The History of Long and Brier Islands

Brig Trafalgar Wrecked at Brier Island

by | May 30, 2022 | Brier Island, shipwrecks, Westport | 0 comments

Brig. Trafalgar Wrecked at Brier Island

         This is the story of the Brig.Trafalgar that wrecked in thick fog on the shores of Brier Island in 1817. The ship had left Hull, England, on May 31, 1817. There were one-hundred and fifty-nine passengers and the crew that were all rescued that night. But first we will start with the ship leaving Hull, England.

         The ongoing wars between Britain and France that started in the 1790s created obvious disincentives to any immigration directly from Britain; but with the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, it steadily increased again. The greater availability of the transatlantic crossings, made possible by the timber trade and bleak economic conditions in England just after the wars ended, brought a sudden influx of Yorkshire settlers to the region in 1817. With most of the best land in Nova Scotia having already been taken up by this time, they focused their attention on Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. A group of 159 people sailed for Saint John on the Trafalgar, while another 196 came on the Valiant to Charlottetown. Those in the Trafalgar were lucky to have escaped with their lives when the ship became grounded at Brier Island on its approach through the Bay of Fundy. It hit rocks in a thick fog, but thanks to Captain Welburn’s navigational skills, the passengers and crew were saved, even though the ship was not.

         In 1817 the British government was enticing British subjects to move into Upper and Lower Canada with the Perth Military Settlement. It was initially a program aimed at retired military veterans. This resettlement would bolster security in the new country. The second wave of the program allowed non-military personnel to take advantage of the program.

They Where Offering

         “A passage and provisions during the voyage will be furnished by government, and on their arrival in the colony, a grant of 100 acres of land will be secured to each family, of which they will be put immediately in possession, and all their male children actually residing in the province will be entitled, on attaining the age of 21 years, to a similar grant of 100 acres each.”

         In addition, food, supplies and equipment would be provided at low cost for at least a year after departure from Europe. These emigrants were men and women who had the drive and ambition, not to mention the money, to make this bold move across the Atlantic.

         In fact, in spite of the generous terms offered by the Government, migrants were required to put up significant deposits of money in order to qualify for the scheme: “Every male person above sixteen years of age, £16 sterling; every woman, being the wife of any person so embarking, £2.2s; children under sixteen years of age will be conveyed free of expense; and whatever sums may be so paid by them will be repaid to them or their representatives in Canada, at the end of two years from the date of their embarkation, upon its being ascertained that they are settled on the grant of land allotted to them.”

Hull, England

         The Brig Trafalgar was a 3-masted square-sterned ship with two decks, 267 tons burthen, 96 feet long and 25 feet wide, with quarter badges and poop deck.  “In the Journey of the Brig Trafalgar with its Immigrants,” On April 26th the Brig Trafalgar was described as being “recently refurbished, height between decks of 6 feet”.

Passengers List

Colonial Office 384, vol. 1 pp. 127-133 (257-263) – National Archives of Canada microfilm B-876

         The Brig Trafalgar left Hull, Yorkshire, England “soon after” June 1, 1817. The passengers were immigrants bound for the New World to start a new life in either Saint John, NB, or Quebec City, QC.

Hull Advertiser, June 1817

         “On June 28th, the Hull Advertiser reported “The ship Trafalgar, [Capt.] Welburn, from this port to St. John’s [Saint John], New Brunswick, and Quebec, passed through the Pentland Firth(The Pentland Firth is a strait which separates the islands of Orkney from Caithness in the very north of mainland Great Britain) the 12th instant, passengers and crew in good health and spirits.”

         It was a long and arduous trip. Their passage to America did not go without incident.On the 25th of July, about half past eight o’clock in the evening, the Trafalgar crashed on the rocks at Brier Island. I will leave it to Captain John Welburn of the Trafalger to tell what happened in his own words.

         “I had been running up all day; it being thick [with fog] I could not see anything; at seven p.m. I hove the ship to, with her head to the westward, thinking we were well over to the westward, sounding 40 fathoms; the tide running very strong, and before we could see the land, we heard the surf against the rocks; got sail upon the ship but being so close the strong tide set us up on the rocks; it being high water when got on, run out a kedge to heave her off, but all to no use. At low water the ship was dry all around, amongst the rugged rocks, which went through her in different parts; the ship having as much water in the inside as there was on the outside at high water. The passengers were all safe landed that were brought out, and got their baggage on shore.”

Map of Brier Island

This is an Aerial Photo of the Lower end of Brier Island

Ledge Running out to Gull Rock at High Water

Painting. Brig Trafalgar Aground by James Webb. Photo credit : Museums Sheffield.

This Map Shows Some of the Vessels that have Wrecked Around Brier Island Going back to 1808

         The Brig Trafalgar was a total wreck; chief parts of the materials saved… the 159 passengers, which, together with crew, were all saved.

Source: Saint John City Gazette (News Paper)

St. John, (N.B.) July 30th, 1817

          Shipwreck!–On Friday evening last, about half-past eight o’clock, the ship Trafalgar, Capt. Welburn, went ashore on Brier Island in a very thick fog, the ship will be a total wreck; chief part of the materials saved–The Trafalgar was from Hull bound to this port, and from hence to Quebec, and had 159 passengers, which together with the crew were all saved.

