Grosse Ile and the Irish

Before 1831, Canada-bound vessels carried immigrants directly to Quebec, where they were visited on board by a doctor to see if they were well.  Inspection was cursory and healthy passengers were allowed to land while sick  patients were taken to hospital.  Before 1823, Catholic organizations cared for those arriving in distress, but in that year an increase in numbers necessitated government provision.  In 1830 a hospital was opened at Point Levé across the St. Lawrence river from Quebec city.  In 1831, an outbreak of cholera in Europe necessitated the opening of  a quarantine hospital on Grosse Ile, an unoccupied island 33 miles below Quebec.  The first buildings were temporary structures, called ‘sheds’.  The European epidemic soon grew to plague proportions and included typhoid and other diseases.  Quarantine became a problem.  As an example, in 1834, the ship, Mary, from Cork, carrying 300 emigrants, arrived on May 18th with 40 cases of measles & typhus which were quarantined.  One man & 6 children had died during the voyage.  Passengers were landed and the captain threw the straw used for bedding overboard, but no new straw was sent out.  The vessel was cleaned & fumigated and the passengers washed their clothes and themselves on the island in less than adequate facilities.  After inspection, the immigrants were returned on board for transportation inland to Quebec, Montreal or Kingston; some were too weak to stand, but now there was straw bedding for only 11 of the 250 passengers.

After 1832, all steerage passengers, well or sick, were forced to land at Grosse Ile where the sick often infected the healthy.  As the Great Hunger devastated Ireland in 1845-51, the number of immigrants increased.  U.S. ports began to reject vessels carrying diseased passengers, forcing them to Canadian ports and thousands seeking a new life ended up at Grosse Ile.  Hugh Johnson, who was quarantined on Grosse Ile that year, wrote: “Bad as it was on board, it became infinitely worse when we reached quarantine.  On our arrival at the dock, ropes were stretched across the deck so as to leave a passage in the middle.  A doctor was stationed on each side of this passage and only one person was allowed to go through at a time.  All those who showed any symptoms of disease were forced to go into quarantine, while others were sent on.  I am an old man now, but not for one moment have I forgotten the scene as parents left children, brothers were parted from sisters, or wives & husbands were separated, not knowing whether they should ever meet again.” 1  Typical of advertisements of the day, one read: “Information wanted of Abraham Taylor, 10 years, & George Taylor, 8 years old, from Co. Leitrim, Ireland, who landed in Quebec about five weeks ago – their mother having been detained at Grosse Ile. Any information respecting them will be thankfully received by their brother, William Taylor, at this office.” 2  Children of those who died were adopted by the people of Quebec, and allowed to keep their surnames so that they would always know their heritage.

The horde of Irish, sailing hopefully from their stricken land, believed they were leaving misery behind, but in the 6 to 8 weeks of their voyage the pestilence they were fleeing broke out again with lethal fury in confined quarters of the ship’s hold from which there was no escape.  Physicians called it a modified form of ‘famine fever,’ or hunger typhus.  The Irish called ‘coffin ship fever.’  (Graphic – Below Deck)   The disease in some cases originated among passengers already suffering a mild form when they embarked; often the germs were carried by lice in clothing salvaged from those who had died.  In 1847 the mortality at sea was 6%, but the disease was still contagious when the ships reached Grosse Ile.  The period when the St. Lawrence River is ice-free for ship traffic is May to September and  “on May 17, 1847  the first vessel, Syria, arrived with 430 fever cases which were taken ashore and admitted to hospital.  This was followed by 8 more ships a few days later.  Dr Douglas wrote that he had not a bed to lay [the invalids] on . . I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now.  One week later 17 more vessels appeared at Grosse Ile.  By this time, 695 people were already in hospital.  Only 2 days afterwards the number of vessels reached 30, with 10,000 immigrants now waiting to be processed.  By May 29, a total of 36 more vessels had arrived leaving 40 ships forming a line two miles long.  According to Dr Douglas, each one was affected by fever and dysentery.  1,100 invalids were accommodated in sheds and tents, or laid out in rows in the church.” 3  Due to the lack of space on Grosse Ile, Dr. Douglas required healthy passengers to stay on ship for 15 days once the sick had been removed, by way of quarantine.  Infection flourished on board the ships.  One ship, Agnes, reached Grosse Ile with 427 passengers of whom only 150 survived the quarantine period.

