DCB/DBC Mobile beta

As part of the funding agreement between the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and the Canadian Museum of History, we invite readers to take part in a short survey.

I’ll take the survey now.

Remind me later.

Don’t show me this message again.

I have already taken the questionnaire


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

VINING, PAMELIA SARAH – Volume XII (1891-1900)

d. 6 March 1897 in Ingersoll, Ont.


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BUCHANAN, ALEXANDER CARLISLE, merchant and emigration agent; b. 1786 in County Tyrone (Northern Ireland), probably in Omagh, son of John Buchanan and Sarah Sproule; d. unmarried 13 April 1840 in Omagh.

Alexander Carlisle Buchanan was a member of a landed merchant family from the north of Ireland who traded in timber and grain and arranged passages for travellers on both sides of the Atlantic. In the mid 1820s he left Londonderry for Montreal in Lower Canada, where he joined his brother William in the shipping trade; they also established a grist- and saw-milling business near Sorel (Sorel-Tracy). Meanwhile, their elder brother James was using his position as the British consul in New York to direct thousands of British emigrants, mostly Ulster Protestants, from that city to Upper Canada. Alexander quickly capitalized on his family knowledge and connections to establish himself in the emigrant trade.

After witnessing first-hand the fatal consequences of chaotic and disorderly practices such as overcrowding and allocating insufficient amounts of food and water, Buchanan travelled to London in 1826 and spoke before the House of Commons Select Committee on Emigration. It was chaired by Robert John Wilmot-Horton, the parliamentary under-secretary at the Colonial Office, who was Britain’s top advocate for state-sponsored emigration and with whom Buchanan would eventually collaborate. In 1828 Buchanan published Emigration practically considered; with detailed directions to emigrants proceeding to British North America, particularly to the Canadas: in a letter to the Right Hon. R. Wilmot Horton, m.p. (London). Attempting to revive Wilmot-Horton’s ambitious colonization project of the early 1820s [see Peter Robinson], he argued that the repeal of the Passenger Vessels Act in 1827 meant that less money would be required to establish a settler family in the colonies. The document was also a way of demonstrating his expertise: he claimed that by 1828 he had taken 15 or 16 transatlantic voyages with, in all, 6,000 emigrants, adding that he had been “interested in the removal” of an additional 12,000 to 15,000 from Ireland. He also outlined a plan for assisting 100,000 people per year to settle over a five-year period by providing loans totalling £500,000. His scheme, like that of Wilmot-Horton, assumed that the money spent by the government for transportation and settlement would be repaid mostly by the emigrants, who would become quit-rent settlers, but he added that English parishes and Scottish and Irish landlords would also be quite willing to contribute. He wrote: “The class of people that I would propose to emigrate from Ireland,—are destitute labourers, ejected tenants, and poor cotters who are now found a clog to the consolidating of farms and improvement of estates, and whose better condition at home can never be contemplated.”

Buchanan’s proposal was, in all likelihood, not taken seriously by the Colonial Office, but, probably because of his lobbying, he was asked to help prepare a new passenger bill. Some of his recommendations made it into the 1828 law, including measures to curtail overcrowding on ships and ensure that the law could be enforced. Furthermore, he proposed that a “general emigrant and land officer” be assigned to Quebec City to stem the tide of passengers who, having landed there, generally continued on to settle in the United States. This suggestion resulted in his appointment to the post in the spring of 1828. The Passenger Vessels Act, when revised in 1835, would include many of his other recommendations, such as increased amounts of food and the obligation that ships display a copy of the act for passengers to read.

