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The Miramichi Fire — Relief of the Sufferers

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The Miramichi Fire — Relief of the Sufferers

Miramichi 1760

A View of Miramichi, 1760, by Francis Swaine

After a view by Hervey Smyth. National Gallery of Canada, No. 4976, via

The great fire of October 7, 1825 caused massive destruction in New Brunswick, especially on the Miramichi watershed, as has been revealed in several postings in this blog.

Following is a report by the Miramichi Committee outlining, in retrospect, the measures that they took to organize relief. The report was published in 1828 and includes many interesting facts, such as rumours that had circulated in Britain that the Miramichi had received more relief than it needed. These rumours were vigorously denied, and this may also explain the Committee’s care in denying that relief had been handed out carelessly.

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If anything could abate the regret which your Committee have had cause to indulge ever since they saw the impracticability of making and early report of their proceedings, it is the assurance, that adequate allowance for the nature of the work they have had to perform would never be denied them, by any individual, whose munificence had contributed to the magnitude of their undertaking.

When your Committee assumed the sacred trust imposed on them by the inhabitants of Miramichi, and since rendered so important and interesting by the liberality of your Subscriptions, some preliminary steps had been taken by a Board of Relief hastily formed a few hours after the calamity, to alleviate, as far as available means would permit, the immediate wants and sufferings of the people, and as these measures were subsequently recognized and confirmed by this body, It may be necessary to state some of the most material.

Mr. Joplin had been dispatched, express, to His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor with accounts of the dreadful events by which the extensive county of Northumberland had suddenly been laid ruins and the population exposed to the horrors of famine—a subscription had been opened among such of the inhabitants of the Parishes of Chatham, Newcastle and Nelson, as had not severely suffered by the fire—the sick and wounded had been placed under the care of proper persons—the dead interred; and such arrangements made for the comfort of the surviving sufferers, as the reduced quantity of food and raiment would allow—and lastly, about three hundred persons, principally of the labouring classes, had been provided with the means of going to the neighbouring ports.

Ten Sub-Committees were appointed simultaneously with your Committee, to act under their directions, to report frequently the condition of their respective districts, and effectively to prevent the neglect of the destitute in any part of the extensive scene of desolation.

From the reports of these auxiliaries your Committee were enabled also to prepare an account of the Loss, which after having been corrected by a special committee who visited each district, and individually examined each sufferer, was published early in 1826,—the following recapitulation exhibits the aggregate loss, sustained by the inhabitants of Miramichi, as contained in that statement.

Persons Burnt and Drowned, 160; Buildings Destroyed, 595; Head of Cattle Destroyed, 850; Loss of Property Estimated at £204,320; of Which was Insured £12,050; Leaving a Net Loss of, £192,270.

From such data it is evident, that the multitude which was to be clothed and fed on the bounty of others would rapidly diminish the very scanty stock which had providentially escaped the general devastation—and, on the very eve of a winter which must consign half of the population of the country to certain starvation, without extraordinary succour, your Committee had come to look with the most intense anxiety, for any intelligence of immediate aid, from other parts.

Happily this frightful state of suspense was not of long duration. Letters were received by express from His Excellency Sir Howard Douglas; and others on the same day from the principal Merchants of Halifax. The former stating that His Excellency had despatched Mr. Joplin to Quebec, invested with authority to purchase provisions and clothing on account of the Province, to the extent of five or six thousand pounds; and the latter, that Rear Admiral Lake, had kindly directly H.M.S. Orestes, Capt. H. Litchfield, to proceed to Miramichi, with the first fruits of a subscription set on foot at Halifax, a few hours after the accounts of the fire had arrived, and also that His Excellency Sir James Kempt had ordered the Gov. Brig Chebucto to repair to Pictou for the purpose of proceeding to Miramichi if required.

These exhilarating accounts were succeeded by a Messenger from the City of St. John, with Letters announcing the shipment of a large subscription in provisions and clothing in the schooner Olive Branch, and the transportation of a further supply by the Steamboat to Fredericton, and thence to be conveyed over land to Miramichi.

