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Peter Robinson's Report on 1823 Emigration to the Bathurst District of Upper Canada (Ontario)
Column published: 11 October 2006 - Updated April 20, 2019
By Rick Roberts, Global Genealogy

Many family historians know that the Potato Famine in the late 1840s initiated a major economic downturn that encouraged a large migration of Irish to America and beyond. However, the 19th century provided many decades of economic disadvantage for the Irish. The decade after the Napoleonic Wars was one of those periods. By the early 1820s Ireland was experiencing a severe economic downturn, compounded by failing potato crops. The economic depression and food shortages affected all Irish regardless of faith. The Catholic Irish had an additional problem. Irish penal laws restricted Irish Roman Catholics in the practice of their faith, land ownership, and voting. The economic reality of the early 1820s, combined with religious bigotry, pushed many Irish into considering alternatives.

The British wanted to quickly populate Upper Canada (Ontario) in order to stave off the expansionist ambitions of the new American republic to the south. The assisted passage and settlement schemes that the Brits initiated, provided an attractive alternative for the disadvantaged Irish.

In 1822 the British government capitalized an emigration plan with £30,000, a significant sum in those days. The goal of the scheme was to relocate destitute Irish families to Upper Canada. This plan was designed to solve two problems... reduce the cost of supporting the poor Irish in Ireland, and to protect British interests in North America by settling the wilderness. Settlers were also obligated to man the local militia in the event of an invasion from the USA. This was far less expensive than defending a largely unpopulated province with regular British military forces.

Peter Robinson, a brother of Upper Canada’s Attorney General, John Beverley Robinson, was appointed to manage the emigration scheme in 1822. His appointment was purely political insofar as he possessed no special special skills or experience to accomplish the task. Despite that, he was largely successful in his adventure.

Robinson sailed for Britain in the summer of 1822 where he immediately established a plan and completed the work required prior to recruiting emigrants. In 1823 he went to Ireland where he found a willing and highly motivated audience in the southern regions. More than 50,000 Irish applied for the free land, supplies, financial support and transportation that was provided by the scheme.

The following report by Peter Robinson relates to the first wave of Irish who settled in Bathurst District (Eastern Ontario) in 1823. Of the 50,000 plus applicants, 568 people were chosen. The Irish emigrants travelled on two ships - the Hebe and the Stakesby. The ships disembarked at Quebec City, where passengers boarded smaller steam vessels that transported them from Quebec to Montreal. At Montreal, passage became more difficult. Barges and flat-bottomed Bateaux transported the settlers and their possessions up the St. Lawrence River. The final overland leg of the journey was by wagon, and by foot.

Peter Robinson's report was written on April 2 of 1824, one year prior to the transportation of the second wave of settlers to the Peterborough area of Upper Canada 1825.

Consider this transcription to be a secondary source. Refer to the original document on microfilm to confirm the transcription. The full microfilm reference appears at the end of this article.

    I have the honor to report to you for the information of the Right Honorable Earl Bathurst that having received directions from His Majesty's Government to proceed to Ireland for the purpose of superintending a limited emigration to the Province of Upper Canada, I left Liverpool on the 18 and arrived at Fermoy in the County of Cork on the 20th of May 1823.

    Being a stranger in Ireland I was ordered to act under the advice of Lord Ennismore and the Magistrates, and in order to receive the full benefit of their assistance, I made Fermoy my principal place of residence - I was happy to find that the very liberal conditions proposed by His Majesty's Government to such as were disposed to emigrate, met the cordial approbation of all the Gentlemen to whom they were communicated - Lords Ennismore, Kingston ODoneraile, W. Bucher M.P. W.Iephson & the Rev. Dr Woodward were most friendly to the scheme, anxious for its success, and ready to give me every assistance in their power.

    On the 2d of June my final instructions arrived, and as the Gentlemen I was directed to consult were unanimously of the opinion that I should take as many persons as possible from the disturbed Baronies in the County of Cork, which were at that time in a very distracted state - I caused several hundred copies of the memorandum containing the terms of emigration to be distributed in the Towns of Fermoy, Mitchelstown, Doneraile, Charlesville, Newmarket, Kanturk, Mallow & the villages within that circle - The Noblemen and the principal Magistrates in the different Towns considered in the kindest manner to become the organs of communication with the persons wishing to emigrate, to take in their names and the number of their respective families as it was intended from these lists to make under their advice and direction a final selection - The whole business was conducted in the true spirit of conciliation for in every Town or Village from which emigrants were expected I called upon the Roman Catholic Priest as well as the more respectable inhabitants to afford them an opportunity of asking any questions they chose to put, or of giving them an account of the nature of the benefit which Government offered through me for the acceptance of the poor.

    Several Priests entered into the matter with much zeal, and one of them promised to read the memorandum from the pulpit and to explain to his parishioners the great advantage to themselves and families which must accrue from emigrating in such liberal conditions.

