Honouring Ancestors

One of the things I love about retirement is the time to follow one’s curiosity.

This morning I awoke at 5:15 a.m. There was no going back to sleep, so I arose, quietly closing the bedroom door behind me so that Attila could slumber undisturbed in the quiet, darkened room. I settled in the early morning darkness on my easy chair, opened up the computer and checked my email, and my Facebook account. I have joined the Group “The Golden Age Of Illustration” and enjoy it very much. Some of the images shared this morning inspired me to wander over to my own bookcase.

As a result I have been reading Mogg Megone, by John Greenleaf Whittier, from a book I purchased many years ago. The book is one I bought somewhere in the past, I don’t remember where, I was always buying a book whenever the opportunity arose. It is The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Complete With Illustrations, published in 1879. It includes a Note By The Author to the Edition of 1857. I might have purchased it at a yard sale in downtown Toronto, or a small, hole-in-the-wall book store in another city, or at a jumble sale, there are many possibilities.

The book itself fascinates me. There is an inscription, which I can not decipher in its entirety:

Sophy Blaller? Cronyn

My Dear Blossom

from her affectionate

Chuck? Irwin?

Chmas 1879

This leads me back to the pertinent years in my personal history, as references to time usually do. It is an opportunity for me to honour a GGG Aunt, who it seems was quite an independent character.

In 1879 my GGG Aunt Lizzie was living on her farm with her Mother Mary Ann, a widow.

Lizzie had lost her father when she was around 7 years old, her sister Margaret was a newborn infant, and her brother John was nine years old, and he assumed adult responsibility on the farm. The farm was in Lanark Township, Lanark County.

Lizzie purchased the farm in 1865, when she was 42 years of age, from her brother John, who moved with his wife and family to Minnesota, USA. Lizzie, her daughter Jane, and her Mother Mary Ann operated the farm by themselves after that time.

Up to the point of purchasing the farm Lizzie’s life had been a struggle. In 1845, at the age of 22, Lizzie gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock, her only child. The child’s birth was not recorded in official records, so that the father was never officially identified. It seems possible, likely in my view, that her “Uncle Alexander”, her Mother Mary Ann’s brother, living on the neighbouring farm, might have fathered the child. Records are blurry, there is no primary evidence one way or the other, but it is likely that “Uncle Alexander”, after fathering Lizzie’s child, chose to marry her younger sister Margaret, who also gave birth to a daughter early the following year.

Five years after Lizzie bought the farm from her brother in 1865, in the summer of 1870, Lizzie’s daughter Jane, then 26, died of an inflammation of the lungs and heart disease. Within a year Lizzie had descended into a desperate depression, and she was admitted to the Rockwood Asylum in Kingston, Ontario, on February 9, 1871, for Melancholia due to “loss of a friend”, and would spend almost four years there before returning to the farm and her Mother. Within six months after Lizzie’s release from the Asylum, in 1875, she sold the farm to, who else, “Uncle Alexander”, with the agreement that she and her Mother Mary Ann might live there for their lifetime. It could not have been a happy outcome for Lizzie, who had fought hard to buy the farm, and to ensure that the legal documents pertaining to land ownership were properly worded.

Lizzie and Mary Ann carried on farming until a fateful Wednesday in mid-May 1883. Lizzie was 60 years old, her Mother Mary Ann was 80. 1883 was the year Krakatoa erupted, and time zones in Canada were established. 1883 was the year that Lizzie had had enough.

There is no record of what went through Lizzie’s mind that spring morning in May. All I know of the day is that is was not raining. Lizzie made a decision that day, which she carried out quietly and without fanfare, she hung herself from a tree on the farm.

Lizzie’s Mother Mary Ann struggled alone on the farm for more than a year, before deciding in 1884 to leave the farm and live with her daughter Margaret and “Uncle Alexander”, her son-in-law and likely her brother. It was a long journey from Lanark County to Parry Sound District where Margaret lived. Mother Mary Ann lived with her daughter Margaret for the next three years, passing away peacefully at her daughter Margaret’s home in 1887.

