Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tuesday's Tips: The Great Famine: Did your ancestors land at Grosse-Île, and then go to the United States?

Memorial erected in 1909 in commemoration of the death of Irish immigrants of 1849 / Monument érigé en 1909 commémorant la mort des immigrants irlandais de 1849
The Celtic Cross erected in 1909 in commemoration of Irish Immigrants who died at Grosse-Île.
Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada; PA-136924.
In escaping the famine of 1845-1852 did your Irish ancestors land at Grosse-Île, the Port of Québec Canada, before immigrating into the United States?  

Many Irish seeking to escape the famine landed at the Port of Quebec, and then made their way to other parts of Canada, as well as into the United States.  If you are seeking ancestors who left Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-1852, and have been unable to find any sign of them coming through U.S. ports, then check out the sources listed below. Canada was still part of the United Kingdom in this period and so could not close her borders to those fleeing the famine.

In this post I have included many resources for research, including books and free online sources.  Also, since the busiest season at Grosse-Île was 1847, I have included a brief history of the quarantine station with details of that year.

The Great Famine**(see note #1): 1847 Ireland and Grosse-Île

The Great Famine, (in Irish An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger), began in Ireland around 1845 and lasted until about 1852; however, the year which has been marked as its most deadly is 1847.  In the province of Québec Canada, and the island of Grosse-Île (translation: Big Island) in the St. Lawrence Seaway, a record 98,649 immigrants arrived at the Port of Québec in the single navigation season of 1847; many of them were Irish.  Prior to that year, the average number of newcomers per navigation season numbered between twenty-five and thirty thousand.  These were individuals who could actually afford to travel to the Americas; hundreds of thousands sought refuge in England, Scotland, and Wales.

In the period, ships normally took an average of 45 days to make the crossing.  In 1847, 26 of those that set sail took more than 60 days to reach Grosse Île. For some the trip meant weeks of being crowded in close quarters onboard the sailing ships, living in unsanitary conditions, weakened by malnutrition and lack of clean water.  When they arrived at Grosse-Île many of them were already infected with typhus, the disease which would soon reach epidemic proportions. Vessels were ordinarily quarantined for an average of 6 days at Grosse Île; however, in 1847 several were held there for more than 20 days. To see a sanitized view of the accommodations on a famine ship visit my post The Dunbrody: A Famine Ship.

According to the historical record, in 1847, 398 ships were inspected at Grosse Île, and 441 ships registered in Québec.  Of these ships, 77 carried well over 400 passengers each. The known point of origin for at least 230 of these ships was Ireland. (I include Liverpool in this count because many Irish used Liverpool as their main point of departure):

21 ships left from Belfast, Ireland
26 ships left from County Sligo, Ireland
27 ships left from Dublin, Ireland
33 ships left from County Cork, Ireland
50 ships originated in County Limerick, Ireland
73 ships originated in Liverpool, England

Despite the fact that it had been enlarged during the navigation season of 1847, the quarantine station at Grosse-Île was wholly inadequate to handle the number of persons arriving on its shores. Many ships, still fully loaded with their complement of passengers, had to anchor offshore from the island awaiting inspectors and medical personnel.

According to the official record, 5,282 passengers perished and 172 live births were recorded onboard the vessels which were to bring them to a new life in North America.

In 1847, 5,424 dead were buried on Grosse Île; however, thousands more died after making their way to other cities in Canada, in particular Toronto and Hamilton, as well as towns in the Niagara region of Ontario. (See note #2 below)

Shelter in the western sector of Grosse Île. The cholera hospital, built in 1832, is shown / Logements du secteur ouest de la Grosse-île. On peut voir l'hôpital du choléra construit en 1832
Shelter in the western sector of Grosse Île. The cholera hospital, built in 1832, is shown.
 ©Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/PA-046796
The number 5,424 requires some elucidation. All of the Grosse-Île registers, as well as those of the burials at both chapels on Grosse-Île, show between 3,238 and 3,389 deaths or burials in 1847 at Grosse-Île; however, on the monument which commemorates the efforts of the doctors who cared for the sick and dying, the dead and buried are numbered at 5,424. It reads as follows:

"In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5424 persons 
who fleeing from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland 
in the year 1847 found in the Americas but a Grave".

The difference in numbers is accounted for in the summary of one of the Grosse-Île hospital registers in which the following note is written, (believed to date to 1897). One might be inclined to question the veracity of the note given that it was written fifty years after the event, but this is the official record. It reads:

"In 1847 the deaths in the Hospital were 3,226, the interments 5,424. The difference is made up of those who died on vessels in Quarantine, or upon landing, but before they could be entered in the hospital books."

