The Crossing of the Barrs

by Mary Ducharme  (August 2020)

(Part 1 of 3 articles on the early Barr families of Hemmingford)

William Barr age 15 and John age 28 made landing on August 14, 1830 in Montreal after eleven weeks at sea. The young Barrs were met on the dock by their relieved sister Margaret who had been anxiously awaiting their arrival expected weeks earlier. Her worry came from memories of her own crossing when she had emigrated from Ireland in 1828. During the nine weeks at sea her ship encountered a wild storm that damaged the vessel and passengers doubted they would reach Montreal. After surviving their ordeal Margaret and her husband, William Kearns, a farmer from Tyrone, settled in Hemmingford. William and John were also relieved to be reunited with their sister. But their news for Margaret was tragic: both their mother and father died at sea of “ship’s fever.”

Their parents, William Barr and Ellen Fenton, were victims of typhus caused by fleas spreading from rats in the cramped quarters below decks. The misery of the sick was made worse by negligible cooking or sanitary facilities, or clean water for drinking or washing. There was little their sons could do to alleviate the suffering of their parents who likely died in fevered delirium. Their bodies were wrapped in canvas bags with weights and committed to the waters.

Captains of immigrant ships were notorious for lining their pockets by shorting supplies. Some secretly sent crates home containing the best ship provisions An account of how this affected passengers is found in a 1914 biographical sketch compiled by Lieut. Col. James Barr, a descendant of William and Ellen: “the family had provided themselves with a supply of oatmeal, bacon, tea, sugar etc. for one year after landing in America but on account of the scarcity of provisions on shipboard, they were compelled to hand their supply over to the officers of the ship to save the lives of the passengers and crew from starvation, for which they received no remuneration. Even with all available supplies, the ship’s crew and passengers were obliged to go on short provision allowance during the latter part of the journey.”

The late William and Ellen came from Beragh, in the County of Tyrone. They owned a general store, ran a farm, and were engaged in the linen business. Linen of high quality was a cottage industry when the Barrs lived in Northern Ireland. William and his two sons grew and pulled flax in the fields; Ellen, and her daughters Margaret and Jane spun yarn on multiple wheels in their home. The men wove the cloth and sold it to local market towns. It was then transported to Dublin or Belfast, most of it for export to Europe. When the processing of flax became the product of large city factories, the rural industry began a steep decline. In the late 1820’s duties imposed by Britain further devastated the Irish rural economy. Added troubles included rapid population growth, religious riots, and failures in the potato crops. Within a few years the population began to decline: northern Irish people were leaving for America or Canada. Of these emigrants who settled in Hemmingford, a disproportionate number came from linen producing areas of Ireland.

The possessions of William and John included 500 yards of fine Irish linen and thread which they hoped to sell to establish a home and business in Little York (Toronto). They planned to join their sister Jane who lived there since 1825 with her husband John Clements. Apparently, William and John were dissuaded from going to Little York, perhaps from letters from Jane who wrote of the epidemic of “fever and ague,” (malaria as it is now termed.)

John and William were disappointed in their efforts to sell the linen in Hemmingford: cash was scarce and most people wore simple homespun and could not afford the luxury of fine linen. Fortunately, John Scriver bought some of the bolts of fabric for his store. This provided 100 pounds, to purchase Lot 66 on the Second Range not far from the home of their sister Margaret. At the time it was wild bush land. It was known as Clelland Corners for many years and is now Covey Hill Road.

See the next issue for more Barr history in Hemmingford, Clelland Corners and Covey Hill.