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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: New Brunswick Ancestors by Althea Douglas, MA, CG(C). The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Rios and Disasters
The records that governments keep can be very curious, Bear Bounty payments, Quit Rents, indeed anything for which government funds were paid out or moneys received. Such records usually offer little more than documentary evidence that an individual was in a certain place at a given time, but sometimes that is important, and such details can enliven a family history. The Loyalists’ compensation is well documented, but disastrous fires, or destructive riots often engendered relief payments, or at least government concern, correspondence, and consequently, lists of people. Consider the Irish Famine database sources.
There have been a series of disastrous fires in New Brunswick, both forest fires and destructive city fires. Gales and hurricanes hit the coastlines, usually in the spring or fall. Shipwrecks sometimes result in the loss of many lives and in a region where ships and shipping were a major economic factor that wreck might be in the Bay of Fundy or the Hooghley Delta in West Bengal. Read the tombstones in almost any 19th century cemetery. Riots, disasters, wrecks and accidental deaths are reported in the newspapers, often in great detail. The following are three such events you should know about, but they are only three among many you may encounter.
Long ago, at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, skimming through MG9 A New Brunswick Executive Council Papers, I noted under “Riots and Disasters 1821-1848” (mf. M-1669): Orange Riots 1847/Saint John Riot 1845. None of my ancestors were listed. These should now be in the PANB, and there may well be other such records. Wherever the Irish settled there were usually St. Patrick (17 March) and 12th of July Orange celebrations and parades. When there were sectarian parades that ended in riots, authorities had to take notice of both sides, and there may well be surviving records in local or higher courts.
- William McCoy settled at Saint John, New Brunswick, about the year 1848 [he] was a Presbyterian in Religion. He was an Orangeman, and it is known he took part in the Battle of York Point in Saint John, July 12, 1851 [actually 1849]. (Mother had the remains of the sash he wore that day.) [William drowned in 1871] He was buried in the Saint John Cemetery (out by Marsh Road). The Orangemen, of which he was a staunch member, wanted to take charge of the funeral … [Notes by Gladys Palmer]
York Point: former name in Saint John at the west end of Union Street. Possibly named for the Duke of York. (Rayburn, page 294). It was a crowded slum area where many of the poorer Irish Catholics lived.
The Historical Atlas II, Plate 58 shows the route of the Orange Day Parade on July 12, 1849, which is probably the riot referred to as the Battle of York Point. The Catholics had erected a Green Arch between Market Square and York Point.
- Parades frequently resulted in the breakdown of civic order. On 12 July 1849 Saint John, New Brunswick experienced one of the century’s worst riots. Protestant-Catholic tensions exploded into death and destruction during an Orange Day Parade. In consequence such processions were banned from the city’s streets. Plate 58.
Accounts of the riot can be found in Saint John Morning News, July 13, 1849, and the Saint John New Brunswick Courier, July 14, 1849. A full description of the Battle of York Point, with an insightful look at the social conditions leading to such riots is by George W. Schuyler, “The Orange and the Green”, Saint John, pages 33-49.
A good source of information on Orange Lodges and sources is The Sash Canada Wore: Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada, by Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). While largely about Upper Canada, it does have some data on New Brunswick and Saint John.
The Saint John Public Library and the New Brunswick Museum both have material relating to the local Irish. For those on the Mirimichi, contact St. Michael’s Genealogical Centre in Chatham. They probably have little predating the Mirimichi Fire in 1825, and in Saint John you will find that some records date only from 1877.
The Mirimichi Fire 1825
In the PANB, in RG30, RS660 are the “Mirimichi Fire Relief Committee Records (1826)” which included a list of victims; almost every family from the area is on that list.
Friday afternoon, October 7, 1825, a forest fire started northwest of Newcastle, driven by the wind it swept into the town and destroyed all but fourteen buildings. Much of Douglastown was also destroyed, and across the river in Chatham, refugees poured in. Vast tracts of forest were burnt as the fire swept along the Mirimichi, down the Nashwaak Valley and into the town of Fredericton. Thousands were injured and some 160 to 200 people died.
Any history of the Mirimichi region will have an account of the disaster, often including very personal family memories:
- Mother recalled him [her father] telling often that as a small child of 4 years of age, he could remember the Great Mirimichi fire of 1825, and how his mother waded out into the river with him for protection when the fire was raging near. [Notes by Gladys McCoy Palmer, author’s collection.]
The Roman Catholic registers of St. Patrick’s Church, South Nelson, which served the whole region, have some sad entries;
- 11 Oct. 1825, interred at St. Peter, Bartibog, Eleanor, Catherine, Thomas, Hannah, George and James Lyons, children of John Lyons. John English and Alex Davidson etc. witt.
