New Brunswick

Early Irving in province deemed a 'poor squatter' in historic documents

Documents kept at the New Brunswick archives detail the very first request for Crown land from a member of the now-rich and powerful Irving family.

Request for Crown land by an Irving ancestor marks start of rags-to-riches New Brunswick story

'Poor squatter' was written in pencil in this document related to George Irving's request to buy Crown land in 1835. (Submitted by Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

Documents kept at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick detail the very first request for Crown land from a member of the now-rich Irving family. 

A letter from Scottish immigrant George Irving sent to the province in 1835 gives an inside look at the foundations of what would eventually swell to a family of billionaires and one of the most powerful entities in Canadian history. 

"In it they're asking for 100 acres," said Joshua Green, a photo archivist with the provincial archives.

"It's somewhat of a small grant request," said Green. "Lots of people would ask for a lot more than 100 acres, and sometimes would get it." 

"It's seems to be they are a typical bunch of Scottish settlers," said Green. 

Photo archivist Joshua Green, says the petition for 100 acres of land is the first request for Crown land by a member of the now-famous Irving family. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Today, 184 years later, descendants of that "typical bunch of Scottish settlers" are some of the richest people in Canada. 

George Irving's grandson, James D. Irving would own and operate a sawmill and a trio of farms.

His son K.C. Irving became the founder of many of the companies the family name is known for. His eldest son, J.K. Irving, has operated J. D. Irving Ltd., the family's massive forestry division, and his second son, Arthur, has run Irving Oil.

The family also owns shipbuilding operations and nearly every newspaper in New Brunswick, and has become one of the largest landowners in both Canada and the United States. 

The letter, dated Nov 5, 1835, is a request from George Irving to the New Brunswick government of the day to purchase the land he had built a house on in Richibucto. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Provincial Archives)
This second half of the letter from George Irving completes his request for land. (Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

And the Irving empire got its start, in part, with a letter addressed to Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald Campbell, lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick. 

It's a petition from George Irving of Richibucto, which the writer says:

"Humbly sheweth,

"That your petitioner is a British subject and desires to purchase one hundred acres of vacant Crown land on the north west side of the Mill Branch of Richibucto River, adjoining below the affiliation of Adam Armstrong. On which your petitioner has lived three years, and built a house, besides clearing about ten acres.

"Your petitioner lived in a part of the country where but little intercourse with the world exists, and he consequently did not hear of the notice requiring the entry of his application before the 1st November; but as he is prepared at present after great pains … to pay the first instalment, he most humbly prays that your Excellency will be graciously pleased to permit him to obtain the land at private sale, and at two shillings and six pence the acre." 

Although it is unclear who penned the letter dated Nov. 5, 1835, it is undersigned by George Irving of Richibucto.

According to the archives, the two shillings and six pence he paid per acre would be the equivalent of $1,440.52 Cdn today. 

'Poor squatter'

The government of the day followed up George Irving's petition with a series of assessments of the property, which included a detail about Irving's financial circumstances. 

"On this one there are a number of different notes, and different hands on it, on the back of the document," said Green.

"And there is a little pencil note — everything else is written in different types of ink — but there is a strange pencil note that almost seems out of context that says "poor squatter." 

The George Irving land petition includes the words 'poor squatter' to describe the Scottish immigrant. It is unknown who wrote those words. (Submitted by the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

Green said it's not known who wrote those words nearly two centuries ago. 

"It could have been any clerk, or surveyor," said Green. 

"It's unusual that there would be any sort of editorializing on these types of documents. They're usually pretty dry. They're government forms. And there was a standard way that government would respond." 

George Irving's request to purchase the land was eventually approved. It would be followed by other requests and purchases of land by son Herbert in the same area.

Proud of roots

That area would essentially become ground zero for the Irving family and its eventual empire. 

CBC News requested an interview with someone from the Irving family.

Mary Keith, a spokesperson for J.D. Irving Ltd., responded with a statement from J.K. Irving, the 91-year-old great-great-great grandson of George. 

"New Brunswick is home and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," Irving said. "I am very proud of my New Brunswick roots."


Shane Fowler


Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.


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