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Royal Deeside :
James Thomson of Aboyne and Canada

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(Born Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, Scotland 1823,
died Cardinal, Ontario 10.2.1895).

Given below on this page is the story of James Thomson who emigrated from Aboyne to Canada in 1844. The article was prepared by Jim Cheyne.

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Aboyne History Introduction Bonty Formaston Stone Aboyne Regiment 1745
Aboyne Gazebo Wartime Poetry War Records James Thomson  

This is the story of a young man who left Aboyne in 1844 at the age of 21, to seek his fortune in Canada. It was the days of sailing ships, wild Indians on the frontiers of North America and of goldfields in California and the Cariboo, British Columbia. James was adventurous but not reckless and was keen to make his fortune. He was hard working and would take any job that was going until he found what he wanted to do. He was religious and it was this Presbyterian faith that sustained him through his travels and was a comfort to him when his first child died at the age of one year. Not long after he was in Canada he became teetotal, giving wholehearted support to the temperance movement.

Charleston of Aboyne Charleston of Aboyne

Aboyne parish in 1841 had a population of 1138; the village itself had a very commodious inn, the Charleston Inn with 42 year old John Birse as the publican. By 1851 it was known as the Huntly Arms Inn with Charles Cook as the publican and by 1861 it was finally known as the Huntly Arms Hotel. There was also a post-office, bakery, brew-house, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors and a saddler. The brew-house may have been the Bridgend Inn, at the north end of the comparatively new bridge over the Dee, the bridge having been built in 1831. A mail coach from Aberdeen passed through the village daily and there were several carriers weekly. The father of James Thomson, Alexander, was the blacksmith at Bridgend and had probably carried on this trade from about 1815 to 1854 when he was appointed Bridge keeper by the Marquis.

Aboyne Bridge 1831 Aboyne Bridge 1831

The people of Aboyne were orderly and industrious, shrewd and intelligent, well informed in the principles of religion and regular in their attendance at church. There were two schools, a boys and a girls school, from which two students had gone to university in Aberdeen.

When James left school, probably at quite an early age, he went to Aberdeen where he was apprenticed to a Mr Colin Shanks at his bakery in Chapel Street, Aberdeen. He lived “in” with Mr Shanks and his wife and by the time he was 15 he was shown as being a journeyman baker. It is possible though that he was 18 years old at this time. It had been a good apprenticeship but probably there was no work for a fully qualified baker and James had made the decision to seek his fortune in Canada. Mr Shanks was very kind to James when he left to go abroad.


James sailed from Aberdeen about the middle of April 1844 on board the sailing ship St. Lawrence. It would appear there were a number of people known to James who likewise were emigrating, a family named Barron, a chap called Henderson and another named Watson. In particular he named an Ann Barron as being the kindest and the best. “She was a stout girl that had left Simpson the minister”. This may have been the Reverend David Simpson of the Trinity Church, Aberdeen who may have been known to James.

It was a long and stormy seven week voyage that James had to endure finally arriving in Quebec on 6th June. He marvelled at the sight of the floating timber coming down the St Lawrence River and compared it with the floaters on the Dee, Sandy Rae on one end of the raft of timber and John Michie on the other.

On Friday 9th June James transferred to the vessel Queen that was to take him up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal which they reached on the Saturday. The chap Henderson found a job in Quebec and he was to stay on there until he got into the ways of the country. James had tried to deliver letters from an Andrew Begg to his son James who lived in Quebec but did not have the time to deliver them; he passed them on to Henderson to deliver. This Andrew Begg may have been the farmer at Bellastreen who in 1841 had a son James aged 19 years living with him.

James carried a letter of introduction to a James Smith who worked at the Bank of British North America, in Montreal and he also made contact with the Reverend Henry Esson who was born on Deeside in 1793. It was through Mr Esson that he was able to obtain employment as a baker in Montreal. While at Montreal he sent a newspaper to a Mr Esson, Balnacraig. This would have been Robert Esson farmer at Balnacraig. For a short while he lodged with a Mr McHardy who twelve years previously was a coach guard on the Deeside road. In one of his letters to his sister James asked her to call on Mr Shanks, the baker in Aberdeen with whom he served his apprenticeship, and tell him how he was getting on. She was also to tell him that he had enquired about a David Currie who had been a journeyman with Mr Shanks and that Currie had gone up country and was doing pretty well. Also that he had spoken several times to a John Scott, candle maker who was known to Mr Shanks. Watson found work a few miles from Montreal. His letters at this time were addressed to Alexander Thomson, Blacksmith, Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.


