St. John River: Cargo of Misery
Disease and death stalk desperate newcomers
Bron, bron, mo ron - Sorrow, sorrow, my sorrow
The outbreak of famine in Ireland in 1845 caused thousands of people to desperately flee
their homeland. Unfortunately, typhus fever, dysentery, measles, cholera, and smallpox would
also be passengers on the vessels that carried the desperate migrants across the Atlantic.
At the entrance to Saint John harbour sits the small, wind-swept Partridge Island. British
colonial authorities turned the island into a quarantine station for these impoverished,
often sick, immigrants during the early 1800s. The immigrants were held under observation
for several weeks in hopes that any infection would be detected. The word "quarantine" was
adopted from French and means "40 days".
Not all ships respected immigrants' rights to adequate food, ventilation, space, and medicine.
The vessels became filthy during the long voyages. New arrivals were shepherded into tents
on the southwestern tip of the island for an observation. The cold, damp, wind, and rain
made tent-living almost unbearable. If the newcomers proved to be healthy, they were released
to start their lives on the mainland.
During the 1840s, as many as twenty ships bearing several hundred immigrants each were sometimes
docked at the same time. The newcomers were so numerous that ship sails were used to make
extra tents to protect them from the worst cold, damp, and wind of the island.
Despite the quarantine station, disease managed to spread like wildfire to Saint John and
up the river valley.
The toll of immigrant deaths climbed to 2,000. The victims were buried in shallow mass graves
on Partridge Island. The only thing that ended this tragedy was an eventual tapering off
of immigration by 1850.
St. John River (Adobe PDF document)
of Canada (All pages in a zipped file)