Voyage to Canada 1837

Migration and early life in Upper Canada  1837 – 1851

A tragic trans-Atlantic voyage  

Unfortunately, current online searches have not confirmed the date of emigration or the name of the passenger ship on which James and Francis Ferguson sailed to Canada.  The only clue comes from the 1901 Census in which James reported his date of arrival in Canada as 1837.

During the 1830’s about 30,000 immigrants arrived annually in Quebec.  The Port of Quebec, now Quebec city, was the main port of entry to Canada. About two thirds of these newcomers were from Ireland.  This immigration took place during a period of a cholera pandemic (1829-1837).  The disease was carried to the North American ports by immigrants. Many of them, were Irish and had departed from English ports.  In response to this health threat colonial authorities were prompted to set up a quarantine station on Grosse Ile.  The station was located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River about 30 miles downstream from the Port of Quebec.  Most cases they dealt with in the late 1830’s were cholera.  Unfortunately, the records of passenger names on ships for this period are few, although the names of ships and their masters have survived.  No definitive information regarding the departure of James Ferguson was found in passenger lists from either Ireland or England currently posted on line.   Likewise, no evidence has yet been found in the records of Grosse Ile to confirm the death of James’ wife and children.  However, it is interesting to note that in late spring of 1837 a ship out of London called the “Auxiliary” reported that 10 out of 164 immigrant passengers died at sea and 64 hospitalized on arrival at Grosse Ile.  . (Parks Canada website http://jubilation.uwaterloo.ca/~marj/genealogy/ships/ships1837.html)

Grosse Ile quarantine station, St Lawrence River

Grosse Ile quarantine station, St Lawrence River

However, the 1837 may be considered somewhat suspect.  Since James was born in 1814 he could not have married until 1834, which would leave only three years for he and his wife to have three daughters before emigrating in 1837.   Besides, news of a rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada diminished the numbers of new immigrants in the late 1830’s.  A date of 1847 might be more plausible.  1847 was the heart of the Irish potato famine and was a strong push factor for people to leave the country.  In any event, future searches for immigration and ship passenger records should be broadened to include the span of years between 1837 and 1847.

Cramped conditions on passenger ships allowed for the rapid spread of disease.

Cramped conditions on passenger ships allowed for the rapid spread of disease.

Tragedy strikes

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 7.48.57 PMIt is at this point that oral history conveys a tragic tale.  When James emigrated with his wife Frances Ellis and their three daughters, the trans Atlantic voyage was fraught with perils.  Two daughters contracted cholera en route and perished at sea.  When they finally arrived in Quebec, Francis and the remaining daughter were severely ill and quarantined at Grosse Ile where they too died!  It is difficult to comprehend this enormous tragedy which fell upon James.

Life in the Ottawa Valley  1837 – 1850

Once again oral tradition provides additional clues about where James first settled.  After the tragic loss of his family it appears that despondent James made his way to Ottawa and settled in the county of Carlton in the Irish Canadian township of Fitzroy.   This Irish community was located on the banks of the Ottawa River.  It has been said that he was involved in saw milling.  As there appears to be no record of James acquiring land it is most likely that he was first hired on as a farm labourer and later acquired a job in one of the many saw mills in the area.

Records show that inn 1848 James married Fanny Hunt at Fitzroy, Carleton, Ontario. She was from an Irish pioneer family that was already established in the township.   Frances Hunt was the daughter of Robert Hunt who was born at Curraun, County Leitrim, Ireland in 1786.  He too had immigrated to Canada with his young family in 1840 to join his brother John who was an original settler of Fitzroy eight years earlier.  Robert and Mary had lost five of their children to disease during the Atlantic crossing!  The only two of his children to survive were Frances (Fanny) and her brother Thomas.  Robert was a linen weaver and his wife Mary, a flax spinner.  Their land holdings in Ireland were only seven acres.  In the beginning Robert’s family took up lodgings with John’s family at Lot 16 Concession 5, Fitzroy Township.  John’s farm of 200 acres was adjacent the Mississippi River and purchased in 1832.  A sawmill, cording mill and gristmill were developed about a mile downstream from the farm at the river hamlet of Galetta.  It seems possible that James Ferguson may have acquired a job as a farm labourer working for the Hunts and also worked at the sawmill in Galetta.

Townships of Carleton county

Townships of Carleton county

Screen Shot 2013-02-02 at 12.34.20 PM_2Fitzroy is an historic township, which was part of Carleton County, located west of Ottawa. Charles Shirreff founded the settlement of Fitzroy Harbour in 1831.  It developed adjacent to the confluence of the Carp River and the Ottawa River.  The nearby Chats Falls was first developed as a site of a sawmill.  Fitzroy grew as a pioneer Irish community in the Ottawa Valley.

The 1851/52 Census for Canada West reports James Ferguson, farmer from Tyrone, Ireland was 30 years old (approx.) and his wife Frances was 27 years old. She was born in Leitrim, Ireland.  At this time they had two sons, David 3 yrs, born in Fitzroy and Robert 1 also born in Fitzroy.  Their religion was identified as Church of England.  Interestingly a Peter Ferguson born in Scotland is listed with James’ family.  Could this be an uncle to James, and brother to James’s father David?  If so this might provide additional evidence to support the supposition that James parents were Scottish born.

Speculations regarding the preceding story will likely be clarified in the near future when the transcription of the 1842 and 1851/52 census are completed and made available online.  The records concerning land ownership in Carlton and Lanark Counties need to be reviewed to determine if James had acquired any farmland between 1837 and 1852.  These records are not available online.


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