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I really have not done a lot of research on the MacLeans of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which is my grandfather’s family.  But recently, I connected with a Canadian relative and he passed along some pictures, and gave me permission to post them here.  I am going to tell what little I know, and hope that others will add to my information in the comments. Most of my information comes from my cousin John and my Aunt Mae.  Yup, this is the side of the family that actually kept track of their heritage.

Unfortunately, none of us have had much success tracing them back to Scotland, although we know they likely arrived in Cape Breton during the 1820’s.  I am leaving some notes here for other descendants (and there are many) who may want to collaborate further.

John Alexander MacLean, 1892-1933

My grandfather, John Alexander MacLean, 1892-1933

John and Josie (MacLeod) MacLean

My grandparents John Alexander MacLean and Josie May MacLeod were married June 16, 1920 in North Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  John, called Jack, was born 17 Feb 1892, and Josie was born 3 Aug 1892. They lost their first daughter, Josie, but had four children after that:  Kenneth Torquil, Marion Bannington, and twins named for themselves, John Alexander and Josie May.  My grandfather John MacLean died in Providence in 1933, and Josie raised the children in Rhode Island.  My Uncle Ken wrote about the family in this post:  Where We Came From.

Torquil MacLean

Torquil MacLean

Torquil and Sarah MacLean

My grandfather John MacLean’s parents were Torquil and Sarah (MacLean) MacLean.  Torquil MacLean was a farmer and ferryman in Englishtown, Nova Scotia who was born 15 Aug 1841 at Wreck Cove, Victoria, Nova Scotia, and died in Englishtown 29 Dec 1921. He was the son of Donald MacLean and Christine MacLeod.

I believe Torquil MacLean is well known among his many descendants, and locally, as the ferryman, from back in the day when that meant rowing, and coaxing horses on board, with their wagons, and even earlier, when the boat was smaller and the horse swam along behind, held by a rope.  Apparently he took over the ferry from his own father, ran it for 50 years, and his son Allen succeeded him in the business.  Today, the local ferry is still named for Torquil MacLean.  Torquil’s story was told in Issue 2 of Cape Breton’s Magazine.

Sarah (MacLean) MacLean

Sarah (MacLean) MacLean

Sarah MacLean was born in Middle River, Nova Scotia, 24 Mar 1852 and died 1 Jan 1940 in New Campbellton, Nova Scotia.  Her parents were Allen MacLean and Margaret Nicholson.  I do not know the connection between Torquil and Sarah’s families.

Torquil and Sarah MacLean’s children

Torquil and Sarah had eleven children.  Remarkably, they had five girls followed by six boys (family lore has it that they dug a new well).  Those researching Torquil and Sarah MacLean should consult The Road to Englishtown by Bonnie Thornhill (2009), p. 270-288.

  • Christena “Tena” MacLean, 1875 – 1968.  Married Charles Thomas Woolnough.  They lived in Halifax, where he ran a hotel/restaurant.
  • Mary MacLean, 1879 – 1931.  Married Malcolm B. Morrison in 1904.  Resided in Englishtown.  Their children were Dan, Edward, Gordon, Harry, John, Neil, and Sadie. 
Mary (MacLean) Morrison. Photo courtesy of Brian Burnett.

Mary (MacLean) Morrison. Photo courtesy of Byron Burnett.

  • Flora MacLean, 1880 – 1952.  Married Alexander “Sandy” Bain, a blacksmith, in 1899, and resided in New Campbellton, Cape Breton.   Her obituary is on this page of the Cape Breton Gen Web Project.  
  • Margaret MacLean, 1881 – 1948.  Married Donald R. MacDonald. She was a nurse and he was a doctor. She and her husband passed away within a few days of each other in Shediac, New Brunswick. 
  • Alice “Lexy” MacLean, 1883 – 1969.  She may have been married twice, first to John Phillip McLeod and later to Felix Gillan.  She died in Detroit, Michigan in 1969.
Daniel J. MacLean. Photo courtesy of Brian Burnett.

Daniel J. MacLean. Photo courtesy of Byron Burnett.

