Dubliner Frances Stewart, one of the first women pioneers in Canada

Letters offer valuable account of loneliness of settler life in the 19th-century

“We are as comfortably settled in this vessel as such a number could be in so confined a spot … I am very comfortable here and quite independent and though I have only room to stand up and dress myself I am so much happier than if we were all together. I am very glad to have it to retire to whenever I like.”

So Dublin-born Frances Stewart (née Browne) wrote in July 1822, from the private ship's cabin she shared in relative contentment with her maid and three young daughters. After a long voyage from Belfast, she finally had sight of the coast of Canada, which would become her home for the next 50 years.

Stewart's life in Canada was a complete transformation from her upper-middle-class life in Ireland. She was one of the first European pioneer women in Canada, after she and her husband benefitted from one of the British government land grants offered to settlers from around 1815.

Born in Dublin in 1794, Frances was the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman. When she was just two years old, her mother became paralysed, and she was adopted by a great-uncle; four years later, she was sent to live with another uncle, Dr Daniel Beaufort of Collon, Co Louth.

The Beaufort connection was enormously important in her life. Her uncle, an eminent geographer, saw that his niece was educated. Her adoptive siblings were Francis Beaufort, later Royal Navy hydrographer, and Frances, later fourth wife of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (father of Maria Edgeworth).

Journey to Canada

In 1816, Frances married an Antrim industrialist, Thomas Stewart. When the manufacturing firm he jointly operated with his brother-in-law Robert Reid failed, the families decided to leave together for Canada.

Irish migration to eastern Canada had increased steadily from the mid-18th century onwards. In their classic book Irish Emigration and Canadian Settlement, Cecil Houston and William Smyth demonstrate that Irish arrivals in Canada reached 40,000 in 1830 alone. In the pre-Famine period however, this option was mostly the preserve of middle-class families who could afford the fare; the Stewarts were typical of this migrant group.

Arriving at York (now Toronto), the Stewarts received a grant of 1,200 acres in Peterborough County. This may sound like a good deal, but for the first three years the Reids were their only neighbours, and Stewart was haunted by loneliness.

Her difficulties were compounded in 1823 by the death of her two-year-old daughter, Bessie, from dysentery; the nearest doctor was 18 miles (29km) away, and arrived too late to save the child.

Pioneer life

Stewart’s biographer, Jodi Lee Aoki, states that she was “woefully unprepared” for pioneer life, despite having brought two servants and the family dog, Cartouche, from Ireland.

Eight of her eleven children were born in her pioneer Canadian home, while she and her servants had to learn anew how to cook, clean and generally maintain the household without the resources that were familiar to them in Ireland, in a challenging climate.

In 1847, Stewart’s husband of 31 years died of typhoid, likely contracted while assisting Irish migrants fleeing the Famine. He had fundraised for Irish Famine relief, was instrumental in the excavation of the Trent Canal, and was a trustee of a number of schools. The Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School in Peterborough, Ontario was named in his honour in 1967.

Stewart’s valuable letters - first edited and published by her daughter in 1889, and still considered one of the most important accounts of settler life in 19th-century Canada - show how friendship and communication were crucial to the well-being of migrants in isolated locations.

This is most memorably captured in Maria Edgeworth’s gift of a piano, that she had shipped to Stewart’s isolated log-house in 1827. Bolstered by such gestures, Stewart was able to maintain her resolve by expressing herself through writing - and was able to maintain at least the veneer of gentility in the backwoods of pioneer Canada.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Angela Byrne, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin's Docklands. Learn more about Irish mariners at the exhibition, 'Across the Waves: The Seafaring Irish' at EPIC from March 15th to April 12th. epicchq.com

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