CANADA: Early Canadian History

The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760, a book by William Eccles,  provides insight into the earliest history of Canada, and the ongoing struggle between the French and the British for control of the mass of wilderness. The fur trade made huge profits for the Europeans.   It was the Indians who controlled the land in the 1600s and into the early 1700s. It is estimated that there may have been up to a million of them  extending up and down the American continent during this period.  Both the British and French learned the futility of confrontation, and tried to appease them with trinkets, blankets and other supplies in exchange for valuable pelts.

Forts were set up  along river and lake routes into the interior. Then the British also added a few trading posts,  trying to lure the Indians to trade with them instead of the French. Up to 50,000 pelts in one year was brought to Quebec and then sent overseas during this early period.

It was also a time of exploration and mapping of new territory. Quebec had a few small settlements along the shores of the St Lawrence River, where the military and governor resided. Gradually Montreal was developed,  extending settlement another 150 miles up the St Lawrence. The military presence increased and with it over time came the gradual loss of control by the Indians.” Direct immigration from France contributed fewer than 100,000 colonists in Canada in the century and a half before the British conquest in 1759-80. Subsequent growth would occur through natural increase, without further immigration from France.”

A confrontation between  Britain’s leader Wolfe  and France’s hot tempered Montcalm’s armies on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, began the end of French control.  Both great leaders died in this fight.  September 1759.   Scottish Gillespies were involved in this battle, one a British Colonel. He chose to stay in Canada and later moved his family to Renfew County.

The British then wrestled control of the southwest regions from France, and French garrisons in remaining forts surrendered. Britain now  controlled  the massive land mass  “Besides the garrison settlements of Halifax, Fredericton, and Quebec City, there was only a scattered array of forts, with only minor pockets of civilization. “

There was a final  uprising by disgrunted Indians who killed about 2,000 living in the garrisons of the western posts. They were put down by British regular troops, and peace treaties were established with the various tribes.

The American Revolution changed the landscape dramatically when British sympathizers, called Loyalists, fled the Colonies of the south and moved north into Upper Canada in the first wave of  settlement. A Gillespie Loyalist family from New Jersey petitioned for a land grant and were in Walsingham, Norfolk County with their married son and his family by about 1813.

About 4,000 Scots arrived from overseas. Between the Napoleonic Wars and the onset of the Great Irish Famine of 1845, half a million Irish traveled to British North America. Most immigrants settled  in rural areas and farmed, the majority Protestant. The earliest arrivals settled in the Maritimes.

The majority of Irish came from the northern counties (Ulster)  and many Scots left  Argyllshire (Islay) and Perthshire. They must have had some capital because of the cost of the passage. Canada was offering free land just as changes in economy pressured people’s survival in the home land. Free land grants in Canada were withdrawn by about 1827 and benevolent societies, even a few landlords helped later immigrants who otherwise had to depend on themselves in their move to a new land.

Those who went to Newfoundland for the fishing trade, came from within a 30-mile radius of Waterford City and from the Irish southeast. About 30,000 Irish settled in Newfoundland between 1770 and the 1830s, at which time immigration to that area stopped. Newfoundland was almost completely Catholic.

About 300 Irish mainly from Donegal and Derry had been enticed in 1761 to come to Nova Scotia. A year later another 70 Irish joined them. The majority of  later arrivals in Halifax  were Catholics from south eastern Ireland: south Kilkenny, Waterford, south Tipperary, and East Cork, and  who settled in eastern part of the province.

A group from Co Monaghan arrived in the early settlement of Prince Edward Island, and there is a large, distinctive memorial to them at Charlottetown’s dock area. I visited it this summer.

Quebec is associated with Co Limerick, and remains predominantly Catholic to this day. It had been settled by the French in its earliest years. Quebec City was the port of entry for arriving immigrants half of which were Protestant. It may have been the French language and culture that influenced many to move on.

