Pier 21 Immigration Museum, Finding Family History in Halifax

Pier 21 Immigration Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia

John Shreeve and his family migrated from England to Canada between 1845 and 1847. The family included a young Sarah Shreeve, who was later to marry Joseph Warren Burright. According to The Sun Rides High, John made the crossing from England several times, but there is little evidence to support this. During a recent vacation in Nova Scotia, we were hoping to add more to the immigration story when we spent three days in Halifax, an important immigration port. Here’s what we learned at the Pier 21 Immigration Museum.

Immigration to the East Coast of Canada

Halifax was one of three major east-coast immigration ports used by European immigrants moving from the old world to the new. The other two were Montreal and Quebec. Being inland, Montreal and Ontario were preferred by most early immigrants as they had superior transportation routes into the North American interior. Halifax, however, was the closest port to England and so still drew many thousands of people seeking new lives.

Following the end of the War of 1812 with America, and the defeat of Napoleon and the French in 1815, there was a 50 year period during which immigration from the UK to Canada increased significantly. This increase was partly due to the ending of hostilities and the subsequent increase in advertising of the opportunities in the New World. There was also the desire of the British Government to increase the influence of the British throughout Canada, and Nova Scotia in particular. It was during this period John Shreeve, and his family made their way to Canada.

The Shreeve Family Arrive in Canada

Canada had no formal immigration process during the 1800s. The only reliable records for tracing family history are passenger lists which came into existence in 1865. Before this, it is difficult to find any information regarding arrivals in the country. Equally, prior to 1894, no formal documentation was required to cross into the US. So, we turn to other records to try and sketch out the Shreeves journey into the US.

We know the Shreeves were still living in Norfolk, England according to the 1841 census. Here we see John and his wife Happy Shreeve (nee Happy Harvey) and four of their children living in Rollesby:

  • John Shreeve (30)
  • Happy Shreeve (27)
  • John Shreeve (9)
  • William Shreeve (7)
  • James Shreeve (5)
  • Sarah Shreeve (3)
  • Charles Shreeve (1)

The next time we see them is in the Dunn Township, New Brunswick in 1851:

  • John (40)
  • Happy (38)
  • James (16)
  • Sarah (14)
  • Charles (11)
  • Henry (9)
  • Saul (6)
  • Nelson (4)
  • Emilia (1)

In the ten years between the 1840 UK and the 1851 Canada census, Sarah Shreeve’s brothers John and William are no longer with the family. We can make three assumptions – one or both stayed in England, or maybe traveled to Canada, but struck out on their own, or died between censuses.

We also see that the family has four new children. Henry and Saul were born in England, Nelson and Emilia however were born in Canada. These facts, along with their age at next birthday, help us narrow down the date when the family immigrated. Saul, born in England, is going to be six at his next birthday, so the family must have still been in the UK around 1845. Nelson, born in Canada, is going to be 4, so we can assume that the Shreeves were in Canada by around 1847.

Given that Dunn Township is far inland from Nova Scotia, nearer to Lake Michigan, it is probably reasonable to assume that the Shreeves came into Canada through Montreal or Ontario – more likely Montreal – rather than Halifax.

So, unfortunately, our visit to the Pier 21 Immigration Museum did little to enhance our understanding of the Shreeves. It did, however, give us a better perspective on immigration to Canada, its history, and it helped confirm our previous assumptions.

The Pier 21 Immigration Museum

The Pier 21 Immigration Museum is housed, not surprisingly, in the historic Pier 21 Custom houses. This deepwater pier was opened in March 1928. Before this, people sailing to Canada arrived at Pier 2, which had a long history as the key entry point in Halifax. But as immigration numbers grew following World War One there was a need for larger, more modern facilities to process arrivals.

The Pier 21 Immigration Museum is worth visiting if you are in Halifax. Even if your family didn’t come through here, it gives some fascinating insight into the immigration process and how it has changed over time. The focus of the museum is broad, exploring the stories of people from all over the world that have settled in Canada. Exhibitions cover the history of immigration into the country but also delve into the immigration experience and what it means to start fresh in a new country.

If you are researching your family history, you can make use of the museums family history center, although you should be aware that this is primarily an Ancestry Web search, so if you already use Ancestry you are not likely to find anything new here. It’s always disappointing when you rich historical site and all they can offer is Ancestry online. Regardless, the museum is well worth a visit, particularly at a time when immigrants are once again under extreme scrutiny. Perhaps the most important take away from this museum, personal experience (and my genealogical research as a whole for that matter), is that we’re all people whose families came from someplace else. Leaving a familiar home is hard – very hard. Making a new home, in a foreign land is harder, and no one does it lightly – so be kind.