The basis for newspaper advertisements about cheap Canadian land in Irish and British papers had been the 1818 purchase of the remainder of the present-day Regional Municipality of Peel from the Mississauga Indians and the land between today's Orangeville and Georgian Bay from the Chippewa Nation. No provision was made in the purchase for the Mississauga tribe to retain land along the banks of the Credit. This allowed for the construction of mills on that river - north of today's Eglinton Avenue - easing the monotonous task of transporting bags of grain by horseback to the only available mills on the Humber.
A number of people who were to settle in the Elmbank area were already in Canada and many were in the process of toiling as labourers to earn money and gain experience for the farming life on which they proposed to embark.
John McCarthy from Killarney had laboured in Whitchurch from 1817 and was well positioned to be among the first to apply for lots in the new land available in Toronto Township.
John McGuire from Fermanagh had come that same year to Hollowell Township (near present-day Belleville) and was the first member of the numerous Fermanagh family to reside in Canada. Within three years, his parents and seven siblings had arrived and systematically set about acquiring extensive holdings in the area, including the lot on which the Elmbank church and graveyard were to be situated. John, however, is the only member of the family whom we know with certainty is buried at Elmbank.
Francis Kennedy from Cork had come in 1813, laboured and married in Lower Canada, and got his grant in York County in July 1819. When rumour began to circulate in 1818 about new tracts of land becoming available, he had sent for his brother, Patrick, who was allocated land in the wilds of Caledon.
Barney Doherty from Donegal arrived in New York in May 1818 after an exotic trip from Derry via the Azores that had entered the family lore. Instead of the usual forty to sixty days, this trip was accomplished in eighteen (although there is a nagging suspicion about this figure, it being one day less than the number reputedly taken by a neighbour, James Doyle). A year later, on hearing from the British Consulate in that city that land was available in Upper Canada, Doherty hastily travelled up the Hudson route and was rewarded, upon arrival in York, with a grant in Toronto Township. He sent for his grown family in the barony of Kilmacrenan and, within a few years, most had joined him.
Many of these early settlers, however, derived their knowledge of the new Upper Canada land from Irish newspapers. They then had to make an immediate decision about the disposal of what goods they possessed (and arrange for the selling of their lease, if they were fortunate enough to possess one) in order to finance the cost of passage to the New World. Delay would ensure that there would be fewer attractive lots available in Upper Canada.
Transportation was not problematic, as there was a fine array of ships available. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the price of European timber had quintupled and British merchants now looked to Canada for a cheaper and plentiful supply. This trade expanded to the extent that, by 1820, there were one thousand vessels engaged in ferrying the seemingly inexhaustible supply of prime trees available in the forests of New Brunswick and Upper and Lower Canada. The ships were heavily laden going eastwards, but on the return journey, carrying the lighter European products in demand in Canada, there was a surfeit of space available. Owners and captains began to fill their holds with the growing number of emigrants and it was this route to Quebec that most Peel County settlers used. Those who availed of the shorter sea route to New York, and who were intent on proceeding from there to Upper Canada, were faced with a number of difficulties. The authorities at New York charged a 30% tax on the value of goods being carried by those disembarking passengers who did not intend to settle in the United States. The journey from New York to Albany was an easy one by steamboat, but from there to Upper Canada, in those days before the construction of the Erie Canal, the trek was circuitous and expensive.
The principal Irish ports of departure were Derry, Belfast, Waterford, Dublin, Cork and Limerick, with some sailing from Sligo and Newry. As virtually all of the ships were cargo vessels, the facilities were rudimentary but governed by British Ship Passenger Acts that stipulated certain basic conditions in the space available to each passenger and the amount and quality of water that had to be carried. The cost per adult travelling in a steerage hold (which was all that was usually available) from an Irish port to Quebec was about £4/10/- ($18), with children charged half fare. This amount bought passage, the use of the ship's fire for cooking, and water; emigrants had to furnish everything else required for the two-month journey. The notorious coffin ships were nightmares of the future.
