Sources on Irish Immigrants to Canada and the 1847 Typhus Epidemic

A unique new source of information for some 1847 Irish immigrants to Canada has gone online. The Montreal Sisters of Charity, known as the Grey Nuns, kept a diary of sorts of the Irish immigrants they cared for in the summer of 1847, as well as the Irish widows and orphans they helped find homes.

Typhus felled many of these new immigrants. The typhus epidemic of 1847 was an outbreak of typhus caused by a massive Irish emigration in 1847, during the Great Famine, aboard crowded and disease-ridden ships known as “coffin ships.”

In Canada, more than 20,000 people died from 1847 to 1848, with many quarantined in “fever sheds” in Grosse Isle, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto and St. John.

In Montreal, between 3,500 and 6,000 Irish immigrants died of “ship fever” (typhus) in what were known as “fever sheds” in a quarantine area called Windmill Point in 1847 and 1848. These immigrants had been transferred from quarantine in Grosse Isle, Quebec, the Canadian equivalent of Ellis Island.

Due to a lack of suitable preparations, typhus soon reached epidemic proportions in Montreal. Three fever sheds were initially constructed, 150 feet (46 m) long by 40 to 50 feet (15 m) wide. As thousands more sick immigrants landed, more sheds had to be erected.

The number of sheds would grow to 22. Troops cordoned off the area so the sick could not escape. The Grey Nuns cared for the sick, carrying women and children in their arms from ships to the ambulances.

According to Montreal journalist and historian Edgar Andrew Collard, 30 of the 40 nuns who went to help became ill, with 7 dying. Other nuns took over, but once the surviving Grey Nuns had convalesced, they returned. Priests also helped, many falling ill after hearing the last confessions of the dying. When a mob threatened to throw the fever sheds into the river, Montreal mayor John Easton Mills quelled the riot by himself joining those providing care — giving patients water and changing bedding. He died in November, serving less than a year in office. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Montreal urged French Québécois to help their fellow Catholics. Many travelled to Montreal from the countryside to adopt children, in some cases passing their land on to them.

The typhus outbreak also hit Bytown (Ottawa). With the arrival of over 3,000 Irish immigrants, the fever first appeared in June 1847. The sick were initially cared for by the same community of Sisters, the Grey Nuns. As the numbers of sick swelled, “fever sheds” had to be erected in Ottawa too. Approximately 200 died in quarantine. The Rideau Canal was even shut down in an effort to prevent further spread of the outbreak.

The University of Limerick’s online family history archive contains the Annals of the Sisters. They are translated into English from the French, and the original French text is also part of the archive. All items are downloadable.

The documents are not indexed but are searchable, and still provide tremendous insight into the circumstances and effects of Gorta Mor — the Great Famine. They offer a stirring tribute to the Sisters of Charity and their care for the sick and dying.