O’BRIEN, JOHN, farmer; b. 1790, probably in Ireland; m. 29 Nov. 1823 Mary Darcy, in St John’s, and they had at least four sons and two daughters; d. 1855 near St John’s.
Some time between 1815 and 1820 John O’Brien began clearing land at Freshwater, an area two miles west of St John’s which had been opened for settlement about 1800. Since no O’Briens or Darcys are recorded as sponsors or witnesses at their marriage and at the subsequent baptisms of their children, it is almost certain that O’Brien and his wife were recent immigrants who had arrived in Newfoundland on their own. The sponsors named came mostly from parishes in the south of County Kilkenny (Republic of Ireland), as did many St John’s Roman Catholic Irish, and the O’Briens likely came from this region.
Between the years 1790 and 1815 St John’s had been transformed from a small town of approximately 1,000 persons into the mercantile centre for the Newfoundland cod fishery with a population fluctuating between 8,000 and 10,000. Mainly because of the Napoleonic Wars, fish prices had soared in the European markets, and the related increase in wages had attracted large numbers of young Irish immigrants, women as well as men. During the 18th century much of the food consumed in the town, with the exception of fish, had come from either Britain or the North American mainland, but interruptions in the supply during the wars, and the growing resident population in St John’s along with an increased military presence and the emergence of a middle class, all stimulated a demand for food that could be grown locally. Encouraged by Governor Sir Richard Goodwin Keats*’s relaxation of laws inhibiting the development of commercial agriculture in 1813, immigrants to St John’s began to carve out small farms around the edge of the town and to produce such commodities as fresh milk and vegetables. By 1840 more than 400 farms were in operation, forming thin wedges of settlement along the new roads radiating from the town.
At the time of O’Brien’s arrival virtually all of the workable land along the road and tributary paths between St John’s and Freshwater was occupied by some 30 farmsteads and he pushed west beyond them. After trying one unsuitable site he moved to the slopes of Nagles Hill. There he began clearing on a level patch of glacial till near the eastern boundary of what was later officially demarcated as his farm lot, and built a tilt or temporary shelter.
Clearing the land was a formidable task. O’Brien was confronted by a dense cover of spruce and fir trees which stood between him and his farm, and the technology available was crude and primitive: light narrow axes and hatchets to hack away the trees and scrub, and then picks, crowbars, and makeshift wooden levers to prize out stubborn stumps. Larger roots were left to rot or were burned. Once a patch was finally stripped of its natural cover, O’Brien was faced with a shallow, stony soil from which rocks and stones had to be removed, a task no less laborious than clearing the forest. Some of this stone was taken to St John’s and sold for ballast or used in harbour construction, but most was fashioned into the massive walls that helped define the fields within the farm.
By North American standards the rate of land clearing was exceedingly slow. O’Brien had 14 acres improved and under cultivation in 1849, roughly three decades after initial occupancy. It is unlikely that he achieved even this much alone. Up to the 1840s many local farmers engaged immigrant Irish labourers, hungry for winter work after the summer fishery, to clear land and carve out paths and roads through the woods. These young men often worked for just food and shelter and O’Brien probably availed himself of this pool of cheap labour at least until his older sons could join him. Drier, elevated sites were first chosen for clearing, and then the wet hollows which had to be drained extensively before cropping. The deeper drift deposits in the hollows normally afforded a more fertile base for crops but generally the natural soil was no more than six inches deep and it took a generation of careful husbandry and intensive fertilizing to bring it to a satisfactory state.
Climate and soil precluded commercial grain farming. The short, cool, damp summers suited the growth of improved grasses and, like all Freshwater farmers, O’Brien adapted to these conditions and created a commercial dairy farm. He sold the milk to housewives and shopkeepers in the west end of St John’s. The ultimate objective was the creation of a good meadow. A cow could consume more than two tons of hay through the long winter, and each spring two-thirds of the farm was reserved for this crop. Hayfields benefited from periodic cultivation and so a system of crop rotation evolved: an “old” meadow was planted with turnips and cabbage, then potatoes, and then oats and hayseed in the third year before the field was returned to hay for several years. These meadows, high on the southern slopes of Nagles Hill, were protected from the elements by broad strips of uncleared woodland.
