Fleming Migration to the United States

Jean Agnew (1862–1950) and her cousin Robert Fleming (1860–1894) were the first two of the Fleming families in Kilsyth to emigrate to the United States. Over the fifty-year period 1880 to 1930, 22 of Alexander Fleming and Jean Stewart’s 70 grandchildren (33%) left Derby Township to try life across the border. All but four stayed in the USA.  The female Flemings were as adventurous as the male – a 50/50 split. Most were between the ages of 20 to 40. (1)

Image shows four Fleming women who lived in the United States on holiday in California, c 1910.
Outing to Ocean Park, CA. Bottom left, Minerva Fleming talking to Christina Fleming. Jean [Walmsley] on the far right. The woman behind Christina might be Jean Agnew. The men, Messrs Watson and Dury were friends of the Walmsleys. c. 1910 (Source: Fleming Family Photos)

The United States was a magnate for young people seeking better prospects for education, employment and income. The late 1860s to 1896 was the Gilded Age of rapid economic growth, technological invention, and industrial production. Hydroelectricity powered new factories. Cities in the East attracted new immigrants, and the West offered land and gold. Toronto, in 1891, with a population of 181,000, was small compared to the closest U.S. cities: Buffalo at 254,000, Detroit at 205,000, and Philadelphia at over one million.

Jean’s first visit was in 1881 – perhaps to Denver – we don’t know the reason. We do know she arrived in Rochester NY in 1887 to begin her nursing training at the new Rochester City Hospital School of Nursing.  She may have worked as a nurse for a few years but by 1896 she had moved to Buffalo and become a librarian at Buffalo Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. She was devoted and the students adored her. 

Robert Alexander Fleming stated on the 1910 US Census form that he arrived in 1881. This might have been to Buffalo NY. In the 1890s he was in Chicago IL – as his cousin, C.A. Fleming wrote, “He took lines of work at whatever offered”.  He heard the call to the Salvation Army and served as captain for several years until he joined the Pentecostal Church and became a leader and missionary. 

The Flemings, like so many others, left to attend schools, to get better wages and jobs, and sometimes —for those who went to Florida or California— for the climate. They worked in healthcare, office work, management, education, industry – several men were machinists, and one went into the restaurant business.

Those who were settled helped others get started. Jean (Fleming) Walmsley housed siblings, nephews and nieces when she lived in Detroit, Denver, and Los Angeles.  Minnie, Jean’s sister, often received family at her home in Pomona, CA.

The study of emigration from English Canada to the United States has not been on the historian’s radar – a point made by Bruno Ramirez in Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States 1900–1930 (2)  Anglo-Canadians, from east to west, blended into the American scene and were barely noticed.

Ontario contributed 42.2 percent of the migration to the United States, from 1906 to 1930. Two-thirds chose the nearby states, New York and Michigan. (3)   From Ontario, 41.6% chose Michigan, and 27.8% New York. California received 5.2%.  They were short-distance migrations – people from the southwestern part of Ontario could cross easily through Niagara Falls to Buffalo, Rochester and other parts of New York State, and through Detroit to the industrial heartland, by far the most popular entry point, absorbing 45% of Ontario migrants (4).  In British Columbia, 53% of the outward flow went to Washington State and 17% to California. (5)

What we know about the Flemings begins in the 1880s when four of James Fleming’s children left for the United States. In addition to Robert in 1881, there was James in 1882, Jean and her husband Thomas Walmsley in 1884, and Margaret in 1885. Their reasons and outcomes were as varied as their personalities.

James put Kilsyth far behind him by going to Seattle at age 17 and may have attended classes at the new University of Washington. In 1892 he enrolled at the Michigan College of Medicine in Detroit, to later return to Seattle as a physician. In his later years “Dr. Jim” had an office in Los Angeles.

Thomas Walmsley had been teaching in Derby schools when he and Jean (age 26) with two children departed for Buffalo in 1884, probably because earnings for teachers were paltry. In Buffalo, Thomas worked with a publisher, and in Detroit as an accountant, in Philadelphia, he was an educator. Jean, who may have gone to Rochester NY  as a young woman to learn dressmaking skills, worked as a dressmaker wherever they lived and after Thomas died,  had a business in Detroit and Los Angeles.  

Margaret, at age 22, left Kilsyth the year after (1885) to train in the new field of psychiatric nursing at the Buffalo State Hospital. As wife, mother, and widow she nursed the mentally ill in New York State, California, and New Jersey. 

