto Branch of the U.E.L found where national origin of a member’s Loyalist ancestor could be ascertained, 

  • 28 percent were originally from Germany,
  • 23 percent from Scotland,
  • 18 percent from England, 
  • 12 percent from Ireland, 
  • 8 percent from Holland, 
  • 5 percent from France,
  • 4 percent from Wales,
  • 1 percent from Switzerland 
  • less than 1 percent from Denmark and Sweden.”

In the HWT Project Family Registry many of the township’s families have some familial link to the Loyalists and some early settlers, like the Beach, Condie, Tucker, Adams, Macdonalds and so many others, were the grandsons of Loyalists who had settled along the St. Lawrence Valley.

The Irish Immigration; Famine & Plague Ships in the 1840’s

Editor’s Note:  Historic Westmeath Township, eastern Ontario and western Quebec became home to thousands who survived the North Atlantic Crossing en route to their new home.  We would be remiss if we didn’t pause to reflect on those who were not able to arrive safe and healthy. Thousands died, with the Irish Catholics being particularly hard-hit.   Their names were never to be entered onto a Canadian Census.  Here is that sad story of suffering and fortitude. We, the descendants of Irish immigrants who survived, are exceedingly grateful.

The Irish Memorial, Grosse Ille,PQ.

The ocean crossings from Europe to the New World were often unimaginably horrific for the poor steerage passengers and the reports of the sicknesses and many perils were headlined in the newspapers of the day. The island of Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence estuary was transformed by the government into a quarantine station for the Port of Quebec to accept the hundreds of sick and dying as they arrived into North America.

The Irish in particular suffered greatly as they tried desperately to escape the Irish Famine. Ships coming up the St. Lawrence were required to stop at the station.  It is now a National Historic Site.

Farther up the St. Lawrence, in the areas where the old port of Montreal stood, and where the Victoria Bridgewas built, lie the remains of the thousands who fell victim to “ship fever”. Edgar Andrew Collard writing in The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, July 25, 1970 writes:

The Irish Commemorative Stone, also known as the Black Rock was first placed by the workers building the Victoria Bridge in 1859. Photo from Wikipedia.

The University of Waterloo genealogy site  contains a great deal of excellent general information about emigration into Canada in the nineteenth century, as well as writings and documents  of specific ships and voyages and is well worth a long  visit.  Do take the time to visit the website to read the vast amount of material collected.

We have taken from that site the following excerpts to show the extent of the suffering from sickness among the newcomers to our shores.

Newspaper Reports of 1847 and 1848

The following is an excerpt from one of those collection of writings and brings to life the horrendous toll from the typhoid fevers, dysentery and small pox the immigrants endured on the voyage and at Grosse Isle in the one year alone;  particularly during the late summer and early fall of 1847 as the vessels completed the spring voyage from Britain

By the next year 1848, the general population had become greatly concerned that the dreadful outcomes at Grosse Isle might continue, so in inimitable governmental style, the government stopped newspaper reporter’s access to information regarding death and illness numbers with  reporting curtailed and the numbers were not made available.

From the Ocean Plague by Robert Whyte, Boston: Coolidge & Wiley, 1848

Monday Afternoon, August 9

“Since my last, the wind has been blowing fresh from the northeast, and several vessels have arrived in port, the names of which you will find enclosed. Four have just arrived, but are not yet boarded. I make out the names of three, viz:-Bark CovenanterBark Royal Adelaide, and Schooner Maria, of Limerick. The Zealous has not yet made her appearance.

“The accounts from Grosse Isle since my last, are not of a favorable nature, and the number of deaths is much the same. The building of the new sheds there is advancing rapidly.

“A letter was received this forenoon, from the mate of the bark Naparima, with passengers, from Dublin, dated off Bic, last Friday, announcing that the Captain, Thomas Brierly, died on the 3d instant, and was buried on the same day. She was then fifty days out, and short of provisions,-about 20 of the passengers were sick, but were recovering when the mate wrote, and he intended to put into some convenient place for supplies. There was a pilot on board, and every exertion would be made to get her up to the Quarantine Station as soon as possible.