  • Daniel John MacLean, 1885 – 1918.  Daniel died in an Alberta coal mine in 1918.
  • Allan MacLean, 1887 – 1954. The only son to live a relatively long life, Allen took over the ferry from his father, and is mentioned in the Torquil MacLean article cited above (Cape Breton Magazine).  He married Sadie Grace Campbell, who died in 1930, and afterwards married Annie Urquhart, who lived until 1993.  His children were Daniel Edward, John Campbell, Allen Torquil, Robert K., Malcolm Arnold, Sadie Grace, and Margaret (Peggy).
Kenneth MacLean.  Photo courtesy of Brian Burnett.

Kenneth MacLean. Photo courtesy of Byron Burnett.

  • Kenneth R MacLean, 1889 – 1934.  Kenneth was a sailor, and was working for a Great Lakes transportation company in Buffalo, NY when he drowned.  He was married to Mary Belle Sutherland and had several children.
  • John Alexander MacLean, 1892 – 1933.  My grandfather, see above.  During WWI, he became a U.S. citizen due to the requirements of his job on board ships that were providing transportation services for the U.S. military. He married Josie MacLeod in 1920 and they had four children in Brooklyn, NY. He died in the hospital from an infection in 1933.  The family had recently moved to Rhode Island from Brooklyn and my grandmother decided to stay on in Rhode Island after his death.
Edward MacLean.  Photo courtesy of Brian Burnett.

Edward MacLean. Photo courtesy of Byron Burnett.

  • Edward C. MacLean, 1894 – 1913. Edward was a young coal miner, unmarried I believe, when he died in a mining accident in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in 1913.  My cousin Byron Burnett tells me that he is buried in the Auld Cemetery, Englishtown. 
  • Hugh Neil MacLean, 1896 – 1921.  Hugh served in WWI.  His draft papers from Poccahontas, Alberta, Canada report him as 5′ 9″, blue eyes, light brown hair, working at that time as a miner.  He served overseas during the war.  He was working on a ship after his return, and disappeared in New York City the night he was supposed to report to the ship.  Nothing more was heard from him and he was presumed dead.  At the time, my grandparents were a young married couple living in Brooklyn and were, I would think, the last family members to see him.  

A glimpse of the Torquil MacLean family

The book “Down North and Up Along” by Margaret Warner Morley (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1900) recounts the author’s travel experiences in Nova Scotia in the late 1890’s. She took the Englishtown Ferry along with a friend and a rented horse named Dan.

TORQUIL McLANE’S ferry is the notable instrument by means of which the traveller can find his way out of Englishtown to the north.
Englishtown lies opposite the narrowest part of St. Anne, which here may be about a mile wide, but that providential tongue of land must not be forgotten which separates the inner harbour from the outer bay, leaving only ” a passage for one vessel at a time,” and making of it a safe refuge in time of war.
Although not at present of military importance, the tongue of land still answers a very good purpose in shortening the labours of Torquil, the ferryman, who Is a man of note all over Cape North, and, for that matter, much farther. For whoever writes an article or even a letter about this part of the country, never fails to adorn the same with the picturesque name of Torquil McLane, the Englishtown ferryman.
Torquil must be pronounced ” turkle,” and Cape Breton on the spot must be called Cape ” Britton.” It is supposed by some that the island got its name from the Basque sailors who came to these shores from Cape Breton near Bayonne, in very early times. Be that as it may, the Basque sailors are no longer there to see justice done their mother tongue, and Cape ” Britton ” it is in the mouths of these former subjects of the British Empire.
Torquil McLane’s ferry was quite as picturesque as Torquil himself, and resembled nothing so little as our narrow-minded ideas of a ” ferry.” To see it was to understand and sympathise with Mr. A.’s concern that we should have a horse willing to cross it !
It had no landing whatever other than the pebbly beach provided by nature. The ferryboat resembled a retired dory, grown broad and flat-bottomed with increase of years. We reached this promising form of transportation by pitching down a stony embankment upon a stony beach.
Torquil was waiting for us, for had he not seen us enter town the night before, and did he not hope and trust that we should be crossing his ferry in the morning ? He was a tall, spare Highlander, and he surveyed us with his shrewd Scotch eyes, and in a deep voice inquired, after the manner of his people, where we came from, where we were going, and what our names were.
We answered and looked at each other in consternation, for while we might get aboard the high-sided boat, rocking in the water, what of Dan ? Could he and would he do this thing ? We did not believe that he could or would.
While Torquil was taking the horse from the waggon, his daughter, aged eighteen, strongly built and rosy-cheeked, appeared upon the scene. She had come to help her father row us over the ferry, and was accompanied by a little boy and a solemn-faced baby.
Torquil and his buxom daughter laid hold upon the waggon and pulled it out into the water and aboard the boat, that vehicle going through the most alarming contortions meantime. Then it was Dan’s turn, and we watched with bated breath as he waded out.
” Get in there ! ” said Torquil the ferryman — and Dan got in ! It was a beautiful sight. He pawed about with his front feet until he got them over the side and in the boat, and repeated the operation with his hind ones until he was all in. Could he have known the feelings with which we regarded him upon that occasion, he would have been a proud and happy horse.
As it was, he was no sooner in than he wished himself out again, and it became necessary for one of us to stand on a seat and keep him from walking overboard, while Torquil and his daughter pushed the boat from shore and turned it toward the other side of the harbour.
The baby was stowed for safe-keeping under the seat in the bow, whence it peered out curious but silent— as became a Scotch baby. The little boy pulled at his father’s oar until his face was crimson, and the strong-armed daughter kept stroke with her father. Thus we passed the perils of the sea.
As soon as the boat grated on the pebbles of the opposite shore, Dan scrambled overboard and Torquil harnessed him to the waggon. We paid the ferryman his fee and watched the clumsy craft go back across the mouth of the harbour bearing the far-famed ferryman, his strong daughter, his crimson-faced son, and his silent baby.