What this journey from Ireland to Quebec might entail can be gauged from the account of an English farmer who settled in the eastern part of Upper Canada and travelled alone in steerage from Liverpool to Quebec in mid-June 1819. He chose to outfit himself completely for the journey at a ship's chandler near the dock and his list of items added £12 to the £5/10/- that he paid for passage. He admitted that there were some "superfluities" in his list - especially in the quantity of whiskey, rum, porter and Madeira that he carried - and that prospective passengers could lessen their expenses by bringing "beds, cooking utensils, bacon, hams, corned or hung beef, dried tongues and preserved fruits" from home. The rest of his items were basic. The foodstuffs included tea, sugar, coffee, a quarter barrel (55 lbs) of salt beef, 2 bushels of potatoes, 60 eggs, 14 lbs of split peas, half a cheese, 56 lbs of common biscuit, a bottle of mustard and an unspecified amount of bread. To this were added cutlery, dishes, drinking vessels, hampers and a large chest with a lock to secure his alcoholic drinks (which were looted by the deck hands off Newfoundland). His list ended with a ship's bed and bolster, two blankets, a coverlet and a tin wash-hand basin.
He advised prospective emigrants that coarse warm clothing "with flannel shirts, thick worsted or yarn stockings, and strong shoes or half-boots nailed, are most suitable for the climate of Canada in winter; and duck slops, duck 'trowsers', and calico or homespun linen shirts, for summer wear. Fur caps may be brought out, as they are expensive here. Any old clothes will serve during the passage out, and in travelling through the country. Beds may be taken out (without bedsteads). Curtain and curtain rings, coats, blankets, sheets, warm rugs or coverlets and several spare bed ticks. All these latter articles are extremely dear in Canada." Other items, such as farm implements and cooking utensils, could be purchased in Canadian towns for the same price as at home. His final admonition was to pay attention to personal cleanliness by washing the hands and face in cold water every morning. If fresh water was not available, then salt water mixed with oatmeal should be used.
The farmer then settled in for an uneventful, sixty-three day journey, the monotony broken only by contact with eastbound ships, whales and flying fish. Newfoundland was sighted after six weeks and it took another three to make harbour at Quebec.
A Yorkshire man, Anthony Birdsall (whose brother, William, farmed at Meadowvale in Toronto Township) had travelled on the same route about a month earlier and his account of the conditions contrasted starkly with that of the farmer.
Two families - Birdsall and his sister and a Derbyshire farmer with his wife and family – occupied the few cabins available, from which deck they looked down upon the forty in steerage “and a strange motley view they were but fortunately we had no communication with them.” After the ship rounded Cape Clear in County Cork, it faced the full fury of the Atlantic. The sea made the small vessel seem “like a cork in a basin of water” and shortly most of the passengers were “dreadfully sick”. The Derbyshire farmer was convinced that he would soon be “food for fishes” and promptly made a will. He also began to confess his sins and transgressions, paying particular attention to details of the many girls he had seduced. The steerage passengers, who had been quarrelling over turns at the cooking fire in the tranquil Irish Sea, now lay “in corners making ludicrous faces and woeful lamentations wishing they had never left home to come to the promised land.”
Matters worsened. After ten days, the “sea was running mountain high and it was impossible to keep the ship under sail. It was impossible to stand on the deck and I was completely thrown out of my bunk onto the cabin table”, where he fell among “chests and chairs that were driving about in all directions.” In steerage, “some were swearing, others praying, women crying, children bawling, some repenting about their sins and promising to be devout and sincere Christians if they ever got to shore.” They lay at the complete mercy of the ocean for five days and when able to unfurl the sails, the captain discovered that they had been driven back a long way. Despite the fact that it was now the month of June, the weather was bitterly cold and snow and sleet abounded. After three and a half weeks at sea, they reached the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and had to cast anchor at times and proceed slowly to avoid icebergs in the foggy conditions. The monotony was broken for a short while when it was discovered that a passenger’s gunpowder and waistcoat were missing and were found in the box of the only Irishman on board. Rough justice was dispensed in the form of a trial in front of the captain and a jury composed of passengers, a guilty verdict rendered and ten lashes of a rope administered to the man’s bare back. Birdsall’s journal ended when the ship stopped so some passengers could disembark in Cape Breton.
The anonymous farmer’s account continued until arrival at Quebec and he also provided detailed advice on how to proceed onwards into the interior of Canada.
He strongly recommended that passengers intending to travel to Upper Canada should proceed there immediately upon arrival at Quebec. However, if delayed and if the ship were staying for a few days, the law allowed a passenger to sleep on board until its departure – which would save the cost of lodging at an inn.
The quickest way to Montreal was by steam packet, where the cost in steerage, with no provisions or bed, was 15 shillings ($3). He warned travellers to "look out for their luggage" during disembarkation at intermediary ports, as sometimes bags were taken by mistake.
At Montreal, it was advisable to hire a luggage cart for the nine-mile journey to Lachine, as the rapids precluded water transport to that spot. This method cost another eight shillings ($1.60) and settlers careful about their money could walk the distance. Baggage could then be forwarded securely from Lachine for collection in Kingston.
