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Kimberly Powell

What did Our Ancestors Face? Settler's & Emigrant's Guides

By October 1, 2013

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West Australian Settler's GuideWhat was their voyage like? What tools did they use? What did they eat and how did they make it? What did they look for when choosing a new location? We all want to know what our ancestors faced as they made a new home for their family, but without the benefit of time travel, emigrant's guides and settler's guides provide us with at least a glimpse. They were produced by everyone from individual authors wanting to share their personal knowledge, to government officials and transportation companies hoping to encourage either emigration or immigration, and can be found for a variety of localities and time periods. While it is important to keep in mind the purpose for which such guides were written, they can be a wonderful source for insight into the situations faced by our ancestors as they left behind the life they knew and worked to make a new life for themselves and their families.

The Settler's Guide in the United States and British North American Provinces, published in 1862 by Thomas Spence, provides a state-by-state compendium of history, climate, crops, education, religion, city descriptions, and laws ranging from state interest rates, to marital property rights and exemption from forced sale to collect debts. The book also includes a lot of seemingly personal observations on everything from the status of negroes in the South to Connecticut's role in furnishing "a race of Yankee peddlers who have proved themselves 'smart'..."1

The West Australian Settler's Guide and Farmer's Handbook published in 1897 under the direction of the Bureau of Agriculture offers advice for settlers coming into the area on everything from where to find fertile land, to the types of tools required, where they could be purchased, and for how much.2

The Canadian Settler's Guide, or "Female Emigrant's Guide," by Catherine Parr Strickland Traill (1857) is dedicated primarily to the wives, daughters, and female servants of male emigrants, with guidance and instruction on harvesting, using, and preserving local crops and wild game, ranging from instructions for curing fish and meat, to making apple pie. It also touches on other topics applicable to making a comfortable home, from molding candles and weaving homemade carpets, to treatments for dysentery and substitutes for coffee and tea.3 Catherine Traill also authored the interesting Backwoods of Canada in 1836, with similar information on the duties and employment that female emigrants could expect in the backwoods of Canada, based on letters from the wife of an emigrant officer.4

Wiley & Putnam's Emigrant's Guide, published in London in 1854, offers interesting discourse on topics of interest to future emigrants, covering everything from selecting a ship and tips for the voyage, to dealing with the custom's house on landing, where to look for land, how to find employment, and even stay healthy.5

Post-famine emigration from Britain and Ireland in the 1840's spawned a number of emigration guides, often handed out for free by British officials to encourage emigration as a means of relieving themselves of the burdens imposed by the poor. One such guide, Work and Wages; or the Penny Emigrant's Guide to the United States and Canada, was produced for the Irish by Vere Foster in 1854.6

William Darby in 1818 endeavored to provide practical guidance to travelers and potential settlers in the Mississippi Valley, encompassing Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and the western portions of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. The Emigrant's Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories conveys information on roads, rivers, and other migration routes; modes of travel; food staples and usual prices; and the means of land conveyance.7

Area specific settler's guides can often be located as well, many compiled by entities such as territorial governments or railroads, so consider many of the glowing words in the spirit in which they were written. Washington Territory: its Soil, Climate, Productions and General Resources, is one such example, compiled by Mrs. A.H.H. Stuart, chairman of the Board of Immigration of Washington Territory in 1875.8 The North Carolina Land Co. published in 1869 A Statistical and Descriptive Account of the Several Counties of the State of North Carolina, United States of America with information meant to attract potential settlers.9

To find these resources for your own ancestors, search online historical book databases such as Hathi Trust, Internet Archive, and Google Books with terms such as emigrants guide, settlers guide, or [location name] in conjunction with search terms that relate to your specific interest such as north carolina emigrant river travel. General Google or other search engine queries may also turn up mailing list posts and source citations which point to additional interesting references.


1. Thomas Spence, The Settler's Guide in the United States and British North American Provinces (1862), reprint (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2007).

2. L. Lindley-Cowen, editor, West Australian Settler's Guide and Farmer's Handbook, 2 volumes (Perth: E.S. Wigg & Sons, 1897).

3. Catherine Parr Strickland Traill, The Canadian Settler's Guide, 7th edition (Toronto: Printed at the office of the Toronto Times, 1857).

4. Catherine P. Traill, The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America (London: C. Knight, 1836).

5.  Wiley & Putnam's Emigrant's Guide: Comprising Advice and Instruction in Every Stage of the Voyage to America: ... Also, Information Which the Emigrant Needs on Arrival (London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845).

6. Vere Foster, Work and Wages; or, the Penny Emigrant's Guide to the United States and Canada for Female Servants, Laborers, Mechanics, Farmers, etc. (London: W. & F. G. Cash, 1854).

7. William Darby, Emigrant's Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories (New York: Kirk and Mercein, 1818).

8. A. H. H. Stuart, compiler, Washington Territory: its Soil, Climate, Productions and General Resources (Olympia: Printed at the office of The Washington Standard, 1875).

9. North Carolina Land Company, A Statistical and Descriptive Account of the Several Counties of the State of North Carolina, United States of America (Raleigh: Nichols & Gorman, 1869).

October 19, 2013 at 4:37 am
(1) Liz says:

The Australian resource you mention is in fact a link to an American resource.

October 19, 2013 at 10:49 am
(2) ~Kimberly says:

The link is fixed, Liz :) Thanks!

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