I wonder which daughter was the strong rower?  I suspect my grandfather, born in 1892, was not the solemn baby, but could he have been the boy?

A Map of Cape Breton, Englishtown highlighted, from Down North, p. 158.

A Map of Cape Breton (Englishtown highlighted), from Down North, p. 158.

In closing

I have many cousins on this side of the family and I hear from a new one from time to time.  Please, if anyone has better or further information, share it here where others will find it.  Thank you.

The post you are reading is located at:  https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2014/07/15/my-branch-of-the-macleans/

 

Headstone of Torquil and Sarah MacLean.

Headstone of Torquil and Sarah MacLean in the Englishtown cemetery.  Photo by Bonnie Churcher.

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Since my recent “How to Solve the Next Ten Problems” post, in which I detailed some steps I planned to take in the next few years to break down some brick walls, one of those has been solved.

My great-great-grandmother (my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother), Jessie Ruth MacLeod, was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, around 1862.  She somehow arrived in Providence, Rhode Island around 1881.  She married in 1882 and raised three daughters.  On her marriage license, she listed her parents as William MacLeod and Rachel.  I could never find any real trace of her before her marriage.

gr-gr-grandparents, Louis and Jessie Ruth (MacLeod) Murdock

gr-gr-grandparents, Louis and Jessie Ruth (MacLeod) Murdock

But thanks to the blog post about the brick walls, and other mentions of Jessie Ruth in my blog, I was contacted by a  MacLeod, a fifth cousin.  He owned an obscure family history book published by Jessie’s nephew, back in Pictou, around 1958.  I now have a copy.

The Pioneers and Churches, by Rev. D. K. Ross

The Pioneers and Churches, by Rev. D. K. Ross, Hopewell, Nova Scotia

It’s Her

Jessie is definitely in the book, The Pioneers and Churches: The Pioneers and Families, of Big Brook and West Branch E.R. and Surrounding Sections Including Lorne, Glengarry, Elgin, Centerdale, Hopewell, Marshdale, Foxbrook, by Rev. D. K. Ross, Hopewell, Nova Scotia [privately published, n.d.].

