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Disease, Quarantine, and Mortality

Before 1831 vessels went directly to Quebec, where they were visited by a doctor to see that there was no fever aboard. Inspection was cursory, passengers allowed to land, fever patients kept on board or taken to a hospital.
Before 1823 Roman Catholic organizations took care of those arriving in distress, but in that year the great increase in numbers necessitated government provision.
In 1830 a fever hospital was opened at Point Levé.
In 1831 (when there was an outbreak of cholera in N. Europe) a quarantine hospital was opened at Grosse Point. It was an unoccupied island 33 mi. below Quebec, and the first buildings were temporary structures, called "sheds." In the plague years the congestion at Grosse Isle made the quarantine procedures an ordeal. One example (1834), the Mary, from Cork, with 300 emigrants, Capt. Henry Deaves. The vessel arrived May 18th with 40 cases of measles & typhus. One man & 6 children had died during the voyage, the capt. stating that the children had died because from lack of proper care because their parents were seasick. The passengers were landed & the capt. had to throw the bedding of straw overboard, but no fresh was sent out so when, after inspection, the people returned, some convalescent, there were 11 beds for 250 passengers. The vessel had been cleaned & fumigated & the passengers washed their clothes & themselves on the Isle with most inadequate facilities.
In the early plague years, 1832 & '34, all steerage passengers, well or sick, were forced to land at Grosse Isle & the sick frequently infected the well. By 1847 it was usual to send ashore only those suffering from disease; the others being transported to steamships or proceeding in their own vessel to Quebec or Montreal.
Example: Hugh Johnson experienced quarantine on Grosse Isle in 1847 after a voyage from Glasgow in the Euclid, which was infested with smallpox. "Bad as it was on board, it became infinitely worse when we reached quarantine. On our arrival at the dock, ropes were stretched across the dock so as to leave a passage in the middle. A doctor was stationed on each side of this passage, & only one person was allowed to go through at a time. All those who showed any symptoms of disease were forced to go into quarantine, while others were sent ashore... I am an old man now, but not for one moment have I forgotten the scene as parents left children, brothers were parted from sisters, or wives & husbands were separated, not knowing whether they should ever meet again." This is typical of many advertisements of the day: "Information wanted of Abraham Taylor, 10 years, & George Taylor, 8 years old, from Co. Leitrim, Ireland, who landed in Quebec about five weeks ago - their mother having been detained at Grosse Isle. Any information respecting them will be thankfully received by their brother, William Taylor, at this office." Montreal Transcript, Sept. 11, 1847.
- Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 145-49

The crowds of Irishmen, sailing hopefully from their stricken land, believed they were leaving misery behind, but in the 6 or 8 weeks of their voyage the pestilence they were fleeing broke out again with lethal fury that shocked even those who had witnessed the scenes of the preceding winter ('46-'47). Physicians called it "ship's fever," though it was probably a modified form of the "famine fever," or hunger typhus, a fact indicated by its absence from ships coming from the Continent. The disease in some cases originated among passengers already suffering a mild form when they embarked; often the germs were carried by lice in clothing salvaged from those who had died.
The worst scenes occurred on boats bound for Canada. In 1847 the mortality at sea was 6%, but the disease had not run its course when the ship reached port. The sick & dying were brought on shore at quarantine. The 1st lot were admitted to the hospital on Grosse Isle, 30 mi. below Quebec, on May 14 (1847). By the end of the month 12,000 were in beds & tents & 35 ships were waiting to discharge their sick. 10,037 died on the ships or on the Isle. The total mortality of those who embarked for Canada was thus 16%. Even this figure is conservative, for many families, detained in Quebec because one of their number was held at Grosse Isle, readily fell prey, if not to ship's fever, to other illnesses induced by undernourishment & temporary housing.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 255-56