- On the 15th of October 1825 I have interred St. Peter, Bartibog, Patrick, infant son of the late Alexander Lyons and also 2 of the Forsights, grand children of the Widow Lyon.
Bartibog: 11 miles north of Chatham on Bartibog River. Settled by immigrants from Scotland in 1812 and Ireland in 1822. (Rayburn, page 45). The region survived the winter and slowly recovered, and there are good records of relief aid with lists of names in PANB’s RG30, “Records of Independent Agencies and Commissions”. This includes the “Mirimichi Fire relief Committee Records (1826).” A brief account by Lillis R. Zimmer is printed in Generations, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall 1997, pages 25-27, the notes offer a list of useful references.
Yet the area was never quite the same. Much old growth forest was gone. Even by 1850, when trees had begun to return, Graeme Wynn writes:
- The once important sawmilling centre of Boiestown had declined and a number of abandoned farms, with their fields growing back to forest, were scattered along the river banks below. Bare, burnt lands ran back from the river in a number of places, and elsewhere birch and balsam fir forests were overtopped by the bleached trunks of tall pines, the remnants of fires two and three decades before (page 165).
Expect to find many changes in many Northumberland County families after 1825. Not just the deaths, but the loss of homes and property, of jobs in the woods and sawmills, the changes in economic circumstances, any of which might cause a move to a new farm, new town, or new country.
However, remember that things can work both ways. One house carpenter and self-styled “architect” moved with his bride from Westmorland County to Chatham in 1826 to a region where there was a great need for his skills.
The Great Saint John Fire 1877
Any city built of wood will have fires. In Saint John the first took place on June 8, 1784 burning 11 houses. There were major fires in 1816, 1823, 1837, 1841, 1845, but on June 20, 1877 “two-fifths of the entire city were laid in ashes, and one thousand six hundred and twelve houses leveled to the earth”. George Stewart Jr. was given a fortnight by his publishers (page 269) to write an account of the disaster, The Story of the Great Fire in St. John, New Brunswick. June 20th 1877 (Toronto: Belford Brothers, Publishers, 1877; reprinted Woodstock: Non-Entity Press, 1981). The owners whose property was destroyed are listed street by street and fill fifteen pages. The alphabetical list of “Business Houses Burnt Out” fills twenty pages. Three of the oldest churches, Trinity (Anglican), Germain Street Methodist, and “Old St. Andrews” burnt within an hour of each other. The frontispiece is an engraving of the “Ruins of the Germain St. Baptist Church by moonlight.” St. James (Episcopalian) Church, in Main St., was burnt.
- This church was erected in the summer of 1850 by Trinity Church. The parish was set off from Trinity in 1852 the dividing line of the parish was south of Queen Street. (page 72)
- Old St. Malachi’s Chapel, the first Roman Catholic Church in the city caught from the sparks. Its destruction was complete. (page 75)
- Mr. Notman’s beautiful studio went, and not a negative was saved. (page 49)
Shipbuilder James H. Moran’s house on Chipman Hill, with its frescos painted by craftsmen brought from Italy, was saved by “Mr. Joseph Dunlop and his crew of workmen from the shipyard.” (page 114) and this prevented the fire from moving further north.
- The old Netherby house in Church Street, where Mr. Geo. A. Knodell had his printing office and Mr. H.L. Spencer his medical warehouse, was once the great headquarters of the Orangemen, and was built about the year 1823. It was in this building that in old times balls and parties, and dinners in connection with the order were given, and it was from here that on the famous twelfth of July, when Duncan Wilmot was Mayor, the Orangemen marched at the time of the memorable riot. Mr. Knodell has begun rebuilding on this site. (pages 123-24)
The book is not only an account of a tragic event, but gives these sorts of history of buildings and “old time” events. And even these few paragraphs explain why so much is lost. Not just church registers, some of which did survive, but think of how many family bibles, deeds and documents, letters and diaries must have been destroyed in those 1,612 houses.
H.E. Halfpenny’s 1878 atlas was published in facsimile as Historical Atlas of York County, New Brunswick. and St. John, New Brunswick. (City and County), by Mika Publishing in 1973. It contains detailed maps of each Saint John Ward, based on pre-fire insurance plans, with street numbers, and information on some owners and businesses. For a report based on current research, see C. Anne Hale, The Rebuilding of Saint John, New Brunswick 1877-1881 (Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1991), carefully annotated, with illustrations and maps.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: New Brunswick Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
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