At the beginning of June 1845 James moved on some two hundred miles along the St. Lawrence River to Edwardsburgh, where again he went to work as a baker. He was much taken with Edwardsburgh and said,” This is a very healthy place and I believe it might be called a beautiful place too. The farmers seem to be thriving”. He met in with a Charles Hunter who had been a gamekeeper for nine years to Lumsden of Clover. He had been in Canada for nine years and had been in Aboyne a number of times. Hunter knew of a Tarland tailor that lived a few miles from him, the Tarland man had also been in Canada nine years. Was advised that his old shop mate D. McKay intended coming to America.

On a trip to Toronto he called on a William Scott who was a relative on his mother's side and came from Auchinblae. He also met in with an old acquaintance Alex Findlay, a baker, whom he had probably worked with and Thomas Duncan from Turriff who had sailed with him from Aberdeen. In a letter from home he was advised that Queen Victoria would be dining in the Huntly Arms Inn. This would have been when the royal family came to stay at Balmoral on 1 September 1848.

Writing to his sister in January 1849 he said that he would do all in his power to give advice and assistance to Sandy, his older brother who was a blacksmith, if he wished to join him in Canada. James made many friends in Edwardsburgh and it was 1849 before he was on the move again.


James left Edwardsburgh on 28th May 1849 and made his way by steamer and overland to Chicago, Illinois where he hoped for better prospects. He computed the distance from Edwardsburgh to Chicago as 1000 miles and he arrived there on the 4th June. Within a short time of being in Chicago he was employed as a clerk in a lumber yard, a job that he enjoyed, with employers that were good to him.

This ordinary work was not good enough for James, gold had been found in California and he formed a company with three other men. They left Chicago on the 6th April 1850 in a canvas covered wagon drawn by four horses taking along with them a tent, sheet iron cooking stove and provisions for four months. They crossed the Mississippi and on the 14th April crossed the Missouri at Council Bluffs, the 20th May saw them passing Fort Laramie and 14th June they crossed the Rocky Mountains at the South Pass. “On the 17th of August took dinner on the tip top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains upwards of nine thousand feet above the level of the sea”. Nevada City was reached on 30th August. During this trek they met in with Indians from the Pawnee, Omaha, Sioux and other tribes. The warriors were tall and manly looking but there is no mention of there being any trouble from these Indians. There is also no mention of James being armed.

Here they set to work manufacturing boards, they were four feet long, six or eight inches wide and quarter inch thick and instead of being sawed they were split. “It would almost astonish even a Glen tanner man to see the trees that grow in this country many of them upwards of 300 feet high”. It was from here that James sent his sister Helen a small specimen of California gold. In December James went into partnership with two other men and purchased a piece of ground 30 by 90 feet and began prospecting. The method used for extracting the gold was with a cradle or rocker called a Long Tom. In November 1851 he sent home the sum of £20 to his father. This was the first of many payments.

James was becoming quite a success; in February 1852 he and his partner McCargo bought a half share in the American Bakery, Nevada City while still retaining shares in a number of gold mines. He continued with the bakery and the gold mines until March 1853 when he left the gold fields and sailed from San Francisco on the 15th of that month. The journey must have been an adventure in itself, from San Francisco down the west coast of America to San Juan del Luce and then a two and a half days journey across the Isthmus of Nicaragua where James caught a ship sailing from San Juan del Norte on the 31st March. They put into Charleston, South Carolina for coal on the 7th April and arrived in New York on the 10th May, then went onto Edwardsburg.