Just one look at the Irish cemetery speaks to the fact that these individuals were buried in mass graves. We know that when the navigation season opened, the medical superintendent of the station, Dr. George Douglas, asked the Catholic and Anglican clergy to take care of the dead. The clergy members paid strict attention to ensure burials were carried out according to sacred rites. Mass graves were indeed dug, but individual bodies were each placed in their own coffin.   Nothing in the documentation supports burials of any other nature.

15 - Memorial with the names of Irish dead with cemetery in the background, on Grosse Ile
Glass panels bearing the names of 6000 dead with the Irish cemetery in the background
Over four million people entered Canada via the Port of Québec between 1832 and 1937. In the period up until 1913, about 32,000 were hospitalized on Grosse Île. During the 105 years it was used as a human quarantine station, 7,553 immigrants were buried on the island including the 5,424 in 1847. The names of 6,000 are engraved on glass panels at the site; 1553 are unknown.

Some have claimed that as many as 10,000 Irish are buried at Grosse-Île, but we do not yet have the evidence to support such a claim.  As I noted earlier in this post many thousands of Irish who managed to survive the landing at the Port of Québec moved into other areas of the country of Canada, and into the United States as well, and many of them did not survive for very long after arriving.


1. There were in fact two famines in Ireland characterized as "The Great Famine": The First Great Famine dated from about 1740 to 1741, and was caused by destruction of crops which resulted from "The Great Frost" which struck Ireland between December 1739 and September 1741. Many rural Irish moved to the better supplied urban areas such as Cork and Dublin during this period, although there was an increase in emigration from Ireland after 1741.  For further information on the climate induced Great Famine of 1740-41 visit this LINK.

The Second Great Famine, to which this post refers, resulted in mass emigration. Dating from about 1845 to about 1852, the famine was caused by potato blight, a fungal disease which wiped out the potato crop, the principle food staple in the diet of most Irish.

There is also the little known famine of 1879 called "An Gorta Beag" by the Irish, or The Little Famine. This period was marked by food shortages and widespread hunger, particularly in rural regions, and resulted in an increase in population movement within Ireland.  In this instance aid was forthcoming from the British government, most likely spurred by pressure from Parnell and the members of the Land League.

2. With respect to migration after landing:

Contrary to popular belief that the vast majority of those Irish who landed in 1847 headed to the United States, the historical records claims otherwise.

According to the Distribution Report by A.C. Buchanan, Chief Agent, Emigrant Department, Montreal, Canada (Archive of the British Parliamentary Papers 1847-48 XLVII, pages 397-403), of the 95,034 persons who emigrated from the United Kingdom, landing in Canada at the Port of Quebec, and in Canada West, during the 1847 navigation season, 8,154 died (5,424 at Grosse-Île, 2,730 in-transit) and the remaining 86,880 persons travelled and/or settled as follows:

To settle in the United States: 30,000 persons

Left via St. John's, Newfoundland: 15,000 persons
Left via Canada West: 15,000 persons

Settled in Canada: 56,880 persons

Settled in the districts of Quebec and Montreal in the Eastern Townships: 3,700 persons
Settled at Bytown and various places along the Ottawa and Rideau rivers: 6,930 persons
Settled at Kingstown and the Bay of Quinté, Hastings, Prince Edward, and the Midland districts: 5,850 persons
Settled at Coburg, Port Hope, Windsor, Whitby and Darlington, and in the Newcastle and Colburne Districts: 7,123 persons.
Settled at Toronto and in the Home and Simcoe Districts: 16,318 persons
Settled at Port Credit, Oakville and Hamilton, and the Wellington and Gore Districts: 12, 639 persons
Settled in the London, Western and Huron Districts: 4, 370 persons.



1. Charbonneau, Andre and Doris Drolet-Dube. A Register of Deceased Persons at Sea and on Grosse Île in 1847. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997.

Copies of this book are available for purchase online, but are usually fairly expensive.  Consult WORLD CAT to find a location near you which has a copy of this book.

2. Crowley, John, William J. Smyth, Mike Murphy, editors. Atlas of The Great Irish Famine, University College Cork, New York University Press, 2012. This extraordinary 728 page tome is a must have reference book for anyone who wishes to have a more complete understanding of the Great Famine.

3. O'Gallagher, Mariana. Eyewitness: Grosse Isle, 1847. Carraigh Books, Sainte-Foy, Québec, Canada, 1995.

4. O'Gallagher, Mariana. Grosse Ile Gateway to Canada 1832-1937. Carraigh Books, Québec City, Québec, Canada, 1984.

Both of Mariana O'Gallagher's books are widely available.  Mariana O'Gallagher was an Irish/Canadian historian, and expert on Grosse-Île, who had a significant family connection to the Celtic Cross. Her grandfather, Jeremiah Gallagher, born in Macroom, County Cork, Ireland, was the designer of the cross, and was President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1909 when the cross was unveiled.  Sadly, Mariana passed away in May of 2010.

