The Exodus from New Brunswick: Tracing the Out-Migration of a Family, 1860-1920

by Rob Fisher

This article first appeared in Generations (Journal of the New Brunswick Genealogical Society), Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall 1999), pp.39-41. It appeared in that publication, however, with some of the paragraphs out of order or missing. The complete version follows.

Tracing the descendants of Lewis Fisher and his wife Mary Barbara Till, New Jersey loyalists who came to Fredericton in 1783, went smoothly for the first few generations. New Brunswick church registers, county marriage registers, and other primary sources provided a wealth of information about the family in the first half of the 1800s. These sources were supplemented as the century progressed by the census records and an increasing number of notices in Daniel Johnson's Vital Statistics from New Brunswick Newspapers. But genealogical disaster struck suddenly at the end of the century. The last census released to the public was for the year 1901. The Vital Statistics from Newspapers series had not yet reached 1890. And, worst of all, family members began to disappear without a trace! Families that were in one census were not in the next. Children who had been living with their parents in one census had left the county and possibly the province by the time of the next census. City directories sometimes gave a clue to the year of departure but no hint of the destination. It seemed that a veritable exodus from the province took place between 1870 and 1910 affecting perhaps as much as 50% of the Fisher family. The prospect of ending my family history with the fourth generation of descendants of Lewis Fisher and Mary Till seemed unavoidable. The situation was not hopeless, however, and some strategies emerged for tracing the movements of individuals--strays--who had left the province toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Strays, it is well known, pose particular problems for the genealogist. Individuals who have migrated from the ancestral home of the family to other counties, provinces, and countries are difficult to trace when their destination is unknown. Most genealogical research is based on the county or district where the family settled and involves the accumulation of expertise in the sources of that locality: church registers, censuses, cemetery transcripts, land and probate records, early newspapers, and local histories: sources which seldom provide the destination of strays--or at least not often enough! The problem for the family historian is multiplied when the strays--generally thought of as a few persons in a generation--begin to outnumber those who stayed in their native home.

That is exactly the situation that faces the genealogist of late nineteenth century New Brunswick. My family's experience is not unique in this regard. The "exodus" from the Maritime provinces during this period has been studied by social historians who have attributed the out-migration from the region to economic depression as the golden age of "wood, wind and sail" came to an end in the 1860s and 1870s. In particular, exports to the United States fell sharply when demand for Maritime products dried up with the end of the U.S. Civil War and the termination of the Reciprocity Agreement in the mid-1860s. Historians estimate that 264,000 persons left the Maritimes between 1871 and 1901 out of a total population in the region in the latter year of 894,000 persons.1 Such numbers, clearly, do not bode well for the genealogist. Most of those who left went to the United States, particularly New England, lured by the higher wages paid by its rapidly expanding economy. But many migrants also went to Ontario and the Canadian West in these years.2 Out-migration peaked in the 1880s and 1890s and hit New Brunswick the hardest of the three provinces. The young left in the greatest numbers, in search of better opportunities elsewhere whether in the form of cheap land or, more commonly, urban employment. It is estimated that in four counties of the Saint John River Valley area "more than 20 per cent of the total population and close to 60 per cent of the young active age groups left" during the decade of the 1880s.3

