Early immigrants to the Island in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

·5 min read
This monument to the Selkirk Settlers who arrived on P.E.I. from Scotland in 1803 stands at the church in Belfast, P.E.I. (Jayne Ings - image credit)
This monument to the Selkirk Settlers who arrived on P.E.I. from Scotland in 1803 stands at the church in Belfast, P.E.I. (Jayne Ings - image credit)
Jayne Ings
Jayne Ings

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past.

With Canada Day coming up this week, Bygone Days takes a look at how some of Prince Edward Island's long-established population groups came to the Island more than 200 years ago.

Most immigrants came from Great Britain or France, joining the Island's Indigenous population — the Mi'kmaw people, who have called P.E.I. home for more than 10,000 years.

Submitted by Dutch Thompson
Submitted by Dutch Thompson

Muriel Boulter MacKay was an amazing woman. She lived to be 101 and had a wonderful memory.

She had her Grade 10 education by the time she was 10 years old, and went on to become a schoolteacher after attending Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown and later, Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

Muriel was born right in the family home in Albany, built by her great-grandfather Boulter, who came from Plymouth, England.

"My great-grandfather was a Baptist minister. He was the one that got the lot here from Capt. Holland and settled here. Then my grandfather built on beside him. It's all the one farm now. And my father took over after that, and my brother took over after that, but he didn't like farming, he had no use for farming at all!" she said.

"My father persuaded me to come home and take the place because he said he didn't want to see it go out of the name. It had been for three or four generations, from 1810."

Genealogy is the rage nowadays, but it wasn't in the last century when Muriel was born, and she doesn't remember her family telling many tales about the old days.

Her grandparents lived with the family on the farm, in what Muriel described as a "double house."

"When the telephone came, my grandfather says 'Now they've got everything they can get. Can't get anything better than that!'" she recalled. "He's here today, what would he think? Electricity!"

Muriel's father was Maj. Freeman Boulter, who trained soldiers for the First World War. He was never sent overseas, but remained in Halifax, where he survived the Halifax explosion — by a fluke. Rather than going as usual to the waterfront, which was destroyed when a munitions ship exploded, he stayed home ill, where the only harm from the blast was the windows shattering.

"He kept a horse there, a saddle horse," she said. "The top was blown off the stable, the roof was blown off, but the horse wasn't hurt a bit! Isn't that funny? He got no harm from it at all."

Muriel's husband George MacKay was also a First World War veteran, and later an Island MLA and the lieutenant-governor. He and Muriel lived in Government House at Fanningbank.

The Selkirk settlers

Heading down to the eastern end of the Island, Manson Murchison was proud of his Scottish ancestry. He was a descendant of P.E.I.'s Selkirk settlers.

Dutch Thompson
Dutch Thompson

The Selkirk group arrived from Scotland on three sailing vessels in 1803, and included some very successful immigrants. Just take a drive around the Belfast area, where they cleared land for shipbuilding and farming. The area includes Orwell, Pinette and Earnscliffe and is a showcase of beautiful, well-kept farms.

Manson Murchison took Dutch on a tour of the Polly cemetery and an old French burying ground near Lord Selkirk Provincial Park in Belfast, P.E.I. There his own stone was ready and waiting for him — except for the end date.

"That's Alexander Murchison, he's got a big stone. Here it is. That's the man now, he came out with the Selkirk settlers ... on the memorial ship Polly, in 1803. He died on Dec. 6, 1827, aged 67 years. And his wife Mary died April 9, 1857, she was 99 years. Boy, that was an old age then, wasn't it!"

Manson could trace his blood to just about everyone in the cemetery — brothers, aunts and uncles, and "double first cousins."

The Battle of Culloden in 1746 saw Bonnie Prince Charlie and his loyal highlanders take up arms against the English army of the Duke of Cumberland. The Scots lost, spelling the end of the clan system and the highland way of life, which in turn led to so many Scots leaving their homeland — even the son of Col. Murchison, who had fought bravely with Bonnie Prince Charlie.

He immigrated to P.E.I. with the Selkirk group — and that's how the Murchisons came to be on P.E.I.

Lord Selkirk was involved with two other North American communities: one in Ontario and one along the Red River in Manitoba, where he had a land grant of 778,130 square kilometres. To compare, P.E.I. is 5,656 square kilometres.

P.E.I. was the most successful of Lord Selkirk's settlements, though ironically, P.E.I.'s Selkirk settlers were originally destined for Upper Canada and not P.E.I.

'They all went to sea'

The pioneers were extraordinary sailors, and Manson was related to many of them — MacDonalds, Nicholsons, MacLeods — all connected to the glory days of iron men and wooden ships.

Dutch Thompson
Dutch Thompson

Although many of his descendants died at sea of fever or drowning, Manson wasn't deterred.

"The Murchisons were all noted for the sea. They all went to sea. Very little farming they done," he said. "I love the water, I'm right in my glory."

Manson harvested Irish moss and fished lobster for more than 20 years in the Northumberland Strait, noting "there was good times and bad times" with fishing.

He also kept the lighthouse at Point Prim, a historic round lighthouse made of brick in the 1840s. Lighthouse-keeping was another family tradition, Manson also kept the light across the water on Caribou Island, N.S., for a time.

Manson recalled he had to go to the top every four hours to wind the Point Prim light to make it turn.

"Just the same as the grandfather clock," he said.

The Murchisons and all the other Selkirk settlers had been Canadians for six generations — but the spirit of Culloden lived on.

"Clannish! That's no name for it, they're worse than that. You come in here and say something bad about them, you may as well fire a cannon! They're pretty clannish!" he said with a hearty laugh.

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