To Canada - Part 2
Scottish emigration to Canada was to become, for most emigrants, subject to the formation of "Emigration Societies". These societies were
formed for much the same reasons that people have formed themselves into groups throughout the history of mankind. Common interest, economies of scale, perceptions of
mutual protection, social and religious conformity, etc, combined to encourage the joining together of people for what really was a great and risky venture.
These societies were given identities which, variously, were indicative of destination, point of origin or the imagination of someone far more creative. So we get societies such as the Glasgow Emigration Society, the Lanark Society, the Camlachie Emigration Society and the Paisley Townhead Society, to name but a few. Simon Alcorn, having made his decision to emigrate, became a member of the Spring Bank Society.
So it was that Captain Coverdale, Master of the ship Commerce, set sail from Greenock, Scotland, on the spring morning of May the 11th, 1821, with 422 passengers, from eight emigration societies, all bound for Quebec. Included amongst those eight societies were 33 members of the Spring Bank Society, three of whom were Simon Alcorn, his wife Janet and daughter, also Janet (born 1820). (There was also a John Dunn and wife, quite possible a brother of Janet, whose maiden name was Dunn.)
Journeys such as these were harrowing and, usually, a source of great surprise to most who participated. We will probably never learn the detail of what privations were experienced by Simon and his family. However, due to the efforts of one John M'Donald, the experiences of those pioneers may be shared by us almost 200 years later.
John M'Donald was from Glasgow and joined the ship David of London, also bound for Quebec. The David of London departed Greenock on the 19th of May 1821, just 8 days after the Commerce departed with the Alcorns on board. In 1826, M'Donald published an article entitled "Emigration to Canada: Narrative of a voyage to Quebec, and Journey from Thence to New Lanark, in Upper Canada". This article makes mention of the passengers from the Commerce with whom M'Donald and his fellows join as their journey progresses.
I have copied M'Donald's article in full as it is most relevant to our story. The only editing is that I have broken the tale into stages to assist the reader. It is perhaps helpful to recall that the journey from Scotland to Quebec was the easy bit. From Quebec to New Lanark was some 374 miles (602k's), 184 of those miles on foot or battling upstream.
John M'Donald............ "Having, with many of my countrymen, determined to embark for Canada; little dreaming, from the flattering accounts which had been so industriously published respecting that country, of the hardships attending such an undertaking, I left Glasgow for Greenock, to embark on board the ship David of London, for Quebec, along with nearly 400 other passengers, where, having gone though the necessary steps at the custom-house, we left the quay on the 19th of May, 1821. A steam boat dragged the ship to the tail of the bank, and the wind being favourable we immediately sailed, and in 28 hours lost sight of land. Having a fair wind for this space of time, with fine agreeable weather, we enjoyed the pleasure of walking on deck, and beholding the calm unruffled face of the deep, which, combined with the bold, rugged, and romantic appearance of the coasts bordering on both sides of the firth, presented scenes that were truly delightful.
But alas! the picture was soon reversed. The wind rose, a heavy gale commenced, and the waves rolled mountains high, and made a mighty noise. To see a ship making her way in the midst of a storm, over these lofty billows, is both grand and awful. We now became like drunken men, reeling and staggering to and fro. To walk on deck was impossible, and the places where the pots were erected for cooking, tumbled down, so that we could not get any victuals made ready, and some of our associates were compelled to mix a little meal and molasses, and use this composition as a substitute for better fare. The comparative want of food, and the storm together, rendered us very weak.
This storm continued nine days. The captain affirmed, that he had never witnessed a tempest of such long continuance at that season of the year. During the rest of our voyage, we had stormy days now and then, but none to be compared to the former, either in degree or duration. Several times many of our company got themselves drenched with the waves of a heavy rolling sea breaking over the deck, and which also entering the hatch-hole, wetted us very much. On this account, we were completely shut up in the hold. At the commencement of the storm the weather became very cold. This circumstance, providentially, was greatly in our favour, from our being so much crowded together, which in several respects was very disagreeable to our feelings. This cold state of the weather continued till we approached the mouth of the St. Laurence, when it became so warm, that I was nearly suffocated from the smell and heat below deck. I was consequently compelled to sleep on deck, together with many others, who were in a similar situation.
Every favourable day the Captain ordered all his passengers to bring up their clothes and air them. The sick passengers were also all ordered above, those who were unable being assisted. The Captain was much afraid lest an infectious fever should get in amongst us, and he himself, after landing at Quebec, was confined for some time by severe indisposition. Four births took place during our passage, but three of the children died, and a boy of four years old; another fell from the deck into the hold, and broke his arm; and had not he fallen upon some persons who were providentially at that time in that place, the event would probably have been much more serious.