On the 26th October, His Excellency Sir Howard Douglas arrived at Miramichi, and while deeply affected by the ruins and misery of a Colony he had so recently seen rejoicing under the beaming rays of prosperity, was everywhere administering advice and consolation; cheering by his presence, the bereaved and afflicted, and animating by his example those whom Heaven had spared to comfort and assist them.

On Sunday the 30th October, H.M.S. Orestes anchored off Chatham—her presence, and the intelligence she brought that several loaded schooners would follow her, entirely dissipated those gloomy apprehensions which no philosophy could before subdue.

From this interesting period, every succeeding day afforded the most substantial proof of the unbounded sympathy of the sister Provinces, for by the 5th November, the following vessels were discharging their cargoes at Miramichi, on account of the sufferers. Nancy, from Pictou, Albion, Active, and Elizabeth from Halifax, and Olive Branch from St. John, N.B. and these were immediately succeeded by the Harriette and Nancy, from Halifax, Monique and Jane, from the Bay Chaleur, Angelique, from Antigonishe, James William, from Pictou, Two Sisters from St. John, Newfoundland, John and Elizabeth from Lunenburgh, and Spring Bird, from St. John, New Brunswick.

While those blessings wore pouring into Miramichi, the active and dignified benevolence of his Excellency the Earl Dalhousie, and of the Inhabitants of Quebec and Montreal was beautifully displayed in the rapidity with which the object of Mr. Joplin’s mission was completed, for in forty days the date of the fire, the cargo of the ship St Lawrence, of 277 tons, was safely deposited in Miramichi, and the entire cost, including the freight, defrayed by the Government and People of the Canadas.

The most spirited exertions were still kept up to throw in supplies, but winter soon precluded the possibility of any further transportation by water, and the Eliza-Ann, from Halifax with bread and flour from the inhabitants of Boston, as also the Mary, from Charlottetown, P.E. Island, were compelled by the severity of the weather, to go into Richibucto, where their cargoes were landed, and subsequently conveyed to Miramichi.

From such abundant resources as were by this time placed at the disposal of your Committee, the appalling conditions of want and starvation quickly receded, and although deprived of comforts and enjoyments, which in too many instances time could never restore the sufferers manifested great resignation to their lot, and a lively sense of Gratitude towards their benefactors.

Your Committee having thus far confined their very brief review of the subscriptions, to the order in which the succour arrived, have adverted only to those which were made in the British Provinces and their dependencies, but they feel a proud assurance their countrymen will acquit them of any undue preference, if they say the intelligence of what had been done in the United States of America for the cause of humanity—gave birth to feelings more delightful and sublime, than any they had before experienced. The greatness of mind, and unmeasured liberality, displayed on this memorable occasion by the citizens of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Eastport, are worthy of thy highest praise and admiration.

During the long and inclement winter which followed so closely on the steps of the fire, (and to the ravages of which, it was fitted to give a still keener edge,) your Committee continued to sit incessantly; and notwithstanding every tangible arrangement was made to shorten the discussions on the ever varying claims submitted for their consideration, and to give facility to their operations in the issue of supplies; the returning spring had smiled on the blackened forests and tenantless farms of Northumberland, ere they had so far completed the work, as to be justified in reducing their sittings to one day in the week. But at this late period they deem it as unnecessary as it would be uninteresting to enter into a minute detail of their proceedings, during the distribution of the necessaries of life to nearly three thousand persons for a term of six months, and it is hoped there is as little occasion to state, that in this department of their duty, the real wants and privations of the sufferers constituted the grand criterion by which they were governed.

It may be said, however, that if so much time was essential to the issue of food and raiment, how fared those who were last supplied? It is incumbent therefore on your Committee, to bring under your consideration, those circumstances which prevented more rapid progress, and the means adopted to avert their ill effects. Whenever there is cause to draw heavily upon the public bounty, to rescue from any great calamity the helpless and afflicted, such is the depravity of human nature, that the idle and undeserving are ever ready to seize the golden opportunity, to come in for a share of the loaves and fishes, and such are generally loudest in their claims. It often happens too, that when the spirit of a people is crushed by the pressure of unexpected woe and privation, many will place entire dependence on that arm which was only extended for their temporary aid, while they allow their energies to evaporate in hopeless inactivity. The most diligent scrutiny was therefore indispensable to avoid the one and an equal degree of caution and timely advice to avert the evils of the other, nevertheless, as it is better to err on the side of humanity, where error cannot he avoided your Committee trust their deviations will appear on the liberal side of the question; for while few persons were ever sent empty handed away, care was taken where any suspicion or uncertainty rested on the propriety of the claim, to confine the apportionment to a sufficiency for the time that must elapse in obtaining more correct information on the case.