Her entry, on page 158, is garbled, but definitely her [with my notes in red]:

“Jessie Ruth MacLeod, adopted [wait a minute – adopted?] by William MacLeod and Mary MacLean, went to Providence, R.I., and married Louis R. Murdoch [her husband was Louis R. Murdock], machinist at Brown and Sharps [Brown and Sharpe, the tool manufacturers].  Their family: Christy [Mary Christine, known as “Aunt Chris”], Eva [that’s my g-grandma], and one other died early in life [that would be Jessie Ellen, known as “Aunt Jay”, who died at age 50 in 1939].  Christy married Charles Faulkenberg [Falkenberg] of 229 Lockwood St. in Providence.  Eva married Russell Darling, 92 Atlantic Avenue, Lakewood 5, Providence, R.I. [Those spouses are correct.  The addresses make sense but I have no documentation on them. Maybe my mom remembers.]  Both Chris and Eva have children [actually, only Eva had children].”

I strongly suspect that there is more to this story about the adoption, and that “it’s complicated.”  But that’s a problem for another day.  In the meantime, here are some details of her family background, at least through adoption.  I am taking some liberties using text/images here in the belief that the author, Rev. Daniel Keith Ross, put twelve years into the book and privately published it so that his relatives would know more about their background, and he would want it to be circulated.  If any descendants want to object, please come over any time and make your case.  And bring pictures.

Her Family

I am only beginning to research this myself, so please be aware I am taking this information from the book, and have only begun to seek further sources.

   — Jessie’s parents (or adopted parents) and sister

(father) William MacLeod, born 1823 at Tea Gate, Kiltarlity, Inverness-shire, Scotland; arrived with his parents at Pictou in 1832.  Married Mary MacLean in 1847, and had one daughter, Christy Ann, in 1848. He lived on his wife’s family farm.  Died in 1894 in Big Brook (now Lorne), Pictou, Nova Scotia.

from the book, p. 158:  William MacLeod, born 1823, married Mary MacLean, born 1823, of Big Brook and settled on the Donald MacLean farm and carried on farming in summer and lumbering in winter.  For eleven winters he made his way to Aroostook County, Maine and cut and hewed pine timber to be taken down the St. John River in the Spring.  He followed the drives down the river for eleven seasons.  River driving was cold and hazardous business.  William MacLeod was not only a splendid axeman, he could hew the line with a broad axe and also use the narrow axe to good effect.  He had a set of carpenter’s tools and made horse rakes and hand rakes on many occasions and was an all-around handy man, a craftsman in many lines.  Farmers in the early days had to do many things which today are done in factories.  They had to do these things or do without these conveniences.

(mother) Mary MacLean, born 1823 in Big Brook (now Lorne), Nova Scotia, lived all her life on her father’s farm and died in 1902.  She is buried, with her husband, at the Lorne Cemetery right on their property.

The MacLean farm which became the home of William and Mary (MacLean) Murdock, from page 192

The MacLean farm which became the home of William and Mary (MacLean) MacLeod, later of John and Christy Ann (MacLeod) Ross

The picture is from page 192 of the book, the farm where they lived, in Lorne, Nova Scotia. Note that Lorne Cemetery is on this property, toward the top of the picture.

(sister) Christy Ann MacLeod, was born in 1848 in Big Brook.  She married John Ross in 1871 and the couple lived on her family’s farm.  They had five children, William Allister Ross, Daniel Keith Ross (the author of the book), Charles Simons Ross, Elizabeth Mary Ross, and Catherine Jessie Ross.

Christy Ann MacLeod and her husband, John Ross

sister Christy Ann MacLeod and her husband, John Ross, from page 193.

 — Jessie’s grandparents

Alexander “Alex” MacLeod was born in Tea Gate, Kiltarlity, Inverness-shire, Scotland, the oldest of seven children born to William MacLeod and Margaret McKay, who never left Scotland.  Alexander brought his wife and first four children from Scotland to Pictou in 1832 and settled at Middle River (now Glengarry), where seven additional children were born.  Later, they moved to Lorne.

Ann “Annie” Fraser was born in Beauly (or Beuly), near Kiltarlity, and with her husband Alex and children, came to Pictou in 1832.  When they moved, later, from Middle River to Lorne, they settled on the property of William Fraser, who had rather illustrious roots in Beauly, connected to the local castle, and had arrived in Pictou in 1800.  Her relationship to these Frasers is not clear to me.  Annie and Alex may be buried at St. Columba Cemetery, Hopewell, Pictou.

from the book, page 158:  Annie Fraser, the Scottish lassie from Beuly was the mother of eleven children and instilled in their minds and hearts the knowledge of God and a love of the church and of family religion in the home.