It was not always so. Lewis Fisher had come to New Brunswick in 1783 from Bergen County, New Jersey as a loyalist, settling on the land at Fredericton with his wife and three children (not including the oldest daughter who had been left behind in the United States with her grandparents). Lewis and Mary (Till) Fisher had eight more children in New Brunswick and sixty-seven grandchildren. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the family spread out from the Fredericton homestead to New Maryland, Indiantown, Saint John, Grand Lake and Woodstock--up and down the Saint John River. None of their descendants, however, left the province before the 1850s except for their second daughter who had returned to New Jersey to visit her elder sister and grandparents and married there about 1800.4 Only two of the thirty -two members of the third generation who lived to reach adulthood moved from New Brunswick, migrating to Massachusetts in the 1850s and 1870s (the whereabouts of another two individuals are unknown). This pattern changed significantly with the fourth generation, born between 1836 and 1872. For this generation, seven of the forty-one children who lived to reach adulthood left New Brunswick, going to the United States or elsewhere in Canada (the whereabouts of another two are unknown but they probably left the province). The exodus accelerated with the thirty-six members of the fifth generation, born between 1865 and 1902, who lived to adulthood. Only fifteen (42%) of them stayed in New Brunswick, fourteen (38%) went to the United States or another province in Canada, and the whereabouts of seven (19%) are not known. It was this last group of twenty-one persons who had left the province or whose whereabouts were not known who were the major source of my frustration. The large size of this group, 58% of the fifth generation, threatened to bring my family history to an abrupt halt at about the year 1900.

Generally, I did not know where the members of this group had gone, only that they had disappeared from the censuses, cemetery listings, church registers, city directories, and other records of their communities in New Brunswick. For some I did know their destination through family tradition and one of them is a good example of the difficulty that would have been faced by a genealogist from another branch of the family. George Frederick Fisher (4th generation), my great-great-grandfather, died in Fredericton in 1894 leaving a widow and four children. Probate records show that his three daughters lived in Fredericton at the time of his death but that his son Charles had "sometime since left this Country and his actual whereabouts is unknown to your Petitioner [his uncle]."5 The trail stops cold. In fact, Charles Frederick Fisher was living in Middleton, Nova Scotia: my father and grandfather were born there. New Brunswick sources, however, did not hold the answer. It is possible, of course, that his uncle did know where he was but it may have been expedient not to reveal his whereabouts for reasons that are unclear today! Charles Fisher's three sisters also left Fredericton before the next census year: two went ultimately to California and one went to Georgia. Without inside information, it would have been virtually impossible to trace the movements of this family after the death of their father.

The source that ultimately proved the most valuable for tracing strays from other branches of the family was information provided by the obituaries of their parents. Generally, the parents, members of the fourth generation, lived their lives in New Brunswick and died sometime between 1900 and 1950. New Brunswick cemetery transcripts and church burial registers provided the date of death. From there, it was often possible to find an obituary in a local newspaper. Death notices became more detailed during this period-more resembling the obituaries of today--and often included the names and residences of children still living. The 1906 obituary of David Michael Fisher, a member of the third generation, is a good early example of the information that could be found about strays. The local Anglican church register and his grave stone gave the date of his death and it was not difficult to find his obituary in the local newspaper, the Daily Gleaner: "A family of twelve survive, including: William, of Fredericton; Hugh, of Bangor, Me.; David, of Boston; Charles, living near Harvey; Mrs. John Fletcher, of New Maryland, and Mrs. Thomas Furneth [sic], of St. John".6 Clearly, the obituary could also be useful for tracing movements within New Brunswick: one of the children had left York County but not the province. Unfortunately, the obituary was not complete omitting the names or residences of the other six children. Later obituaries for individuals of the fourth generation would often be more complete.

The 1932 obituary for Charles H.B. Fisher, a Fredericton lawyer (and the uncle who did not know the whereabouts of his nephew in 1894), read: "He is survived by seven children, Dr. E. Bayard Fisher and Walter S. Fisher, in the Canadian West; Atwood M. Fisher, Frances Louise Fisher, Fred E. Fisher, C. Percival Fisher and Mrs. Harold A. Brooks, of Washington, D.C."7 One might have hoped that it would be more specific than the "Canadian West" but although it was a poor lead, it was better than no lead at all! Subsequent research in city directories and on-line sources turned up one of the sons in Medicine Hat, Alberta and the other in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The latter later moved on to Vancouver before he died in 1943. The obituary for William Moss from 1918 was more specific stating that he was "survived by one son, Charles, of Littleton, Maine, and two daughters, Mrs. Samuel Hodgson, of New Maryland, and Mrs. Arthur Bennett of Cross Creek."8 The notice, once again, was useful for tracing movements within the province as well as those across the American border.

