Life in Rural Ontario During the Late 19th Century: Hardship or Prosperity?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 19

Life in Rural Ontario During the Late 19th Century:
Hardship or Prosperity?

Author: Garfield Gini-Newman

Editor: Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16

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The grisly murder of five members of the Donnelly family in February, 1880 remains one of the most infamous crimes in Canadian history. The massacre of the “Black” Donnellys in the township of Biddulph, an area of rural southwestern Ontario, has left several unanswered questions. Yet, one question not often associated with the murders is the degree to which families like the Donnellys were able to find a better life in Canada. Many families, much like the Donnellys, were enticed to leave their homes in Ireland to come to Canada hoping to improve their quality of life. Many were attracted by the opportunity to acquire inexpensive, fertile farmland. Was the hope for a better quality of life realized? Or, did Irish immigrants settling in southwestern Ontario find the life they hoped for elusive?

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In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to go back to 1850-1880 and provide advice to relatives in Ireland about whether they should leave their homes and settle in southwestern Ontario. You will be asked to consider several primary sources in determining whether settlers in rural Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century faced a life of hardship or prosperity.

First, you will consider factors that affect someone’s quality of life. Then, you will examine five historical documents, looking for evidence of a high or low quality of life among farmers in rural southwestern Ontario. You will then use this evidence to write a letter to family members in Ireland from the perspective of someone who lived in rural southwestern Ontario during the mid-nineteenth century. Your letter should clearly either encourage your relatives to settle in the area, warn them against moving to the area, or suggest they move to the area with caution. Be sure to provide reasons (evidence) to support your recommendation.

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Step 1: Consider the conditions at the time

Because you will be offering advice to prospective immigrants from Ireland, it is important that you are aware of some of the “push” factors that motivated immigrants to uproot their families and start anew in Canada. Many Irish immigrants who came to Canada in the late 19th century left impoverished lives hoping to find prosperity in their new country. Land in Canada was reputed to be fertile, plentiful, and cheap. This would allow immigrants to own their own land, something many could not do in Ireland. The rigid class system and religious strife in Ireland were also push factors for many. As a very conservative society, religious affiliation often limited social mobility in Ireland. Canada offered a country with a similar political structure but a less rigid social hierarchy, enabling hardworking people to ascend the social ladder. When considering a move to Canada, many prospective Irish immigrants were “pushed” to move by the relative poverty and lack of social mobility in Ireland.

STEP 2: Examine life in Ireland and Ontario in the mid-19th century

Before proceding further, you will find it helpful to read The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys and Roots of Conflict in Biddulph Township.

For more information about life in southwestern Ontario, read the introductions to the following “Context” sections:

STEP 3: Consider quality of life

The task you are asked to undertake requires judging the quality of life of farmers in rural Ontario around 1850-1880. What factors determine the quality of a person’s life? Notice, “quality of life” is a broader term than “standard of living,” which is a more narrow measurement of economic wellbeing. The Economist has developed a quality of life index based on seven factors:

  1. Material wellbeing
  2. Healthy life
  3. Positive family relations
  4. Supportive social and community life
  5. Job security
  6. Political freedom and security
  7. Gender equality

STEP 4: Gather evidence of quality of life

Your next task is to work on your own or with a partner to examine five historical documents that might shed further light on the quality of life experienced by settlers in rural southwestern Ontario around 1850-1880. Select any five of the primary documents from the list found in Evidence in the Case.

As you read each document, look for evidence that shows the presence or absence of the previous mentioned indicators of quality of life. Be sure to consider the source of the document. Is the document representative of life for the average farmer or does it reflect the quality of life of an elite in the community? Use the two pages of the chart Evidence of Quality of Life Factors to summarize the evidence that each quality of life factor was present or absent. After you have gathered evidence from the five documents for each factor, rate on a scale from +2 (fully present) to -2 (completely missing) the extent to which settlers in the late 19th century enjoyed these quality of life indicators.

STEP 5: Prepare your letter of advice

You are now ready to offer advice to your relatives in Ireland on whether or not to up-root and move to southwestern Ontario. Prepare a 250-word letter that clearly states whether you enthusiastically encourage your relatives to move, cautiously recommend they move, or suggest they remain in Ireland. Justify your advice with specific reference to the evidence contained in the documents you have consulted.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Reasons For and Against may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the five historical documents and draw plausible inferences from them about settlers’ quality of life around 1850-1880.

The evaluation rubric Assessing a Persuasive Presentation may be used to assess your success in preparing a letter that provides clear, reasonable, and substantiated advice on whether or not prospective immigrants to southwestern Ontario were likely to improve their quality of life by making the move.

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What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the amount and kind of additional evidence you would need to more accurately conclude whether or not prospective emigrants should leave Ireland in search of a better quality of life in rural southwestern Ontario.

Examine additional documents
Locate other historical documents in Heaven & Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys that provide more complete evidence to illuminate the quality of life experienced by farmers in southwestern Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century.

Explore other challenges
Apply your detective skills to other mysteries associated with the “Black” Donnellys. MysteryQuest 5 invites you to determine the underlying cause for the brutal murder of this family; MysteryQuest 10 challenges you to assess the credibility of the evidence of an eyewitness account to the murders.

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Briefing Sheet: The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys

Briefing Sheet: Roots of Conflict in Biddulph Township

Activity Sheet: Evidence of Quality of Life Factors

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Journal article

Thomas McQueen’s report on the County of Huron, 1858


W.D. Stanley, “The Township of Biddulph: Short Sketch of Municipal History and the Official Life, With Some of the Most Important Municipal Events from the Pioneer Days of 1830 to 1912”, 1912

Jennie Raycraft Lewis, “Sure An' This Is Biddulph”, (Unknown: Biddulph Township Council, 1964)


Robert and Mary Ritchie to James Ritchie, Ireland, January, 1847, National Archives of Canada, James Ritchie Fonds, MG24 I199

Personal essay

National Archives of Canada, John O. Hanley Fonds, MG29, B11, Box 16, File “Irish Catholics”, John O. Hanley, “Remarks on Protestantism”, n.d.

Letter to the Editor

M. McQuaide, “What Shall Be Our Future?”, Irish Canadian, February 11, 1880


Drawing of the Donnelly Homestead, Donald L. Cosens, ed. “The Donnelly Tragedy, 1880-1980” (London: Phelps Publishing Company, 1980)

Drawing of the Exterior of the Donnelly Homestead, Donald L. Cosens, ed. “The Donnelly Tragedy, 1880-1980” (London: Phelps Publishing Company, 1980)

Sketch of Wheat Harvest in the New Land, 1880, D.B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario, Canadian Illustrated News, AP5.C13

Sketch of the Western Hotel, Lucan, University of Western Ontario Archives,
J.J. Talman Regional Collection, RC100311


London-Lucan Road Race, 1888, University of Western Ontario Archives, J.J. Talman Regional Collection, RC100313

Bedroom Where Bridget and Mrs. Donnelly Were Sleeping, Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum

Wide View of Front Room, Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum

False Photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly, Private Collection of Robert Salts

Front View of the Cabin at the Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum