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Published August 7, 1998

Maritime History Lesson, Part Three - Philadelphia Covenantors; Foreign Protestants; Irish

By Sandra Devlin

This is the third in a series of columns (Part 1, Part 2) dealing with Maritime history, designed to help genealogists put their research in context. This column will deal with the Philadelphia covenantors, Foreign Protestants and the Irish.

The first two columns dealt with other settlement groups: The fourth and final column will deal exclusively with United Empire Loyalists.

Few areas of North America could claim the ethnic diversity of old Nova Scotia in the 18th century. A dynamic mix created neighborhoods with distinctive cultures -- influenced as they were by Indian traditional ways, French bonhomie, Old World order and Colonial gumption.

With the German and Irish qualities added, the proud collective Maritime character soon took on a color, piquancy and identity all its own.

In the 19th and 20th centuries there would be people of other races and religions who chose the Maritimes as their home. But the influence and progeny of the first pioneers continue to dominate life in the three Canadian provinces beside the Atlantic Ocean.

Philadelphia Covenantors

As far as I know there has never been a catchy group name applied to the eight families from Philadelphia who landed on June 3, 1766 at The Bend on the Petitcodiac River where Moncton stands today. They are sometimes referred to as The Permanent Settlers, the Pennsylvania families or the Philadelphia settlers. But call them what we will, their influence was keen and lasting.

All but one were of German descent, their surnames continue to pepper the present-day telephone books of Westmorland and Albert counties: Steeves, Lutes, Trites, Jones (of Welsh extraction), Somers, Ricker, Copple and Wortman.

The trek to the Petitcodiac really began in January of that year when the heads of the first four families mentioned above, plus four others named Miller, Criner, Cline and Lentz signed a covenant, an Article of Agreement with merchant John Hughes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

There is no evidence that the last four families honored their commitments to settle in Nova Scotia, despite a fine for failing to comply, either in 1766 or at any time later.

Some of the initial terms of the agreement included stipulations that each family would earn clear title to 200 acres after they had built a house with a stone or brick chimney; fenced and improved or tilled two acres of corn land; cleared, fenced and mowed one acre of meadow; planted 50 apple trees and paid or secured the payment of the purchase price with interest from May 1, 1766.

The settlers negotiated other concessions including one whereby any single man would have 100 acres, subject to the same conditions as the originals and when he married each of his children born before May 1771 would qualify for 40 more.

So with agreements made, supplies loaded, cherished possessions like the Steeves Bible in German and all family members safely on board, the ship captained by John Hall sailed from Philadelphia that spring. The first years on the Petitcodiac were mostly hardships and disappointments. There was much legal wrangling over promises which the settlers believed were made to them but not honored. But, all of the families survived and eventually thrived and multiplied.

Of the seven families, Henrich Steeves and his seven sons were to become the most prolific. The nucleus of the Steeves clan became Hillsborough, Albert County, but the reach of their descendants knows no boundaries.

Foreign Protestants

Nearly 1,600 souls known as the Foreign Protestants from Germany, Switzerland and France, largely of farming backgrounds, settled in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1753.

To the satisfaction of the ruling British, the newcomers swore allegiance to the Crown. . .something the Acadian French would not do.

A significant part of this group were 431 Montbelliardians. Montbéliard is a small city in eastern France, some 400 kilometres southeast of Paris. Until 1793, Montbéliard was the independent homeland of the French-speaking Protestants lured to Nova Scotia by Dutch shipping agent John Dick, appointed by the British to recruit settlers from along the Rhine. From previous columns you will remember that Nova Scotia at that time was a remote and fairly recent British colony, following the Treaty of Ultrect in 1713.

This group several months in Halifax working off their passage, then went on to become part of the founding families of Lunenburg . There are many extant ships lists, victualling lists and census returns for this group.


Most of us first associate Irish immigration with the potato famines which struck the Emerald Isle in mid-1800s. And to be sure, many thousands of Irish fled in coffin ships for that reason to localities of the Maritimes. But as noted Maritime Irish historian Peter Toner has pointed out there were also earlier waves of Irish immigration prompted by other reasons.

Irish immigration began in the late 1700s. One must also remember that many of the United Empire Loyalists were of Irish extraction; while others were further classified as Ulster-Scots.

But 1815 is the first significant time marker of wide-scale migration from Ireland, a wave spurred by economic factors.

Halifax Harbour circa 1820 By 1829, a growing shortage of tenant farms for the younger generation and the promise of land ownership in the New World lured the Irish from their beloved homeland in growing numbers.

In the 1830s and early ‘40s, religious strife and a decline in the linen industry prompted many more to consider immigration to the Maritimes -- which for some was simply a temporary stop-over point en route to Boston.

Irish immigrants to the Maritimes tended toward a clannishness in their new home. Consequently, many families with roots in particular townlands, parishes and counties of Ireland will be found grouped together in their chosen part of the New World. Groups will also be found in Roman Catholic and Protestant clusters.

Significant Irish settlements in the Maritimes include:
  • the Miramichi region in Northumberland County; Westmorland County, north of current-day Moncton; the city of Saint John, the port through which thousands entered during the famine years and several other areas in New Brunswick.
  • In Nova Scotia, the city of Halifax; Truro-Londonderry, Colchester, and Chignecto, Cumberland County and others.
  • In Prince Edward Island -- significant settlements, with ever-so-obvious place names like Shamrock to match, in all three counties, Kings, Queens and Prince.
By 1759 in Halifax, one-third of the population was of Irish origin and the first Irish Historical Society in what is now Canada, was formed there in 1786.

One source suggests that, at the very lowest, Nova Scotia (New Scotland) was half Irish in 1827.

When New Brunswick became a separate province in 1784, its first governor was Col. Thomas Carleton, an Irishman. Other Irish surnames of early New Brunswick: Armstrong, Boyd, Butler, Dunn, Flood, Furlong, Hayward, Kelly, Livingstone, McDermott, McNichol, Murray, Nicholson, Parks, Robinson, Scarl, Skillens and Willis.

Across the Northumberland Strait, present-day Prince Edward Island was even called New Ireland briefly, when in 1780 then-governor Capt. Walter Patterson changed its name by an Act of the Assembly from St. John’s Island. The change was short lived, however, because the Home Government was none too pleased that Patterson had made the unilateral decision without first petitioning the powers-that-be in England.

The Scots and Acadians outnumbered the Irish on P.E.I. in the early years; but the Irish nevertheless wielded their share of power in government and business through prominent names like: Fanning, DesBrisay, Daly, Whelan, Connolly and Brennan.

Small wonder it is often said, you don’t have to scratch very deep to find some Irish in a Maritimer.

Relevant sources and resources:
    The First Hundred Years of Moncton, E. W. Larracey.

    Samphire Greens, Esther C. Wright.

    The Steeves Descendants, Esther C. Wright.

    St. John River and its Tributaries, Esther C. Wright.

    The Monctonians, Vol. 1 - J. E. Belliveau.

    Lutz Mountain Meeting House, Box 2952, Moncton, N.B, .E1C 8T8.

    The Celtic Centre, PO Box 973, Moncton, E1C 8N8.

    Dictionary of Miramichi Biography. W. D. Hamilton.

    Old North Esk Revised, W. D. Hamilton.

    Miramichi Papers, W. D. Hamilton, ISBN 0-920114-84-9.

    The Foreign Protestants and the Settlement of Nova Scotia, Winthrop P. Bell. ISBN 0-919107-28-1.

    Together in Exile, Peter Murphy, ISBN 0-9694152-0-6.

    The Irishman in Canada, Nicholas Flood Davin, Published Toronto, London 1877.

    The Atlantic Canadians 1600-1900, The Genealogical Research Library, Toronto, Ontario -- three-volumes include listings for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island individuals. Alphabetized by name; primary sources for each entry.

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