Having entered the Gulph of St. Laurence, we found it necessary to obtain a Pilot. The weather now became warmer, and as the wind was a-head of us, our rate of sailing became slower, and we had to cast anchor several times. This change in our rate of sailing, was greatly in the favour of such passengers as were sick, as they all recovered quickly. This was a very happy circumstance, there being no impediment to prevent our landing: the surgeon having declared that there was no fever amongst us.
We consequently got all in at once, and having anchored, the Captain and several of the passengers went ashore, having ordered the Mate not to suffer any ardent spirits to be brought on board. Nevertheless, some of the passengers who had gone ashore, returned with some rum, which was taken from them and thrown over board. This circumstance caused no small disturbance, and produced blows between the sailors and the passengers, and even also amongst the sailors themselves; and till the scuffle terminated it was indeed a very disorderly night. We arrived at Quebec on the 25th of June, when we were all inspected by the surgeon, and then passed through the custom-house.
Quebec to Montreal
We all slept that night on board, and by 6 o'clock in the morning the steam boat was laid alongside of us, when we all set to work to get our luggage on board of it. We continued all that day at Quebec, and then went off in the steam boat at 11 o'clock at night. As we were setting out, a tremendous storm of thunder and lightning came on, the most dreadful that ever I either saw or heard; the rain was also uncommonly heavy. There were nearly 400 people on board of the steam boat, the greater part of whom were obliged to sit on deck all that night. Reader, you may easily guess our situation. I can assure you, I myself and the greater part of all who were on deck were as thoroughly drenched as water could make us, and we all had to remain drenched as we were, in our wet clothes, till they dried on our backs. We had no alternative, access to our chests being impossible, as they were all locked up in the hold; and in this state we continued till we reached Montreal.
Here we arrived in 24 hours, a distance of 190 miles. Having stated our difficulties on the passage from Quebec to Montreal, I may add, that this was the first of our trials in going up the country; and I can safely aver, to my certain knowledge, that it was the source and cause of their trouble who are now no more in this world. Nay, to show you further our distress, the beds of those passengers who were stationed on the lee side of the boat, between the engine-house and the paddles, were made literally to swim with the rain water. Every thing was spoiled, our very meal and bread being reduced to a state of dough.
Montreal to La Chine
We now began to carry our luggage from the steam boat, Government having provided wagons in abundance. We mutually assisted each other in loading them with the women and children; and all who were unable to walk got on the top of them as far as the village of La Chine, ten miles up the St Laurence from Montreal. Here we arrived on the 28th of June, and remained 4 days; till we got as many boats as we required.
La Chine to Prescot
We then set out all together in 15 flat-bottomed boats. Our number amounted to 366 persons. Here a very difficult part of our journey commenced, namely, the passing the rapids of the St Laurence. Some of these have a very strong current, and as the stream is very shallow and stony, the boats sometimes grounded. Then all the men who were able were necessitated to jump into the river to haul the boats wading up to the middle of their bodies, and sometimes deeper. At these rapids the women and children were obliged to come out and walk; and in several places, the rapids run with such a force, that we were compelled to get 2 horses to haul every boat. None but those who have experienced it, can conceive the difficulty of ascending these rapids. To me it seems wonderful how they can surmount them. Many of our unhappy countrymen suffered extremely from these hardships, on account of the intense heat of the season, and drinking too freely of the river water. In addition to these difficulties, being destitute of dry clothes, we were obliged to continue in this uncomfortable situation night and day. Many of them took badly on the road, and were obliged to remain behind their families many days. This became a very distressing circumstance to them, in going up the river. When night came, we remained on the river side. Sometimes we got access to farm houses, and sometimes not. Others lay in the woods all night, where, having kindled a fire, they would have cooked their supper in the best way they could, and spread such clothes under them as they had, for a bed. In which situation I have found in the morning my night-cap, blankets, and mat, so soaked with dew, that they might have been wrung. One may easily conceive that this was very prejudicial to our health. Some of the passengers indeed got into barns, but by far the most part of them lodged out in fields for six nights, in which space of time we made our journey from La Chine to Prescot, which is 120 miles. There we had to pitch our tents in the best way we could, in the open field-wretched dwellings indeed!
