From Yorkshire to Nova Scotia: Reflections on a Migration

The Chignecto isthmus is a narrow body of land which connects the Canadian Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  In the late 1700s, a modest-sized but significant migration of settlers took place from Yorkshire to this area. Depending on the time frame chosen, the number of migrants exceeded 1000 and apparently involved something less than 15 shiploads. The migration was promoted at the time by the Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor Michael Francklin.  Additionally, many of the potential settlers were disgruntled tenants of the Duke of Rutland.  For years, Francklin had been trying with spotty success to get settlers of British stock to replace the Acadienne population expelled some twenty years earlier.

English: The edge of the North York Moors Nati...
The edge of the North York Moors National Park in Howl Dale Wood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My own ancestors were part of what became the Yorkshire migration.  Indeed, I am descended from at least eight family lines of these Yorkshire migrants.  I will frame my comments about the migration around the family from which I derive my surname, that of William (1729-abt 1800) and Mary (1732-bef 1788) Chapman.

Prior to migration, these Chapmans resided in the village of Hawnby, located in what is now the North York Moors National Park..

When I look at the circumstances of William and Mary as they decided to uproot their family, I cannot help but wonder about the turmoil they must have felt in their own time. In the spring of 1774, when the sea voyage for this family from the port of Hull actually took place, William, a Yeoman farmer, was 44 years old. Mary was 41. They had been married almost 20 years. One presumes that they had lived in the same location — certainly the same rural region for the years of their married life. The youngest of their nine children was a 3-year-old girl, Ann. The eldest was 19-year-old William.

On the face of it, except for the variations in the seasons and the years, one might well ask why a family of 11 would choose to undertake a dangerous and uncertain change. The Yorkshire migrants did live in turbulent times. As we look at it today, perhaps the most benign of the changes was the religious turmoil of the times. Religious adherence was central to the migrants’ lives.  Not long before departure, many had decided to take an unconventional religious path. The Chapman family had taken up with the dissenting Wesleyans, in the cause of the new Methodism — a grass-roots incarnation of the dominant church. Early Methodism had an evangelical-emotional appeal. It was a popular movement, but also involved the new adherents in some level of persecution.  For example, the existing Church would not allow the Wesleyans to preach in Church buildings, so Methodist meetings took place in the open. Speakers and listeners were often pelted with stones.

Added to this, for at least a century prior to migration, the economic circumstances of the Yorkshire migrants had been in a state of flux.  A rural-to-urban migration had begun.  There were changes in farming practices and the economic hardships of the 19th-century industrial revolution were already on the horizon.  The technology of the steam engine was invented in the decade prior to the Yorkshire migration.  Landowners were consolidating their land holdings through enclosure and if some tentants remained, the rents were raised.  The sense of change was all about. It is clear from the Yorkshire migrant passenger lists that rent increases or making a living were key to the decision to move to Atlantic Canada.  This was a classic economic migration, although many of the Yorkshire families were not without some financial means.

If events in England were not enough, events in the region of the world to which William and Mary Chapman were planning to move were perhaps even more fluid.  William and May well may have known that Acadian settlers in the area to which they were headed had been expelled twenty years earlier, but that many had returned. The couple certainly would have been aware that the ever-exotic and unpredictable “Indians” were still present in the region in large numbers. Imagine what little they understood of these people.

On making casual inquiries into the prospects for the region, they also might have heard that the Fort Cumberland area was far from markets, and that both the selling of produce and obtaining of materials would be no easy matter. In fact, at the time, the local economy was very poor, although the publicity of Governor Franklin painted a more rosy image.

The Chignecto area is only a short sailing trip away from where the revolutionary Boston Tea party took place. Revolution was brewing in the North American colonies, and what was then Nova Scotia was no less one of these colonies than any of the others along the eastern seaboard of North America. Indeed, shortly after the families arrived, their own area was caught up on the margins of such events through what is now called the Eddy Rebellion.

Further ‘encouragement’ for the prospects of the migrants apparently came from the captain of the vessel Albion on which the Chapmans sailed. Nathaniel Smith, one of their 180 fellow passengers, in a letter to a relative, tells that prior to embarking, the captain indicated to his passengers that his optimistic estimate was that likely only 1/3 would survive the journey. While fortunately the captain’s prediction did not come true on that particular voyage, more than a handful of people did die on the journey, and apparently there was much sea sickness and smallpox. In the face of such circumstances, either these migrants were very sturdy folk,or one can assume that the economic and social prospects in England must have been very difficult indeed.

Cold Kirby, North Yorkshire
Cold Kirby, North Yorkshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In circumstances such as I have outlined it is not surprising that families would have sought to travel as extended families. They likely would have lent support to one another and in fact, among unrelated families well-documented shipboard romances later resulted in marriages upon arrival.  William and Mary and their family were accompanied to their land of new opportunities by the family of Lancelot Chapman and his wife, Frances.  Lancelot’s family included six of the couple’s nine children. Until recently it was thought that Lancelot was the older brother of William, but further genealogical research now suggests this sibling relationship is unlikely.  Yet it seems sensible to conclude that there was some sort of familial relationship between the two men.

We know little of the particulars of Lancelot and his wife and children, but what we do know is that they all appear to have returned to England — most likely quite soon after arrival in North American. We do not even know if Lancelot and Frances – after their arrival in Halifax – did any exploration of the local opportunities. Records indicate that Lancelot and Frances died in Cold Kirby, not far from Hawnby, in the early 1800s. So, it appears that not all migrants found the “better livelihood” they were seeking in the new land. However, as far as we know at the moment, returnees such as these were the exception.

Selected resources:

Yorkshire 2000: A Migration Celebration On-line Repository

(1945) Here Stays Good Yorkshire. Will R. Bird, The Ryerson Press: Toronto (novel)

(1995) The Siege of Fort Cumber, 1776. Ernest Clarke, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston.

(2012) Yorkshire Immigrants to Atlantic Canada – Papers from the “Yorkshire 2000” Conference. Paul A. Bogaard (Ed.), Tantramar Heritage Trust: Sackville New Brunswick.

 Guest Post by Don Chapman
Don is a retired educator who resides near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  He has dabbled in genealogy for the past twenty-five years and maintains a genealogical web site at: .  It was at Don’s suggestion that a celebration of the Yorkshire migration took place in the summer of 2000 at Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada.




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