Background | Bowing Down Home

Population and Immigration

Prince Edward Island is populated for the most part by the descendants of three major groups – Acadian French, Highland Scots, and Irish. The Highland Scots predominate in eastern Kings County, and the Acadians are concentrated in southern and western Prince County. The Irish are scattered throughout the Island.

When the British wrested the territory from France after the Seven Years War (1756-63), they deported nearly all of its 4,000 Acadian inhabitants to France. Nearly all Island Acadians today descend from the 30 families who either avoided deportation or were later permitted to return.

The Highland Scots were the first British group to settle en masse on the Island. One of the first expeditions – organized by John MacDonald, Laird of Glenaladale – arrived in 1772 on board the Alexander at Tracadie Bay in northeastern Queens County. Another major expedition was arranged in 1803 by Thomas Douglas, fifth Earl of Selkirk, who brought eight hundred Highland Scottish Presbyterians to PEI on three ships: the Polly, the Dykes, and the Oughton. Many settled in the Belfast and Flat River communities in what is now southeastern Queens County. Here are some family stories reflecting Highland immigration to PEI from Francis MacDonald, Stewart MacIntyre, Dan McPhee, and Hughie McPhee.

Large scale Irish immigration to PEI got underway around 1810 and lasted into the 1830s. Unlike the Highlanders, the Irish came mostly as individuals or small families rather than as part of clan or extended-family groups.

Both the Acadian French and Highland Scots spoke their native languages almost exclusively until late in the 19th century. Although there are still enclaves in which French is the native tongue, nowadays almost all Island Acadians speak fluent English. All Islanders from Scots background are now anglophones, but as recently as the 1990s, many still recalled parents and grandparents whose native tongue was Gaelic.

Economy, Occupations, and Community Life

Due to an impoverished local economy, PEI remained an economic and cultural backwater from the 1880s through the 1950s. In many fields – such as transportation, education, agriculture, sources of power, and communications – the old ways remained virtually unchanged throughout this period.

By the turn of the 20th century most Islanders made their living through mixed farming. Some accounts of Island farm life prior to modernization are offered by Ella Thomson Chappell, Harold Dockendorff, Attwood O’Connor, and Ervin Rafferty:

In many parts of the Island before the second World War, merchants generally did not offer cash for farm produce; similarly, in some cases merchants would loan farmers seed and fertilizer in the spring and take payment in kind in the fall.

In winter, many young men sought work cutting and hauling timber in the lumber woods of Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Québec. A song performed by Clifford Wedge called Peter Emberly tells of a young Islander who meets disaster while working in the New Brunswick woods.

Islanders rarely traveled beyond a radius of five to ten miles from their homes – a distance that represented a comfortable wagon or sleigh ride. There had been a railroad built on PEI towards the end of the 19th century, but it was poorly designed and never provided residents with a practical alternative to horse-drawn transportation – a situation vividly depicted by Teresa MacPhee Wilson in her song, The Old Freight Train.

To help deal with the physical hardship and material privations of daily life, rural Islanders developed a network of warm community relationships . Neighbors generally pitched in when any local family was faced with such labor intensive jobs as cultivating and harvesting. Another major locus for cooperation was the one-room community school.

Fiddling and dancing served central roles in these communities. Not only were they a major focus of social life, but they also anchored the many benefit events that communities employed to harness labor or raise funds for local projects and institutions.

Aside from music and dance, some other popular social activities among rural Islanders were singing, card playing, and story telling. In terms of the latter, here are two stories with a supernatural twist from Hughie McPhee: Toganny and the Fairy, and Forerunners. Some other aspects of old-fashioned Island rural community life can be gleaned from Angus’ General Store, a song composed and performed by Jenny O’Hanley McQuaid.