Reflections of two Irish Communities

Pokeshaw and Black Rock

By Gregory Riordon

A mass of maple trees, three to four feet at the “butt” is what Bartholemew Whelton, an Irish immigrant of the 1920’s, claimed to have encountered on reaching his destination in the new world. His destination was a region on New Brunswick’s north shore, bordering that body of water dubbed “Baie de Chaleur” by Jacques Cartier many years later.

That immigrant, those with him and those that followed, would conquer those trees to create what came to be known as the tiny communities of Pokeshaw and Black Rock. Pokeshaw, an Indian word of reportedly several possible meanings (narrows, meeting place) stretches for all of 2 ½ miles along the coast approximately 22 miles east of Bathurst and is the elder of the two communities by more or less twenty years. Black Rock, which is situated some two miles inland, grew to about half the size of Pokeshaw and its settlement was largely due to its fertile soil and its protective distance from the harsh Bay winds.

By 1815, settlement along the coast between Bathurst and Caraquet had progressed to a point where occupation was sporadic, and for the most part, the inhabitants were Acadians who had been here since shortly after the 1755 expulsion. That circumstance was to change drastically as conditions in Europe gave rise to the arrival of a multitude of Scottish and Irish immigrants to New Brunswick’s north shore from 1816 onward.

Probably because of the high cliffs along Pokeshaw’s coast, it, unlike other stretches of the coast remained unsettled until circa 1820 except for a small establishment at the mouth of the Pokeshaw River and several attempts at the mouth of the Little Pokeshaw River. The former, with its high protective banks and its gradually sloping access provided a natural harbour and landing area.

The establishment at the head of the Pokeshaw River consisted of a platform and four or five buildings which served the various activities taking place there. Benjamin Hager and his brother James, the proprietors, were traders and this was their headquarters for some duration.

Aside from the Hager enterprise, the Pokeshaw harbour during the early settlement years was a popular stop for schooners which sought protection from wind, dispatched passengers, and obtained fresh supplies of water and fresh game.

From 1820 onward Pokeshaw finally received those who were to become its permanent residents. Within six or seven years of 1820, there were in the range of twenty families beginning the pioneer struggle in Pokeshaw and nearly that many more would join them by 1845. They came from County Cork, Ireland, and it is generally believed that the majority of them were neighbours there. Naturally, it was their desire to locate in close proximity of one another here. Long denied the opportunity to prosper, and tired of being the victims of centuries of oppression, the promise of land (something long denied in Ireland) and a new beginning exerted and an irresistible urge to emigrate.

As far as it is known, Pokeshaw’s early settlers came in groups and once they were summarily settled, word was sent back to Ireland to others who would follow. The different groups first set foot on the new world at different points. Some landed in Halifax, others in Saint John, some on the Miramichi, some in Shippigan or Bathurst and a few were able to avail themselves of a voyage to Pokeshaw itself. Those who arrived at the other points made their way to Pokeshaw on foot and by whatever means was available.

Though Pokeshaw’s early arrivals escaped the calamity of Ireland’s 1846 – 1847 potato famine, their lot was a poor one. Most, if not all, of their lifetime savings would have been expended on the voyage fare and the remainder of their meagre belongings shared the space of a single trunk with that of their kin. All weary, some desperately ill from the long crossing on the misfitted ships, they were merely paying cargo on return trips to North America. Many did not survive. They could converse in the English language yet most were more comfortable in their native Irish tongue. Few could read or write more than their own name and most couldn’t even manage that. Such was their plight at the dawn of their saga in the New Brunswick wilderness.

Pokeshaw’s Irish settlers found themselves in a peculiar situation. They were of the Roman Catholic faith. Those who were settling to the west through to Bathurst were overwhelmingly Scottish and Irish Protestants, whereas immediately to the east and southeast were the sizeable Acadian villages of Grande Anse and St. Joseph (now St. Leolin). Very little time passed before Pokeshaw’s neighbours to both the east and west proved to be trusthworthy friends and compatriots all toiling toward mutual goals.

Pokeshaw’s Irish names were typical of those found in County Cork and a trip to the homeland would attest to that. The names of the earlier settlers included: A’Hearn, Coholan, Coombs, Coughlan, Cowhig, Crimmins, Cronin, Crowley, Foley, Fitzpatrick, Hillock, Madden, McCarthy, Murphy, O’Hearn, Riordon (Reardon), Salter, Sisk and Whelton. Names of later arrivals to Pokeshaw and Black Rock coming from both Ireland and other local Irish communities such as Waterloo and Pokemouche, include: Bary, Carey, Cushing, Dempsey, Driscoll, Early, Elhatton, Hurley, McKernin, Murty, O’Neil and Walsh.

Perhaps because of hardship, perhaps because of connections elsewhere, some of the first arrivals decided to move on to the United States as did many of the children of the first arrivals (that pattern continues to this day). With primitive communication systems, most, if not all, contact with those who departed was severed.

