Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

I have been writing about some of the themes that arise out of a series of letters from the latter half of the nineteenth century that travelled across the Atlantic between Scotland, Canada, and the United States. You can read my introduction to the letters here and my first thematic post on life and death in the letters here.

I’m following the story of some of my Scottish ancestors, and today the story brings us to a discussion of travel and immigration as shown in the letters.

Travel and Immigration in the Gilchrist Shearer Letters

The central figures in today’s letters are James Shearer Sr. and James Shearer, Jr. James Shearer Jr. immigrated to Kansas with his family in 1869 or 1870. He began farming close to his father and family members in Kansas, who had immigrated sometime after 1862. Both men maintained contact with family back in Scotland and also with James Shearer Sr.’s brother Gavin Shearer, Gavin’s family, and their extended family and friends in Upper Canada/Canada West/the present-day province of Ontario.

Scots knew the ins and outs of emigrating. The Scottish people had been emigrating to other parks of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Europe for work. These weren’t always one-way moves, either, as they often returned to Scotland. There were printed guidebooks for Scots considering emigrating to Canada and the United States, schemes to settle Scots from the Highlands and Islands in the mid-1800s and a state-aided scheme to settle Scots in Canada from the 1880s. The National Library of Scotland has gathered information, guides, letters and manuscripts of the topic of Scottish emigration and maintain several relevant databases.

When it comes to finding passenger lists for immigrants to Canada, Library and Archives Canada has searchable Passenger Lists, but for this period they only have lists of those who arrived at the Port of the City of Quebec and Montreal.

Prior to immigrating, James Sr.’s letter to Gavin in Otanabee in January 1862 shows that James had clearly noticed the high level of transatlantic travel in their community in central Scotland:

“No doubt you will think we have been careless in not writing sooner but we have had so many friends and acquaintances crossing and recrossing that I considered it almost unnecessary.”

James was also starting to get a feel for life overseas:

“I have frequently conversed with Thomas Lochead concerning your country and farming operations. And I am much better pleased with his account than Robert Davidson’s. Also I had a letter a short time since from Archibald Waddell and was glad to hear that he had got a farm and he and his mistress were getting on well. Tell him that I will write soon according to promise but I am expecting Thomas Lochead out this spring when you will get the news by word of mouth.”

James was doing his research (although it looks like my 2x great-grandfather Robert wan’t all that helpful) and was also aware that more friends planned to travel to Canada shortly.

Transatlantic voyages also made the news, and the slow speed at which news travelled and even slower speed of the post meant that it could be a welcome relief to receive word that family had arrived safely in the new world. James Shearer Jr.’s sister Agnes wrote James on 8 October 1870 expressing true relief that other family members had arrived safely in America:

“Mrs. Bronlie called here with your last letter. I was glad to hear that you were both well. You have had a long trip and had not bought ground yet, but by this time I hope you will have seen the rest to help you. We received a letter on Tuesday Oct 4 stating they were safe and landed and were about to take the train. I was glad to hear they were all well. I saw it in the daily paper nearly two weeks ago… that the vessel was down. Some assured it for truth.”

In a long letter to his brother Gavin dated 18 February 1875, James Sr. reflected on the growing number of immigrants and expresses a few opinions of some of his new neighbours and the people who are building the mid-west:

“Although the immigration has been great, they are mostly poor and going out west a hundred miles or more where they get free grants in farming.”

James was constantly seeing people come and go as they venture further and further west in search of better land and opportunities. He noted that his son has considered moving out to California. James was also aware that his fellow immigrants come from a wide range of backgrounds:

“The neighbours we have are very kind and obliging. I like them as well as in Scotland. A good many Dutch and Swedes, Irish, Scotch, Canadians, Americans, and Jews, and [the] Dutch and the Scotch are very like others. The Canadians are very self-conceited and not much run upon. The Americans are very honest men to deal with. Not very fond of hard work, but they have sought out many inventions in machinery…”

James liked Kansas and his community, but he was also anxious to stay connected to his family in Canada and back in Scotland. Gavin had recently taken a trip back to Scotland with his family and James was anxious to hear all about it:

“I heard that you and part of the Family were back seeing the old country…”

“Please be so good as to let us know a little how they are getting on in the old country and how they are farming Harshaw and what you think of Scotland after so long being away from seeing it.”

He also hoped that Gavin could put him back in touch with Robert Davidson, who had moved and as a result James’ last letter to him was returned. Finally, he noted that he hoped to visit them all in a year or two’s time up in eastern Ontario.

These letters to and from this father and son tell us a few key points:

  1. Scots travelled back and forth across the Atlantic in the 19th century — it wasn’t just a one-way ticket, never to be seen or heard from again
  2. They wanted to keep in touch and hear the latest news, stories, and gossip from family and friends in all parts of the world
  3. They received news of friends and family from a range of sources, including letters, word of mouth, the newspaper, and through visits from the immigrants themselves

There’s much more to learn from the Gilchrist-Shearer letters. In my next post I will be looking at agriculture and how these writers contrasted their new and old surroundings.

Suggested Reading:

Marjory Harper, “Crossing Borders: Scottish emigration to Canada”, History in Focus 11, Institute for Historical Research (IHR), 2006.

Ferenc Morton Szasz, Scots in the North American West, 1790-1917 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

3 thoughts on “Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of June 25, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Pingback: Farming and the Land in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

  3. Pingback: Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters | Isles Abroad

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