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Canadian Immigration and Settler Narratives

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200514-3Welcome to the latest blog post detailing the Canadian collections at the IHR. In this installment we explore the wide variety of sources available in the library for the study of Canadian immigration history.  Throughout the nineteenth century publishers and booksellers in London printed almanacs and handbooks in order to seduce travelers and emigrants to Canada. Several examples of these guides dating from the middle decades of the 19th century survive in the IHR’s colonial holdings.  Smith’s Canadian Gazette (London: W.H. Smith, 1846) is a directory of “desirable and useful information for the man of business, traveler, or emigrant” including distances between towns in the Canadian interior and listings of Crown Lands then on the market. It also includes detailed fold-out maps. Henry Chesshyre’s Canada, A Hand Book for Settlers (London, 1864) is more propagandistic in nature and includes a list of 10 reasons to emigrate (including its accessibility and proximity to the UK) as well as advice on how to construct settlements and trap wild animals. Another handbook, S. W. Silver’s Handbook to Canada: A guide for Travellers and Settlers (London, 1881) contains detailed histories of the locations it describes as well as useful economic information including mining and trade figures.

The library continues to grow its collection of published correspondence and settler journals composed by European immigrants to western Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries. These sources were written by men and women of different social backgrounds and often focus on the hardships of life in frontier communities, particularly during the winter months.  The letters of English immigrant Catherine Parr Stickland Traill (1802-1899), collected under the title Canada and the Oregon: the backwoods of Canada (London, 1849), document life in provincial Ontario on the eve of the Upper Canada Rebellion (1837). Traill wrote extensively about her new country including observations of its people, the land, and the seasonal extremes in climate. Traill landed in Montreal in 1832 shortly after the outbreak of a devastating cholera epidemic in which the city’s poor immigrants were especially hard hit. Traill’s reflections upon the potential fate of her less fortunate shipmates stand in stark contradiction to the optimistic image of British America found in contemporary emigrant handbooks. On the streets of Quebec and Montreal,  Traill noted, ”meet together the unfortunate, the improvident, the helpless orphan, the sick, the aged, the poor virtuous man, driven by the stern hand of necessity from his country and his home, perhaps to be overtaken by sickness or want in a land of strangers” (37).

200514-4

Map in ‘Smith’s Canadian Gazette’

Like Catherine Traill’s letters, many of the early published journals and personal diaries housed in the library record the authors’ impressions of Canadian cities, the American landscape and the customs of the continent’s native inhabitants. James Colnett’s (1753-1806) late 18th-century diaries of his fur trading voyages to Vancouver Island are among the earliest English descriptions of the land and people of the Pacific Northwest. Colnett is notable for having accompanied Captain James Cook on his Pacific voyages. Nova Scotia-born surveyor George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901) recorded his observations of the flora, fauna and geology of the Rocky Mountains while on a surveying mission for the Canadian government in 1883/84.

Other letter collections and journals written by immigrants and settlers include :

The library houses many sources relevant to the study of ethnicity and immigration to Canada. These sources include a wide selection of passenger lists from ships sailing between British ports and North America. These lists often indicate the ethnicity of passengers on-board, either explicitly, as in the case of many American sources from the late 18th century onwards in which the nationality of passengers is listed alongside their names, or implicitly (e.g. ethnic background as suggested by the listed surname and port of origin). The IHR collections also contain studies of ethnic identity among immigrant groups in modern Canada, as well as source collections of letters in which immigrants discuss the often painful process of adaption to life in their new country.

Scottish immigration resources, including ship registers and biographical dictionaries of early migrants, are well represented in the Canadian holdings.