In very few years the progress of those who remained began to show. Cleared patches became fields; cattle, sheep and poultry were acquired; and oxen and horses began to bear the burden of the heavy toil. The circumstance which probably presented the most discouraging obstacle was the settlers’ inability to obtain grants to the land they had settled on. In spite of several surveys, payments of various stipends and duties, the performance of militia duty and statue labour, grants were not forthcoming. Due to confusion, changing colonial regulations and perhaps shear ignorance on the part of the settlers, many of those all along the coast did not receive grants before 1830. Several made the long trek on foot to Fredericton, but most attempts were futile.

It was not until William End became involved that any progress was made in obtaining grants. Mr. End was a Bathurst magistrate and a well known champion of Irish and Acadian rights. He renewed their petitions and dispatched those petitions to officials in Fredericton with an enlightening rendition of the endless adversities encountered by the settlers. He also reported on the relative improvements by the settlers despite the hardships. The efforts of Mr. End bore fruits as a few grants were allotted in 1837 and they continued sporadically for the following forty years. The following memo which accompanied the 1833 petition demonstrates the nearly unbearable situation of the settlers and sheds some light on their efforts.

That your petitioner are natives of the south of Ireland, and that the greater part of them came to this country about eleven years ago after which period the whole of the south coast of the Bay of Chaleur from point Maisonette sixteen miles towards Bathurst (with the exception of the French settlement at Grande Anse and the location of Mr. Young at Pokeshaw) was entirely unsettled; a continued line of nearly inaccessible cliffs precluding all communications with the sea it had been long recorded as totally unfit for cultivation or improvement. Your Excellency’s petitioners having been neighbours in the land of their birth were naturally desirous of continuing so in this country and having heard of this desolate and lonely tract from which the face of mankind appeared to be averted, they, in a body attempted a settlement upon it, trusting that by reciprocal acts of support and assistance they might in time surmount those obstacles which have too long deterred individual enterprise. Ignorant of the rigours of the climate and nearly destitute of the means of procuring those common necessities of life which they had then scarcely learned to want their sufferings in a trackless wilderness far distant from any habitation of man by be easily conceived, they cannot trouble your Excellency with a recital of what they endured, suffice to say that several of the old people and some of the children perished during the first winters. Your petitioners subdued the wilderness, their clearances are now sufficient for the support of their families, and they have lately entered into arrangements for the support of a school master, nor have they been negligent of those duties which they owe to their King and Country. Your petitioners during the last nine years have cheerfully performed their Militia duty and Statue labour rand paid their proportion of all rates and assessments for country and parish charges, participating (until lately) in the provincial appropriations only to the extent of a few small sums to offset in cutting passages down the cliffs.

It was in the early 1840’s that Black Rock received its first permanent settlers. Most were brothers or children of those settled in Pokeshaw, however, a few were from Ireland. Early names in Black Rock included: Carey, Cowhig, Driscoll, Elhatton, Fitzpatrick, McKernin, Murphy, Murty, Riordon, Salter, Sisk and Whelton. Black Rock, a name common in the homeland, attracted its settlers for various reasons. Most of the available tracts in Pokeshaw were taken, it (Black Rock) was protected from the bitter winter winds and its soil was rich and fertile. Before long, Black Rock was to become one of the prettiest agricultural communities on New Brunswick’s north shore, but not without great effort. All of the clearing, the grubbing and the building that had taken place in Pokeshaw two miles north, had to be repeated here.

As time passed, both communities progressed. The inhabitants of both communities realized at a very early stage that education was a cornerstone of advancement. A school, (16’ x 14’ x 6’) was established in Pokeshaw in 1842 and was attended by students of both communities for some years. An additional school was erected in Black Rock in the late 1870’s. Though the degree of academia was primitive by today’s standards, it was a beginning. Many times a school had to be closed for a year or several years as a teacher could not be found, or there was simply a lack of money.

Central to the founding and building of the communities of Pokeshaw and Black Rock was the fervent unshakeable faith of their inhabitants. Spiritual needs were served by travelling missionaries in the early ears, however in 1868 Pokeshaw, Black Rock and several communities to the east – Grande Anse, St. Leolin, Blue cove and Waterloo – combined to create the parish of St. Simon & St. Jude. Father Dowling, a native of Ireland who was ordained in Montreal, was the first parish priest. A spot at the eastern end of Grande Anse, very close to the bank of the Chaleur Bay was chosen as the site for the church and rectory with the cemetery to the rear. Two-thirds of the original parishioners were of Irish stock; the remainder Acadians.