James did not stay long in Edwardsburg as by the 8th June he sailed from Boston in the Europa on his way home arriving at Liverpool on the 19th or 20th June. A friend John Allan accompanied him; he came out with James in ‘44. It was his hope that he would be home by the Wednesday. There is no record of his stay in Aboyne and on the 12th October 1853, his holiday over, he left by coach at 6.30 am for Banchory arriving there at 8 am. Left Banchory by the Deeside railway at 8.30 am and arrived in Aberdeen at 9.30 am. James sailed from Glasgow on the 15th onboard the Harlequin and was home in Edwardsburg about the end of November.


At the beginning of 1854 James bought a 150 acre farm fronting on the St Lawrence River and within half a mile of Edwardsburg. He did not intend to work the farm at this time as he was employed on the Railroad. His father wrote in May 1854 that a David Bell, blacksmith and Dr Fuller both of Aboyne had left for Canada on the ship Arura. David Bell was the son of a blacksmith in Aboyne of the same name as himself. Dr Fuller would have been the 30 year old Dr Fife Fowler MRCS general practitioner who had lived and practised in Aboyne but came from Elgin, the town of his birth. It was believed that nearly one thousand old and young left Aberdeen this spring for Canada. Mr James Ogg was the bank and insurance agent who lived in the Bank Cottage, Aboyne and dealt with the money that James sent home. Mr Shanks, the baker, had a son and daughter going out to their uncles somewhere on the river Missouri

On 13th September 1854 James married Mary Armstrong, daughter of Henry Armstrong, farmer of Edwardsburg. On their way home from Toronto while on their honeymoon James met in with Dr Fowler. Dr Fowler was the son of a dentist and was for many years Dean of the Queen’s Medical School, Kingston. Dr Fowler had a brother in Kingston. He was also a friend of a James Neil of the Wreaton Farm and wrote to him in Aboyne.. A William Fiddes and another young man from Kincardine called on James at his farm and he gave them two or three days work before they moved on to Hamilton.

In a letter dated Bridge, Aboyne, November 15th 1854, his father states, “We have got our Bridge now covered this season and it is now as good as at first. I was very hard wrought some times but thanks be to God I got through pretty well and I am still injoying ordinary health”. There is no explanation as to what covered meant. Mentioned frequently in letters from Aboyne are the names Agnes Ogg and Elizabeth Middleton. No trace can be found of Agnes Ogg although a Janet Ogg was innkeeper of the Bridgend Inn which was roughly three to four hundred yards from the blacksmith’s shop. There were two Elizabeth Middletons in the parish, none of them living near to Bridgend.

During the summer of 1855 Helen, sister of James, was working as a casual farm labourer for a Dr Gennel who had taken over a farm of a Mr Hough which had previously been worked by a John Davidson. She was getting by on the money she was earning. On the 25th June 1855 a son, Henry Alexander, was born to James and his wife. Poor Henry Alexander did not have a long life he died on the 8th June 1856. James was deeply religious and this gave him great comfort in his loss. A letter from home in September 1855 advised that Mr Duncan, the factor, was speaking of withdrawing Alexander’s wages and giving him nothing but house and garden for attending to the Bridge. This caused Alexander to think about going to America. James must have given a photograph (daguerreotypes) of his wife and himself as old Balfour, William Davidson, had called in one day and thought it was a good likeness of James and said, “He did not think they had been so good looking dames in cannada”.

At the end of summer 1856 Alexander Thomson, daughter Helen and grandchildren Mary Ann, John and Helen Smith sailed from Aberdeen for Canada. These grandchildren were the children of Mary Ann Smith who had died and were brought up by Alexander and his daughter Helen. Their father had deserted them at an early age. Obviously there are no further letters between James and his father as they were all living near to one another in Edwardsburgh.


The lure of gold found James on the go again this time to the goldfields of the Cariboo in British Columbia. Along with four friends they set off on 2nd April 1862 to travel by way of New York to Panama, crossed the 47 miles by railway and set sail again on the Pacific Ocean eventually reaching San Francisco on 5th May1862. They took boat on the 8th and sailed for Victoria, British Columbia arriving there on 13th May. It was at Fort Yale on the Fraser River that he met a Dr Easton, who James appeared to know but has not been identified. From Victoria they set off on the old gold-field trail to the Cariboo country. While in the Cariboo James not only prospected for gold but did any other job that made him a little money. It was in the Cariboo that he met in with a Jonathan Begg, an old friend who came from Glentanner who recognised him because of his likeness to his father. They had gone to school together, Jonathan carrying his A.B.Cs on a board across the hill for three years. By 21st November 1862 James had enough of prospecting and left Victoria for home travelling the same route that he had come by, arriving home 30th December.