The worst plague years were in the '40s. Crop failure, disease, & famine in Ireland in 1846-47 led to mass migration of the destitute in such numbers that almost al restrictions on ships bound for Canadian ports were withdrawn. An observer wrote, "It would, in my opinion, have been more humane to have deprived them at once of life." A particularly virulent form of dysentery, together with smallpox, measles, and "ship's fever" broke out in most of the vessels, bringing death to some 30,000 people and the most intense suffering to the survivors. Of the slightly more than 100,000 persons who left the British Isles for Am. in 1847, a total of 17,445, or 16.33%, died during the passage, in quarantine, or in hospital.
A notable result of the plague of 1847 was that the Irish immigration was largely diverted to the U.S. in subsequent years.
- Edwin Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 91

The first effect of the great calamity which occurred along the St. Lawrence in 1847 was to reduce the immigration to Canada in significant numbers, & increase that to the U.S. in quadruple ratio. Massachusetts & Connecticut in New England and the great states of New York and Pennsylvania were now the chief places of resort for the newcomers; and from New York, principally, they began to pour in a long, steady stream away by the Erie Canal westward to the Great Lakes.
- Thebaud, The Irish Race, p. 434

"The frightful fever epidemic of 1847 which caused thousands of deaths among Irish immigrants & the equally severe but smaller-scale outbreaks of cholera in 1832 & 1853-54 were altogether exceptional; in every other year most ships arrived with a clean bill of health, & the mortality rate during passage only rarely rose above 1/2 of 1 percent. Moreover, the great epidemic outbreaks originated not in bad conditions on the ships but in the fact that emigrants were infected before they embarked. Overcrowding & lack of sanitation, not to speak of the reluctance of immigrants themselves to cooperate in establishing minimum standards of hygiene, undoubtedly added to the virulence of an epidemic once it had started, but the real cause of the trouble lay in contemporary ignorance. As long as medicine did not know the causes of typhus & cholera these diseases would continue to appear on sea & land alike."
Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Imm., p.107



In the late '40s when half a million people died in Ireland of famine or pestilence, the death rate on the crowded ships bound for America was nearly 17 out of 100, including those who died almost immediately on arrival. Conditions gradually improved & a less destitute type of immigrant entered upon the great adventure; while with the easing up in numbers a more thorough inspection was enforced, & the death rate fell still lower as the traffic passed to the steamship. By 1863, when over half the trade was in steam vessels, it was only .19% - no higher than if the passengers had remained on land.
- Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 124

The deaths on board the British ships enormously exceeded the mortality on the ships of any other country. According to the records of the Commissioners of Immigration for the State of N. York, the quota of sick (deaths?) per thousand stood thus in 1848: British vessels, 30; American, 9 3/5; German, 8 3/5.
According to the "Twenty-fourth General Report" the mortality was, in 1854, 0.74%, already a remarkable diminuation on previous average; in 1860, 0.15%. This was the percentage for vessels going to N. America alone.
- Thebaud, The Irish Race, p. 431-322

The startling figure of 17 1/2% is given as the death rate on the vessels carrying the famine sufferers. 89,738 emigrants embarked for Canada in 1847. One in 3 of those who arrived were received into hospitals. The deaths on the passage or soon after arrival were 15,330, over 17%.
The English ships' [mortality rates] enormously exceeded those of other countries:
The Erin Queen sailed with 493 passengers - 136 died on the voyage
The Avon sailed with 552 passengers - 246 died on the voyage
The Virgin__s sailed with 476 passengers - 267 died on the voyage
- Sherlock, The Case for Ireland, p. 195

Trip over - the normal mortality was 10%, but in 1847 it was 20%.
[- no citation is given for this entry]

In one group of immigrants about whom records were kept when they sailed for America in 1854, 20,000 of the 98,000 making the journey died before reaching the U.S..
- Kapp, "Immigration & Commissioners of Immigration," p. 23 (I [HC]
saw in note, Prot. Crusade, p. 339)

The brig Larch from Sligo, with 440 passengers, buried 108 at sea & there were 150 sick when she reached the quarantine station.

- Gu

illet, The Great Mig., p. 95


1 M

aldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

2 Augustus J. Thébaud, The Irish Race in the Past and the Present. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1873. (Multiple editions extant.)