-extracted from the Quebec Correspondence of the Montreal Herald.

“We are in possession of the latest news from Grosse Isle. The hospital statement yesterday, the 9th, was 2,240. There is a large fleet of vessels at the station, and amongst them some very sickly, as it may be seen from the following statement:

Bark Ellen SimpsonLimerick1844
Brig Anna MariaLimerick11911
Bark AmyBremen289
Brig WatchfulHamburg145
Ship GangesLiverpool3934580
Bark CoreaLiverpool501187
Bark LarchSligo440108150
Bark NaparimaDublin226717
Bark BritanniaGreenock386425
Brig TrinityLimerick86all well
Bark LiliasDublin21956
Bark BrothersDublin3186

“A full rigged ship just coming in-not yet boarded.

“The hospitals have never been so crowded, and the poor creatures in the tents (where the healthy are), are dying by dozens! Eleven died on the night of the 8th, and one on the road to the hospital yesterday morning.

Names of the Victims at Grosse Ille, Port of Quebec.

“Captain Read, of the Marchioness of Breadalbane, died in hospital on the 7th. The Captain of the Virginius died the day after his arrival at Grosse Isle.  We regret to learn that the Rev. Mr. Paisley is in a critical state. He was dangerously ill this morning.  Since writing the above we learn that 60 new cases were admitted into hospital, and 300 more, arrived on the 8th and 9th, remain to be admitted!” – from Quebec Mercury, August 10th, 1847

“The Steamer St. George arrived from Grosse Isle yesterday afternoon, but brought nothing of importance. The cool temperature of the last few days has had a favorable effect on the sick in the tents, and fewer cases of fever had appeared. [Note: the St. George was used to move passengers from Grosse Isle to the mainland.)

“The Ship Washington from Liverpool, 9th of July, had arrived at the station yesterday. She has one cabin, and 305 steerage passengers, had 22 deaths and 20 sick. She reports 15 vessels with passengers in the Traverse. from Quebec Chronicle

Hospital return-Grosse Isle, September 14th, 1847

Remaining on 14th1386
Died 12th to 13th inst.41
Remaining on 19th1196
Admitted since436
Plus Discharged and Died355

Hospital return-Grosse Isle, from 19th to 25th of Sept

“Deaths at the sheds, where the healthy passengers are landed, during the same period –  10

“There are 1240 cases of fever, and 37 cases of small pox. Two men died whilst being landed from the Emigrant, and 162 cases were admitted into hospital from the same vessel.


(Signed) I.M. Douglass, Med. Sup.Grosse Isle-Return of sick in hospitals 1st October.

“About 400 convalescents went up to Montreal in the Canada on Thursday last, and 35 came up to Quebec in the Lady Colborne on Friday.  This has enabled the Medical Superintendent to close another hospital; and this day the services of two more medical men, with their staff of orderlies and nurses will be dispensed with.

-Hospital Statement, 5th October

“Men, 230-Women, 124-Children, 150-Total, 504.

“There were then three vessels with emigrants at the station.”

A Melancholy Tale of Woe

“On Saturday last, 30th October, the Lord Ashburton, from Liverpool, 13th September, with general cargo and passengers, arrived at Grosse Isle in a most wretched state.“When sailing she had 475 steerage passengers, and before her arrival at the Quarantine Station, she had lost 107 by dysentery and fever; and about 60 of those remaining were then ill of the same complaints. So deplorable was the condition of those on board that five of the passengers had to remain to work the ship up from Grosse Isle.” from Quebec Mercury.

Emigration from Liverpool

“The amount of emigration from Great Britain and Ireland has this year far surpassed that of any previous year, as will be seen from the following returns, made up on the 6th instant, of emigration from this port alone:

  • United States – 77,403
  • Canada – 27,666
  • New Brunswick – 1,479
  • Nova Scotia – 171
  • Prince Edward’s Isle – 444
  • Other places – 311
  • Total – 107,474

“Of this vast number of emigrants, two thirds were Irish, and of the remaining one third, two fifths were Scotch and English, and one fifth German, of whom a larger number than formerly left this port during the past season.