One may easily judge of our situation, from this circumstance, that frequently we were under the necessity, many of us, of spending the whole night in laving the water with dishes from around our tents, which literally ran below our very beds. Here we began soon to feel the effects of our river journey, and of our lying out in the fields. There were none, I believe, but felt these in a greater or less degree. Many were afflicted with the bloody flux, some also took fevers, and many died of a few days illness. Our situation now became very alarming, the people generally complaining of indisposition. I continued here three weeks. This was the end of our water conveyance. The cause of our delay here arose from the great multitude that were lying at this place before our arrival. Here we found one half of the passengers of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, all those of the ship Commerce, and including us, the passengers of the ship David of London, the whole exceeded 1000 people; and it took a long time to carry their baggage along a road of 74 miles to New Lanark.
We all had, each society, to wait its turn in getting away. Many were obliged to remain here on account of sickness, and many died. William Purdie, agent for the Trongate Society, died here, and two families were left orphans; the one belonged to Bridgeton, the other to Bathgate, of the name of Dick. This man was bathing in the St Laurence, when he first stopped at La Chine. He had gone beyond his depth into the stream, and the velocity of the current swept him away. He left 9 or 10 children, sic] The former family consisted of two children, whose mother died on the passage in the ship Commerce.
Prescot is a fine little town, and daily increasing-it is a military station. Two churches are building here, the one an episcopal chapel, the other a presbyterian meeting-house. The only place of worship, as far as I could learn, which previously existed, was a school-house, the master of which gave a discourse in the forenoon to the few who attended. It is, however, seriously to be lamented, that the Sabbath, the holy and honourable of the Lord, is so little respected there. Many were employed in singing, in playing on flutes, and drinking. A few of us asked the school-house for the purpose of religious worship, which was readily granted, and each took his turn. We met here three Sabbath-days, and sung the Lord's song, read his word and approached his throne of grace, pleading the fulfilment of his gracious promise that where two or three are met together in his name, and according to his appointment, he will be in the midst of them to bless them and to do them good. We found those days to be the most pleasant of all the days we spent in a foreign land. The majority of the inhabitants are Irish and French, and increasing fast. Here the mail-coach stops, this being the only road to Kingston, which is 62 miles straight up the river.
Prescot to New Perth
We left Prescot on Monday the 30th July at 9 o'clock, and travelled six miles that night, and stopt at an inn. Here we took in our clothes, and slept all night on the floor. Got up next morning by break of day, and arrived at Brockville, 9 miles distant and breakfasted there. This is another little neat town on the river side, and said to be advancing in population. It contains several fine buildings, some of wood and others of brick. We stopt one hour only at this place. We went no farther up the river, but struck back through the country. The next night we stopt at a farmer's house, where we slept in the barn, amongst new hay, in which we felt some reptiles, and were afraid of snakes, having seen many of them on the road.
Here we tarried for our driver, waiting 3 hours for him, and at last he came with a fresh horse, one of his horses being knocked up the preceding night. We then set forward, and as we advanced, the road became worse, and towards night it became so rough, that the horse was unfit to proceed; but fortunately we got another waggoner to take the load, the drivers having made a mutual agreement betwixt themselves. We then advanced four miles farther, under the cloud of night, when we arrived at the driver's house, where we took in our bed-clothes, and got some supper made ready for us, as we stood very much in need of it.-We were allowed to sleep on the floor, and having got up early next morning, expected to have departed directly, but were detained till breakfast, when we again set out, having still the same horse, but provided with another driver. This man was very attentive in avoiding every bad place of the road, to prevent his wagon from overturning, in which he was completely successful, as it never once overset. But this was not the case with many wagons, which were overturned with men, women and children. One boy was killed on the spot, several were very much hurt; one man got his arm broken, and our own waggoner, in spite of all his care and skill, was baffled, his horse having laired in a miry part of the road, where he stuck fast, and even after he was loosed from the yoke the poor animal strove so much to no purpose, that he fell down in a state of complete exhaustion three times in the mire. The mire was so tenacious, being a tough clay, that we were compelled to disengage his feet from the clay with hand spokes, before we got him freed, and yet still he struggled long to get our wagon out of the mire, but in vain; when fortunately a team of oxen came forward, which the owner loosed from the yoke and fastened to our wagon. With these, and the horse together, the wagon was at length pulled out, and then we got on. Soon after this misfortune a great quantity of rain fell, which wetted us very much, and made us glad to creep away to the first farm house we could get. There we obtained lodging, but our bed-clothes were all so wet that we were obliged to dry them before a fire which we obtained, and to lie at the fire-side all night.