    Not satisfied with giving all the information I could to the Magistrates, and calling upon the principal inhabitants, I made myself accessible to all the people and entered patiently into their views and feelings answering their enquiries and affording them as true a description of the Country as I was capable of giving- On these occasions it was that I found the benefit of being well acquatinted with Upper Canada the place of their destination- I was able to set before them the length of the journey the obstacles in their way, and the means of removing them. I explained the manner of clearing lands and cultivating the virgin soil, I dissipated their apprehensions concerning wild beasts and the danger of being lost in the woods- Many after being satisfied in regard to the excellence of the soil and climate of Upper Canada, were anxious to know whether in case they liked the country there would be room for their friends and whether they would likewise be granted lands and enjoy the same benefits and privileges which were now offered to them- To these enquiries I made answer that I could not give them any positive information as to the future intentions of Government, but this I knew that there was room enough in Canada for many more than would ever come from Ireland, and that if they were industrious and sober they would be able in a few years to send for their friends and relations themselves if no public assistance should at that time be given to emigrants.

    The care thus taken to give every information produced the happiest effects, the people received the proposals most readily and were exceedingly grateful for the kind attention with which they were treated- I had been frequently told that much opposition might be expected from the Roman Catholic Priests as the plan if successful would lessen their congregations and circumscribe their influence but so far was this from being the case that in most of the parishes which I visited I found them on the best terms with the resident Protestant Clergyman, and instead of giving unfavourable impressions of the plan, they most generally gave it their support.

    There was a difference of opinion among many intelligent persons whom I found it advantageous to consult, regarding the description of persons that ought to be received- It was contended that a few respectable persons should be taken by way of encouraging others, and of proving that there was no deception, but that the measure was intended chiefly for the relief and comfort of the poorer classes- On the other hand it was justly remarked, that to receive persons in tolerable circumstances was not giving the experiment a fair trial, for unless the paupers themselves could be settled comfortably at a very moderate expense, emigration as a public measure ought to be abandoned- That there was no wisdom in affording to persons having some property the means of emigrating, because they had already the power if so disposed of proceeding to Canada- That there might be reason for not wishing that even small capitalists should remove from such a Country as Ireland, and certainly strong reason for not giving them direct encouragement.

    After a little time the general opinion accorded with the determination of His Majesty's Government, to make such a fair experiment of an emigration confined to paupers as would not only settle its expediency on the ground of expense, but what was of still more consequence show how far it was calculated to promote the permanent comfort and happiness of the persons sent out.

    Acting therefore agreeably to this determination, I confined myself strictly to the selection of persons of no capital whatever, and who might more properly be called paupers, satisfied that if such succeeded in Canada, persons disposed to emigrate having some property would be sufficiently encouraged, since they would have the fullest evidence before them that industry and prudence without their advantages would in time ensure success.

    In regard to the former conduct of those who applied to emigrate, I made no particular enquiry, being convinced that a change of circumstances so great as that of becoming proprietors of land themselves and far removed from the influence of the turbulent the selfish and designing would effectively cure the discontented- Moreover it was judged expedient by the Gentlemen under whose guidance I acted, to take them out of a troubled District that some of the more fiery spirits might be disposed of and consequently those left behind would find more steady employment and be induced to live in greater tranquillity.

    On the 2d of June I began to advertize for emigrants and to distribute copies of the terms on which the Government was disposed to send them to Canada, before the end of the month I had distributed 600 tickets for embarkation, a greater number than I could have taken, but I acted on the presumption that some would keep back from sickness or imaginary fears and apprehensions or the advice of friends, the event proved that I was right for on the 1t of July 460 only were embarked but I was able next day to select 108 more making in all 568 which was as many as could be accommodated- During the time that I was collecting the people, two vessels of about 500 tons each were engaged in the Thames to carry them from Cork to Quebec, these vessels were amply supplied with provisions and every comfort in case of sickness that could be imagined. Two medical officers of experience, one for each ship were employed- The vessels and stores were strictly inspected, and they were in every respect as well found as if they had been fitted out by a company of passengers for their own convenience safety and comfort.

    Thus in rather less than a month from the time of issuing the proposals the emigrants were on board, and the ships ready to sail, such was the promptness of Government in making its arrangements, and the active exertions of the Nobility and Magistrates in enabling me to select the requisite number- For their kindness in thus forwarding the object of my journey to Ireland as well as their attentions to myself I feel exceedingly grateful.

    During the voyage nothing happened of importance, the rations were abundant and comfortable the men were allowed cocoa for breakfast and nearly half a pint of spirits which was perhaps not too much. The women and children were allowed tea and sugar - The best proof of the attention paid to them on the voyage, arises from the good health which they enjoyed as only one woman and eight children died on the passage and these from small pox, which had unfortunately got into both ships, and not from any causes that could be attributed to their change of circumstances or situation.

    It may be worth remarking as it is a characteristic of the fondness of the Irish people for potatoes that the men preferred them to the cocoa, which they refused for several days to take till they saw the officers of the ships repeatedly breakfasting upon it - The children during sickness called out for potatoes, refusing arrow root or any other aliments more congenial to their situation & nothing could prevail on man, woman or child to eat plumb pudding, which as is usual on ship board was part of the Sundays dinner.