         In a letter to Mr. H. Cochrane, owner of the vessel in Hull, from Capt. J. Welburn in Saint John, NB, 30 July 1817, is the following account of the loss of the vessel:

            “I am sorry to inform you of the loss of the Trafalgar, on the 25 of July, about half past eight o’clock in the evening, upon Brier’s Island, in the Bay of Fundy, about 60 miles below St. John’s [Saint John]. I had been running up all the day; it being very thick could not see anything; at seven pm I hove the ship to, with her head to the westward, thinking we were well over to the westward, sounding in 40 fathoms; the tide running very strong, and before we could see the land, we heard the surf against the rocks; got sail upon the ship but being so close the strong tide set us upon the rocks; it being high water when we got on, run out a kedge to heave her off, but all to no use. At low water, the ship was dry all round, amongst the rugged rocks, which went through her in different parts; the ship having as much water in the inside as there was on the outside at high water. The passengers were all safe landed that were brought out, and got all their baggage on shore. We are saving all the stores that we can, but they must be taken up to St. John’s [Saint John] to be sold, as there are no people upon Brier’s Island to purchase anything.”

         Author’s Note: In 1817 the only aid to navigation for the area then was a lighthouse. One had been built in 1808 at Western Point on the Westerly side of Brier Island. If there had been a fog-horn or a fog-whistle, at Brier Island, Captain Welburn could of avoided this disaster. The first steam whistle fog horn was installed in 1873 at Western Light.

         Capt. Welburn stated in his correspondence with Mr. Cochrane the owner of the Trafalgar that there was no people on Brier Island to purchase anything. The census of 1838 listed there was 415 people living on Brier Island. Across the passage at Freeport there was also another 303 persons living there in 1838, and 190 people at Tiverton for a total of 908 people on our Islands.

Quebec Gazette 1818

Hallifax[sic], August 1,
          Emigrants–In consequence of the difficulties into which some of the emigrants from the mother country have been shown, upon their first landing in this place; and of repeated applications from different quaters[sic] several individuals, have undertaken to assist those emigrants with information and advice.–Their principal object will be to distribute them as generally as possible throughtout the province, that their labor may be more valuable to themselves and to the country. In cases of extreme distress, it will also be the endeavour of those individuals to procure some small funds, from which a loan may be made to those emigrants who have no money, of as many shillings as may be sufficient to bear their expenses to those parts of the country, in which they will be recommended to seek for employment–It is condifently hoped, that every encouragement will be given by the magistrates and other landholders throughout the province, to the persons who will be thus distributed among them, and especially by assisting in procuring employment for them at fair and moderate wages–And with the happy prospects of an abundant harvest, with which this country is now blest, there can be no doubt that the persons lately arrived may soon be comfortably provided for, and eventually prove a valuable acqusition to the province.

          Any information from gentlemen in the country respecting the number of persons whom it would be desirable to receive in their respective counties and townships, with a description of the persons most wanted, will be thankfully received–and all applications from individuals who wish to employ families, farmers, mechanics or labourers will be attended to. Application to be made to either of the subscribers.–James Fraser, John Liddell, Michael Tobin and Samuel Cunard.

The Geography and History of the County of Digby Nova Scotia

By Isaiah W. Wilson

         Wilson writes: Four of the immigrants settle in Digby. Richard Stailing, Sr., father of George Stailing Esq., of Digby: John A. Hill Sr., John Lightfoot, M. D. , also of Digby, and John Ingles, husband of Mrs. Ingles, afterwards murdered on the Dalhousie Road in Annapolis County by one Gregory, who was hanged at Annapolis for the crime remained in this province.

         One of these immigrants decedents come to Brier Island in 1993 to see where their great-great grandfather had come ashore on the Brig Trafalgar when he arrived in the New World( I found this article on the Internet).

Brier Island Rock

         In my garden there is a black pentagonal rock set into the ground.  The rock is black basalt, and future people may wonder how such a rock ended up in a setting of glacial moraines, far from other volcanic surface formations. 

         The rock comes from the rocky shore of Briar Island in Nova Scotia.  On this shore, in July, 1817, my great-great grandfather came to Canada by way of the wreck of the ship Trafalgar.

         In August 1993, my Dad led our family on a pilgrimage to Briar Island, to see Gull Rock where the ship went aground.  Our troupe included my Mom and Dad, my two brothers, my sister and me, with our respective families.  There we could see the rugged rocks where William first set foot in Canada.  Among those on the shore were four Williams of other generations, my Dad, my older brother, my younger brother (whose name, my Dad pointed out is the French version of William) and my nephew.

         The pilgrimage had an amusing side.  We all gazed out to sea and retold the story of the shipwreck.  We all turned and had our photograph taken in the dazzling sun.  And when we later talked about our trip, no one could agree on what we had seen.  Some saw a black rock in the distance.  Some saw a small island.  Some saw a low rocky shoal of rocks extending into the sea.  In any case, I know we saw more than seven year old William did in 1817 as he stumbled onto the shore in thick fog and in the small hours of the morning.

         The shore there is a pavement of columnar basaltic rock, emerging from the earth in slim five-sided columns.  This pattern develops when thick lava cools, resulting in a fracture network and the creation of perpendicular columns. 

         The ship was headed for Saint John in New Brunswick, but became lost in thick fog and was shipwrecked off Brier Island, on the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy.  In a letter reported in the Hull Advertiser, the Captain of the Trafalgar gave a detailed account of what happened:

         Authors Note: I stumbled across this wreck when researching some other information. Nothing has been locally written about the wreck. There is probably a lot of other descendants around of these immigrants who was wrecked on our shores so many years ago. I have seen when researching on this wreck some of the names of the immigrants were not spelled correctly.


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