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Article posted: October 4, 1999
Peter Robinson's Settlers
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
We all know about the big Irish potato famine in the 1840s, which caused many thousands of people to immigrate to North America.
What many people do not realize is that the Irish economy was a shambles more than twenty years earlier, and that both landlords and tenants in Ireland were very concerned. The tenants were starving and the landlords uneasy because they had responsibility for caring for the many jobless families on their estates.
One solution which the British government favoured was to export groups to the colonies. The landlords liked the idea. Many of them were willing to pay the costs to ship the poor to Canada, because once they were gone from Ireland the landlords' responsibilities would end.
One of the earliest and largest of these immigrant groups was organized by Peter Robinson. He traveled to London and then to Ireland, where he met with the authorities. His plans to take out a group of young, keen recruits was approved. The transatlantic fares would be paid, and the new farmers would be provided with land, tools and food for the first months. In return the Irish Canadians would clear the land and start farms, remain loyal to the Crown and provide men for the militia if needed.
Thousands of Irish applied to go, but only the strongest and most suitable were chosen. The average age of the men was 35, old enough to be responsible but young enough to have a long life of work ahead. Even those who might have had a murky past were considered, since Robinson thought the new land might encourage them to change their ways. The landlords agreed that to clear Ireland of some 'fiery spirits' might be a good thing also.
The first group came in 1823 and was settled in Bathurst District (now Lanark and Carleton counties). A second group arrived in 1825 and settled near Rice Lake. The town they founded was called Peterborough, after Peter Robinson.
In her study of the group, Peter Robinson's Settlers, Carol Bennett has tried to make an exhaustive list of these Irish settlers and clarify many myths which have grown up around them. They were an early wave of what became a river of Irish settlers coming to Ontario.
Although many of them did not remain on their farms, they started towns where they ran shops, mills and factories to provide services to other settlers. Many of them had similar names, which can be difficult for the researcher. Bennett gives advice about how to sort out these problems, and her family listings will be the first step in finding which Murphy is your relation.
Among the facts Bennett presents about the Robinson settlers are place of origin in Ireland, ship on which they sailed, location in Ontario, and she often has other bits of information such as death dates, cemeteries or intermarriage with other Robinson families.
Peter Robinson's Settlers by Carol Bennett was published by Juniper Books in 1987.
While building the Rideau Canal in the late 1820s, Colonel John By sent a questionnaire to many Irish living in the Ottawa Valley (including the Bathurst Robinson immigrants) asking if they had relations back in Ireland who might be interested in coming to Canada. The reponses are invaluable for making family connections between Ontario and Ireland, including exact places of origin. The file was published as The McCabe List by the Ontario Genealogical Society ten years ago.
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources