Destination Canada: Stories from the Manuscripts

July 11, 2017 | Nicole

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Manuscripts are handwritten documents that record the public and private lives and stories of individuals, families and institutions. These first-hand accounts include letters, diaries, account books, maps, scrapbooks and other unpublished documents. They are written in ink, pencil, some are typewritten and some include hand-drawn diagrams and depictions.

Destination Canada exhibit

Among the variety of items in our Destination Canada exhibit at the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery are a dozen or so of these unassuming manuscripts, devoid of embellishment and colour, but brimming with vivid description and detail of the many and varied experiences of migration. From descriptions of sea voyages, including weather and on-board conditions, to descriptions of overland travel and of Canada’s landscapes, to the personal thoughts of newcomers, these manuscripts hold valuable information that is original, insightful and historically significant.

Here are a few examples of manuscripts in the Destination Canada exhibit:

My Vi Vuong's reminiscencesMy Vi Vuong's reminiscences and family photographs can be seen at bottom right

Reminiscences written by My Vi Vuong, 1982

From the Chinese Canadian Archive

My Vi Vuong and her family fled Vietnam in 1978. A few years later, in 1982, she recorded memories of the long and arduous journey that brought them to their final destination of Toronto… a journey that included stays at several refugee camps in China, a stay at a tea plantation, and a twenty-day sea voyage on an old fishing boat to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Other notes relate to their arrival and to their early experiences in Toronto.

“While some refugees or boat people flocked to the Chinatown on Dundas Street […] for roast pork, BBQ pork or duck, we mostly had instant noodles for lunch and dinner in order to save money.”


Mickle family diary
Mickle family diary, 1850

Charles Julius Mickle came to Canada West (Ontario) from England in 1852. In his diary, Mickle captured his impressions of the transatlantic voyage. This is one of one of those impressions:

“The last three days the weather has been very foggy which has caused a good deal of anxiety on board to those who are aware of the danger in consequence of our being the latitude where icebergs are frequently seen at this season of the year.”

Benjamin Freure diary & Elizabeth Wainright letterBenjamin Freure diary [1863] is at bottom left of case; letter from Elizabeth Wainwright is at bottom right. 

Benjamin Freure diary, 1863

Benjamin Freure arrived in Canada from Suffolk, England with his wife and son in 1836. They joined his two other sons, who were already settled and farming in Eramosa Township, north of Guelph. The diary includes descriptions of their transatlantic voyage, their arrival, their temporary stay at Grosse Île, their move to Eramosa Township and their early years of farming.

A diary excerpt describes road conditions from Dundas to Guelph: 

“Now came the worst part of our whole journey; crossing the Atlantic was not half so dreadful; the road all the way worse than you have any idea of. Stumps of trees, pieces of rock, deep ruts, very steep hills, trees laid across the road as close as they can be laid across swamps reaching sometimes two hundred yards; the carriage jolting on one to another seem as if it would shake your whole form out of joint.”

Letter from Elizabeth Wainwright to her mother, written in Toronto on December 21, 1840.

Elizabeth Wainwright and her husband came to Canada from England in 1833. Elizabeth wrote letters to her loved ones back home. She, like many settlers in the nineteenth century, saved money on postage and paper by writing “crossed letters.” Once the writer reached the bottom of a page, they would turn it sideways and continue writing.  Another term for these letters is “cross-hatched.” 

Irish Protestant Benevolent Society Minute Book
Irish Protestant Benevolent Society Minute Book, March 17, 1870-March 15, 1875

The Irish Protestant Benevolent Society was formed in Toronto in 1870 to provide aid, advice and comfort to Irish Protestant immigrants to Toronto. The minute book is a record of the beginnings and early years of the society and includes both organizational and financial data.

The Baldwin Manuscript Collection began in 1886 when Dr. James Bain, Toronto Public Library’s first chief librarian, purchased An Account of the Seven Years’ War, 1757-1759. Since then, the collection has steadily grown through donations and purchases. The collection is made up of many large manuscript sets and thousands of single pieces… diaries, letters and account books.  

James Bain, 1842-1908James Bain, 1842-1908

Holdings date from the 18th century to the present. Major collection strengths include exploration and the fur trade, Upper Canada, Toronto from its founding to the present day, World War One, and women. The Manuscript Collection also includes the archives of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, the Toronto Public Library and the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library, and more recently, the Chinese Canadian Archives. You can request materials from the collection by visiting the Marilyn & Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library.

The Destination Canada exhibit in the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery runs until July 30.