The period immediately following Buchanan’s appointment brought a massive increase in the number of arrivals in Quebec City, from 13,000 when he started the job to 50,000 three years later. His initial salary of £300 was raised to £400 in 1832. In the words of historian Norman Macdonald, “Buchanan’s official duties were heavy and difficult. He was to receive the emigrants on landing, give out the landing money if any, clothe and feed the starving, hear complaints and bring proceedings against defaulting shipmasters, keep in touch with those needing employment, help the newcomers to find their friends and tranship them to their destination, and all [his actions had to be] carefully recorded.” Macdonald adds that Buchanan “exceeded his official duties by compiling valuable information regarding available locations, state of roads, distances and expenses. He invited landowners to register their saleable property with him. His office became an indispensable clearing-house for distressed and anxious strangers, and saved them from being exposed to the gross misrepresentations of land jobbers.” On his own initiative, after 1830, Buchanan fought fiercely for the application of the passenger law, prosecuted for violations, and sued for compensation on behalf of victimized passengers.

Yet he was not fully satisfied with the results of these burdensome duties, for his ambition was to encourage a sizeable proportion of those who landed in Quebec City to settle within the colony of Lower Canada. The goal, he claimed, was to erect “barriers against the monopolizing grasp of the Americans, who have already overrun the Eastern Townships.” With the approval of the Colonial Office, he focused his attention on the townships at the northern edge of the Appalachians. The Craig Road, which begins at the south shore of the St Lawrence near Lévis, had traversed these communities as early as 1811, but it fell into disrepair during the , and absentee owners of nearby properties had done little to develop their extensive holdings since then. Thus, in 1829 there were only a few settlers in what would become Mégantic County that year, and Buchanan was able to entice a considerable number of British newcomers to take advantage of the generous terms offered by the government, not to mention the work available on the roads that crossed the recently opened concessions.

At the end of the shipping season in 1829, Buchanan wrote in his annual report that of the 15,945 ship passengers who had arrived in Quebec City that year, 3,754 had settled in Lower Canada, an area “hitherto scarcely known to the British Emigrant.” He also boasted that the 166 families (totalling 830 individuals) who had put down roots in the vicinity of Mégantic’s Inverness Township comprised “on the whole the most valuable body of settlers from the United Kingdom that ever located in the province of Lower Canada.” Buchanan’s subsequent reports indicate that he avoided selecting poorer emigrants, who would have difficulties establishing themselves on the somewhat isolated frontier. Extended kinship networks among Irish Protestants nevertheless suggest that family strategies, and not simply the dictates of the emigration agent, played a decisive role in determining who moved to the settlements.

In 1830 and 1831 approximately 3,500 people, most of them Irish Protestants, followed the Craig Road and the newly built Gosford Road to the townships of Leeds, Inverness, and Ireland as well as to the neighbouring seigneuries of Saint-Gilles and Sainte-Croix. The official census taken in the spring of 1831 indicates that the settlers were making good progress, with an average of 4.5 hectares cleared per household in Inverness, and they had good crops of potatoes and grain. Buchanan took a strong personal interest in the newcomers’ progress, helping to locate them on land whenever he could, and investing over £500 in two lots that he had been granted. With nearly all the arable land settled by the end of 1831, however, the following seasons would be disappointing for further colonization. It would be French Canadians, rather than the British, who would come to inhabit the remaining townships that bordered seigneuries along the south shore of the St Lawrence, and the English-speaking population of the economically isolated area would begin its steady numerical decline in the early 1860s.

Buchanan ran for the newly created Mégantic seat in the Legislative Assembly during the election of 1832 but lost by only 10 votes to a fellow Quebec City resident who had strong support from absentee proprietors. That autumn he travelled to London, where he appeared before a government committee on emigration along with Patrick McMahon* of the Quebec Emigrants’ Society. He stayed for over a year and lobbied the Colonial Office to set up positions for emigration officers in Britain. It was largely owing to his efforts that the first of them was appointed at Liverpool in 1833. However, by then imperial strategist Edward Gibbon Wakefield*’s theory had convinced colonial officials to abolish quit-rents, require settlers to make payments twice a year, and, for the first time, charge interest on loans. All these measures hindered emigration. Furthermore, collecting revenue from crown-land sales would mean that the cost of emigration would be transferred to the colonies.

