We may be migrants, but we don’t always migrate far.
What do Boston, Yukon, Australia, New York, the Prairies and California have in common? Where the history of Atlantic Canada is concerned, the answer is “destinations.” Tens of thousands of people from our region moved to those places in the past 200 years. Work, adventure, gold, cheap land—these were the lures that wooed and frequently claimed Maritimers and Newfoundlanders.
Being involved in genealogy in Atlantic Canada gives one a growing awareness of the millions of people in the US, across Canada and overseas whose roots trail through our region. It is a major force propelling multitudes of folks to comb our records for traces of their ancestors. Indeed, a substantial portion of our tourist trade consists of the descendants of people who moved out of the region.
When you attend family reunions or go online, it seems we are related to the world.
As I learn the stories of why people left, and why their great-grandchildren seek their roots in our soil, I wonder about another phenomenon.
I live in Halifax, yet have neighbours from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and across Nova Scotia. I decided to look back to see the extent to which people moved within the region so that in a sense, they stayed home, or close enough to stay in touch regularly.
Since 1881 was a census year, perhaps four generations or so ago, I looked at that year as a yardstick. Some parts of the region had attained a degree of industrialization. By 1881 the children of the overseas immigrants of the 1830s and 40s were in the market for work. People of the immigrant era, especially those of rural heritage, regarded large families as desirable.
Consequently, there was a surplus of young people in pursuit of a livelihood. Part of the solution was leaving the region.
But what about the folks who moved within Atlantic Canada? In 1881 the Maritimes had approximately 870,000 people. Of these, about 20,000 were Maritimers living in a province where they had not been born. Add to these the Newfoundlanders then living in the Maritimes and you have about three per cent of everyone.
If no one else had moved among these provinces ever after, and if you counted just three children for each two of those people, by 1981 there would be almost 120,000 descendants. But, of course, each year more people changed their province of residence, adding to the number of Atlantic Canadians with roots in another part of the region. Without indulging in more demographic arithmetic, I can say with confidence that one reason we have grown in the 130 years since 1881 has been our tendency to move while staying home.
Did Champlain start the trend when he shifted from St. Croix, NB, to build his habitation in Nova Scotia? Had native peoples anticipated this by centuries? How many Acadians at Beaubassin had been born in Port Royal? Many a Loyalist family started at Shelburne and wound up in Prince Edward Island or New Brunswick.
Consider the Irish fishermen who came out to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and later settled in Cape Breton or along the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. Tales are told of how the Highland Scots sorted themselves out geographically by religion and affiliation.
By the time shipwrights, caulkers, riggers and carpenters moved around the Fundy rim between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the trend had set in. Chester, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, is the ancestral home of families around St. Martins in New Brunswick. There are areas on the shores of Cape Breton near Ingonish where entire communities have scarcely a long-settled family that hasn’t forebears from the south coast of Newfoundland. Prince Edward Island saw many of its sons and daughters emigrate to jobs on the mainland.
The Island is the ancestral home of one Joseph Smallwood, of some note in the history of Newfoundland.
Wait and see what happens when a community marks an important milestone. How many people from out-of-province will turn up at Tatamagouche, NS, this summer, celebrating the 300th anniversary of its settlement by the Acadians? Why wouldn’t they? Their ancestors lived there. Their cousins who stayed in the region will be their hosts.
Yet another family party honouring the ties that bind Atlantic Canadians, wherever they live.
Dr. Terrence M. Punch is the author of the third volume of Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada 1761-1858 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company).