Donald MacLean was born around 1800 either in Scotland or Pictou. Donald’s parent, Charles MacLean and Marjory McKay, had come from Scotland around 1800.  His father, Charles MacLean, was granted 309 acres of land in Big Brook (later Lorne) in 1810, and that property (pictured above) was later split among the three sons. Donald was on the roll of the West Branch Church (now called St. Columba) in 1853.  He may have died around 1871.

from the book, concerning Charles MacLean (and quoting from Rev. Alexander MacLean’s 1911 “History of the Kirk in Pictou County”), page 125:  “But crowning that real humility there was a dignity that constrained respect from the most thoughtless.  When there was no service, not seldom the case, for many years, his neighbors assembled at his home for religious conference and prayer.  In the presence of this saintly man of God all felt that God was near.  For years his humble dwelling was to the community a little Bethel.”

Elizabeth “Betsy” MacMillan was born in 1798, probably in Irish Mountain, Pictou.  Donald and Betsy’s only child, Mary, was born in 1823.  She was the daughter of John MacMillan and Mary Grant.  She had a brother, Finlay MacMillan, who married her husband’s sister, Isabel MacLean. Donald and Betsy lived for many years on the MacLean family farm which was eventually run by their son in law, William MacLeod.

MacLeods and MacLeans?

Along about now, my family members are getting VERY confused, because my FATHER’S family are all MacLean’s and MacLeod’s going back many generations.  But they are from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and so far, I’m not spotting much of a real connection.

Jessie Ruth MacLeod Murdock

Jessie Ruth MacLeod Murdock

Clues I Missed

Any time a hard problem is solved I am painfully aware of what I overlooked:

  • Jessie Ruth had three children:  (1)Eva Louise, b. 1883 – Eva was an extremely popular name, and I think Louise may have been given in honor of the father, Louis.  (2)Mary Christine, b. 1886 – those are the names of Jessie’s adopted mother, Mary, and sister, Christy – I should have realized those names were clues. If I had searched census records for Mary MacLeod or Christine MacLeod in Pictou that might have helped me.  (3)Jessie Ellen, b. 1889 – OK, we know where the Jessie comes from, but where does Ellen come from?  I suspect “Ellen” is a further clue.
  • I keep thinking, how would I ever, ever, have found this book.  It’s not even in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City [UPDATE it is in the FHL – it was the first thing I noticed in the Pictou section].  I really need to ponder this more … WorldCat.org shows it in about 10 libraries, mostly Canadian.  Had I looked up the history or biography classifications under Pictou, I would have found it along with dozens of other potentially helpful books.  It is located in two locations I MIGHT have made it to someday – Allen County Public Library, and the college at Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where I have other family.  Note to me – am I using WorldCat enough?

Next Steps

  • Continue to seek information based on the many clues provided by the book
  • Try to find evidence of the mother Jessie named on her marriage license, “Rachel”
  • Find relatives that Jessie may have followed to Providence, R.I. (I have already found some female MacLean cousins, who were nurses and ran some sort of “hospital home” at the bottom of Angell Street, in Providence – Isabel and Annie Jane Grant, however, they didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the 1890’s.)
  • Find any connections between Jessie’s family and her future father in law, William Murdock, who was also from Pictou

From the blog OneRhodeIslandFamily.com, the post you are reading is located at:  http://wp.me/p1JmJS-UO

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Where We Came From

Today I am honored to have a guest blogger, my Uncle Ken.  A graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School, Kenneth Torquil MacLean has served for over 50 years as a Unitarian minister, 20 of them at the Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland.  An inspired speaker, always fascinated with the human experience, Ken gave this sermon about our Nova Scotia roots on October 18, 2009.

Rev. Kenneth Torquil MacLean

WHERE WE CAME FROM

by Kenneth Torquil MacLean

I cannot claim that my people came from Scotland to Nova Scotia on the Hector, for I do not know that, and the Hector is like the Mayflower is for many Americans, a source of pride because their people got here first.  The Hector sailed from Scotland to Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773 with 189 passengers.  Pictou is a small seaport on the north coast of Nova Scotia, and when I visited there in September with Terry and my brother and three members of his family, we were fascinated to see an accurate replica of the Hector there in the harbor and a museum which tells a great deal of what it was like to have been one of the passengers on that voyage.