“By the end of the month 12,000 were in beds & tents and 10,037 died on the ships or on the island, but even this figure is conservative, for many families remained in Quebec waiting for one of their own held at Grosse Ile and readily fell prey, if not to ship’s fever, to other illnesses induced by undernourishment and temporary housing.” 4  One observer wrote, It would, in my opinion, have been more humane to have deprived them at once of life.  “A particularly virulent form of dysentery, together with smallpox, measles, and ‘ship’s fever’ broke out in most of the vessels, bringing death to some 30,000 people and the most intense suffering to the survivors.” 5  “The epidemic outbreaks originated not in bad conditions on the ships but in the fact that emigrants were infected before they embarked.  Overcrowding & lack of sanitation undoubtedly added to the virulence of an epidemic once it had started, but the real cause of the trouble lay in contemporary ignorance. As long as medicine did not know the causes of typhus & cholera these diseases would continue to appear on sea & land alike.” 6

In the late 1840s when more than a million people died in Ireland of hunger and pestilence, “the deaths on board the British ships enormously exceeded the mortality on the ships of any other country.  The startling figure of 17.5% is given as the death rate on the vessels carrying the Irish.” 7  In an account kept by an immigration commissioner, the following is recorded:  “To give an adequate idea of recent losses of human life on board of ill-provided, ill-ventilated vessels, it may be stated here that out of 98,105 poor Irish emigrants shipped to Canada by their landlords during the summer of 1847 there died 5,293 at sea, 8,072 at Gross Ile and Quebec, and 7,000 in and above Montreal, making 20,365, besides those who afterwards perished whose number will never be ascertained .” 8 (Graphic – Mass Grave)

Those who were released from Grosse Ile were transported inland to face their first Canadian winter.  At Kingston  where many transferred to smaller vessels a monument was erected in 1894 to the memory of some 400 Irish immigrants buried there in 1847.  In Toronto a monument stands to the 863 who died during the summer & autumn of 1847.  A Black Stone memorial was raised in Montreal where an  estimated 6,000 died in 1847-48 and many more sleep in Prescott and other settlements on the route inland.  Then, in 1909, the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected the largest Celtic Cross in the world on Grosse Ile’s highest hill to commemorate not only the more than 6,000 who sleep there, but all who passed through its gates to finish their futile journey elsewhere.  (Graphic – Celtic Cross)

When all is said and done, Grosse Ile was not alone in becoming a final resting place for our ancestors.  Deer Island in Boston Harbor was a quarantine station as was Staten Island in New York harbor and mass graves also exist there.  The difference is that these latter victims’ graves are not commemorated – yet!  But thanks to the AOH and the Canadian government, those who sleep on Grosse Ile are remembered and in our prayers.

1. The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing-ship by Edwin Guillet, University of Toronto Press p. 145-49

2. Montreal Transcript, Sept. 11, 1847.

3. Helen Collar Papers at

4. The Atlantic Migration 1607-1860 by Marcus L. Hansen, Arthur M. Schlesinger (Editor), Simon Publications Inc.  p. 255-56

5. The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing-ship by Edwin Guillet, University of Toronto Press p. 91

6. American immigration by Maldwyn Allen Jones, University of Chicago Press, 1960, p.107.

7. The Case of Ireland Stated Historically (1880) by Peter T. Sherlock, Kessinger Publishing Co. p. 195
8. Immigration & Commissioners of Immigration, by Friedrich Kapp, The Nation Press, p. 23.

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