On his return home James became an assistant book-keeper in the local starch works which provided him with a steady income to supplement the meagre return from his land. In 1878 Edwardsburgh changed its name to Cardinal after the point on which it stood. James was elected a member of the town council which sat for the first time in January 1880. The following year he was elected reeve, (president of the council) an office he held for six years, longer than any other reeve in Cardinal’s history.

James’s father, Alexander, the former Aboyne blacksmith, had been installed in a small house on Thomson’s farm and worked there until his death in 1864. His daughter Helen also lived in that house for a quarter of a century after she and her father came to Canada in 1856. The children they brought with them were put to trades. Ellen Smith lived with her aunt, and in the census of 1871 is described as a tailoress. She was then twenty-five. Mary Smith, four years younger, was a dressmaker living elsewhere in the village with Louisa Armstrong, aged twenty-two, probably a sister of James’s wife. John Smith the nephew, who had also come out from Scotland with Alexander, was listed in the census of 1861 when he was thirteen. Ten years later he had either left the village or died.

James and Mary Thomson had seven children of their own. The first born died in infancy, and a girl, Lora, also died young. Three sons, James, Colin, and Edwin (or Edward) remained unmarried. Edwin, the youngest, went to Business College in Kingston in 1886. All three were partners in a large general store in Prescott which continued in business until Edwin died in 1962. James himself had died in 1895. His wife Mary Thomson (who always spelled the name in the Irish way with a ‘p’) lived until 1916. She died at the age of eighty. A daughter, Mary (Ella) married Stuart Alexander Lytell and died in 1930. Her sister Agnes (Mrs Logan), died in 1968, was the last surviving child of that young Scottish baker’s apprentice who had come to make his home in Canada a hundred and twenty-four years earlier.

Other letters in the Thomson collection reveal that in 1886 James and Mary visited his relatives in Scotland. Correspondence with a niece, perhaps on his mother’s side of the family, suggests that the Scottish relatives had, in the end, fared almost as well at home as Thomson had in Canada. The niece, who struck up a friendship with Mary Thompson, was a clerk in a telegraph office in Aberdeen. In her letters there is a reference to ‘my uncle the blacksmith’, which may indicate that James’s elder brother Sandy had found work in his old trade after the rest of his family left Scotland and had at last prospered.


(Charleston of) Aboyne Bridge at Aboyne
The above scenes in the 20th Century (photos by Jim Henderson)

My grateful thanks to McGill-Queen’s University Press Montreal for permission to use material from the book by Richard Arthur Preston FOR FRIENDS AT HOME. A Scottish Emigrant’s Letters from Canada, California and the Cariboo 1844-1864.

Thanks also to Jim Henderson at www.jimhendersonphototgraphy.com for the use of his photographs of Aboyne, including the old print of the Aboyne Bridge of 1831 that appeared in his book SCENERY OF THE DEE.

Gravestone Inscriptions
Cardinal, Ontario.


  Face One

James Thomson died
Feb 10, 1895
Aged 72 years
Wife: Mary Armstrong
Died March 14, 1916
Aged 80 years

Face Two

James Melville Thompson
Colin Havelock Thompson,
B. May 25, 1858
died Nov 14, 1944
Edwin Scott Thompson
Born May 21, 1870
died Jan 3, 1962

  Face Three

Henry A. Thompson
died June 1856
aged 1 year
Lora M. Thompson
died May 7, 1877
aged 17 years
Children of James
and Mary Thomson

  Face Four

Alexander Thomson
died March 2, 1864
aged 82 years
and his daughter Helen
died Jan 4, 1877
aged 58 years



STUART A LYTELL, 1887-1931
Ella M. Thompson (Lytell) 1863-1930)
James Edwin Lytel, 1898-1929

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