With Lizzie gone, and her Mother Mary Ann gone, “Uncle Alexander” took control of the farm in Lanark County. He disappeared from Parry Sound District shortly after that, some say he was murdered, others say he returned to his other wife Rachel, they married in 1861 in Lanark County, and lived a few more years until he was killed after being thrown from his mail wagon.

The true identity of Margaret’s husband “Uncle Alexander” will most likley never be determined, as he left no identifying records, no birth record, no immigration record, no death record, no burial record. I will always wonder about him, but knowing of some of the dark secrets my family holds close, I suspect that he is indeed both the uncle of Lizzie and Margaret, and the father of all of their children.

It is interesting to me that some of the male descendants are adamant that he is not the Uncle of the sisters Lizzie and Margaret, the brother of our GGGG Grandmother. However, they can cite no source that confirms he is not Lizzie and Margaret’s Uncle, as I can cite no source to confirm that he is their Uncle. Perhaps it is difficult for some to contemplate that a male ancestor would leave a pregnant woman to bear a child alone and out of wedlock, or commit adultery. There is no concensus on this issue.

The story here may be inaccurate in that “Uncle Alexander” might be a completely different person than the actual uncle of Lizzie and Margaret. But there are too many coincidences for me to interpret the known primary souces differently than I have. Both Alexanders were born around the same year, both moved from Lanark to Southwestern Ontario and lived there during the same years, and both supposedly died shortly after the death of Mother Mary Ann. There are a lot of coincidences, a lot of them, so my story above is what I am sticking with until primary documents indicate otherwise, which they well might, and I welcome them if they exist. But despite the research of some very capable family researchers, including myself, no primary documents have surfaced that will clear up this burning question in our family history. If records contrary to my premise present themselves I will change my story; and I will meditate and apologize to my ancestors, my GGGG Uncle, and my GGG Grandfather, who are conflated into the same person “Uncle Alexander”. I believe the truth requires no apology.

At the time that my copy of Whittier’s book was published, there was much turmoil for my ancestors. And now, 138 years later, there are echoes.

Worldly Distractions

Weather

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Date: 9:00 AM EST Saturday 4 February 2017
Condition: Mostly Cloudy
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Tendency: Rising
Temperature: -5.8°C
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Humidity: 66%
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Visibility: 24 km

Quote

“…
Still let her mild rebuking stand
Between us and the wrong,
And her dear memory serve to make
Our faith in Goodness strong…”

From Gone, by John Greenleaf Whittier, page 171.

15 Comments

  1. There must be something in the air…I too woke up at 5:15 am, with another sort of book on my mind. My book club chose “Persuasion”, by Jane Austen, and I am struggling with it. I read it decades ago, and remember enjoying it—not so in this more recent reading! I find the language long winded and obtuse. I am so used to the direct language we use today, and seem to have no patience with this!

  2. Diane, Jane Austen was never a go to author for me, I have read several of her books, but the preoccupation with affluence and privilege has always bored me. If affluence and privelege were more universal an experience for our species her books might have meant more to me, but alas that is not the case.

    I know what you mean about books reading differently at different times in our lives! I recently got out an old volume of short stories by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I had tried to reread a book of hers about ten years ago and couldn’t get started, it just couldn’t capture me. In contrast the recent reading of her short stories captivated me. I am eyeing my book shelves, wondering what I will enjoy, or not, next!

  3. Sandy

    What a beautiful entry! I’ve found family research to be both a puzzle and mystery. When you find a piece and it fits, it’s a wonderful moment. Without confirmation, you can often go with your gut. But there are always so many questions we can never answer, like why Lizzie made that final decision. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sandy, I am just beginning to write about my ancestors, and Lizzie has always been someone I have been curious about. I discovered her in a census listing first, and gradually discovered more and more about her life in old documents. She lived in an era where men had most of the aces in the deck, and she stood tall for 60 years. In the end the “bad guy won” as far as I am concerned, he got her property, and led an affluent life. “Uncle Alexander’s” gravemarker is the largest and most elaboriate in the whole cemetery, he has his share of being honoured. Lizzie’s little gravemarker is obscure, and she has no direct decendants to remember her existance.

    For me it is the women who managed to carve some kind of a life for themselves out of the wilderness, that are first in my thoughts. There are some wonderful men in my family tree, but they aren’t as brave as the women from my point of view, because they began their challenges in life with a head start, being white males. I wish I knew more about my ancestors as people. I think that is why this online journal exists, I am giving what I would love to know about my ancestors to my descendants.

  5. Sandy

    Yes, it was rare for women to own, much less run a farm in the 1800’s. Farm life was very hard. I read a diary of a young girl who was live-in help on a neighbor’s farm during the week and went home on weekends. Now they did have a father and son who tended the crops. This was in upstate New York. It was constant work. Put in the vegetable garden, tend it, harvest and can/preserve. She had to pull the stove out in the front yard to cook in the summer. She cleaned the house, mended clothes, sewed new clothes. Milk the cow. Get the eggs. In the end she did marry the son. But what a hard life.

  6. I visited an old Mennonite farm one summer in the 1980s, it had a winter kitchen in the house, and the back door of the kitchen opened into a breezway with a summer kitchen, open air under a roof, wood stove and all, where they did their canning and baking in the summer. I have always liked the idea of a summer kitchen.

  7. Sandy

    That does sound like a nice arrangement. I was in New Orleans years ago and in my free time visited a large, historic home from the 1800s. They had a large space on the first floor of the home, off the entrance drive that had wooden stoves, racks, counters etc. It was their kitchen area. Since it’s so hot down there, they had a summer kitchen all year 🙂

  8. Sandy

    This is a link to the house. I remember they said that because of the heat, the master bedroom for the parents was on the first floor. The kids slept upstairs. The second link below shows a part of the outdoor kitchen.

    That’s a good question about the heat. The fireplace is vented through chimney. But I’d expect it got quite hot.

    http://www.neworleansonline.com/directory/location.php?locationID=1260

    https://www.google.com/search?q=hermann+grima+photos&espv=2&biw=1254&bih=615&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi574-B7_nRAhVEh1QKHZXzCPMQ7AkINw#imgrc=-bs4Ju5BJP8KIM:

  9. Sandy

    I would have sworn the kitchen was attached to the house, but it wasn’t. Here’s a description from http://www.traveldk.com/destinations/north-america/usa/new-orleans/sights/hermann-grima-historic-house/
    “This gabled brick house stands out from those around it because it is one of the few examples of American Federal-style architecture in the French Quarter.

    William Brand built it in 1831 for Samuel Hermann, a German-Jewish merchant. Unfortunately, he lost his fortune in 1837 and had to sell the house to Judge Felix Grima.

    The house features a central doorway with a fanlight and marble steps; another window with a fanlight graces the second floor. Inside, the floors and doors are made of cypress, and the rooms feature elegant marble fireplaces.

    The three-story service quarters, located in a separate building off the parterre behind the house, are also striking. They feature slave quarters and a kitchen containing a rare four-burner wood-fired stove with a beehive oven.”

    And here’s a floor plan: http://www.nocatering.com/venues/HGHFLOOR%20PLAN.jpg

    If you look at the floor plan, my question was how did they get the hot food to the dining room quickly? The interior was very impressive with period furniture. They were adamant that we go nowhere near the slave quarters.

  10. “I think that is why this online journal exists, I am giving what I would love to know about my ancestors to my descendants.”

    Nicely said. As I slowly read through my old handwritten journals, I’m keeping (so far) very little. But the online journal is already “curated,” so … maybe it will be of interest to family members someday.

    -Kate

  11. Kate, I haven’t yet opened up my paper journals, and I think like you, very little of what is written there will be shared or kept. They were written at a time in my life when I was becoming myself in a very intense way, groping through darkness, meeting demons on their own turf. It was also a way of writing that was intensely private and personal, never intended to be shared with anyone. Names are named, places are identified, the old journals represent a journey that I would only want to make once, reliving it in any detail would be painful, I think I would now be in awe of my former self. I want to remember it only as the fight that was fought and won. I will keep the lessons, and let go of the details.

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