Sometimes the obituaries were valuable for the information they did not provide. The death notice for Henry Taylor Fisher who died in 1936 and was buried in New Maryland said that he had lived in Boston for a time, "where his wife died." It mentioned two surviving brothers living in Fredericton and a sister living in Acton. It did not mention any surviving children, implying that there were none and sparing the genealogist a time-consuming search through Boston sources.9 The obituary for George Edward Fisher (1862-1936) in the Daily Gleaner was more informative, stating that he was survived by his wife and three daughters: "Mrs. Henry Odland, Seattle, Wash.; Mrs. E.S. Gallop, Montreal, and Mrs. Kenneth L. Golding, Fredericton; six grandchildren and a sister, Mrs. David Pottinger, Montreal."10

The newspaper notices show that some Fishers were migrating much farther afield than just New England-still the most popular destination for the out-migrants from the Maritimes (in 1880, 33% of New Brunswickers living in the United States were in Maine and 29% were in Massachusetts).11 Seventeen family members had gone to the United States and six had gone elsewhere in Canada. The most popular destinations were New York state, Massachusetts, Maine, Ontario, and California. The family had spread to the opposite corners of North America by the 1920s. Descendants of Lewis and Mary (Till) Fisher had moved to areas as remote from New Brunswick as British Columbia, Alberta, Washington state, California, Georgia, and Washington, DC. The historical forces at work in North America in the last decades of the 1800s produced economic conditions that would haunt the New Brunswick genealogist one hundred years later. The combination of the severe recession in New Brunswick after 1865 and the rapid economic growth of the United States and the Canadian West during the same period produced a powerful lure that members of the fourth and fifth generations of the Fisher family found difficult to resist. In addition, the development of a network of railways spanning the continent and the spread of steam navigation offered individuals a degree of mobility hitherto unimagined. Economic conditions and affordable transportation together provided the motive and the means to strike out for greener pastures elsewhere.12

Newspaper notices are, of course, not the only method for tracing New Brunswick strays. Land and probate records and city directories are also invaluable. Newspapers also seem to be more prone to typographical and factual errors than legal documents. But through this method, I was able to trace the destinations of sixteen members of the fourth and fifth generations who were missing from local New Brunswick records (five were discovered through other sources). The whereabouts of nine others remains unknown. Tracing them and the descendants of the other twenty-one who left New Brunswick to settle throughout North America will pose new challenges. But perhaps the Internet, e-mail, and on-line databases will make the challenge of researching descendants in the 20th century easier!


1. Alan A. Brookes, "Out-Migration from the Maritime Provinces, 1860-1900: Some Preliminary Considerations", Acadiensis (Spring 1976), pp.28-29.

2. Ibid., pp.38-46.

3. Patricia Thornton, "The Problem of Out-Migration from Atlantic Canada, 1871-1921: A New Look", Acadiensis (Autumn 1985), pp.20-23.

4. For the statistical purposes of this article, I have only considered descendants born with the Fisher surname. Thus, the children of Fisher daughters are not included in the statistics though for my research I am tracing them one generation further.

5. York County Probate Records, G. Fred Fisher, PANB reel F11762.

6. Daily Gleaner, 2 February 1906, p.8.

7. Daily Gleaner, 3 August 1932, p.9.

8. Daily Gleaner, 4 May 1918, p.12.

9. Daily Gleaner, 6 August 1936, p.12.

10. Daily Gleaner, 25 August 1936, p.6.

11. Alan A. Brookes, "Out-Migration from the Maritime Provinces, 1860-1900: Some Preliminary Considerations", Acadiensis (Spring 1976), p.43.

12. Ibid., pp.40-43.

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