Things were tough in Scotland in those days. Most people were  tenants on the land of the great landowners, and very much at the mercy of those wealthy nobility. There were great changes in the economy of the country, there was the conversion from tenant farming to devoting the land to pasturage for sheep, and there was a great scarcity of food which amounted to famine in some areas. The prospect of a better life across the ocean led many families to scrape together the three pounds for their passage. They were told to bring a pound of oatmeal for each person, and some also brought some molasses or other condiment. For the first week or so, passengers were allowed on deck, and the weather was somewhat pleasant  That soon switched to stormy seas, and all passengers were required to remain below deck for the remainder of the trip. Because they were blown off their course early on, they probably lost two weeks, and the whole voyage took twelve weeks. When we went below deck, the bunks, or shelves on which they were accommodated reminded me of the prison at Dachau. The captain provided them with water, but it was in very short supply, and the pound of oatmeal for each person had to be stretched pretty thin. There was no privacy, but they managed to subsist. Then it happened that some of the children contracted small pox. Most of the adults had already been through cow pox, and that left them immune to small pox, but the children were not so protected, and a number of them died, along with two adult women. The bodies were wrapped in sail cloth and sent to a watery grave.

These brave pioneers were the vanguard of perhaps 40 thousand Scots, mostly from the Highlands and the islands off northwest Scotland who made their way to Nova Scotia, especially to Cape Breton Island from the 1770’s to the 1830’s and ’40’s. It was pointed out over and over that there were better land and greater opportunities in Upper Canada, but it was clear that they wanted to be with their own people, people who shared their religion and culture. The settlements they founded were either Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. They had  brought little or nothing with them, and they were poor to begin with.  They had been promised land along the coast and provisions to tide them over until they could provide their own, but the land they got was back in the forest, not near the coast. There were no provisions for  them, and they were destitute. They were also tough. Life in the  remoteness and wintry weather of the Scottish Highlands and the island  had made them resourceful survivors.

My people probably landed in Cape Breton in the 1820’s, and  they came mostly from Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides off the  Scottish mainland. Lewis is the northern part and Harris is the southern part of one island. Harris is famous for its tweeds. Both sides of my family, the MacLeans and the MacLeods, settled in the village of  Englishtown, along St. Ann’s Bay. Across the bay from Englishtown  there is a sand bar which curves out into the water, solid enough to  have a road built on it. And the Englishtown Ferry runs over to the end  of that sand bar. The gap is not very wide, but there are very swift currents in it with a tide change every six hours.  And Donald MacLean, with a dory would row a buggy and passengers across. The horse would usually have to swim behind the ferry and the passenger would hold the rope attached to the horse or tie it to the rail. Donald’s son Torquil took over from his father on the ferry, and he operated it for fifty years. It has now been in operation for at least 175 years and is named for Torquil, my grandfather. It will take fifteen cars at a time.

Torquil MacLean

Life in Cape Breton was not easy. The land was rocky for farming but not impossible, and the waters around them were full of fish and oysters and lobsters. Some of the early settlers had been given grants of land and others bought up pieces where they could.

In the 1840’s a Presbyterian minister came from Scotland, first to Pictou and then to Saint Ann’s and Englishtown. Norman MacLeod was a charismatic, narrow, opinionated, powerful man who served the community as minister, schoolmaster, and magistrate.  He would criticize people from the pulpit, as he did to his wife when she went to Sydney and bought a hat with ribbons on it. But when things got tough, and the crops were poor and the weather was terrible, he made sure that no one in his church community lost their land. They shared and helped each other. In the late 1840’s he decided that the whole community should move—to Australia!  They had six ships built and altogether about 800 of his followers embarked on their sailing ships around Cape Horn, across the Pacific to Adelaide. My great-grand mother’s brother went and she stayed. Australia was having its gold rush and Norman MacLeod did not approve of what he saw there, so after a year they all moved to the North Island of New Zealand.  Back in Englishtown one family nailed shut the door through which Norman MacLeod had come to say Goodbye. He was seventy years old, and they knew they would never see him again, so they decided that no one else should ever go through that door.