Check WORLD CAT for the location of copies of these books in a library near you.


1. On the Libraries and Archives Canada website LINK you can search a database which includes information on 33,026 immigrants whose names appear in surviving records of the Grosse-Île Quarantine Station from the period between 1832 and 1937.

2. A searchable list of 6000 names of those buried on Grosse-Île is available on the Parks Canada website: LINK. These names are engraved on glass panels which overlook the Irish cemetery on the western side of the island. They are grouped by year on the website.

3. You can make an online visit to the official government website for Grosse-Île site, and view photographs of the buildings and cemeteries on the island: LINK

4. The Libraries and Archives Canada website feature: In Quarantine: Life and Death on Grosse-Île: 1832 - 1937 is worth a look, and includes images from a private family collection.

5. In the listing of pages on this blog is one which includes my transcription of a list of almost 500 children who were registered as 'orphans' during the 1847 navigation season from Ireland to Gross Île Québec, and on to other parts of North America, including Canada and the United States.  I have put the word orphans in  quotes because not every child on the list was in fact an orphan; some were simply temporarily separated from their family members.  Their status is usually noted in the remarks column.

6. An excellent account of the genesis of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Celtic Cross (pictured above) is given by Mariana O'Gallagher on the Ireland monument site: click on this LINK.

7. A well documented account entitled "The Irish Emigration of 1847 and Its Canadian Consequences" can be viewed on the University of Manitoba site: LINK

8. For researching famine victims who landed in the United States see the NARA (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) website LINK., especially view Irish Famine Passengers Records: LINK.  Be aware that on this site the records of immigrants to the United States during the Famine period is not exclusively limited to the Irish born.  In the Irish Famine Passenger Records approximately 30 percent of the passengers list their native country as somewhere other than Ireland.

9. On YouTube there are a number of video compilations of images of Grosse-Île which give a virtual tour of the present day site. Use the search term 'Grosse Ile Quebec (there is also a completely unrelated Grosse Ile in Michigan, so watch for that) and you will find several videos. Below I have included one which will give you an idea of the place.


  1. Jennifer,
    What an incredible post -- especially the care you took to document the story. This is the kind of thing that can serve as a fantastic resource for anyone researching this topic. I was not aware of this particular story although I was aware that many Famine Emigrants went to Canada. I've also read about some landlords paying for entire families to leave along the lines of an ethnic cleansing of the impoverished rural population.

    1. Thank you for your really nice comments Kathy. I worked on this one for a while so I really appreciate your comments on it, and hope it helps someone out there who may be facing a brick wall in their research.


  2. I agree with Kathy, great post! I had the chance to go to Gross-Ile with my family a couple of years ago. It is a very moving place.

    1. Hi Ashling,

      Thank you for your comments; as always, they are much appreciated. I am glad you had the opportunity to go to Grosse-Île; one thing that I find really striking about it is just how far out in the St. Lawrence Seaway it is, a part of Quebec, but so far from the mainland.


  3. Jennifer, thank you so much for your well-researched post, and in particular for listing those several resources.

    I, too, only recently became aware of the story of Grosse-Île, while researching my husband's Tully family. We had heard, through family oral tradition, that this Tully family had come to Chicago through Canada. The date of passage was always given as 1844, a bit early for the scenario you described at Grosse-Île. While a subsequent online connection with a distant cousin corroborated the Canada connection (I even have the location in Ontario--Paris Village in Brant County where John Tully's parents settled), I have never been able to find any documentation of the actual passage from Ireland.

    Now that I see your wider range of dates, I think I will revisit the possibility of Grosse-Île. If you know of any other possible ports for immigrants of that time, I'd appreciate any direction!

  4. Hi Jacqi,

    Thanks for your comments; I'm glad to know this info may prove helpful. There are a number of points of entry in eastern Canada. The port of Montreal, Quebec, and Pier 21 at Halifax, Nova Scotia are two you may want to check out. You can look up ships' lists on the Library and Archives Canada website.

    BTW further proof that it's a small world, I am very familiar with Paris in Brant County as I have friends in that area.


  5. Thank you Jennifer - another excellent post on the Irish immigrants to Canada/United States. My ex-husband's great-grandmother (Ellen Campion) came from Ireland in the late 1700s or very early 1800s, settling in Ontario.
    Your resources are excellent - I know of most of them, and need to revisit several of them again, searching with more seasoned eyes. Research is never done.

    And it was amusing to see the Paris /Brant County connection above - I worked in Brantford/Paris as a Victorian Order of Nurses nurse in spring of 1967, after I graduated with a degree in nursing (B.C.). A beautiful area, I particularly loved their marvelous thunderstorms - living almost all my life in Vancouver, I can tell you we rarely ever get the kind of storms they did!

    1. Thank you Celia. As always, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comments, and as you say it is amusing to see another Brantford/Paris connection.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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