Although Buchanan was justified when in 1836 he claimed to have demonstrated that the surplus population of the north of Ireland could be transplanted to the North American colonies humanely and at a minimal cost to British taxpayers, by then the government had lost interest in emigration projects. Three years earlier he had taken a leave of absence during the winter for health reasons, and from that time his duties were increasingly assumed by his nephew, also named Alexander Carlisle Buchanan*. The senior Buchanan finally resigned in 1838 and returned to the north of Ireland, where he died in 1840. Although he had assisted thousands of impoverished British colonists arriving in Quebec City and played the leading role in establishing a British settlement, which did much to validate his contention that assisted emigration was feasible, he remains largely forgotten by history.

J. I. Little

Alexander Carlisle Buchanan is also the author of Information published by His Majesty’s chief agent for the superintendence of settlers and emigrants in Upper and Lower Canada: for the use of emigrants (Quebec, 1832).

Library and Arch. Can. (Ottawa), MG11-CO384; R10870-9-8; R10875-4-5; R14518-0-3; R233-29-7, Que., dist. Quebec, subdist. St Jean. Gazette (Montreal), 13 Dec. 1830. Quebec Mercury, 12 June, 11 Dec. 1830; 21 May 1831; 4 Feb., 3, 5 April, 3 Nov. 1832. Ancestry.ca, “Alexander Carlisle Buchanan – facts”: www.ancestry.ca (consulted 3 May 2016). Gwen Rawlings Barry, A history of Megantic County: downhomers of Quebec’s Eastern Townships (Lower Sackville, N.S., 1999). A. W. P. Buchanan, The Buchanan book: the life of Alexander Buchanan, q.c., of Montreal, followed by an account of the family of Buchanan (Montreal, 1911). H. I. Cowan, British emigration to British North America: the first hundred years (rev. ed., Toronto, 1961). Peter Dunkley, “Emigration and the state, 1803–1842: the nineteenth-century revolution in government reconsidered,” Hist. Journal (Cambridge, Eng., and New York), 23 (1980): 353–80. E. J. Errington, “British migration and British America, 1783–1867,” in Canada and the British Empire, ed. P. [A.] Buckner (Oxford, Eng., 2010), 140–59. Richard Froggatt, “James Buchanan (1772–1851): magistrate and diplomat”: www.newulsterbiography.co.uk/index.php/home/viewPerson/1895 (consulted 6 Aug. 2018). R. N. Ghosh, “The colonization controversy: R. J. Wilmot-Horton and the classical economists,” Economica (London), 31 (1964): 385–400. C. J. Houston and W. J. Smyth, Irish emigration and Canadian settlement: patterns, links, and letters (Toronto and Belfast, 1990). H. J. M. Johnston, British emigration policy, 1815–1830: “shovelling out paupers” (Oxford, 1972). J. I. Little, “A. C. Buchanan and the Megantic experiment: promoting British colonization in Lower Canada,” Social Hist. (Ottawa), 46 (2013): 295–319; “Imperialism and colonization in Lower Canada: the role of William Bowman Felton,” CHR, 66 (1985): 511–40. Norman Macdonald, Canada 1763–1841, immigration and settlement: the administration of the imperial land regulations (London and Toronto, 1939). John Richards, “Report on waste lands & emigration (1830),” in The Irish University Press series of the British parliamentary papers: subject set on Canada and Canadian boundary (36v., Shannon, Ire., 1969), 6: 3–26. W. B. Turner, “Buchanan, Alexander Carlisle,” in Dictionary of Canadian biography: www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchanan_alexander_carlisle_9E.html (consulted 7 March 2019).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. I. Little, “BUCHANAN, ALEXANDER CARLISLE (1786–1840),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 6, 2021, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchanan_alexander_carlisle_1786_1840_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/buchanan_alexander_carlisle_1786_1840_7E.html
Author of Article:   J. I. Little
Title of Article:   BUCHANAN, ALEXANDER CARLISLE (1786–1840)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2021
Year of revision:   2021
Access Date:   March 6, 2021