    Few of them would eat the best English cheese and when it was served out as part of their ration it was most commonly thrown overboard.

    We arrived at Quebec in the Stakesby on the 2nd of September after a passage of eight weeks, the Hebe had been in port two days - I shipped the people from the transports on board the steam boats without landing them, and proceeded to Montreal on the 4th having been detained only two days - We were much facilitated in our progress by the orders which His Excellency Lord Dalhousie had given before our arrival to the Quarter Master General to find provisions and transport as far as Prescott in Upper Canada a distance of about 320 miles.

    We reached Montreal on the 6th and finding the means of transport ready, I forwarded the emigrants by land immediately without stopping in Montreal to La Chine distant ten miles - There we remained two days and then set out in boats to Prescott, the crews of each consisting chiefly of emigrants with two Canadians to guide & steer- Notwithstanding the rapidity of the River and unskilfulness of the men few of whom had ever been in a boat we got to Prescott on the 15th. A Commissary had preceded us with one months provisions, but finding no commissariat establishment at Prescott and being unwilling to incur what I considered an unnecessary expense I receipted the months supply and allowed the commissary to return to Montreal.

    Here I likewise parted with the two Surgeons Mr Hamilton & Mr Dixon whose indefatigable attention to the emigrants and kind and benevolent treatment cannot be sufficiently praised, such was their zeal and anxiety for the success of the emigration, that they volunteered their services from Quebec to Prescott a distance of more than three hundred miles, and were of great service in preserving the health of the emigrants while passing up the River in boats, which was the most difficult and tedious part of the journey.

    I could not see them depart without regret, and tendering to them my grateful acknowledgements, as the good conduct of the people during the whole voyage and afterwards, may in a great measure be attributed to their steady and humane attention to their wants.

    On the 18th I left Prescott and proceeded across the Country in Waggons to the Mississippi River, a distance of about fifty miles and arrived on the 22d. Here I found that orders had already been given by His Excellency I. Perigrine Maitland to afford me every possible facility in placing my people on such lands as were vacant & grantable in this neighbourhood - His Excellency also had the goodness to place at my disposal many articles useful to settlers which remained in the King's Stores and took a very warm interest in the success of the undertaking.

    The Township of Ramsay which the Mississippi intersects appeared to be exceedingly eligible, but I found that rather more than one half had been settled three years before by Scotchmen from the neighbourhood of Glasgow.

    The adjacent Townships Huntley, Goulbourn & Pakenham were also partially settled by disbanded soldiers & others - Being anxious to settle my people as near each other as possible, I determined to examine carefully what lands remained in these Townships at the disposal of Government, & fortunately I found a sufficient number of vacant lots fit for settlement - I therefore located in the Township of Ramsay eighty two heads of families, in Pakenham twenty nine, in Bathurst one, in Lanark two, in Beckwith five, in Goulbourn twenty six, in Darling three, and in Huntley thirty four - Making in all one hundred and eighty two - As there were no barracks or Government Buildings in the neighbourhood the whole party without shelter, my first care was to provide log houses for them, and that on their respective lots - Fortunately the Autumn was unusually dry and warm and I completed this object by the first of November.

    To do this I was obliged to go to some additional expense, as the settlers were not sufficiently aquainted with the use of the axe to put up Log buildings themselves - However I feel well assured nothing tends so much to fix the attention of the emigrant to his newly acquired property, and to ensure his becoming a permanent settler as a little care & attention in placing him on his Land.

    I have much pleasure in being able to state that altho the detailed account of the expenditure cannot yet be made out, as there is a cow and some little articles still to be supplied, will fall within the estimate, so that this part of the experiment proved most satisfactory - The second part of the experiment "how far an emigration of the poorer classes to Canada is calculated to promote their paramount comfort and happiness" will be best proved by a reference to the letters of the persons sent out to me of them so late as the 20 Feby stating their good health & complete satisfaction with the country and climate, and earnestly inviting their friends to join them, and to the fact that every head of a family will have from three to four acres of land cleared and ready to plant this spring.

    I therefore feel warrented in stating that this emigration to the Province of Upper Canada committed to my superintendence has completely succeeded.

    I have the Honor to be Sir Your most Obead. Humble Servant

    P. Robinson

    To R. Wilmot Horton Esqr M.P.
Source: Ontario Archives RG 1 series C-I-3 volume 153 Land Records, Free Land Grants, Fiats, Peter Robinson microfilm # MS 693, Reel 156

Suggested reading:
  • BOOK - Peter Robinson's Settlers 1823 & 1825
    By Carol Bennett.
    In 1823 and 1825 groups of people from south Ireland were brought to Upper Canada under the leadership of the Hon. Peter Robinson, MPP. They settled in the District of Bathurst in the Ottawa Valley and in the Newcastle District in the Peterborough area.
    Carol Bennett documented the events which led up to this emigration scheme, and she has looked at each family to see what became of them. The book includes stories of the settlers, events in which the families took part, and profiles of prominent descendants. ISBN 978-1-926797-52-6 More Information

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