Derry and the ports of Cork and neighbouring Kinsale provided two-thirds of the immigrants arriving in St John, New Brunswick. Between 1816 to 1826, about 19,000 immigrants from Derry went to New Brunswick.

It is interesting that the port of departure often determined where an immigrant went in North  America. Ships moved between trading centres chosen by their owners and cargo and could only make two trips a year, if that. In the early years timber ships going to New Brunswick with a few immigrants were linked with Greenock, Scotland and Cork merchants. Dublin was involved with Quebec but not with St John. Liverpool in England, the largest port was linked to the eastern seaboard of Ireland and Dublin, but its departing ships did  not sail to New Brunswick.

It was only when the flood of immigrants made it economically more viable that ships were converted to handle  passengers as the main cargo for the trip outbound,  with most now going to Quebec City. That arrival point directed immigrants into the interior of Canada,  and also shifted settlement away from the Maritimes, which was saturated by earlier immigration

The number of Irish arrivals to Canada peaked in 1847 with the landing of some 70,000 at Quebec City and about half that number in St John.  Most of these people now came from more sparcely populated regions of western Ireland, and were often so weakened they were sick, with no capital and needing assistance, unskilled, and Catholic. By this time, the locals in Canada were resentful of any more arrivals,  fearing the dreaded cholera disease.  After this date immigration abruptly changed to the States when the Canadian Government put a stop to the heavy flow by instituting a tax on arrivals. It is unknown how many immigrants had passed through Upper Canada to reach regions of the American colonies in the South. The mass of Irish immigration was over by 1855. English and Scottish arrivals, though few from then on,  now become the predominate immigration flow into the 1900s.

In 1870 land had opened up  for settlement in  Manitoba and the Prairies, and a movement West began, increasing in the 1880’s. Some early Gillespie Scots from Islay who had first settled in Ontario, moved to Manitoba, and their descendants spread outward from there, but it was Canadian born Scottish, English and a few Irish who responded. The arriving Irish immigrants were not associated with the development of the Prairies,  preferring urban Toronto and Ontario.

The California gold rush of 1855 had brought some immigrants to British Columbia coastal region, but the limited agricultural land focused attention on fishing, lumbering and mining. These adventures needed considerable capital in isolated and dangerous rocky regions,  thus discouraging participation.

Now a deeper look at what happened in Upper Canada in its early development, today’s Province of Ontario.


Between 1750 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, a large number of families from the Scottish Highlands emigrated to New York State, where they settled in the Mohawk Valley near Johnstown. Many remained loyal to the British Crown, and were thus ill treated by the American rebels.

As early as 1779, twenty-four families petitioned the Canadian Government to help them move there. About 300 of them arrived in Upper Canada seeking to enjoy their Roman Catholic religion without interference.

As the American war ended, there was a large contingent of Scottish families of soldiers in the King’s Regiment (1,462 in number) who moved to Canada and settled in 1784 in the first five townships west of the Quebec border: Lancaster, Charlottenburg, Cornwall, Osnabruck and Williamsburg. A Second Battalion of the same regiment settled further west, in Lennox and Prince Edward Counties. Many men of the 84th or Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment also settled in Glengarry.

Land grants were based on the soldier’s rank in the army. Each private soldier was given one hundred acres on the river front, and 200 acres remote; 50 acres was allowed in addition to his wife and to each child. When these young people came of age, both sons and daughters were to receive an additional 200 acres. Loyalist officers received considerably larger grants of land.

The settlers received some help from the government with basic supplies: lumber, bricks, ploughs and an axe, some hoes and spades, and with food, clothes, seed, farm animals and implements sometimes shared with others until supplies ran out.

But it was not only the Scots that arrived in those early days. One third of the first settlers in Stormont and Dundas were German Loyalists, some who had emigrated from the Rhine to England before coming to America. Like the Scots they were forced to leave after the Revolutionary War to settle on the banks of the St Lawrence River. Much later arrivals were sent to lots behind those on the river fronts. But it took many years for counties in Upper Canada  to be surveyed, lots opened up,  and then expansion gradually moved westward.

