In its prime, Earltown District took in a trading area of over 2000 people who mostly belonged to a distinct ethnic subgroup from Sutherland, Scotland. It was a patchwork of farms separated by an equal proportion of woodlands. Today it is mainly settled with scattered homes along a couple of main roads. Much of the area is a network of old roads joining long since vacated farms that have returned to forest. Where did everyone go?
Like many of the upland communities in Northern Nova Scotia, Earltown was phase one of a migratory process. It was a destination in the early 1800’s for Highlanders who were either cleared from their ancestral homeland or who chose to seek a more stable existence in North America. At that point in history, they still had strong tribal instincts which led to them locating and settling near their kinfolk when they arrived on these shores. They also were Gaelic speaking which led to further isolation for a couple of generations.
In their new environment they had better access to food, a healthier lifestyle, no military service obligations as well as less exposure to disease. This resulted in larger families, a reduced infant mortality rate and longer life expectancy. The one and two hundred acre grants were not sufficiently large enough to subdivide among sons. The soil was initially quite fertile due to hundreds of years of organic build up and was further enhanced with ash created during land clearing. The soil lost many of its nutrients after a generation and agricultural practices had not evolved to the point of replenishing the land. Therefore yields dropped and, with it, the ability to support large multi-generation families.
Another factor was the hunger for education and advancement. Writing in the Statistical Account of Scotland in the late 1700’s, a minister in Sutherland noted that his flock possessed a thirst for knowledge and were capable of scholarly pursuits if not for their crushing poverty and lack of affordable education. With immigration to Nova Scotia came access to the crude rural schools which provided the basic building building blocks for academic advancement. The growth in population created an urgent need for more schoolmasters and clergymen. Older siblings with a cash income were then able to lend money to younger siblings for education. Thus the community of Earltown provided clergy, teachers, doctors and lawyers at a disproportionate rate to its population.
Armed either with a marketable education or experience in breaking new farmland, young individuals and families looked to other parts of North America to better their circumstances. As Nova Scotian towns were already at a mature state before the Scots arrived in Earltown, they had to look much further afield for opportunity.
The earliest migrations appear to have been to the “Boston States””. Boston was easily accessible by boat from Halifax. It had an appetite in the 1850’s and later for carpenters, teamsters and other labourers. From that port, the Earltown boys ventured into other areas of New England.
By the 1870’s, it was well known that there were opportunities west of the Great Lakes. The earliest complete families to migrate sailed west across the Great Lakes and appear to have disembarked at Chicago. Some put down roots north of Saint Louis, Minnesota. Families from the Corktown region chose to settle in Wisconsin while the Hendersons, MacKays and Munro’s claimed homesteads in Manitoba. The Morrison clan from West Earltown were among the first settlers of Ardoch, North Dakota. The Donald Murray family of The Falls first settled in Illinois but later made Iowa their permanent home.
The more adventurous went west to look for gold in Colorado. One such person was Alex Polson of Upper North River, a member of the Earltown Congregation, who was advised in Colorado that the real gold was the tall timber of the Pacific Coast. He heeded the advice and eventually founded a logging and milling empire near Hoquiam, Washington. Many of his workers over the next few decades were young single men from Earltown and Kemptown. Most chose to settle in that country.
By 1900, Alberta was a favored destination and it was not long before several found their way into the mining settlements of Cranbrook and Trail. Others found their way to the lower mainland of British Columbia by way of California.
In the meantime, single women left the community to teach school in other parts of the province. Few returned. Women, who were not suited to teaching, went in great numbers to Boston between 1850 and 1920 where they found work as domestics or in clothing factories. Again, few returned.
The end result of all this movement was an abundance of bachelors left behind to look after the old folks. Some died alone on the family homestead. Others deeded their farms to local merchants in exchange for food and necessities. Some ended up at the Poor Farm with their farms auctioned off at a tax sale.
Every province in Canada as well as the Yukon have welcomed Earltowners. South of the border, we have found our people in the six New England states, New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California, Arkansas, Florida and Alaska.
One, a Joseph Murray, found his way to South Africa and to Central America. Rev. John MacKay, a missionary, was labouring in British Guinea when he met an untimely death.