Early Settlement – Irish Settlement Patterns

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Irish Settlement Patterns in New Brunswick

By Linda Evans

At the beginning of the 19th century, New Brunswick was still very sparsely settled. The colony was, for the most part, covered in dense forest – except in the marshland areas of the southeast, and along the major river systems of the southwest.

With a population of approximately 25,0001, most settlements were located along the main river systems and coastline. As can be seen from the 1803 map below, most settlements had barely made a dent into the interior of the colonial wilderness. There were concentrations of settlement in Charlotte County, but only around her many bays and inlets. The Saint John River system, and her tributaries within Kings, Queens and Sunbury Counties, had also been settled – but only close to the river itself. There was also a scattering of settlements along the main Miramichi River area in Northumberland County.


Population Distribution

Population Distribution in New Brunswick 18032


Although there was no data or returns to show the settling of Westmorland County on the above map, there were settlements in the southeastern portion of the county from the settlement of Petitcodiac and down both sides of the Petitcodiac River and on to the Nova Scotia border – especially in the lowland areas of the dyked lowlands of the Tantramar, left vacant after the Acadian deportation in the mid-eighteenth century. There were also a few Acadian settlements up the eastern coastline – along the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St Lawrence – from Westmorland County up to the Baie de Chaleur in Northumberland County, but these areas were fairly sparsely settled.

Indeed, Petitcodiac, at the headwaters of the river from which it takes its name, can probably lay claim as New Brunswick’s first Irish settlement. Located in Westmorland County, it was settled as early as the 1760’s, primarily by Ulster Scot families. They were part of Alexander McNutt’s land plantation scheme in Nova Scotia. These immigrants were supposed to find land grants on lands McNutt had acquired in the Truro-Onslow area of Nova Scotia. Delays and mismanagement plagued the scheme and a group of disgruntled settlers left Nova Scotia and came to New Brunswick to settle the marshland areas of Petitcodiac instead3.

New Brunswick’s major immigration boom was between the years 1815-1850 when the majority of immigrants arrived here from Ireland. The timber trade provided the impetus for this large influx of new settlers and shipping increased dramatically between New Brunswick and the British Isles. The majority of immigrants at this time travelled to New Brunswick in the holds of timber ships on their return journey to the colony – and many of these new settlers were Irish. By mid-century, over 50% of the colony was Irish.

A simple glance at the map below shows clearly that the influx of new pioneers in the first half of the nineteenth century shaped the new colony very much into the provincial settlement patterns we are familiar with today in New Brunswick. No single immigration period after that time so affected the physical landscape itself. The majority of these immigrants were Irish. The influx of new pioneers is especially poignant when one looks at the population figures for the period. The population of New Brunswick increased from approximately 25,000 in 1803 to a whopping 193,000 in 18514. Indeed, it is estimated that between 1827 and 1835 alone, approximately 65,000 Irish immigrants arrived in the colony5. Not all stayed – several opting to travel on to the United States. However, those who did stay built homesteads and created settlements throughout every county in the colony, forming the settlement patterns we still see today.


Population Distrubution

Population Distribution in New Brunswick, 18516

Very little of New Brunswick’s land was fertile and viable for agriculture, and unfortunately many of the large influx of Irish settlers still wished to work upon the land. That would prove difficult in many areas. The lush arable farming lands of the major river systems and lowland marshlands had, for the most part, been already settled before they arrived.

The new Irish settlers were allocated – or chose – what was left – land grants along the smaller tributaries of the existing settled river lands, and on minor streams and creeks that fed into the major river systems. Sometimes these lands were nowhere near a water source at all. This was significant for their future as water was critical to the new settling families – not just for their own personal needs – but also for their farmlands and livestock.

The Irish settled all along the Saint John River Valley from the Bay of Fundy to the Madawaska. Settlements were fairly densely concentrated along the Saint John River tributaries to the Kingston Penninsula, up the Kennebecasis to the Sussex Vale and on into Westmorland County all the way to the Nova Scotia border. On the east coast, Irish settlements could be found on the interior reaches of the Tormentine Penninsula and the inland tidal waters of the Shediac, Cocagne, Bouctouche, and Richibucto Rivers. A heavy concentration of settlements also sprang up on the Miramichi River system reaching down almost to the colonial capital in Fredericton. Other Irish settlers found a home among the Acadians in their own settlements in the northeastern corner of the colony.

For the majority, land was not free in the new colony. Uncleared land was 4s6d to 12s6d an acre, depending on the quality of the land and so the normal allotment of 100 acres could cost £20 – £607. Some acquired ‘location tickets’ for land and once settled, could then petition the government for the land itself. In many cases the land would only be petitioned for many years later.

Those who wished to acquire land were obliged to petition the government and indicate their status as British subjects, their willingness to pay the cost of a survey of the lands concerned, and agree to undertake their improvement following a grant of possession… petitioners had to be adult males, for the most part, [and] over eighteen years of age8.

There was some free land available. The New Brunswick government, in 1820, aware of the large influx of new immigrants arriving, surveyed lands through the centre of the Tormentine peninsula in Westmorland County to encourage pioneers to settle there. The land was in-land, away from any river system, with a few small streams – some of them just spring freshettes – and more valuable for the stands of timber they held than the soil below them. Still there were 50 free parcels of 200-acre lots and Irish immigrants were quick to claim them. The settlement became known simply as Emigrant Road and would eventually become Melrose.9

Some areas, particularly those involved in the timber trade, were settled quickly. This was particularly the case in the Miramichi region of the colony. New immigrants arriving on the returning timber ships quickly found temporary work. Once they had secured enough to apply for a land grant, they then moved inland up the many streams that fed the Miramichi River system.