Next morning we got up early, and again set forward, hastening to the end of our journey. When we came again to the road, it appeared so very bad, that it put us to a complete stand, seeing no way of getting through it. We at last concluded, that the only alternative left us was to pull up the farmer's fences, which we did in two places, and thus got through, and then closed them up again. This was a new mode of travelling to us, but the only one by which we could at all hope to get through. Every now and then we were compelled to cut down the fences, as it was wholly a region of woods through which we had to pass, except some places occupied by farm-houses; spots cleared here and there in the midst of this immense forest. Wherever there was a spot cleared, there was commonly a farm house near it, the one indicating the other, and what was still more fortunate, a house or inn.
As we approached New Perth, the road gradually improved, and the driver of course, desired some of us to go up into the wagon, and get a ride, which I accordingly did, being much fatigued. But as I was standing in the wagon, the horses advanced a step, and I fell out of the vehicle on my back, and broke one of my ribs by lighting on a small stone. By this accident I was very much bruised, and it was a great mercy that I was not killed on the spot, the road being stony. In such a piteous plight, I arrived at Perth, and immediately applied to a surgeon for medical aid, who advised me to bathe the injured part with vinegar, and bind it close and hard, which I did, and slept all night in a stable, the only convenience we could procure for that purpose. A great many of my fellow travellers to this land of promise, remained here, some on account of sickness and fatigue, and others because the horse being knocked up could go no farther.
Perth is a thriving place, and daily increasing in population. Here are two churches, the one a Presbyterian meeting house, and the other a Roman Catholic chapel. There are also two bakers, several store-keepers, two or three smiths, and a post office. I read a very long list of names affixed to the door of the office, mentioning those for whom letters were lying there. The post goes no farther than this place, but a similar list, for the same purpose, is also affixed to the door of the King's store at New Lanark. In such a thinly peopled district, and where other means of communication are so difficult, such a practice is absolutely necessary.
New Perth to New Lanark
We left Perth next morning, which is 14 miles from New Lanark, and came to a large stream, called the Little Mississippi, over which we had to ferry. I then saw a tent, the people of which told us, that the reason why they were stopping there, was the superior salubrity of the situation, it being on the river side, and thus enjoying a freer air.
Having advanced within two miles of New Lanark, on the 4th of August, we were informed that the settlers were getting a deal worse, and that no less than four of a family were sick at the same time. I have known a whole family afflicted with the fever successively before it left them. The reason of this is clear and obvious to those who will be at the necessary pains to think and investigate, namely, the immensity and closeness of the woods that surround them. Through these impervious forests no wind possibly can penetrate, and there is consequently no circulation. The people live in the midst of a stagnant atmosphere, never rarefied by the solar rays, and never replaced by a purer current, thus continually inhaling a corrupted atmosphere, fevers and agues are the inevitable result. Instead of wondering why so many are thus afflicted, and that so much misery and distress prevail, the wonder ought rather to be, that the half of them, at least, are not dead. Reader, pause a little whilst reading this tale of woe, and consider, for a moment the deplorable state of your unhappy, unthinking, and deluded countrymen, thus exposed for 8 weeks to the noisome exhalations of immense woods, the excessive and rapid variations of a Canadian climate, and the excessive humidity of an American atmosphere; without any shelter from the inclemencies of the sky, the heavy and unwholesome dews, and the rains and the winds, (to which latter there is nothing of a similar nature parallel in this country) but such as a few posts driven into the ground, and then wrapped together with the frail branches of trees, could give. Wretched habitations indeed! and utterly insufficient to prevent the torrents of rain, (for the rains in that region are not showers, but literally torrents that plow up the very ground) from penetrating these temporary tabernacles. Such substitutes, when the branches wither, are almost completely open at the sides. Some, who are able, cover them with blankets, or whatever else they can obtain, on the roof; others have them covered round about.
This will not, however, prevent reptiles, such as snakes and lizards, from getting in. I saw a snake myself sucking a frog nigh my tent, but we killed it, and when it got a stroke on the head, it shot out its poisonous fangs. After this we grew more afraid of the venomous reptiles. We saw numbers of squirrels running about our beds; and we were frequently deprived of sleep from the unwelcome intrusions of oxen and cows, which, straying from their owners, came close to our tents, and we were much terrified, lest they should have pulled our tabernacles about our ears. The swine would come to our very heads, and take away any thing they could find or see; and they seemed to be very fond of their own flesh, seizing what flesh meat we had, and running away with it in their mouths, so that we were obliged to pursue them, in order to recover it."
After 3 months of travel the Alcorns had arrived at their destination. Exhausted, perhaps unwell, Simon and his family, having conquered many challenges as they journeyed, now faced many more as they sought to establish their new home. They needed to hurry as winter was just around the corner!
Labels: Alcorn, Canada, early Canadian settlement, New Lanark, Ontario