Clan MacMillan – History of Settlement in PEI

IMG_1967Reaching out to our audience to determine where descendants of Spencer 1806 passengers settled connected me to Margaret Bell, President of Clan MacMillan of PEI and Joyce Kennedy, described as “the keeper of all things genealogical.” Most of the passengers from the Spencer originally settled in Wood Islands, but the Darrachs who came on the Spencer settled in the Clyde River area. Margaret was not sure why, so there is a mystery to solve. Duncan Darrach’s wife, Margaret (Peggy), was the oldest daughter of Malcolm Hector MacMillan who is mentioned in the history below.

Margaret Bell sent me this history that Frank MacMillan had written and presented on August 29, 1998 at the gathering of the Clan MacMillan Society (PEI Chapter) at North Shore Community Centre in Covehead, PEI. This story offers us some insight into what life was like for immigrants to PEI in the early 1800s.

MacMillan Family of Wood Islands

As we celebrate our 8th annual gathering, our first thoughts turn to Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. If not for him, we would not be gathered here today.

Lord Selkirk was a member of the gentry who prepared himself for the life of a country gentleman. He started a plantation building, studied crops and livestock, and learned the obligations of a lord to his tenants.

At the age of 28, as the younger son of a large family, he unexpectedly became the 5th Earl of Selkirk and inherited a considerable fortune. Selkirk and his wife, Jean, were very compassionate people and their hearts went out to the hundreds of poor highlanders whose homes and small land holdings had been confiscated for the Highland Clearances. Tenants living on low production agricultural land were replaced by a small number of shepherds tending the very profitable raising of sheep. At that time the demand for woolens and mutton had increased by leaps and bounds.

The Selkirk family became interested in the colonization of British North America and purchased a large tract of land on Prince Edward Island. Lord Selkirk brought many of the displaced highlanders to the Belfast and Wood Islands areas. The first wave of Selkirk settlers arrived on our shores in 1803 on the ships Polly, Dykes, and Oughten, followed by the ships Rambler and Spencer in 1806. Our Wood Islands MacMillans, natives of the Isle of Colonsay, were transported from the port of Oban, Argylleshire, Scotland, on the ship Spencer and they disembarked at Pinette on the 22nd day of September, 1806.  They wintered in quarters previously built for the 1803 immigrants.

During the winter of 1806-1807 at the Pinette settlement, Malcolm Hector MacMillan and his family built boats to carry them to Little Sands, where they hoped to establish a permanent settlement. Early one May morning they set sail for Little Sands and arrived in the late afternoon at a small beach below where the Pioneer Cemetery is located in Wood Islands West. They intended to continue on in the morning. Meanwhile, a couple of young men set out a net to catch some fish to supplement their diet. When they returned to retrieve their net, they found it not only full, but had sunk with the weight of the catch of herring. This resulted in their father, Malcolm Hector, deciding that they would remain in Wood Islands as there was such a good supply of fish, lobster and other shellfish.

There were no roads in Wood Islands at the time. Boats were their only form of transportation to Belfast. After a while a trail was made to Belfast where Malcolm Hector and his sons helped build the St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Family history tells us how the families walked barefoot all the way to Belfast to attend church each Sunday. When they reached the church they would put on their nice clean shoes which they had carried all the way. Life in the new colony was strict. The ministers in those days did not permit the chewing of spruce gum or reading anything but the Bible on Sundays. Any kind of levity whatsoever was frowned upon as inappropriate by the clergy coming from Scotland. Parents however allowed bundling boards to be used by their daughters and their boyfriends.

Daily hardships for the colonists were enormous. In the Wood Islands area previous forest fires had destroyed any large trees in the forests. Wigwams had to be built to serve as homes until such time as it was possible to build log cabins. Being used to wide open spaces did not prepare them for the terrors of the woods with its bears and other wild animals. Because of low lands they were plagued by mosquitoes and black flies. Days were long and work was very hard for both sexes. However, records report that for the most part the colonists were comparatively healthy and strong. They had to make their own entertainment with occasional ceilidhs with their nearby relatives and friends.

There was little in the way of medicine. A few Indian remedies and herbal treatments were all they had.  The only doctor in the whole area was Dr. Angus MacAulay in Belfast. Later, in 1810, Mrs. Allen MacMillan, a midwife, served as a practical nurse. Unfortunately she met an untimely death…after delivering a baby in Little Sands the sled that was taking her home broke through the ice and plunged her into the freezing water on an extremely cold day. She was rescued and taken to the nearest house a distance of some two miles, but perished shortly as the result of cold and shock. Women, apart from household chores and taking care of the children, were responsible for hand weaving material for all the family’s clothes.