From 1816 on, hundreds of immigrants began to arrive at Miramichi…by1820 all of the good lots fronting on the main river near the principal settlement had been occupied. As a result the rapidly increasing number who arrived in the 1820’s turned to the banks of the various branches of the river. As a result, by 1835, streams like the Bay du Vin, the Bartibog, the Barnaby, the Bartholemew, the Renous, the Sevogle, and Cains had all been occupied by Irish mmigrants…others moved even further afield and found settlements at places like Tabusintac and Pokemouche…the influence of the immigrants saw the population of Northumberland County rise rapidly from 2,880 in 1802 to 15,823 in 1824, an increase of over 500%10.

Not all Irish immigrants arrived in the larger ports of Saint John, Miramichi or St Andrews, where quarantine stations had been hastily erected at this time. Many arrived in the many ports that dotted the coastal waters of the colony – especially those involved in the timber trade. Many of these immigrants simply squatted on land available nearby or in-land – petitioning for a land grant many years after they had arrived – once the land had been already cleared and settled.

Others sought out land before petitioning for it. According to family history, sometime between 1820 and 1830, Edward O’Donnell took a coastal boat from the port of Saint John up to Shepody in Albert County – seeking suitable land for a homestead. He saw a great green forest sloping down to the Bay of Fundy – went in-land, hacked out a clearing and built a log cabin. He was eventually thought missing and a search party was sent out from Saint John to find him. Upon arrival, the search party, also Irish immigrants, were also impressed and stayed11. Others followed, carving a path that became known as the Shepody Road and here the community of New Ireland came to be.

These were, in some ways, the fortunate ones. For many, selecting a land grant was risky business and there was certainly a degree of luck involved. Even if the acreage was inspected beforehand, the ground was so densely covered with trees that the land beneath it, its fertility, and agricultural potential was not generally known until it was cleared.

Indeed, luck was a factor within communities as well. One lot could be far superior to the one adjoining it. James Carroll, who had come to New Brunswick from Ireland via Newfoundland, acquired land in the Emigrant Road Settlement on the Tormentine Penninsula mentioned earlier. His land was useless however and no more than clay-clad bog land once it had been cleared. He petitioned the New Brunswick government for the ‘location ticket and improvements’ of land granted to one Thomas Fox.12

Fox wrote to the government that he would ‘Willingly give up … the Lot of Land that my Ticket Specifies … to [James Carroll] … as his Lot is good for Nothing and he is married and I am single and am going to leave the Country.’13

Whether they arrived in New Brunswick and were given location tickets to various lands around the colony, sought out good lands on their own, or even squatted, there is no question that the Irish had a large impact on the settlement landscape of the province of New Brunswick. Because most arable land was no longer available, they often found themselves struggling to make a living on land which was poor, or at best, only good enough to sustain a subsistence lifestyle. But even so, despite the poor quality, Irish immigrants wanted to settle in their own communities and they wanted to work upon the land. In the 1871 census, 75% of the Irish still lived in these rural settlements and farming was the number one activity in the colony.14

In conclusion, Irish settlements dotted the new landscape of New Brunswick in the first half of the nineteenth century. They opened up the colony along the in-land waterways and were vital to the new prosperity that the timber trade and shipbuilding afforded the new colony. New Brunswick’s growth and development would not have occurred so quickly without the large influx of Irish immigrants in the first half of the nineteenth century. The collapse of the timber industry in the 1860’s would have a devastating effect on their futures. Their farms were not economically viable and, for the most part, very few cleared the full acreage they were granted. The economic driving force in New Brunswick was her forest – and the new Irish settlers, who arrived here not knowing how to swing an axe, quickly adapted to the new lifestyle. They supplemented their meagre farming incomes by working in the same woods they feared upon arriving here.

As mentioned earlier, the Irish settled every county in New Brunswick. To go into detail here on where each settlement was located would be redundant and repetitive. To find out more about the Irish settlements around New Brunswick, please visit the various counties, and/or the communities themselves.

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[1] Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981, p. 11.
[2] Ibid, p. 13
[3] Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 195.
[4] Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981, p. 151.
[5] William A Spray, “Reception of the Irish in New Brunswick”, P.M Toner, Ed, New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Ireland Press, 1888, p. 9.
[6] Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981, p. 151.
[7] Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 128.
[8] Thomas P. Power, “Sources for Irish Immigration and Settlement in the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton”, Tom P Power, Ed, The Irish in Atlantic Canada, 1780-1900, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1991, p 162.
[9] Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 198.
[10] William A Spray, “The Irish in Miramichi”, P.M Toner, Ed, New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1888, p 56.
[11] Leo J Hynes, The Catholic Irish in New Brunswick 1783-1900, Fredericton: Privately published, 1992, p. 161.
[12] Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 199.
[13] Ibid.
[14] David A Wilson, The Irish in Canada, Booklet 12, Canada’s Ethnic Groups, Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1989, p. 12-13.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Houston, Cecil J and William J Smyth, Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement: Patterns, Links and Letters, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Hynes, Leo J., The Catholic Irish in New Brunswick 1783-1900, Fredericton : Privately published, 1992.

O’Driscoll, Robert and Lorna Reynolds, Eds., The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988.

Power, Thomas P, “Sources for Irish Immigration and Settlement in the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Fredericton”, Power, Tom P, Ed, The Irish in Atlantic Canada, 1780-1900, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1991, pp. 150-183.

Spray, William A, “Reception of Irish in New Brunswick”, Toner, P. M. Ed, New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Ireland Press, 1888, pp. 9-26.

Spray, William A, “The Irish in Miramichi”, P.M Toner, Ed, New Ireland Remembered: Historical Essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1888, pp. 55-62.

Wilson, David A, The Irish in Canada, Booklet 12, Canada’s Ethnic Groups, Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1989.

Wynn, Graeme, Timber Colony, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.