New Brunswick’s Natural Environment and Climate Challenged Early Irish Immigrants
By Linda Evans
Irish immigrants to New Brunswick in the early decades of the nineteenth century must have been absolutely gob-smacked. Not only did they have to cope with forging a new life in a new colony away from all that was familiar and comfortable in their homeland. They had to make new homes in a natural environment totally foreign to the one they had left behind in Ireland. And if coping with the natural landscape of New Brunswick was not enough, they also had to learn how to prepare for, and survive, a New Brunswick winter.
It is a fact that New Brunswick and Ireland are of similar shape and size. Both are essentially rough-hewn rectangles. New Brunswick with an area of 73,440 sq kmi is just a bit larger than the present day Republic of Ireland, which is 70,282 sq km in areaii. Also both New Brunswick and Ireland are blessed with several inland waterways and a coastline that stretches along the south and eastern shores of the province. Both have central interiors that are essentially large tracts of wet bog lands where peat is plentiful. However – the similarities end there.
In many ways, New Brunswick and Ireland do share a landscape that appears familiar – at first glance. The lush rolling hills east of Sussex could have been transplanted here from County Monaghan. And the steep farmland slopes of the northwest Saint John valley could have been scooped right out of West County Cork. However, these well-manicured New Brunswick farmlands have very little to do with the natural environment that greeted Irish settlers to New Brunswick in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland had spent several centuries virtually stripped and devoid of any forest whatsoever. Peat bogs provided fuel and heat in Irish hearths – not simply as a matter of choice – but out of necessity. Even simple staves for barrel making were imported onto the island.iii
By contrast, New Brunswick, except for a few small cleared areas, was carpeted with thick dense virgin forest – entirely different from our “cultured” timberlands we see today. Early nineteenth century New Brunswick was covered in a virgin forest of trees that were several feet thick.
‘It is a very fine land but grown with immence [sic] timber… ‘nightland’. Shafts of sunlight pierced through the apertures left in the dense canopy of treetops and generally failed to illuminate the ground. Except in swamps, marshes, and beaver-meadows, trees towered over all, enclosing the new settlers and obscuring the horizons.’iv
Over 95 per cent of New Brunswick was covered in this difficult to tame landscape.v What a daunting prospect to an Irishman who had never even seen a forest before!
Also, as a new colony, New Brunswick roads – and certainly decent ones – were almost non-existent. Travel was primarily by water – on coastal waterways and along the colony’s numerous river systems. There were as well a number of portages between the river systems – most notably one from the Saint John River across to the extensive Miramichi river systems and from the Kennebecasis River across to the Petitcodiac River and on to the Shediac River, which provided access to the Northumberland Strait.
These portages were barely passable at the best of times however. Most were single lane tracks through densely covered forested lands, which were often littered with stumpage or fallen trees. Bog lands presented another challenge – corduroy roads – literally logs laid down across the roadway to provide a semi-solid base – were the norm. They often sank into the sodden base they were laid on after a good rain and they had to be replaced periodically with another layer of logs. New Brunswick roads were virtually impassable during the spring thaw as well.
New Brunswick’s soils also presented a further challenge. Those Irish immigrants hoping to become successful farmers faced many obstacles. Only the fertile red soils found along the lowland river valleys and the diked lands of the Bay of Fundy were particularly rich enough for agriculture. And much of this land was already settled by the time the Irish arrived in New Brunswick. Most of New Brunswick’s upland soils were podzols – which were sandy and acidic and would need heavy fertilization to be productive at all. Most of New Brunswick’s central bog lands were heavily clayed. Unfortunately, most Irish land grants were given on these last two types of soil – and settlers found it difficult to compete with the productive farms that had already been established along the lowland river systems.
If the natural landscape wasn’t enough of a challenge, new settler families also had to learn how to survive the brutal climate that we all take for granted today. It was entirely foreign to European newcomers to the colony.
Although Ireland is located further north than Newfoundland, the climate is relatively mild for its latitude. Summers are slightly cooler than in New Brunswick, but winters are relatively mild. Temperatures may drop below freezing – but only intermittently. The average temperature in Ireland in January is between 4-8°C and snow is scarce. Ireland may get one or two brief flurries every year and that quickly disappears.vi
An Irish immigrant arriving here in the midst of spring or summer would certainly be deceived into thinking they had arrived in a colony blessed with a wonderfully warm climate. In summer, New Brunswick is not unlike the fertile lowlands of northwest Europe and the summers indeed allow for the growth of similar crops grown at home. However, New Brunswick’s winter teases with a savagery that no Irishman could even begin to imagine. To survive at all, settlers had to quickly contrive a shelter of some sort and economies that would protect them against a cold they had never known before!vii
And adapt they did. Despite climatic factors, and the harshness of New Brunswick’s natural environment – which had so frightened the early Irish settlers – the forest itself would sustain them economically. Although more than 50% of New Brunswickers identified themselves as farmers in 1851,viii it was the forest and the tall stands of timber that would augment their subsistence farming incomes and help them to survive in the unforgiving colony of New Brunswick. New Brunswick forests were indeed a cash crop. With tall stands of sugar maple, ash, yellow birch and fir in the west and red spruce, hemlock, pine, and sugar maple in the east, Britain’s demand for the colony’s timber not only created work for the new immigrants. It also provided more Irish emigrants passage from Ireland back to New Brunswick in the holds of the timber ship packets travelling between New Brunswick and English and Irish ports. As the Provincial Agent Henry Bliss expressed it:
‘The increase of their exports … [illustrates] what employment the timber trade has given to the industry of the Colonists; … the increase of their imports [reveals] what has been the fruit of their labours.’ More prosaically, it was often said that the timber trade ‘built towns and villages – opened roads, and explored the fertile lands of the interior.’ix
Irish immigrants to New Brunswick in the first half of the nineteenth century had to make serious adaptations to the new colony’s natural landscape and climate. They quickly became accustomed to the weather out of necessity. They also learned that the forest – that initially they found daunting – was the key to their future in the new world.
[i] Robert J McCalla, The Maritime Provinces Atlas, Maritext, Halifax, 1988, p. 4.
[ii] Tom Smallman and others, Ireland, Lonely Planet Publications, London, 2000, p 32. The area of the combined Republic and Northern Ireland is 84,421 sq km.
[iii] Ibid., p.35.
[iv] Cecil J Houston and William J Smyth, Irish Immigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1990, p. 121.
[v] Even today, 87% of New Brunswick is covered in forest and New Brunswick is still Canada’s most forested province.
[vi] Ibid, p. 34.
[vii] Kenneth F Hare and Morley K Thomas, Climate Canada, Wiley Publishers of Canada Ltd, Toronto, 1974, p. 19-20.
[viii] Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony: An Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth Century New Brunswick, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981, p. 8.
[ix] Ibid., p 34-35.
Hare, Kenneth F, and Morley K Thomas, Climate Canada, Wiley Publishers of Canada Ltd, Toronto, 1974.
Houston, Cecil J and William J Smyth, Irish Immigration and Canadian Settlement, Patterns, Links and Letters, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1990.
McCalla, Robert J., The Maritime Provinces Atlas: Maritext, Halifax, 1988.
Smallman, Tom and others, Ireland, Lonely Planet Publications, London, 2000.
Wynn, Graeme, Timber Colony: An Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth Century New Brunswick, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981