Climbing My Family Tree, Part Seven

Immigrants William Simpson & Janet Winchester Simpson, and William Clark & Helen Simpson Clark

This week I fudge just a little bit. My five times great-grandparents, William Simpson and Janet Winchester Simpson, didn’t immigrate to the United States, but rather to Prince Edward Island, Canada. William Clark, my four times great-grandfather, found himself in Boston, but only briefly.

What intrigues me most about the Simpsons and the Clarks is that their family lines originated in Scotland. Their stories include an escaped kidnapping and a shipwreck—complete with eight young children on board! 

William Simpson was born in Elgin, Moray, Scotland on February 2, 1733. He was a tailor by trade. Janet was born in the same town on May 21, 1735. They married in 1758 and started their family right away:

Margaret (1759)

Thomas (1760)

William (1762)

Christine (1764)

Helen (1766) (My four times great-grandmother)

Jean (1768)

James (1770)

Janet (1772)

We do not know their reason for immigrating. Many Scottish immigrants were promised far more than what existed at the time in that part of Canada. Previous immigrants had been shown a plan of a sizable town, with named streets and the promise of sugar trees and all kinds of fruit. They were told of plentiful fish. Of the list of promises, only the fish held any part in truth.

We know the couple was of firm religious convictions, as they were Presbyterian Scots who sought from their church in Elgin a letter proclaiming their “unsullied” character and Christian faith. They carried the letter with them to the New World. We do not know if their religious beliefs had any impact on their decision to immigrate.

The name of the ship, the port of departure, and the intended port of arrival, are all unknown.

The shipwreck occurred on August 15, 1775. William, Janet, and their eight children (all between the ages of 2 and 16) were blustered onto the south shore of Prince Edward Island, east of Point Prim. The ship came to rest on a sandy beach, and fortunately did not break up all at once. The passengers were able to salvage many of the provisions and their belongings.

A dense virgin forest lined the beach. With no way off the island and no sign of civilization (I have not located any information regarding any possible contact with native populations), the castaways began felling trees and building primitive log shelters. To their benefit, it was August, and although they needed protection from rain, cold was not yet an issue. Since it was too late in the year to plant crops, they relied on fish to stay alive, the promised sugar and fruit trees, never realized.

It is hard to imagine this family of ten surviving on a preverbal deserted island. How do you care for eight children on the sandy shores of a dense forest, when the youngest is a girl who can barely walk on her own? How do you provide food and shelter? How do you keep your faith?

At some point the survivors made contact with the capitol, Charlottetown, some 40 miles overland, although there existed no road or path between the two points. The capitol “city” consisted of a very small, struggling village. Meager provisions were gathered to send to the shipwrecked passengers, but alas, two armed schooners (with orders from George Washington to intercept English brigs en route to Quebec) went rogue and plundered the town, taking pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down and some of the things that were.

As winter set in, William, Janet, their children, and the other survivors, moved from their primitive beach to Charlottetown. There, the couple had two more children, Charlotte and John, for a total of ten. They lived in Charlottetown for the next fifteen years. We know William owned one of the only horses in town (perhaps the very first horse) and he was regularly employed hauling wood fuel to the various homes in the village.

William and Janet’s daughter Helen married William Clark in 1789. William Clark was also an immigrant from Scotland. He was born in Clackmannanshire, a village 150 miles south of Helen’s birthplace in Elgin. William was a shoemaker by trade. At the time, shoes were made by fashioning each individual boot to each individual foot.

William Clark had immigrated to Prince Edward Island via Quebec and Boston. While in Scotland, at the age of 20, he was nearly the victim of a “press-gang”—the practice of taking young men into naval force against their will—in other words, the act of shanghaiing.

To avoid being kidnaped, William boarded a ship bound for Quebec in 1774. One can only assume his decision was spur of the moment, a life and death choice. It is likely his parents not only never saw him again, they probably never learned what happened to him. He simply disappeared from their lives.

From Quebec, William Clark made his way south, and was in Boston during the Battle of Bunker Hill a year later. Presumably a Loyalist, he found his way back to Canada that summer, settling in Charlottetown, where he met his future wife and in-laws.

In 1789, when William Clark’s father-in-law William Simpson was 56 and wife Janet was 54 (with ten children and many more grandchildren between them), in his “golden years” William leased 500 acres of land 25 miles north of Charlottetown, on the other side of the Prince Edward Island, in the town of modern day Cavendish (which is the setting of the fabled Anne of Green Gables, the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery).

The motivation for the move from Charlottetown to stark wilderness is unknown. Speculation suggests the Simpsons, deeply religious, as previously mentioned, did not care for the “low moral standards” predominant in Charlottetown. Perhaps they wished to move their children away from the temptations of the evil city.

William and Janet constructed a log cabin and moved in in 1790. There were likely eleven people sheltered in that first lodging before land could be cleared and additional homes built. The only communication with the outside world was via boat to Covehead, about 25 miles east. There were no merchants, no teachers, no preachers, no doctors; they were wholly on their own.

William and Helen Clark, soon thereafter, built a cabin of their own not far from William and Janet Simpson. William and Helen had eight sons and four daughters.

Life on the new homestead was challenging, to say the least. Clearing forest land without the benefit of modern technology proved grueling. After each tree was cut, the stump had to be removed, most often by cutting around the roots, then constructing a windlass where it was pulled free by the brute strength of an ox. Even then the holes had to be leveled with pick and shovel. Once farmland was cleared, the first crop was most often potatoes.

All of William and Janet’s children grew to maturity, married, and had children. William and Janet had over 80 grandchildren. William and Helen had 70 more grandchildren of their own.

The Simpsons and the Clarks (along with a third family—the MacNeils), are considered, with no small amount of pride, to be the founders of Cavendish. The Simpsons and Clarks merged to become a sturdy family of farmers, blacksmiths, teachers, and preachers. Eventually the family became prosperous to the point they no longer had to rely on “eating lobsters as the poor;” they could finally afford to eat meat. My how times have changed! Lobster and potatoes continue to be major crops of the area today.

The Simpsons and Clarks, like so many of my other immigrant ancestors, came to the New World in search of a better life. They wanted open farmland for themselves and their children, and they wanted to worship God in a way that made sense to them. They wanted the freedom to chase their dreams and become all they were meant to be.


My Family Tree:

  1. William Simpson & Janet Winchester Simpson


  1. William Clark & Helen Simpson


  1. David Clark


  1. Martha Clark


  1. Eunice Irene Burgess


  1. Hazel Adelia Weldon (See Part Three)


  1. Weldon Paul deMeurers


  1. Me (Alan deMeurers)


Running count of my direct immigrants from Europe to North America = 20


Reference Links:



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