As part of discovering my Spence family roots I dug deeper into the events of the world at the time trying to determine what records might exist to help me on my search.
According to the records I have found my Spence forebears were in Ireland until sometime before 1853 when they migrated to Canada. Spence is an ancient Scottish name so it is probably safe to assume my forebears were Protestant Scots living in the Antrim area.
Ireland in the 1840’s
During the 1840’s my Spence ancestors had no doubt began to seek out a better life elsewhere. Historic hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant populations were never ending and starting in 1845 a famine began to sweep the country. Faced with mass starvation and continued violence they joined a flood of people fleeing Ireland. During the period known as the Great Hunger (1845-1852) an estimated 1 million people died due to starvation and disease while another 1 million fled the country.
The Coffin Ships
Faced with the mass death in Ireland I’m sure my ancestors thought the hardest part of their journey was over once they boarded the ship for a new land. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Ship owners were driven by profit not humanity. The vessels carrying the Irish across the Atlantic earned the name of coffin ships.
Unchecked travel between parts of the British Empire prior to 1847 led to massive emigration from Ireland into Canada. In 1847, the last year before tighter regulations shifted the tide of Irish emigrants to the United States, an estimated 100,000 sailed for Canada. 38,000 Irish flooded into the city of Toronto, a city with a population of only 20,000.
The sheer number of available desperate passengers allowed ship captains to load their cargo holds to overcrowding. Unscrupulous captains frequently under rationed their ships leading to starvation and disease spreading in the horrible conditions. It is thought as many as 20% died while crossing the Atlantic. Narratives of the time describe schools of sharks trailing the ships waiting for the bodies of the deceased to be thrown overboard.
Things did not necessarily improve from there for those early Spence ancestors. Passengers arriving from Ireland could expect to be quarantined at Grosse Isle, Quebec. Sick passengers would remain there till death or improvement. Healthy appearing passengers would be allowed to pass on with just a quick glance. Typhoid fever was rampant in the horrible conditions on the ships and quickly spread to epidemic proportions in 1847 in Canada. Poorly supplied and overcrowded communities struggled to fight the medical crisis.
As many as 20,000 died during the typhoid epidemic of 1847. Mass graves holding victims exist in Grosse Isle, Toronto, New Bruswick, Bytown, and Kingston. Many of the dead were never identified and remain recorded in the few records that exist as “unknown”.
A New World
Few passenger manifests were kept of the passengers during this period entering Canada from Ireland. There are many Spence families in Canada by 1851. Without a doubt somewhere in that mass of names lurk my elusive Spence relatives. I suspect the Canadian census of 1851, 1861, and 1871 hold possibly the only chance of providing documentation of this hearty generation who overcame amazing obstacles to get to America. I will have to examine the families in closer detail to determine which Spence may be connected.
Continued in Part Three: Tearing Down Brick Walls – A Spence Family Mystery