Saturday, April 4, 2009

To Canada - Part 1

A Brief History

A great many people from Europe relocated during the 19th century.  They took on the many challenges of migrating to those new vast continents, known and unknown, with great enthusiasm.  North America, Australia, Africa and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand were their destinations of choice.  This enthusiasm for hardship and "adventure" was particularly evident amongst the people of England, Ireland and Scotland.

More than one branch of the extended Alcorn family became part of this mass migration.  To understand why, we need a brief history lesson.

The early decades of the 19th century were difficult for Great Britain.  The massive industrialisation was in its infancy and was not yet an answer for the problems of the unemployed.  Adding to the problem was the end of both the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and the conflict between Canada, Great Britain and the United States (1814).  This sudden influx of "peace" forced thousands of former navy and army personnel onto the lines of unemployed.

A further complication was the failure of crops over a number of seasons, in particular the tragic "Potato Famine" of Ireland.

Around 1820, life was not great in Great Britain.  In fact, there were a lot of good reasons for the brave, or desperate, to "get out of Dodge"!  The only decision was where to go.  For many the answer lay in the growing settlements of Canada.

The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, provides us with an excellent summary of the early development of Canada:

"Before the arrival of Europeans, the First Nations of what would become Canada had a large and vibrant trade network. Furs, tools, decorative items, and other goods were often transported thousands of kilometres, mostly by canoe throughout the many rivers and lakes of the region.

Atlantic Fisheries
The earliest European settlements in Canada were the fisheries of the East Coast, especially the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Boats from France, Portugal, Spain, and Great Britain would traverse the Atlantic fish for a summer and then return laden with fish. The trade was originally dominated by fishers from southern Europe. In Catholic countries, demand for fish was much greater. It was from the northern nations of Britain and France that the first settlers came, however. Spain, Portugal and the south of France had abundant supplies of salt because in the warm climes it was a simple matter to evaporate seawater. They would thus bring barrels of salt with them to the fishing grounds salt the fish aboard ship and return to Europe never having touched land. In the colder and wetter climate of the British Isles and northern France, salt was in scarce supply. To preserve the fish, they were dried by hanging them on large fish racks on the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. These drying stations were active for months of the
year, and eventually permanent settlements grew up around them. These small settlements totalled only a few thousand people, but they were many of the first European arrivals in North America.

Fur Trade
The fur trade is often considered to be the most important factor in the population of the Canadian interior. In Europe, beaver fur had become especially fashionable, and the forests of North America were home to many of the creatures.

This trade closely involved the Native peoples who would hunt the beavers and other animals and then sell their pelts to Europeans in exchange for guns, textiles, and luxury items like mirrors and beads. Those who traded with the Native were the voyageurs, woodsmen who travelled the length of North America to bring pelts to the ports of Montreal and Quebec City.

The French dominated the trade through the New France, the Ohio Valley, and west into what would be Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In an attempt to break the French monopoly the English began trading through Hudson Bay and the Hudson's Bay Company built an elaborate network of trading posts and forts.

There was fierce rivalry between the French and English and their respective Native allies. Even when the two nations were at peace fierce fighting would occur in the interior.

The great disadvantage of the fur trade for the Canadas was that it did not encourage settlement. The fur trade only needed a few highly skilled workers. Also, the fur trade required more tonnage of goods to be shipped to North America than going the other way. This meant that there was no excess space on the westward voyage and passage costs were high. Unlike the United States where agriculture had become the primary industry, requiring a large labour force the population of what would be Canada remained very low.

This was a great benefit to the British in their struggles with the French. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the French possessions were gradually seized by the British until, in 1759, all of New France was conquered. The continued dependence on trade with Europe, also meant that the northern colonies were far more reluctant to join the American Revolution, and Canada thus remained loyal to the British crown.

In the early nineteenth century timber became the dominant staple commodity. Timber for the domestic market had long been a small industry in the colonies, but it was changes in Europe in the early nineteenth century that created a large export market. Great Britain had exhausted its supplies of quality timber by the start of the eighteenth century. The great oaks that had built the Royal Navy were all but gone. The lack of very large trees that could supply great masts was especially problematic as they were a necessity for both its war and merchant shipping. A thriving timber importing business had thus developed between Britain and the Baltic region. This trade was very unpopular for both economic and strategic reasons.

For much of the eighteenth century, Britain had encouraged the timber trade with the New England colonies. The American stands of timber were primarily located along the small, but easily navigable rivers of New York and Massachusetts. These were fairly quickly exhausted. Even without the American Revolution new sources would have been needed by the start of the nineteenth century.