Sarah (MacLean) MacLean

Life went on in the very quiet community of Englishtown. Torquil and  Sarah MacLean raised eleven children in the farmhouse near the ferry,  and they all worked hard to store enough meat and vegetables to get  them through the winter. They had five daughters in a row and then six sons in a row. My father used to tell of the man from the country who had to go to Sydney to see the eye doctor.  When he returned, his friend asked him what the doctor had done. “He took my eyes out and polished them and put them back in,” he said.  “He did not,” said his friend. “Sure and didn’t I see them sitting in the saucer looking at me?!”  Life was hard in Englishtown, and a young man with  any ambition would go away, to work in the mines, or sail on the Great Lakes, or join a steamship line on the Atlantic. Two of my uncles died in mining accidents, one was killed in England in the First World War, one drowned at sea, one disappeared from his ship in New York and was never heard from again. One stayed right there to become the captain of the Englishtown Ferry.  My father became the youngest captain the United Fruit Company had ever had, but died young of an infection.  My grandmother outlived five of her six sons.

So this is the family story that my brother and I went exploring in Cape Breton last month, and thank you for your patience in listening to it.  We visited cemeteries where some of our people, including my mother, are buried.  We met cousins who were warm and welcoming.  We saw the great beauty of that land and realized why my mother kept going back to Englishtown until her 98th year.  We found books and museum exhibits that helped us to understand what our people had gone through and how they clung to their Scottish and Presbyterian identity, though they did not want to live in Scotland.  Above all, we got a glimpse of the courage and strength they demonstrated over and over, and we hoped that some of these qualities came down the line.

Tom Ahlburn, my poetic colleague who died two years ago, said that part of religion is knowing who we are.  We can’t set out to become the people we want to be until we have some clear idea of who we are.  And one way to begin to know who we are is to know who we came from, and what we are carrying with us from them.  When my father died and I was the oldest of four children, my mother made the brave decision not to return to her family in Cape Breton.  “The children were born here and they ought to grow up here,” she said.  So we grew up a thousand miles from our roots, and we knew Cape Breton, “Down Home,” through my mother’s shared memories, and the letters and visit from family.  Each of us had a trip to Nova Scotia when we were very young, and that gave us different images to keep and think about as we set about discovering who we were.  I think of old Torquil, whose name I bear, rowing and pushing that heavy boat around, getting a horse into the boat and out the other end, or hanging on to the rope with the horse swimming at the other end.  I think of my father, with eight years of a country school rising to be in command of a great ship at sea.  I think of my grandmother, living almost all of her life in that house with a spinning wheel in the parlor but no indoor plumbing.  I think of the cousins I never really got to know who had to face many of the same challenges that came in my life.

Kenneth and Sarah (MacLeod) MacLeod … with “Granny” Martha MacLeod & my Nana Josie in white … with their children.

The groping for understanding goes on; it never ends.  I always felt that I was different, but if I had known some of them, maybe I would have realized that in various ways they, too, were different.  And what of your roots, the ones you knew at first hand and the ones you just heard about?  Do they help you know who you are?  Are there some wonderful people connected to you who have qualities you would like to have in equal measure?  Are there some who help you by reminding you that you don’t want to be like them?  We mostly grow up thinking that we ought to and will live forever.  When you think about some of the people whom you have known well and who now are gone, does it bring you a sense of a complete life and a realization that one day our lives, too, will be complete?  And is that scary or comforting, or both?

It is not just the people I am fortunate to feel a sense of connection with, it is the places.  When I go to Englishtown or North Sydney, where my mother grew up, I feel that connection to my roots.

Seeing a beautiful seaside town in North Carolina or California may soothe the soul, but it is not connected; it is not my roots.  In Englishtown, they may be in the cemeteries or on the ferry boat, but they are my roots, and they hold me close.

“Roots, hold me close, wings, set me free,

Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.”

Mom, my brother in law Doug, and Dad, visiting the church in Englishtown

The link to this post is:  http://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2012/03/14/where-we-came-from/

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