Early settlement – Why New Brunswick?


Why New Brunswick?

Triggers contributing to Irish Immigration

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced incredible pressure on the land from overpopulation, poor feudal farming practices, and periodic crop failures. Opportunities were lacking and a sense of hopelessness prevailed. As living conditions worsened, and to overcome the prevailing sense of hopelessness, more and more Irish looked towards North America.

But why did they choose New Brunswick?

With increased shipping opportunities with Great Britain after 1815, colonial officials began studying ways to encourage settlement. Enticing immigrants would solve two problems: It would solve Britain – and Ireland’s – overpopulation woes and assist the colonies populate and develop economically.

With that in mind, most colonial governments – and land speculators – began publishing material aimed at encouraging settlement within the colonies. New Brunswick printed several pamphlets and booklets encouraging immigration. Most gave very flowery descriptions, like the following excerpt from the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Land Company:

"The Climate of New Brunswick is most remarkably healthy, and congenial to the natives of Great Britain and Ireland. Neither does it generate those periodical epidemics so common in the Southern and Western Stares of America….the Soil …may be designated three kinds: The Upland, which is the most prevalent…is a rich vegetable mold on the surface, varying in depth; highly fertile and suited for all purposes of cultivation…"1
For those Irish pondering the question of emigration, these publications, printed by the penny-press, were readily available throughout the British Isles. However, many Irish were not literate. Something else, extolling the wonders of the New World colonies would play a part in enticing them to settle here. The Irish decision to leave the familiar for a world so foreign to them was conveyed not by pamphlet, but by letters sent home by those who had left before them – and by ‘word of mouth’.

Irish immigrants began trickling into New Brunswick from the American Revolution days – mostly Protestant Irish at first – but after 1815, Irish Catholics as well. These early arrivals were, for the most part, single men, with skills or trades, and they generally could also afford passage. Many were literate2, and and once settled, they sent letters home.

Letters, not pamphlets, brought news of the colony back to Irish villages. They were read by family and friends3, and passed around, because any “news from ‘America’” was deemed ‘important’ and shared by all. News of the colony and life there was essentially passed on by ‘word of mouth’ as well. These letters brought a sense of hope – a reason to believe that things could be better if they could only get to North America.

Some letters also contained money – funds sent back to families so that another family member could afford to make the journey across the Atlantic and join them. The Savage family of Emigrant Road, in Westmorland County is a case in point. William Savage settled here around 1820 and 15 other family members came in the years that followed – in 1823, 1827, 1828, and 1831. Many of their relations and neighbours also followed.4

The letters home planted the seed of emigration. In 1827, changes to the Passenger Act, and in 1828, changes relating to those ships sailing to British North America specifically, made emigration a possibility. While passage to the USA cost £5, passage to NB was reduced to £2, or at the most £35 – a considerable difference for the day. As a result of fare decreases, immigrant arrivals in New Brunswick peaked between 1830-35 – the years immediately following the Passenger Act changes.

Cheaper fares certainly played a role in bringing Irish émigrés to the colonies. New Brunswick’s profitable timber trade with Britain provided the sailing vessels that the Irish would board in Irish ports – and these ships landed them in ports all over the NB colony.6

Some Irish immigrants arrived here with very little knowledge of the colony itself – accepting passage on ships that offered the cheapest fares and so their coming here was purely coincidental and not part of some grand plan.

Others, however, had already heard of the colony – usually from relatives or neighbours who had already emigrated and had sent back reports and/or money. And they came to join them. They came a few at a time, over a number of years, until their family homes or even villages in Ireland were almost emptied. This trend probably occurred more often than we realize and cries out for further research.

Not all immigrants stayed in New Brunswick and it would be remiss to not mention this. Many arrivals were more interested in settling in the USA – “the land of milk and honey” and New Brunswick was the closest colony to the US, with easy access to it. Many left as soon as they were able. It is estimated that only 25% of Irish landed immigrants actually stayed in the colony.

So… why did Irish immigrants settle in New Brunswick?

– Fares to British North America were considerably cheaper than to US ports.
– Passage was widely available on New Brunswick timber ships throughout this period.
– Word sent home from the colony encouraged others to follow them to NB.

And they stayed because:

– They didn’t have the funds to continue on to the United States or…
– They already had family and friends here who they were joining or…
– They were enticed by the offers of large land grants at cheap prices.

And for those of us who are their descendents, we are glad they did.

______, 1851 Census, Parish of Botsford, Westmorland County
Adams, William Forbes, Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine, New Haven : Yale University Press, 1932, p. 161.
Hynes, Leo J, The Catholic Irish of New Brunswick 1783 – 1900, Fredericton, Privately Published, 1992.
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Land Company, Practical Information respecting New Brunswick including details relative to it’s soil, climate, productions, and Agriculture, published for the use of persons intending to settle upon the lands of the company, London: Arthur Taylor, 1834,


[1] The passage even suggests that NB would be a better choice than the USA hoping to lure immigrants who preferred to immigrate there. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Land Company, Practical Information respecting New Brunswick including details relative to it’s soil, climate, productions, and Agriculture, published for the use of persons intending to settle upon the lands of the company, London: Arthur Taylor, 1834, p. 3-4.

[2] Literacy levels decreased with later arrivals in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

[3] Some families had to bring their letters to the priest to be read as they could not read.

[4] 1851 Census, Westmorland County, Parish of Botsford, – various entries.

[5] William Forbes Adams, Ireland and Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932, p. 161.

[6] It has been assumed that most arrivals to the colony came into the ports of Saint John and, to a lesser extent, Miramichi – but in reality, the arrivals landed in ports all around New Brunswick’s coastline. Timber ships reported to the quays where they were picking up their next load of lumber – and it was there that immigrants disembarked.