William Fleming

Countless Nova Scotians are descended from miners that immigrated here to start new lives. The story of William J. Fleming is just one example of the challenges they faced and how those immigrants helped build Nova Scotia.

Thousands of miners and their families came to Nova Scotia in the 1800s and early 1900s, mostly from Europe, drawn by the opportunity to work in Nova Scotia’s mines. The influx started when the General Mining Association, which held a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57, arrived in Pictou Harbour in June 1827 on a ship called the Margaret Pilkington, carrying 200 tons of mining equipment and 85 British miners (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/general-mining-association).

William Fleming was born around 1821 in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, where he worked as a coal miner in several mines. He married Elizabeth Maxwell and had four children before the couple decided to immigrate to Nova Scotia In 1848.

The Flemings and a large group of Scots were promised free passage to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. They were first put on a steamer to Scotland’s Clyde River, and then on a ship bound for Boston, not Cape Breton or PEI. Some accounts say this was a mistake. However, a Nova Scotia legislature committee suggested in 1850 that offering free passage to immigrants and sending them anywhere a ship was going – regardless of whether it was the promised destination - was a deliberate and cruel effort to rid Scotland of what rich landowners felt was “a large, and perhaps troublesome, pauper tenantry.”

The fact that the ship was destined for Boston was discovered by one of the few immigrants who “understood a little of the English language, only just in time to prevent the actual consummation of this deliberate deception,” according to the committee. As a result, the group was put ashore at Glasgow, Scotland.

The immigrants’ hardships were just beginning.

The Lulan, a 472-ton barque, arrived in Glasgow in August 1848 around the same time as the immigrants. It was built by Nova Scotians James Carmichael and his brother-in-law, George McKenzie. Carmichael, whose father immigrated to Nova Scotia from Scotland in 1778 and later settled in Merigomish, was a lieutenant-colonel in the Pictou Regiment, a merchant and shipbuilder.

McKenzie was captain of the Lulan. He negotiated a contract to transport 127 of the impoverished, Gaelic-speaking immigrants, including the Flemings and a total of 30 mining families, to Pictou, the Lulan’s destination.

The trip was relatively brief, just 40 days, but smallpox broke out and three passengers died. When the vessel arrived in Pictou it was placed in quarantine.

Carmichael, who was on the voyage with some of his family members, separated the cabin passengers and miners from the rest of the immigrant group and had temporary wooden sheds built on the beach outside Pictou Harbour. The sick were taken to hospital, but Carmichael left most of the immigrants in the sheds with little food and no means of moving on so the Lulan could get back to making money. Not surprisingly given the living conditions, smallpox ran through the makeshift camp. Most of the immigrants caught it and 24 of them had died from it by mid-November, according to historian Kenneth G. Pryke.

Carmichael, who had been forced to pay the cost of caring for the immigrants, asked the legislature to reimburse him for the building of the sheds but was turned down.

With winter approaching, the penniless immigrants were taken to Cape Breton and PEI at the expense of Nova Scotia’s government, finally fulfilling the promise made to them in Scotland. The Government of PEI refused to waive the immigrants’ head tax, about 100 pounds, so Nova Scotia’s treasury paid it.

William Fleming and the other miners and their families made their way to Stellarton (then called Albion Mines), where they worked for the General Mining Association in its coal mines.

William eventually rose to be superintendent of the Fraser Mine in East River, but he died in a mining accident in 1864 at the age of 43. Elizabeth was left a widow at the age of 42 with several children still to raise.

In total, William and Elizabeth had 11 children, all of whom survived to adulthood and married. This list of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that followed illustrates how William and Elizabeth’s decision to immigrate contributed to the growth and building of our province: https://gw.geneanet.org/danniiee?lang=en&n=fleming&oc=0&p=william+james

William and Elizabeth are both buried in Riverside Cemetery in New Glasgow.