In Canada today there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people of Irish heritage descended from more than 2,000 people who travelled from Ireland in the 1820s as part of an experimental assisted emigration scheme run by Peter Robinson.
Above pictures : The Heffernan Family: Descendants of the 1825 Peter Robinson Settlers in Canada.
Over 50,000 people from all over the island of Ireland applied to be considered for the scheme, with the majority of those chosen coming from the area north of the Blackwater River in County Cork.
Peter Robinson was the Supervisor of the emigration Scheme and 'being a stranger in Ireland' was ordered to 'act under the advice of Lord Ennismore and the Magistrates in managing it.' He was from New Brunswick, a policeman, Justice of the Peace and Businessman who had been introduced to Robert John Wilmot-Horton, the new British under-secretary of state for the colonies.
2025 will be the 200 year anniversary of the "resettlement" of Irish people in Canada by Peter Robinson. Many people, in Ireland and Canada are eager to discover more about their connections via these brave pioneers who choose to travel to the unknown so many generations before. In this article, Mary Cooper, descendant of Patrick and Margaret Heffernan, shares her family's story as one of those who resettled in Canada in 1825.
Mary Cooper's story
I love this photograph (circa 1900) of the Heffernan family. My grandmother, Johanna (centre) sits between her parents, Mary Ellen (Kennedy) Heffernan and Thomas Heffernan. Her two sisters, Mary(left) and Margaret (right) complete the front row. Johanna’s 5 brothers stand behind her (L. to R.) Michael, Richard, William, Patrick, and Thomas Jr. I think that each face tells a story, and I love the way the photograph is staged with the ornate background and the items strategically placed in the hands of those in the front row.
This family, my ancestors, are early descendants of a group of 2,024 Irish Catholic settlers who came to Canada in 1825 courtesy of the British government and under the supervision of a Canadian named Peter Robinson. Thomas Sr.’s parents, Patrick and Margaret (Doherty) Heffernan, from Kilworth, Co. Cork, were among that group of settlers. They were 25 years old and, like the other 2022 souls, were tenant farmers living in desperate times.
Picture: Banks of the river Blackwater where many settlers came from
By the early 1820s, there was a great deal of uncertainty for the Irish tenant farmer who due to politics and climate had become paupers. The amount of farmland available in Ireland had been greatly reduced, while at the same time pasture land had increased, and it was possible for landowners to remove the farmers without notice. In addition, during the growing season of 1822 and 1823 the crops were completely ruined by excessive amounts of rainfall. It has been recorded that parts of the mud huts in which the farmers lived were actually washed away. Needless to say, the result was extreme hunger and a substantial amount of unrest.
Assisting the farmers in emigrating and settling in Canada served several purposes, it increased the amount of productive, taxable land in Canada while reducing the level of distress in Ireland. It also provided a larger potential pool of recruits to assist in defending the border with the U.S.
Approximately 50,000 people applied to be part of what was deemed an ‘experiment’ but only 2,024 were chosen for the 1825 expedition ( 239 families: 385 men, 325 women, 727 boys, 587 girls). Before embarking on the resettlement ‘experiment’ Peter Robinson toured the areas where the tenant farmers lived. It has been noted that he was greatly impacted by the dire situation and the weakened condition of the people, and he was quite surprised by their high level of literacy. Some requirements stipulated that those chosen were the poorest families and they could not be directly related.
Picture: An image of emigrants waiting to board ships at Queenstown from the London Illustrated News
Originally, only families with young parents were accepted but later he included a few couples who were over 40 years of age because he thought that their maturity would be helpful to the success of the endeavour. While crossing the Atlantic, 15 babies were born there were 15 deaths too. So, in all there were 9 ships transporting the settlers across the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. There were cramped quarters, illnesses, and even hunger since the Irish did not like the unfamiliar food that was provided mainly hard biscuits, moldy pork, and hot chocolate. On May 16, 1825, in Cork Harbour, my ancestors, Patrick and Margaret, joined 155 fellow passengers aboard the Regulus. (They brought a 3 year old girl named Nora with them but there is no evidence that she was their daughter and Nora died in 1826). A surgeon was assigned to each ship and it was their duty to treat and document any illnesses or incidences throughout the entire journey. It was also their duty to write character descriptions of the men since there was an effort to identify any troublemakers. After arriving at Quebec City on June 19, they travelled by steamship to Montreal. Then they travelled overland on foot to a place called La Chine. From there they rode in open ‘bateaux’ which were oared and poled by the French and Iroquois First Nations to Prescott and onward to Kingston where they were set up in camps. They spent several weeks in tents waiting for Peter Robinson to arrive. Conditions in Kingston were poor due to extreme heat that summer and there were resulting deaths.
Picture: Bronte Creek near Ontario in Canada
From Kingston they travelled by steamship in groups of 500 to Cobourg on Lake Ontario. Then, they spent 10 days improving the roads before travelling twelve miles north to Rice Lake. From there, they travelled for 24 miles in flat-bottomed boats, which held twenty to thirty people, up the Otonabee River to their final stop, Scott’s Plains now named Peterborough after Peter Robinson.
By the end of October, all of the surviving settlers had arrived and been assisted overland to their farms in the surrounding area. It is difficult to imagine that this entire, grueling journey was completed successfully by such a young, needy group. It is definitely a testament to their inner strength. I believe that the challenges faced by the Peter Robinson settlers of 1825 as they travelled from Ireland to Canada were staggering to say the least, and not all of them have been included here.
In addition, there was much more that they had to overcome once established on their ‘land’. In order to survive and prosper, they had to clear the trees, work the soil, produce food, survive the extreme climate conditions, endure illnesses and accidents which could be fatal, pay taxes, educate their children, etc., etc. I find it remarkable that Margaret Heffernan gave birth to her first child, Michael, in August, 1825. How amazing is that? She and Patrick went on to have 7 children in total and one of them was my great great grandfather Thomas Sr. Currently, their descendants number in the thousands.
Understandably, when I look at this family photograph, I am deeply impressed by the achievements which were brought about by Patrick and Margaret’s vision, sheer determination, hard work, and faith when faced with unimaginable challenges.
Mary Cooper is a SingerSongwriter/Writer who ‘Grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario.' She is currently writing a literary/music project about the Peter Robinson Settlers.’
Are you a descendant of a Peter Robinson Settler? Add your ancestor to their Civil Parish of origin on the XO Chronicles and share their story with others descended from the same place, living around the world today.