Another 500 Scottish Highlanders  arrived in 1786 from overseas to join those already settled in Glengarry County. Many of the new arrivals came from Knoydart and were relatives of those getting established. The new arrivals were sent to land in the back townships   of Roxborough and Finch in Stormont, and Kenyon in Glengarry. Within the next 10 years even more emigrants arrived from Scotland.  The early inhabitants of Lancaster Township were inhabitants from Lancashire, England. Some Hessian soldiers came into Charlottenburg in 1785.

Presbyterianism was established in Glengarry in 1787, with the first congregation at Williamstown.

During the lifetime of the early settlers in Glengarry, Gaelic was in general use. They retained all the habits and customs of the Highlands of Scotland.



After several exploratory trips in the 1790s, an American lumberman, Philemon Wright led a party of 30 settlers in 1800 to settle on the banks of the Ottawa River near Chaudiere Falls and near present day Hull. In 1808 Wright took the first raft of logs down the River to Quebec to sell and initiated the lumber industry.

The first settler in Gloucester Twp was Braddish  Billings who built a log house in 1812 and a year later married. For the next six years his was the only family in the area.

In 1818, disbanded soldiers of the 99th Regiment with their families arrived from Quebec. They lived in tents on the banks of the river at Richmond Landing, while the men blazed a trail to create a settlement a few miles away they would call Richmond. Land grants were given with 100 acres for a Private to 800 acres for a Captain. Some supplies had been provided and a small pension given for that first year. This village became a thriving village in these early years, even before Bytown,  but has since faded. There was an influx of Irish settlers from County Tipperary who also settled in Richmond.

Another group of immigrants arrived from Perthshire, Scotland about 1818  to chiefly settle in Beckwith Township in Lanark County. They had paid their own passage, but the government paid for the rest of their journey.

The settlement of Nepean, Goulbourn and March Townships  took place about the same time. Loyalists had been given land in Nepean, but never settled there. Many retired military officers received between 1600 to 8,000 acre land grants in March Twp, but its soil was the poorest in the area. Osgoode  Twp was settled by the Scots. Many did not remain long on the land they received, often selling it to others.

By 1828 about 1,000 people lived in the area. Community life involved bees, where people gathered to help build barns  for others, who did the same for them.  It was a social time for all, with meals  and sometimes dancing afterwards.  Many, many hardships existed, and long distances to travel, for example, to get one’s grain ground at a mill. Roads were slow in developing. It was a wilderness of thick towering evergreen trees and swamps,  which made it hard to clear land for ploughing and growing crops. Canada has a very cold climate in winter, a lot colder than the Irish had ever known. These pioneers faced deep snow, brutal temperatures, and lived in log cabins that must have been very hard to heat.

Bytown began about 1816 when two brothers obtained land, and Nicholas Sparks bought some of it, built  a shanty, and then sold off portions of the land to others. He also had a little tavern for those passing by. Over time, he became very wealthy from land sales.

There was a huge cedar swamp to the east, where a lot of arriving Irish immigrants began to stay. It was the government’s decision to built the Rideau Canal from Bytown to Kingston that opened the area for paid work for several years: Sept 1826 to 1832

In 1827 a bridge across the Ottawa River had been constructed to reach Hull and made it easier to move between the communities.

Colonel By who was put in charge of the project brought about 2,000 settlers from Ireland to do the work since there were so few settlers available in the area.  It was dangerous work, and many became ill from the swampy conditions. My own family history links back to William and Samuel Gillespie, Irish emigrants, who worked on the Rideau Canal in February 1829.The McCabe List, compiled by Colonel By,  gives the names of all those who were employed on that date,  and one of the best records of early settlers for that time period.  The Bytown Gazette reported on births, marriage and deaths in the area during this period, even announcing the death of my William Gillespie, stabbed in a fight in 1841. He died five days before Christmas leaving a young Irish widow and four little ones. It was a lawless period in Carleton County’s history. 