From Lachine, there were three methods of travel available. The first was 130 miles by mail coach to Prescott and then 60 miles by steam packet to Kingston, at a total cost of £3 or $13 per adult. Alternatively, the settlers could accompany the baggage by bateaux or Durham boats to Kingston but this would take 10-12 days. The cheapest alternative was to walk to Kingston - at an easy thirty miles per day for six days - which would cost about three shillings per adult for food and board.
The final stage of the journey began in Kingston, from where there was a steam packet to York once a week, taking 36 hours and costing fifteen shillings in steerage.
The petition of John Skelly from Longford for land in Etobicoke gave some indication of the delays in contemporary travel. With his wife and children, he had sailed from Dublin in late June 1818, arrived in Quebec on 21 October and was in York to petition the Land Board on 25 November.
From the English farmer's figures, one could deduce that a penny-conscious emigrant who brought much of his own food and sleeping necessities could make the journey from Derry to York for £11 to £12 ($44-$48). This was a princely sum in times when an Irish labourer would have to work for twenty days to accumulate £1.
However, the settlers from Donegal, or Cork or Cavan, notwithstanding the lightness of their purses or the irritation of some delays, were now safely at York. Other Irish immigrants, when they eventually arrived in the capital of Upper Canada, told more harrowing tales when petitioning for land.
Bartley Connor, a native of the town of Armagh, had emigrated in April 1821 on board the Lynx, which was wrecked in the St. Lawrence where Bartley lost "a whole lot of what little he possessed". He had a wife and child and, although "desirous to pay a price for land", was unable to apply for a grant paying fees. He was given a gratuitous grant of 50 acres in Erin Township and eventually settled down in the "Catholic swamp" in Trafalgar, where his children prospered. Pat McCarthy and Michael Meaghar from Wexford told similar tales of shipwreck below Quebec the previous year and were also given gratuitous grants.
James Hanright, a carpenter from Rosenallis, Queen’s County (now County Laois) arrived in York with a wife and four children in May 1820. He had exhausted all his means in coming via "Prince Edward Island, Halifax and New York", where he had arrived in April 1819. James' tale did not evoke the hoped-for sympathy from the Land Board and they rejected his petition for a gratuitous grant of land.
In April 1822, James Kelly, a native of County Meath and a tanner and gurrier of the Town of York, petitioned the Land Board for another grant, as he had been unable to proceed to the property which he had been allocated in August 1819. He attributed this inability to want of means and the expense he had incurred in taking his family out from Ireland. His wife and children had emigrated the previous summer but lack of money had prevented them from proceeding further than Kingston. His petition was rejected.
The tales of woe of John Roddy and his three sons, all from the townland of Rangoosh, parish of Killeevan, County Monaghan, were more convincing and all were given free, 50-acre grants. John and his youngest son, Charles, on arrival in York in 1821, detailed how they had expended all their means on the journey and were then destitute. Bernard's account was more elaborate. He had come to New Brunswick in 1815, "stopped to work in the United States", had difficulty getting his wages, was detained by lawsuits to get the same, and on arrival in York with his family was low in means and unable to pay land fees.
Irish immigrant, William Watson’s description of the town of York in 1822 depicted it as a primitive place:
"This town lies low, consists chiefly of one street, which is more than half an English mile in length, and is rapidly increasing, it has a compact, new, handsome Assembly House, a large, well-constructed building of the Established religion; a Methodist Meeting House; Gaol, and Market House. Fever and Ague are no strangers to its inhabitants, perhaps owing to its very low situation and contiguity to Lake Ontario: but very few die of those diseases. Almost all the houses are built of Wood roofed with Shingles, or Tin. Its streets are not paved nor is it a place of much mercantile trade, or any other lively business. Houses and lodging are expensive here, more so than in either England or Ireland. The land about York is wretchedly poor: light and sandy, at least for seven or eight miles distance, in every direction."
An 1820 account of Adam and Henry Brown's journey to land they were to settle in Caledon told of arriving at York on a schooner from Niagara "and the first sight that greeted them was a dead horse on the wharf and a group of Indians feasting on the remains." The streets through which they struggled were deep in mud and full of stumps. Yet, despite its limitations, it was the seat of government. More importantly, it was here that the Land Board met every two weeks to assign lots to those who were willing to make a commitment to opening up the forests that covered most of Upper Canada. The land allocation decisions of this board would shape the Canadian future of many of the Elmbank immigrants, all of whom would never see Ireland again.