Impact of the Yorkshire Migration

August 3rd will mark the official opening of Yorkshire 2000. Leading up to this important event, the last Flashback focused on the reasons for the Yorkshire migration; today the spotlight turns to its long range impact.

The years 1771-75 were destined to be significant both locally and internationally. Relations between Britain and the thirteen American colonies were approaching the point of no return. The famous Boston Tea Party had taken place the previous December. During April and May of 1774 the British government retaliated with a series of acts designed to curb further difficulties in the colonies. These measures only succeeded in adding to the growing resentment against Britain.

The largest group in the then population of Nova Scotia was composed of New England Planters. They had moved, more than a decade earlier, across the Gulf of Maine to settle in the Annapolis Valley, along the south coast of Nova Scotia and on the Isthmus of Chignecto. The question on everyones lips was: Would Nova Scotia become the fourteenth colony to rebel? In this conflict the Yorkshire settlers were to play a lead role.

At first, the Chignecto New Englanders believed that the revolutionary cause might appeal to the non-conformist Yorkshire settlers. However, when the latter compared their former life in England with the many opportunities in Nova Scotia, they were content.

Aside from their strong loyalty to the crown, the Yorkshire settlers were opposed to the rebellion on religious grounds. Fortunately a series of letters between Yorkshire settler Nathaniel Smith (1720–1791) and relatives back home in Yorkshire have survived. As no other source, they succeed in explaining the Yorkshire position during the Eddy Rebellion on the Isthmus of Chignecto in 1776. Jonathan Eddy, a native of New England and local MLA, gave leadership to the uprising that bears his name.

In one letter Nathaniel Smith used John Wesleys 1775 speech quaintly entitled: A Calm Address to the American Colonies as an argument against armed rebellion. He wrote: John Wesleys address to the Americans… is alone sufficient to convince every reasonable man, of the necessity… of bringing the Americans to a sense of duty by force of arms. Our constitution is not to be equalled by any other power, our laws are grounded upon sound principles, and if perhaps… they are ill used, the fault is neither in the laws nor the author of them.

In 1927 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board erected a cairn on the grounds of Fort Beausjour marking the role of Yorkshire settlers in the revolutionary conflict. While this first result of the Yorkshire migration has often been forgotten, this does not lessen its importance. Most historians are in agreement that Yorkshire loyalty was an important factor in the British control of Nova Scotia.

The religious climate on the Isthmus of Chignecto was also discussed by Nathaniel Smith. Writing in 1779, he described Methodism as a spark of fire cast into the bushes, which for awhile smudgd at the bottom, but at last broke into a flame. Referring to the local revival that swept the Isthmus in the spring of that year, Smith described it as a Glorious war [that] is being fought among us… Jesus is our captain and many are enlisted into his service almost everyday. By this time, Methodist classes and prayer meetings were being held regularly.

A convert at one of these Methodist meetings was William Black Jr., son of William Black Sr. The family had emigrated from near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, to Fort Cumberland in 1775. The elder Black could not have foreseen that he was to found a dynasty that would make its mark on Nova Scotia and beyond. Nor in his wildest dreams, could he have imagined that his second son, William Jr., was destined to leave a legacy as great, if not greater, than any other Yorkshire settler.

Immediately following his conversion, William Black Jr. volunteered his services as a leader in local Methodist classes. At first Blacks efforts were focused on the district immediately adjacent to his home. Assisted by other class leaders, he preached as often as his duties on the farm would permit; at Fort Lawrence, Amherst and Tantramar. Soon afterward, William Black Jr., destined to be the founder of Methodism in the Maritime Provinces, launched his career as a full-fledged roving evangelist.

The strategic location of Yorkshire settlements contributed, in no small measure, to the spread of the Methodist church throughout the region. While Methodism was the bond that united all Yorkshire settlers; it was the particular ministry of Rev. William Black that must be credited with much of this legacy. Eventually the entire region became his parish. When he died on September 8, 1834, Methodism which had started in the words of Nathaniel Smith as a small spark on the Tantramar, had burst in flame throughout the Maritimes.

The Yorkshire zeal for education and the furtherance of Methodism, so evident in these early years, reached its peak in 1839 with the founding of Mount Allison Academy and later the university. Were it not for the Yorkshire migration, and with it, a strong Methodist presence on the Isthmus of Chignecto and throughout the Maritimes, Mount Allison University would not exist today.

It is not generally known that Centennial Hall on the Mount Allison campus commemorates a Methodist rather than a university anniversary. Built in 1884, it marks the centenary of the ministry of Rev. William Black. Two large memorial windows once dominated the Black Memorial Chapel, located on the second floor. One was in honour of Black, the other Charles F. Allison, founder of the university. On March 17, 1933 Centennial Hall was gutted by fire. Following its reconstruction the building housed a mix of classrooms and offices. Today it is the exclusive domain of the universitys administration.

Two important aspects of the Yorkshire legacy remain to be considered. From the very beginning, there is evidence of their almost reverential respect for the land. Since the majority of Yorkshire immigrants were experienced farmers, one of their first objectives was to locate the best possible agricultural land.

It was not by accident but by design that they were first attracted to the rich farmlands of the Isthmus of Chignecto and secondly to outlying areas that bordered on rivers. These other settlements were located on the Petitcodiac, in the Maccan-River Hebert area, on the River Philip and in Newport and Granville townships in the Annapolis Valley.

Some of these locations had access to arable marshland while in other instances settlers had the advantage of rich alluvial soil in the river valleys. Crop rotation was practiced and efforts made to enrich the soil through fertilization. This was a friendly environment for Yorkshire immigrants, so much so, that after 225 years, these areas still boast some of the best farmland in the Maritimes.

There was still another reason for selecting these locations. From previous experience in Yorkshire, many settlers had familiarity with the potential of water power. Very quickly water driven saw and grist mills became a feature of the landscape; especially along the River Philip. The Yorkshire farmers also had a great interest in animal husbandry. Accompanying some of the more affluent immigrants were a few carefully selected farm animals, destined for breeding stock.

One important characteristic separated Yorkshire immigrants from many of their contemporaries. Most of them were literate, as shown by their ability to sign legal documents, carry on extensive correspondence, read their Bibles and exhort when called upon in Methodist classes. As soon as adequate shelter was provided for their families, either through purchase or by building temporary log buildings, they turned their attention to the erection of chapels. Schools were soon to follow.

Many were skilled carpenters and artisans and willingly accepted the challenge of creating furniture from native maple, oak and birch. Unlike a number of other pioneers, they did not curse the forest. Instead each tried to obtain some upland for a ready supply of lumber and firewood.

The Yorkshire migration of 1771-75 has, all too often, been overshadowed and in some quarters overlooked in the history of the region. The Yorkshire immigrants were admittedly fewer in number than the New England Planters who preceded them, or the Loyalists who followed after 1783. Yet in the final analysis their number and their contribution do not justify this past neglect.

It was Will R. Bird who summarized the impact of the Yorkshire migration in the title of his novel Here Stays Good Yorkshire. It’s still here… just look around!