Thus the British looked northwards to the colonies that had remained loyal. The industry became concentrated in three main regions. The first to be exploited was the Saint John River system. Trees in the still almost deserted hinterland of New Brunswick were cut and transported to Saint John where they were shipped to England. This area soon could not keep up with demand and the trade moved to the St. Lawrence River where logs were shipped to Quebec City before being sent on to Europe. This area also proved insufficient and the trade expanded westward, most notably to the Ottawa River system, which, by 1845, provided three quarters of the timber shipped from Quebec City. The timber trade became a massive business. In one summer, 1200 ships were loaded with timber at Quebec City alone, and it became by far British North America's most important commodity.

The cutting of the timber was done by small groups of men in isolated camps. For most of the nineteenth century, the most common product was square timber, which was a log that had been cut into a square block in the forest before being shipped. The timber was transported from the hinterlands to the major markets by assembling it into a raft and floating it downstream. Because of the narrower and more turbulent waters that one would encounter on the Ottawa River system, smaller rafts, known as "cribs," were employed. On the St. Lawrence, however, very large rafts, some up a third of a mile in length would be employed. The most common type of tree harvested was white pine, mostly because it floated well. Oak, which does not float, was in high demand but was much harder to transport and oak timbers needed to be carefully integrated into the raft if they were to be carried to market.

One of the most important side effects of the timber trade was immigration to British North America. Timber is a very bulky and not a particularly valuable cargo. For every ship full of British manufactured goods, dozens would be needed to carry the same value of timber. There was no cargo coming from the British Isles to Canada that could take up as much room on the return voyage. Exporting salt filled a few ships, and some vessels were even filled with bricks, but many timber ships made the westward voyage filled with ballast. The population of Canada was small and the lack of wealth in the area made it an unattractive market.

There was, however, one cargo that the ship-owners did not have to worry about finding a market for in the sparsely populated New World: people. Many of the timber ships turned to carrying immigrants for the return voyage from the British Isles to fill this unused capacity. Timber ships would unload their cargo and sell passage to those desiring to emigrate. 

The timber industry also created large peripheral industries, the most important of these being agriculture. Unlike the fur trade, the timber trade saw large numbers of men in one location for a substantial period of time. The lumber camps, and the lumber towns needed to be supplied with food and other provisions. In the early years of the trade, much of the food, mostly barrels of pork, was shipped from the United States. Mostly coming from around the Cleveland area, shipping costs were high, creating a market for locally-produced goods. As the loggers pushed ever westwards, farmers followed to take advantage of this captive market. Some of these farms failed after the loggers moved on, but many found new markets and became permanent settlements. This process formed the basis of many communities in what is now Ontario.

To encourage the settlement of the best land in the region, the government created the Canada Company. It was given much of the land in Western Ontario|Southwestern Ontario and tasked with selling it off to immigrants. It was successful in this, but it also became deeply unpopular for its monopolization of the land."

So this was the situation facing young Simon Alcorn around the time he married and started a family.  Economic and social conditions in the UK were deteriorating, and the romance and excitement of a new land, and all that it promised, was beckoning.  The decision was easily made, but the challenges to be confronted were more difficult to face.

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At January 24, 2017 at 9:11 PM , Blogger DJA III said...

Gooday again Laurie.
I read your To Canada Part 1. I remember a conversation I had with one our New Zealand cousins at the Boonah Alcorn reunion. He told me he visited Lanark, Canada and found that Simon's Alcorn family wealth came from exporting "potash" back to England where it was used in the making of glass. He also claimed that Simon owned several carriages at the time of his death. The equivalent today would be owning of a garage full of Ferraris. Anecdotal and unsubstantiated of course; but sounds reasonable to me. Regards DJA III.

At January 24, 2017 at 9:24 PM , Blogger DJA III said...

I read your To Canada Part 2, Laurie. Excellent research. I have a photocopy of a photograph of the hand written marriage entry of Simon to Janet. I suspect it is a Presbyterian Church register entry. It reads, "Alcorn - Simon Alcorn, Tanner in Glasgow & Janet Dunn, residenter, were married 26th March by Dr Alexander Rankin One of the Ministry of Glasgow." The hand written date of commencement of the page of the register recording the marriage reads "Glasgow, 7th March 1819." You may already have this information but in case you don't; I can email a copy to you. Regards DJA III.

At January 24, 2017 at 9:55 PM , Blogger DJA III said...

Laurie, I like a challenge and the burning of the Protestant BDM records in Dublin all those years ago, "during the troubles", certainly presents researching Simon's Irish family, as challenging. Short of going to Londonderry to research the "Gentleman of Derry" (Simon) and his Irish, Alcorn line, I wonder what is the best way to progress the research. I could go the DNA route, or hire a professional, genealogical researcher in Derry, Londonderry, Ireland. Does anybody have any informed advice for me in this regard? My local genealogical society is limited in their knowledge of this period of northern Irish history. Any useful information I locate; I will make available, of course. I intend to follow up with a visit to Londonderry soon but it will be the more enjoyable if I do all my research before I go. Regards DJA III.


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