In the 1890s two more of James’ children left.  John William “Dr. Jack” attended the Michigan College of Medicine with his brother. Graduating in 1898, he established his practice in Pewamo, MI.  Minerva, “Minnie”, who had studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music in 1899, may have been the most daring. She left teaching her teaching position in Owen Sound in 1907 to relocate at the age of 40 to  Pomona CA  where she taught music becoming the music director for the Pomona school system. She retired to San Clemente.

Lastly, James’ twin girls — Mary and Martha — left in their later years but for much different reasons. Mary and her husband George Wyllie turned their farm over to their son Victor around 1940 and lived with their daughter Grace in St Clair Shores near Detroit. One son was in manufacturing in Buffalo, and two were in Detroit – four of their five children were emigres. Martha’s story was much different. She and her missionary husband Peter Thorkildson became Pentecostals in British Columbia and went into the Western States circa 1922 to establish missions, especially in California.

In total eight of James’ twelve children and four grandchildren left Kilsyth for the United States.

In Jessie (Fleming) Agnew’s family, five of her eight looked across the border. Jean created a life in Buffalo in education, and her brother George Harvey Agnew in Ann Arbor, MI as a tailor (1882) The three brothers John Fleming (1905), Simon (1891), and Milton (1900) had stints at various jobs in the area of Rochester NY. All three returned to Ontario.

In the Finch family, two daughters – Lucinda (1898) and Sarah (1895) – went to Detroit to train to be nurses. Sarah was a private nurse to Andrew Hartness’ wife Pauline – the wife died and Andrew married Sarah. Lucinda returned to Ontario after four years to help her parents. Their brother, Robert Nelson Finch, left his wife and family in 1926 at age 61 for the golden land of California, where he stayed.

Donald’s family of nine scattered after his death except for Charles who stayed in Owen Sound. Three sons went to Alberta and four daughters to British Columbia with stops in the United States. Christine listed herself as an osteopathic physician in Pomona but may have been a naturopath. She may have been in Pomona from 1905 to 1915 before returning to Victoria, BC.

Harvey, Charles Fleming’s first son, was 20 when he crossed at Detroit by ferry (before there was a bridge) in 1892 to work at what he could find: waiter, bookkeeper, and, for steadier work, a machinist in the automobile industry.  Harvey’s was the more typical path.  R. Stuart Fleming moved to the US on a corporate transfer from Canadian Milk Products where Stuart was a chemist, to the parent company Merrell-Soule of Syracuse in the position of chief chemist.  Lastly, Roy, although he did not work in the States, he did go to school, most particularly at The New York School of Art in New York in 1905

One more – Thomas Alfred Fleming, John Fleming’s youngest son, had a strong evangelical sensibility that drew him to Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio in 1897 to become a minister in the Disciples Church of Christ. T.A. was 23.  In 1910 after witnessing a horrendous school fire near Cleveland, Rev. Fleming turned all his attention and zeal to fire prevention and was credited in the United States as the Father of Fire Prevention.

The border was fluid through these decades from 1880 to 1930 and the extensive rail network made travel between the countries made travel easy and the motor car even more so. Family ties held in large part among the cousins during their lifetimes but faded in the next generations where even Ancestry can’t reunite them.


  1. These figures compare somewhat with the demographics of Anglo-Canadian emigrants identified in a study by Bruno Ramirez (see next) for the period 1906 to 1930. Table 7, page 114, shows the distribution as men 57%, women 43 %; 45% between ages 15 to 29; 24% between ages 30 to 44. Single men made up 56.1%, and single women 50%.
  2. Figures in this posting have been drawn from Ramirez, Bruno with Otis, Yves. Crossing the 49th Parallel. Cornell University Press, 2001.
  3. Ibid, 106
  4. Ibid, 110
  5. Ibid, 113

Table of period and names

PeriodNumberEmigration year – Name
1880-188961881 – Jean Agnew 1881 – Robert Fleming 1882 – George Agnew 1882 – Dr James “Jim”  Fleming 1884 – Jean Walmsley (married with 2 children) 1885 – Margaret Hayes
1890-189971891 – Simon Agnew 1892 – Harvey Fleming 1892 – John Fleming Agnew 1895 – Sarah Finch 1898 – Dr Jack 1899 – Minnie Fleming 1899 – Lucinda Finch
1900-190961900 – Laura Fleming 1900 – Milton Agnew 1905 – Roy Fleming (for school) 1905 – Christine Fleming 1906  – Rachel 1909 – R. Stuart Fleming (married with 2 children)
1910-191931916  – Josephine Fleming (various) 1919 – George Wyllie 1919 – Grace Wyllie
1920-192941921 – Martha Thokildson (married with two children) 1926 – Robert Nelson Finch 1927 – Wilfred Wyllie 1929 – James Wyllie
Total26 – includes 4 from the third generation 

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