O’Brien’s farm stood on the fringe of the hinterland in Freshwater and was thus one of the most distant from the market. He cleared a path a half-mile past his nearest neighbour to his first home, deep in the woods. His second house, a much more substantial structure, was located close to his neighbours near the eastern boundary of the farm. Like other farmers, O’Brien could supply the expertise, technology, and basic materials for road construction, and procured small cash contracts from the government to open and maintain public roads and paths. One such contract, secured in the fall of 1844, fell through when the government experienced a shortage of capital; another, made in the summer of 1849, called for a road through a neighbour’s uncleared land and ended in litigation which almost cost O’Brien his farm. He was fined £12 for assault and the sheriff attached his farm and advertised it for sale when O’Brien claimed he could not pay. This action drew an angry editorial from the Newfoundland Patriot of Robert John Parsons*, who regarded the proceedings as an unparalleled piece of oppression against one who “by dint of persevering toil has succeeded in clearing fifteen out of some fifty acres of wild land from the Crown and has reared a large family during the process – calculating that . . . he could bequeath it to them as the produce of a life of labour and penury.” Apparently nobody bid on the farm and O’Brien retained possession.
Little land was cleared on the original lot after 1850 but O’Brien’s eldest son, with the family’s assistance, established a farm and built a house west of his father’s. The ancestral unit was bequeathed to the two remaining sons and shortly before his death O’Brien helped one of them build an impressive two-storey frame-house. This son acquired another farm on the edge of town and established a grocery store on the road to Freshwater, strategically located to capture the community’s retail trade. Ultimately the youngest son obtained the ancestral farm, conforming to the pattern of an indivisible inheritance common in the area. One daughter joined the local exodus to Boston, the other worked with her brothers on the home farm or in the store. Two of the sons married recent immigrants from south Kilkenny, reinforcing cultural links with the homeland. John O’Brien and his wife died secure in the knowledge that their children had been well provided for by the standards of their time.
The O’Briens typified the experience of the Irish who came to St John’s in the early 19th century and made a living off the land. Like many immigrants in rural British North America, O’Brien chose to live in a community dominated initially by people from the same region in his homeland. Although a few merchants of British Protestant stock later established summer cottages in the neighbourhood, as did some middle class Catholic Irish from St John’s, Freshwater remained culturally homogeneous and socially egalitarian during O’Brien’s lifetime. The vast majority of his neighbours worked small farms similar to his; some were also artisans and plied their trade in town to supplement their meagre income from the land. Life was hard and several families moved out within a generation. Despite the harsh environmental and economic conditions, O’Brien succeeded in striking deep roots and, four generations later, his descendants still work the land. Much of the 19th-century landscape survives, a document of his efforts to carve a farm out of the Newfoundland forest a century and a half ago.
[The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Aly O’Brien, a great-grandson of John O’Brien, in the preparation of this biography. j.m.]
Basilica of St John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) (St John’s), St John’s parish, reg. of baptisms and marriages, 10 Sept., 29 Nov. 1823; 28 Jan. 1832; 17 Nov. 1834; 10 April 1837 (mfm. at PANL). Nfld., Dept. of Forest Resources and Land, Lands Branch (St John’s), Registry of crown grants, geographical index to crown grants, vol.A (1813–23): 12 (typescript); grants, 27: f.63; 36: f.9; land titles, vol.A (1813–23). PANL, GN 2/1, 1806: 427–29; 1813: 310–14, 413–14; 1815: 342–46; 1816: 234–40; 1817: 25–29; 1818: 163–70; 1819–20: 3–5, 270–77; GN 2/1/A, 24 (1813): 3–9. PRO, CO 194/12–49. Morning Courier and General Advertiser (St John’s), 11 Aug. 1849. Patriot (St John’s), 1 Oct. 1845, 11 Aug. 1849. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 30 Sept. 1834. R. A. MacKinnon, “The growth of commercial agriculture around St John’s, 1800–1935: a study of local trade in response to urban demand” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1981). J. J. Mannion, Irish settlements in eastern Canada; a study of cultural transfer and adaptation ([Toronto], 1974), 65, 143–45. The peopling of Newfoundland: essays in historical geography, ed. J. J. Mannion (Toronto, 1977), editor’s introduction, 7.