“Reports of the following vessels upon their arrival at Grosse Isle; namely,

Sir Henry PottingerCork39998112
Bark WellingtonLiverpool4352630
Bark Sir Robert PeelLiverpool4582412
Schooner JessieLimerick108216
Bark Anne RankinGlasgow33273
Bark ZealousLondon12015

Separation and Heartache

“We are glad to learn that the Soeurs Grises [The gray Sisters, a community of charitable Nuns], amongst whom sickness and death have made such fearful havoc, during their self-immolating ministrations to the dying emigrants, are again pursuing their charitable labors at the Sheds at Point St. Charles (Port of Quebec). We are happy to learn, also, that the sickness in Griffintown is rapidly on the decrease.”

Montreal Pilot

Buildings on Grosse Ile

BuilThe following advertisements are specimen of many of a similar nature, that daily appeared in the newspapers; and requires no further comment.

“Information wanted of Abraham Taylor, aged 12 years, Samuel Taylor, 10 years, and George Taylor, 8 years old, from county Leitrim, Ireland, who landed in Quebec about five weeks ago – their mother having been detained at Grosse Isle. Any information respecting them will be thankfully received by their brother, William Taylor, at this office”.
                                                                                  Montreal Transcript, September 11th, 1847.

“The ‘Quebec Chronicle’ having obtained permission to copy them from the official records, has commenced the publication of the names of all the unfortunates who have died in the hospital at Grosse Isle, with their ages and the names of the vessels in which they came to Canada, as well as the date of the decease. The ‘Chronicle’ deserves well of the community, for thus affording the relatives of the poor sufferers the means of knowing what has become of them.”  from Montreal Courier

“The immigration commissioners report that 94 vessels have landed in the Province of New Brunswick, the present season, 15,269 passengers. The deaths at sea on board these vessels, were six hundred and sixty two.

“The schooner Victoria, from Quebec, with 20 passengers, anchored at the Quarantine ground on Tuesday last. She had three cases of Typhus fever on board. The passengers and crew were landed on Middle Island this morning, the captain securing the maintainance[sic] of the healthy passengers and crew until discharged.”  from Miramichi Gleaner, 27th July

Grosse Isle Intelligence

“The executive government have forbidden the transmission of any news or statements from the island, except, we suppose, to head quarters, that is, to themselves. This is a proceeding as arrogant as it is absurd and mischievous. Last year full reports were given to the public of the state of the island and the proceedings there, as well from official as from private sources. Why then interdict the publication this year, when more than ever a faithful return of the health and sickness prevailing at the quarantine station is most desirable?

“If the prohibition be intended to prevent alarm, it is founded upon false premises, as, in the absence of authentic information, wild and exaggerated rumors obtain credence. The public have a right to be informed of what is passing at Grosse Isle.   from Kingston Chronicle, 17th June, 1848

“Emigration returns just issued by order of her Majesty, state that the numbers who embarked in Europe, in 1847, for Canada, was 98,006. Viz:

  • From England – 32,228
  • (It may be necessary to remark that many of the Irish emigrants sailed from English ports)
  • From Ireland – 54,329
  • From Scotland – 3,752
  • From Germany – 7,697
  • Total – 98,006

“Of the whole number 91,882 were steerage passengers, 684 cabin, and 5541 infants. Deducting from this aggregate the Germans and the cabin passengers, the entire number of emigrants who embarked at British ports was 89,738, of whom 5,293 died before their arrival, leaving 84,445 who reached the colony. Of these it is estimated that six sevenths were from Ireland. Of the 84,445 who reached the colony alive, no less than 10,037 died after their arrival. Of the remainder no less than 30,265 were admitted into Hospital for medical treatment. Up to the 12th of November last, the number of destitute emigrants forwarded from the agency at Montreal to Upper Canada was 38,781.”- from – New Orleans Price Current

“As the conduct of Irish landlords has been severely commented upon, in the foregoing pages, it is but just to inform the reader of a most honorable exception; and which it affords the author extreme gratification to be enabled to do, by transcribing the following article from the “British Canadian.”   Last Season’s Immigration.