Last of three parts

In the early 1840s, thousands of Irish fleeing the famine, disease and poverty of their home country, found themselves in an equally or worse situation.

The ships crossing to America, referred to as “ coffin ships” and “fever ships,” carried disease and death. Many people died at sea, and those who made it to the port of Quebec had to be quarantined. The hospital at Grosse Isle could treat only a fraction of the sick.

Those quarantined on the ships in port became sicker — the filth, lack of medical treatment, and continued exposure to typhus, cholera and smallpox multiplied the problem.

Records in the Report of Vessels Boarded at the Quarantine Station at Grosse Isle, from June 14 to Aug. 30, 1861, gives a picture of the activities. During this period 17 ships were boarded for inspection. Recorded are the names of ships, their captains, and the rig of the ship — the rigging indicated the size of the ship and therefore its capacity.

After Confederation in 1867, Canadians began taking control of immigration and gradually doctors developed a better understanding about cause, diagnosis, and treatment of infectious diseases.

Dr. Frederick Monizambert, a bacteriologist and superintendent of Grosse Isle from 1869 to 1899, began a progressive action of isolating the sick immigrants from the apparently healthy fellow travelers.

New hospital buildings were constructed, as well as housing for the travelers in quarantine and for the hospital employees. Quarantine regulations were strictly enforced. Inspecting and disinfecting the ships became routine, along with cleaning luggage and cargo.

Physical examinations and vaccinations were implemented and medical laboratory testing helped in diagnosing illnesses. Hotels and lodgings for first-, second-, and third-class passengers attracted larger steamships. That helped the economy of the area.

By no means is Grosse Isle the only Canadian port used by ships carrying Irish immigrants to North America. Halifax, Nova Scotia and Partridge Island at St. Johns, New Brunswick were two other ports with early quarantine stations.

Grosse Isle is the largest burial ground for refugees of the Great Famine outside of Ireland. It is believed that more than 3,000 Irish died on the island and more than 5,000 are currently buried in the cemetery there.

In 1909 a monument was built to honor the immigrants, and in 1974 the old quarantine building were designated as a National Historic Site.

This year some remains of immigrants from a ship sailing from Ireland, and sunk in 1847, were found washed up and buried into the sand on Grosse Isle.

If you have hit a brick wall for your Irish ancestor, you might want to look for them in Canadian records. If they were sick, they could not enter the United States. Resources for researching Canadian immigrant records include: (wiki tab) and

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Southern Arizona Genealogy Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at, where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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