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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars more and more immigrants began arriving in North America. One of the most popular destinations was Quebec City because that was where the timber ships were headed. Timber merchants jumped at the opportunity to fill their empty ships with passengers on the westerly Atlantic crossings.
- “Shipmasters eagerly converted their hulls outgoing from the British Isles into a semblance of passenger carriers and took on board anyone willing to pay for a trip to America. Thus was born the “emigrant trade” which characterized a great part of the nineteenth century shipping between the British Isles and Quebec. This “paying ballast” walked on board, and without too much trouble on the part of the masters, might walk off at Quebec.” (O’Gallagher 2001, 17)
The Quebec Emigrant Society was founded in 1818 to provide assistance to the large numbers of newcomers who were arriving every summer. The society offered shelter and food as well as assistance with passage up the river towards Montreal and places further west. The Marine and Emigrant Hospital was established to supplement the care provided by two other hospitals in Quebec City. In addition, temporary clinics were set up in the summertime near the piers in order to respond to any immediate medical needs of arrivals. All of this was the start of an infrastructure that would be hard pressed to respond to what was to come.
In 1826 there was an outbreak of Asiatic cholera in India. By 1831 it had progressed as far as Moscow. It quickly spread across Europe and by the end of that year had arrived in Britain. Consider that ships leaving the British Isles were crowded—usually carrying between one hundred and two hundred adults plus children; that most ships’ masters were more concerned about fares than the comfort or health of their passengers; and that voyages could last anywhere from 36 to 80 days. This was a fine recipe for the transmission of contagious diseases.
News of the arrival of the disease in Great Britain travelled across the Atlantic and attempts began to prevent the entry of the epidemic into North America. The search began for a station which would provide for the inspection of ships before they landed at Quebec—a place where cholera victims could be quarantined in order to keep the disease out of the colony. Grosse Île was chosen because it was located in the St. Lawrence River below Quebec and because it was positioned in the middle of the channels through which the ships travelled.
None of the doctors working at Grosse Île had ever seen a cholera victim and the first deaths from cholera actually occurred at Quebec City, not at Grosse Île. There continues to be debate about which ship actually carried the disease, but once it had arrived it spread with a vengeance.
- “So sudden and so great was the onslaught of the disease that the island was soon overcrowded with the sick, dying and dead. And the ships in their summer procession kept on coming. Despairingly the authorities gave up their attempts to stop every ship at Grosse Île and, with a minimum of inspection and segregation, permitted all but Irish ships to proceed up-river.” (O’Gallagher 2001, 25)
As the immigrants moved up the river, so went the disease. By the end of September 1832, newspapers reported that over 3,000 had been buried at Quebec. After that terrible outbreak of 1832, 1833 was much less eventful but there was cholera again in 1834. Immigration to Canada dropped off somewhat around the time of the 1837 Rebellion but picked up again in the 1840s. In 1842, Sir Charles Bagot, Governor General of British North America announced that there would be lots of work for unskilled labourers in the coming summer and agents in Britain began advertising for immigrants. Over 44,000 people sailed to Canada in 1844—many of them expecting to find work building canals. As it turned out, there was far less work available than advertised. Many of those who came went on to the U.S. and some eventually returned home.
The United States had doubled the cost of passage to American ports and was confiscating overloaded immigrant ships. The failure of the potato crop in Ireland “upset the delicate (and miserable) economy of an agricultural people reduced to eating one staple, potatoes, while they paid to an absentee landlord the rent from the proceeds of the only other staple, wheat.” (O’Gallagher 2001, 47) And so the influx began again.
The Quebec Emigrant Society began to prepare for large numbers of immigrant arrivals. However their preparations were based on experiences from previous years in the early 1840s where the yearly average of sick was around 200. They were not prepared for a typhus outbreak. It’s referred to as ‘Black ‘47’—the disease spread all along the St. Lawrence and as far as Kingston and Toronto. By the time the epidemic was over, approximately 30,000 people had died. On May 23, 1847 the doctors at Grosse Île reported 520 sick individuals in the hospital and were seeing about 40 to 50 deaths a day. Many children who survived were left orphaned. Some were adopted by French Canadian families, but many others spent their childhood in orphanages.
Records exist from “La Societe Charitable des Dames Catholiques de Quebec”. They ran schools and orphanages in Quebec City. In 1847 and 1848 someone from the Richelieu Street Orphanage “recorded with meticulousness all the information possible concerning 619 orphans in their care.” (O’Gallagher 2001, 56) This list has been transcribed and included in the appendix of Gallagher’s bookGrosse Île, Gateway to Canada 1832-1937. The list was preserved by the Grey Nuns and annotated as those children were adopted, ordained or got married. O’Gallagher includes examples of several other records in her book pertaining to the events of 1847 including deaths, letters and names of vessels boarded.
While immigration continued every summer, Grosse Île came to be used only in emergencies and many ships were allowed to bypass the island altogether. Later epidemics such as Asiatic cholera in 1866, typhus in 1868, yellow fever in 1889, cholera in 1892, bubonic plague in 1902 and smallpox in 1912 were all prevented from reaching epidemic proportions in Canada through quarantine operations.
Grosse Île is now a National Historic Site:
Library and Archives Canada has a searchable database of immigrants who passed through Grosse Île between 1832 and 1937:
The Quebec Mercury newspaper published ship arrivals at Quebec as well as information about the Quebec Emigrant Society and deaths at Grosse Île. The example articles have been chosen to demonstrate the type of information that can be gleaned from newspapers.
Articles from Quebec Mercury
Arrivals at Grosse Isle since Saturday Last. Quebec Mercury, Sat., 3 Aug 1847, Page 3, Column 2, Library and Archives Canada microfilm N-36605.
State of Affairs at Grosse Isle.Quebec Mercury, Tues., 29 June 1847, Page 2, Column 3, Library and Archives Canada microfilm N-36605.
Emigrant Society Member. Quebec Mercury, Tues., 29 June 1847, Page 2, Column 4, Shipping Intelligence, Library and Archives Canada microfilm N-36605.
Other Quarantine Stations
Dr. F. Montizambert, General Superintendent of Canadian Quarantines, reports on the government’s Quarantine Service in the Handbook of Canada 1897. At that time quarantine service came under the control of the Minister of Agriculture. In 1897 the ‘official’ quarantine stations of Canada were:
On the Atlantic Coast
- a. Grosse Île and substations
- b. Halifax
- c. Saint John, NB
- d. Sydney, Cape Breton
- e. Pictou
- f. Hawkesbury
- g. Chatham, NB
- h. Charlottetown
On the Pacific Coast
- a. William Head, BC
- b. Vancouver
He reported that all other ports were “unorganized Maritime Quarantine Stations” and every inland port was to be considered an “unorganized Inland Quarantine Station”.
No persons were allowed to disembark from any vessel until it had been declared free from disease by a quarantine officer. The officer also had to ensure that the landing of any ship would not cause a danger to public health.
Dave Obee in his book Destination Canada: A guide to 20th century immigration records, includes a list entitled “Deaths of Arrivals at William Head Quarantine Station 1897-1958” (p. 20).
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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- This page was last modified on 29 May 2013, at 20:18.
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