From the beginning of the settlement of Pokeshaw and Black Rock, the pursuits of the inhabitants revolved around the sea, the land and the forest. A number of Pokeshaw residents depended mainly on the products of the Bay of Chaleur (chiefly lobster) for their livelihood and continue to do so. Until roughly the Second World War, most of the remaining inhabitants of both Pokeshaw and Blackrock were tillers of the land and harvesters of the forest. Scarcely a lot in Pokeshaw and Black Rock did not contain a fine, large, basically self-supporting homestead. Typically, they consisted of a sturdy one-and-a-half or two-story home, a long main barn, numerous out-buildings, a series of well manicured fields and a wo9odlot which provided firewood and a source of income through lumber and pulp sales. Agricultural activity was truly mixed as for many years the necessities of life were almost exclusively provided for by the farm. Livestock included horses, cattle, sheep, several types of poultry and swine. Timothy, clove, alphalfa, oats, barley, wheat and potatoes were the major crops with a substantial variety of vegetables grown for personal consumption. In more recent years, with the development of markets, numerous farms specialized in an assortment of agricultural enterprises including strawberries, blueberries, turkeys, mink, fox, geese, turnips, beef, milk, cream and swine.

Aside from the church, other social necessities were established in the communities of Pokeshaw and Black Rock themselves. Post offices were created in each settlement in the mid 1800’s and they were usually situated in one of the local stores. Their earlier stores provided very basic foodstuffs, hardware and clothing. In more recent years, local stores merchandized in an expanded variety of food supplies however, other items became available only well outside the communities. The Caraquet railway line was put through Pokeshaw during the 1880’s and a small station and siding were established there. The railway provided an important passenger service to other points and also served to be the major mode by which lumber, pulpwood, potatoes, shingles, lathes, hay, Christmas trees and other produce were transported from Pokeshaw and Black Rock for many years. That railway, like so many others has been completely abandoned as such and now serves as a well-groomed walking nature trail.

During the mid-1800’s William Boltenhouse bought several acres of land from the Riordons where the Pokeshaw River crossed their grant. There, he constructed a grist and saw mill. These were purchased by Thomas W. Riordon in 1888. After a fire destroyed both mills a few years later, he rebuilt the saw mill and the grist mill. Moreover, he added a carding mill and later a second saw mill, powered by steam. These enterprises operated and provided employment for many years.

There were other businesses in Pokeshaw and Black Rock over the years as well. A small sawmill was operated by “Jagoes” near the mouth of the Little Pokeshaw River in early ears and much more recently John Murphy and the Savoies operated small sawmills also in Pokeshaw.

Early blacksmiths included the A’Hearns and the Cowhigs. John Murphy also operated a small fish canning factory in Pokeshaw and James Early was involved in stone quarrying at the mouth of the Pokeshaw River. Probably one of the more noteworthy pursuits undertaken in Pokeshaw was the canning factory established at the mouth of the Pokeshaw River in 1898. Purchased by the W.S. Loggie Co. in 1900, the factory employed over a dozen people on a seasonal basis and provided a market for local fishermen until the Second World War.

If places can be said to have a “heyday,” then the heyday of Pokeshaw and Black Rock was during that span of time between the 1860’s and the 1930’s. Then, most residents, with their fine homesteads, where largely self-sufficient with their farming and fishing endeavours. Those who were not, found local employment in the forest and at the mills and farms. Both communities were complete with schools, stores, post offices and a railway station. They were both very typical communities, yet quite unique and identifiable.

The modern world has drastically changed the face of Pokeshaw and Black Rock. Throughout North America, the 1920’s and 30’s saw a great movement of rural people to the towns and cities. Self sufficiency was being almost completely replaced by a market economy. People needed money to buy both the newly invented necessities and luxuries of life. The way to get that money was to leave and find a good paying job usually where the new “things” were being produced or where the raw material for these new things were being processed. Though Pokeshaw and Black Rock historically lost many of its young to far away centres, the departure of the 20’s and 30’s and the years greatly depleted the population.

Today, many of Pokeshaw and Black Rock’s residents work outside the communities, but a substantial number do not. Several are self-employed carrying on such businesses as trucking and cash cropping. Much of the fine farm land has grown in again, however, two modern farms carry on relatively large operations. In addition there are a number of part-time farmers, a maple sugar operation and numerous woodlot operations. The fishermen are few, however those who continue are abreast of the industry and live comfortably. For many years, Pokeshaw and Black Rock have provided a summer retreat for those who left and the descendants of those who left. Only several years ago, a provincial park was established on the properties surrounding the mouth of the Pokeshaw River.

Pokeshaw and Black Rock, though changed, have survived. Despite the exodus of so many of its young, both educated and uneducated, and; despite the historically self-sufficient lifestyle, and; despite the overwhelming influence of the neighbouring Acadian culture and language, and; despite the loss of local schools, post offices railway, and; despite the great mobility of today’s people, Pokeshaw and Black Rock continue to be vibrant, identifiable communities. The same spirit that overcame so many adversities during the settling days was much in evidence during the recent rebuilding of the community center. Every year that centre is the scene of a St. Patrick’s celebration which demonstrates the continuing sense of community identity and an appreciation of the Irish ancestry.