1815 Voyage of the Eliza

2015 was a year of mass movements of people seeking refuge and better lives in other countries. In December, the newly-elected Canadian government expanded and accelerated its programme to sponsor Syrian refugees so they could settle in Canada and eventually become citizens. But this is not the first time that the government has assisted immigrants to come to Canada…

Two hundred years ago…  many Highland men went off to fight the French during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and there was a 12 year hiatus in mass emigration of Scots to “America”. With Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the soldiers returned home to find the economy in tatters, and the impoverished Highlands, over-populated by people and over-run with sheep.

The British government wanted to avoid civil unrest at home after the Napoleonic wars, while reinforcing the border of the British colonies in Canada against the Americans after the War of 1812. On 22 February 1815 the “Bathurst Proclamation” was issued; a new policy to encourage and subsidize Scots to emigrate to Canada. The Highland Clearances switched into high gear and the floodgates of the Scottish diaspora reopened.


Lord Henry Bathurst by William Salter 1834 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Unlike previous emigrants who had largely paid for their own passage and resettlement costs, the so-called “Edinburgh Settlers” were transported, fed, subsidized and granted land.

But government generosity came with restrictions which filtered out the poorest.  Before potential emigrants could leave Scotland they had to pay a deposit repayable after two years settled on their allotted land.  At £16 for every male above 16 years and £2 for every married woman the deposits were significant. A satisfactory recommendation of character was also a prerequisite for acceptance for sponsorship.  Women without husbands were not eligible.

Thousands applied, but by late June only about 700 had made it through the financial and character screening process. Many who were rejected for the government program, unable to return to their vacated crofts, decided to pay their own way on privately-chartered ships. Meanwhile, eligible emigrants had gathered at the port of Greenock awaiting embarkation. Four ships had been assigned to carry them to Canada; the Atlas, the Baltic Merchant, the Dorothy and the Eliza.


Port Glasgow Harbour, 1841 (McLean Museum, Greenock) http://friendsofwemyssbaystation.co.uk/around-port-glasgow/

With the restless emigrants waiting on the docks it took several weeks before they could finally depart. Somewhat ironically, one of the delays was that the vessels did not meet the requirements of the Passenger Vessel Act which had been imposed a dozen years previously. The government of the time (1803) had used the Act to stem the tide of emigration just as Highlanders were needed to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, with a government exemption from a government regulation, the Atlas, the Baltic Merchant, and the Dorothy finally set sail in mid-July. And the Eliza, under Captain Teller and with 123 settlers aboard, took up the rear, departing on August 3rd.

After an Atlantic crossing of twelve weeks, in early October, the four ships reached the Port of Quebec. From there the immigrants were transported up the St. Lawrence River to Upper Canada. Three locations had been assigned to these settlers: along the Rideau River, at the head of the Bay of Quinte, and in Lochiel Township, Glengarry County. More than half of the 700 emigrants were to be settled in northern Glengarry. The southern part of the county was already quite well-established by their Gaelic-speaking compatriots who had preceded them to the new world.

But Canada was not ready to receive the settlers which the government had solicited. Many of the townships had not even been surveyed into concessions and lots by the Spring of 1816.  And the lack of coordination between the military and civil authorities lead to further confusion and delays.

With winter approaching, the authorities had to provide food and shelter for the new arrivals who had little or no money left after paying the deposit . About 300 of the group were sent to Cornwall and lodged in “poor conditions with provisions from the military storehouse”. A number of families over-wintered at Fort Wellington (Prescott), in a warehouse on Buckleys Wharf. Sixty families are said to have proceeded to Brockville, where thirty were accommodated in barracks or rented adjoining huts, or at neighbouring farm homes where some secured employment. Some unmarried men, according to a report by Quarter-master Beckwith, went to Kingston, where they were employed by the Engineer’s Department on the King’s Works.

Glengarry House Ruins at Storehouse Point east of Cornwall Ontario. Thought to have been used to shelter immigrants during the winter of 1815-16

Glengarry House Ruins at Storehouse Point east of Cornwall Ontario. Thought to have been used to shelter immigrants during the winter of 1815-16

The difficulties did not end with the long Canadian winter. The year after the settlers arrived is sometimes called The Year Without a Summer. Eighteen-sixteen (1816) saw a drop in world-wide temperatures because of the eruption of an Indonesian volcano the previous year. In Upper Canada there was snow in June and frost in September. The new settlers were not able to grow enough grain and other crops to get them through their second Canadian winter and had to rely on “government handouts” of food to survive. Things had gotten off to an inauspicious start.

Amongst the 123 passengers on board the Eliza when it sailed from Scotland in 1815 was my 12-year old Great Great Great Grandmother Ann McLellan, her parents Duncan and Ann (Campbell) and her two brothers Donald and Norman. The McLellans had made their way from their home in Glenelg in western Inverness-shire to the docks in Greenock, sailed across the Atlantic, then up the St. Lawrence River, and a year or so after they had set out were finally living on their own land in the bush of Lochiel Township in Glengarry County. What happened to them between then and now will be the subject of another post.

This year (2016) the citizens of Perth, Ontario are celebrating the bicentennial of the establishment of their community. Slangevar to them and to Lord Bathurst also. Without his Proclamation it’s unlikely I would be here or that you would be reading this!



A Colony of Émigrés in Canada 1798-1816
by Lucy Elizabeth Textor

Scottish Emigration and the “Bathurst Proclamation”
by Art Gunnell

The Ships List

Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Perth Military Settlement


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