Malcolm Hector’s son, Alexander (Sandy) decided to travel to Little Sands where he later became a mail courier for the federal government. He carried the mail from Wood Islands across the Northumberland Strait to Pictou, Nova Scotia. Ninety-nine times he crossed the strait in a small ice boat. Once he carried the mail all the way to Halifax, a distance of one hundred miles, in three days.

Lord Selkirk believed in the right of cultural minorities to preserve their own way of life and opposed the British government’s efforts to restrict emigration as a way of improving living standards. However, in Prince Edward Island the British policy of colonization was one of governing councils, public service and jurisdiction. The Selkirk settlers had their own local councils and ways and Lord Selkirk petitioned against Governor DeBarre in order to retain his colonists’ autonomy. Lord Selkirk founded his colonies based on the compassion and sympathy he held for the displaced highlanders. His greatest success was on Prince Edward Island.

After numerous attempts to establish colonies in Upper Canada and along the Red River he was forced to return to Scotland suffering from consumption. He used up most of his inheritance attempting to help the unfortunate highlanders. Lord Selkirk died in Pau, in southern France. It is said that at his death Lord Selkirk’s estate was in debt of 160,000 pounds, which is equal to approximately $3,000,000 Canadian dollars today. Of the three settlements, Prince Edward Island, Baldoon, and Red River, only Prince Edward Island was a success. A letter to Lord Selkirk from Prince Edward Island stated, “These poor people whom your lordship brought hither have universally bettered their condition, and are now by far the most independent settlement on this Island.  They are contented and happy.” It was in statements like this that his dreams were designed to end. But, of his three settlements and his three dreams, only the first was ending as it should.

Frank MacMillan biography:

Frank was the founding President of the Clan MacMillan PEI Chapter and devoted many years researching his family history. He was invested in the Community of the Tonsured Servant by Chief George G. MacMillan, Chief of the Clan MacMillan, Scotland, for his efforts in August 2001.

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  1. Sabrina on May 10, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Looking for Angus MacMillan information born 05 June 1889 died 18 Jan 1964. Born and Buried in Wood Islands

    • VB on May 12, 2018 at 6:39 am

      Hi Sabrina; I checked the link. That page must have closed down, so I linked it to the home page.

    • VB on May 12, 2018 at 5:54 pm

      Hi Sabrina; I checked with my neighbor who is part of your clan. She said that Angus MacMillan was her mother’s uncle and he was killed in California according to her family tree.

      • Sabrina Reece on May 12, 2018 at 7:13 pm

        No he died in Toronto is buried in Wood Islands Cemetery. Came to Toronto when he got really sick. Don’t think he was ever in California. He was married twice had 13 kids. Was a school teacher in Maggie’ polio around age 19.
        Would be interested to see the other tree.
        Think he was youngest of about 12 or 13. One of his brothers Wendal maybe? Really struggling with info.

    • VB on May 12, 2018 at 6:09 pm

      I should also add that I am part of your clan as well. Malcolm MacMillan’s oldest daughter, Peggy married John Darrach. They settled in Clyde River, PEI.

      • Sabrina Reece on May 12, 2018 at 7:15 pm

        I’m excited. How do I get copies of other trees etc. I know there is a lot of Macmillan graves in Wood Islands Cemetery

    • Dave Drummond on March 11, 2021 at 10:33 pm

      I believe my great-great-uncle was an Angus MacMillan. He would have been alive in the period you describe but I’m not sure if it’s the same person. He left Wood Isle PEI and joined the NorthWest Mounted Police and served in the Yukon during the gold rush. He had a sister named Jane (my grandmother) who went to the Yukon to keep house for him. She married a miner she met named David Stupich. They raised their family on Vancouver Island. I think Angus died unmarried and childless. If you think it’s the same person I could probably find our more from my BC relations. Please let me know.

  2. Sabrina on May 13, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Do you know where I can get a copy of book named Echoes of Home Stories of Bygone Days in Wood Islands by Ruby MacMillan Matheson with Marian Bruce? Also any family trees. I know a brothers name of Wendal and a sister Lu-ellen.

    • VB on May 13, 2018 at 11:10 am

      My neighbour is Ruby’s daughter, so I have passed on your request.

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