The ill consequences which would have resulted from a hasty and indiscriminate application of your charily must be obvious, and equally so, your Committee imagine the time, patience and labour inseparable under circumstances of such extreme perplexity and confusion, from the line of conduct pursued.

When the Mariner is shipwrecked on a desert shore, and death appears in all its hideous forms, his only care while the tempest races round him, is the preservation of his life, but when that is secured, the storm passed away, and the heavens once more propitious, how anxiously do his thoughts revert to his future destiny! And such was the situation of these unfortunate persons. Confounded and bewildered by the prostration of all their hopes, the support of life was for some time the only care that could retain its hold on the mind; when however these early fears were dispelled by your merciful interposition, then arose the fearful forebodings for the future, life was to begin by the houseless, friendless and penniless, and frequently by those who should rather have been preparing to leave it; their present wants had been supplied, their future ones appeared in fearful disarray. It may be imagined, then, but not too easily described with what feelings of joy and gratitude, the result of the subscriptions received in the mother country was received by these destitute people.

Wretched indeed must have been their lot, and vain their struggle With that destiny which had stripped them of every earthly advantage or left then only in possession of a scorched and vacant piece of sod without the secondary aid, which these funds, in conjunction with the American and other money subscriptions so opportunely and efficiently afforded. Such, in short, must have been the deplorable situation of hundreds of industrious families, had their dependence on your bounty terminated with the winter, that the mind shrinks from the contemplation of the melancholy picture, and turns instinctively to the better prospect which the opening spring presented. But your Committee are aware that an opinion has prevailed, particularly In Great Britain, that once the more formidable effects of the fire had been subdued, the people might be quickly returned to a situation not much inferior to that they enjoyed before their dreadful visitation. Perhaps it is not difficult to trace the error to its source. In Great Britain. The very nature of things must generally confine the aggregate of human misery to the temporary privation and its consequences, and as the mind only draws its conclusions, but draws them insensibly from things with which it is familiar, it is not at all surprising that and estimate formed upon such data as the occasional sufferings of the poorer classes in that country supply, should fail in its application to the situation of things in an infant colony, which forbid comparison, and defy description. It must be admitted that the basis of every subscription set on foot for Miramichi, was the immediate and positive sufferings of the people, but if that people had not been encouraged by the distribution of occasional small sums of money to recommence their former pursuits—to return to their farms, to erect temporary habitations for their families, to till the ground again for future subsistence—scarcely worse would have been their lot had they not survived the lamentable cause of their ruin!

Your Committee trust these remarks will not be understood as a proof of any insensibility of the exertions everywhere made in Great Britain on behalf of the sufferers, for while the deep sympathy which the large contributions in that country proclaims, evinces to admiration, the enlarged view that was taken of the event, still, for the reasons which have been urged, an opinion might very naturally arise as the novelty subsided, that more money had been subscribed than the urgency of the case required. But your Committee are convinced, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that the money subscriptions were as essential to the ulterior salvation of the country, as was the succour so promptly thrown in from the neighbouring ports, when delay would have been immediate destruction.

Your Committee now beg permission to suspend their remarks while they proceed to shew an account of the property and money entrusted to their care, but in making up that part thereof relative to the subscriptions in Provision and Clothing, a difficulty has occurred which no labour can now remove; the hurried manner in which so much property was collected and shipped, prevented in frequent instances, the usual invoice from accompanying the cargo, It is therefore impossible to go so far into the detail of such subscriptions in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and some other parts as under other circumstances would be indispensable, and if any errors should be detected, as doubtless will be the case the Committee trust they will be imputed to the absence of such documents as are essential to a more perfect statement.

It may be necessary here to remark also, that only the subscriptions made for Miramichi, without regard to the fires in the other parts of the Province, are included the following Schedules [which are not included in this blog posting: J.W.]


Written by johnwood1946

October 8, 2014 at 9:19 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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