A William Gillespie bought back to back lots on Wellington Street in Bytown during the 1830s. Considerably further away to the northwest, another William Gillespie was the first postmaster in the small village of Fitzroy Harbor. His wife had a baby there in 1838 and it was christened a day later a considerably distance west in Lanark County. There is no evidence  where the family lived after this. Another disappearance in the annals of history. Appearing for a brief moment in time.

Once completed, this Canal provided an easier route for arriving settlers to move into the interior and further west, than the harsh conditions of walking beside the St Lawrence River. Bytown grew rapidly in population. In 1857 Queen Victoria chose it as Canada’s capital.



In 1818 the first setters pushed northward from Cobourg to settle in Smith Twp. They were mainly English in origin from Cumberland. In 1820 Charles Gillespie, an Irishman, settled in Smith. That year about 20 families  and 8 single men entered the township.  In 1821 Adam Gillespie from Scotland settled in Otonabee Twp. During this period there were no roads, and settlers walked along a trail from Cobourg to Rice Lake, and then northward by the Otonabee River. Grain and cattle had to be brought in by small boats across Rice Lake.

Peter Robinson, of a Loyalist family was born in 1785 in New Brunswick . His parents moved with him to Kingston in 1792 and then York in 1798. Peter was a soldier in the War of 1812, was later appointed to the Legislature and in 1827 became Commissioner of Crown Lands, a position he held until his death in 1838. He became actively involved in encouraging emigration.

In 1823 and 1825 he supervised two emigrations of  about 2500 Irish settlers, mainly Catholics,  to two locations in Ontario. The first group who received no help at all, were settled  near the Mississippi River in Lanark County. The second were guided to Peterborough County. These Irish were from the Fermoy area of Co Cork and they were assisted by the British Government in this move. They received free passage, tools, some livestock, seeds and some money for provision, and a rough cabin was prepared on their allotted lands.

In early summer of 1825 it was a difficult journey, and 300 of them died at Kingston from fever. Groups of these settlers began the ardous trip to Rice Lake and beyond, and considerable time was spent improving the trail and building a boat to move supplies. The settlers made it to Scott’s Mills, which was the headquarters in distributing the people throughout the townships.

Almost all of these emigrants settled in five township of Peterborough County, and in Emily, Ops of Victoria County as follows: Asphodel 36, Douro 60, Emily 142 Ennismore 67, Otonabee 51, and Smith 34. Most of these locations had no settlers there at all.  The district under settlement soon became a hive of activity. A hundred acres of land had been given to each of the 415 families, and the same amount to each son of these families.  By 1827 there was general satisfaction with this settlement scheme by those who had lived it. The Irish in Canada were considerably better off than those in the homeland.

In 1828 the Strickland sister, Mrs Moodie and Mrs Traill, who husbands were retired officers, settled in the District. The books they wrote about life in the bush recorded the experiences of pioneer life.

The outlying townships were mainly eventually settled by descendants of these pioneers. In 1850 the total population  of the county was 12, 589 of which Harvey had 150, Burleigh only 46, and Belmont and Methuen none at all.

Until 1861 Victoria County was part of Peterborough County. Most of it was settled as early as 1835 by Isle of Islay, Argyll Scots, who named their communities after places from the homeland. That history is provided elsewhere on this website.

The City of Peterborough grew rapidly and increased in importance. Here the more gentile families settled, and it became a triving centre for supplies. By 1834 it had a bank, four churches, a schoo’house, several distilleries, stores and taverns, and about 150 residences.

In 1839 another Irish emigration was brought to the County under the supervision of Captain Rubidge.  These 183 setters were from estates in County Clare and County Limerick. They were given land in the back areas of the county as much the same manner as Irish settled elsewhere.



There was a French trading post at York (Toronto) by 1720.  It would last about 10 years.  There is some evidence of a French trader living near an Indian village as early as 1668. The birth of Toronto is related to the fur trade. The French decided to build a fort  to which Indians brought their furs from northern hunting grounds. War between Indian tribes in which the Hurons were wiped out by the Iroquois, changed who took over the hunting areas. From the Holland River southwards, the Indians followed the Humber trail to Lake Ontario. The French sent men every spring to trade with the Indians at the mouth of the Credit River, giving them ammunition and and provisions on credit, making payment next season with their furs.

The British were concerned about the French presence and sent some soldiers from Fort Frontenac in Kingston built a small fort at Toronto in 1749/1750  The Indians responded in coming to it to trade. It was called  Fort Toronto and located at the bottom of Dufferin Street (there is a plaque at the Exhibition Grounds) The fort was burned by the French in the summer of 1759. 

Governor John Simcoe, in visiting the area in 1793 was impressed with the harbour and selected this location as a future capital. He changed its name from Toronto to York to honour the Duke of York, who had won a victory over the French.  Orders were given to move the seat of government from Niagara to Toronto.

Toronto 1835

Toronto 1838



Thomas Talbot was born 1771 at Malahide Castle, Ireland. He would play an important part in the settlement of Upper Canada. He was active in military life by 1790 when he joined the 24th Regiment at Quebec.

Talbot became Secretary of the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Colonel John Graves Simcoe during the winter of 1791-92 in Quebec. He accompanied him when the Colonel explored the Western District and visited Detroit. At that time the region between Niagara and the Detroit River was largely a wilderness, inhabited only by Indians and an occasional trader or settler. Talbot was deeply impressed by what he saw and conceived the idea of establishing a colony in the region.

For the next eight years, Talbot remained in his position, having returned to Britain.  In 1800 he sold his commission and decided to banish himself to the area of his interest in the southern part of Upper Canada. He settled at Port Stanley the following year. He returned to London and pushed for an emigration scheme for grants of land in Yarmouth Twp. Since some of this land was already taken, Talbot chose the Township of Dunwich as the location for his proposed 5,000 acres grant.  He would also keep 150 acres and arrange 50 acres for each arriving settler. Talbot was able to secure 65,000 acres for his emigration scheme and he kept the lion’s share for himself. He did not go our of his way to seek setters, but accepted (or rejected) those who came to him.

Highland Scots predominated in Aldborough, Dunwich and south Dorchester, and the north of Yarmouth; Talbot Road East, including the North Branch in Southwald, by a miscellaneous emigration from the United States, the Long Point settlement, the Niagara District, Southern England and elsewhere; the south of Yarmouth  by members of the Society of Friends from Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Malahide by settlers from New York State, Long Point and Nova Scotia, and Bayhem by immigrants from all quarters. English,Irish and Americans were to be found in various sections. Pennsylvania Quakers were among the earliest arrivals.

Richard Talbot, a very distant connection to the Colonel,  brought a group of 38 Co Tipperary Irish to London Township.

Most of the Scots were from Argyllshire, arriving chiefly in 1819, and they were numerous. The Talbot Settlement quickly spread beyond its bounds and in 1811 the government gave Talbot control of most of the London and Western Districts. He was able to complete the roads from Delhi to Sandwich, with a crossroad between Port Talbot and London. In 1822 there were at least 12,000 people in Talbot’s Settlement. In 1831 Talbot reported a population of 30,000 and in 1837, 50,000 people.

He died February 3, 1853 age 85 years, having given his estate to a former manager. He lived in a room overlooking his property, gradually weakening in old age.

Total Records: 13

Source of Information: Imperial Immigrants, Scottish Settlers in the Upper Ottawa Valley 1815-1840 by Michael E Vance; Irish Immigrants in the Canadas, A New Approach by Bruce S Elliott; The Irish in Ontario: A Study of Rural History by Donald Haran Akenson; The Canadian Frontier 1534-1760 by William J Eccles; other personal studies. Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement by Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth.  Notes from The Glengarry Highlanders of Pioneer Settlements by Edwin Guillet; other history resources gathered from newspapers, books and online websites.