Updated: Aug 17, 2021
EPISODE 2: Love & Potatoes
This story I have for you today checks all the boxes for the reason why I am doing this podcast. 1) To connect to a larger historical narrative that not only provides me with a settler story, but 2) helps me appreciate how my ancestors benefited from Indigenous communities here before them. And lastly, to discuss the research process itself. Let’s start with the latter.
I mentioned last episode that the number one rule when starting to research your family history is to start talking with the oldest members of your family. If you have a person who is a willing resource in your family – this is a blessing. In my case this was my Grandma Bessie. It was about 15 years ago when I first broached the subject with her. She was perfectly willing to give me plenty of names, places and dates – but nothing too personal. My aunt finally pulled me aside and told me that some of the things I was asking about were hot button issues for my Grandma. I could not drop the subject with Grandmother completely, so I asked permission to write to her to double check some spellings and dates. This went a little better. She returned my letter with all the responses I asked for. Not only did she respond to my requests, but she got me a genealogical book on families in the London, Ontario area.
From this book I learned about how one of my ancestors had come to Canada, and it is a love story!
William Mair Jr. is my 3rd Great Paternal Grandfather. He was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1784. William was in love with Ellen McKenzie, and Ellen returned is affection. Their relationship came to an end though because their families disapproved. They tried to make new lives for themselves. William left Scotland and sailed to America in 1815, settling in Lockport, New York where he worked on the Erie Canal. Ellen eventually married a man named John McAdam. They started a family together and eventually moved to London, Ontario, Canada in 1819.
Ellen somehow, discovered where William was and swiftly packed her bags to reunite with her long-lost sweetheart. The small matter of the seven children she had with John McAdam was apparently a minor factor. Cue the music…
MUSIC BREAK – LUCILLE, BY KENNY ROGERS
I couldn’t help myself that song immediately invaded my brain when I read the story.
Ok – it wasn’t all that bad. The children ranged in age from 5 years old to 20 years old. Ellen took the 5-year-old with her. Her eldest son escorted her to the New York border and then returned home, which doesn’t seem at all out of the ordinary until you understand that they WALKED. Yes, they were on foot.
I did what everyone probably does after reading this story and paused to get the details of this trip from google maps. The distance between London, Ontario and Lockport, New York is almost 230 km/143 miles. If you were to walk there without stopping it would take you 48 hours. Oh, and don’t forget there is a 5-year-old in tow…She must have carried that child at times.
MUSIC BREAK – THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING, BY NANCY SINATRA
Wow - She REALLY missed William Mair Jr.
Apparently, this trip was worth the trouble. Ellen stayed in New York with William. They had a son together in 1827, William Mair the 3rd. William Mair Jr. died in 1836. In 1845 Ellen and her 2 boys returned to London, Ontario, where Ellen took the monies from the sale of the house in New York and set-up both her sons. William Mair III, married Ann Hammond and raised 12 children on that London Farm. Their 9th child Jane Mair is my Great-great Grandmother. This entire branch of my family is owed to this dramatic love story in which Ellen McKenzie walks to another country to reunite with her love.
Now at this point I want to put Ellen’s journey into Historical context. This 230 km trek was rough and rocky terrain. Roads were in process and land was being settled. And the roads that were being constructed slowly were laid on existing foot paths that had existed for thousands of years prior. It was these historical foot trails that made Ellen McKenzie’s epic journey possible. There were several trails in the region that connected New York to Canada. Ellen most likely took the West Fork of the Iroquois Trail in Fort Niagara.
These are trails that connected the nations of the Iroquois confederacy, to the Three Fires confederacy in the west.
I had always heard that Southwestern Ontario was an important meeting place. I did not appreciate this statement until putting this story together. This branch of my family held on by tenuous thread, in the hopes she could make this long journey on foot, WITH a young child, and all her belongings. IT WAS an ancient Iroquois footpath that made it possible. I came to this story expecting to find a traditional immigration story and nothing could have prepared me for this tale.
In fact, it was thousands of years of migration that laid the groundwork. The displacement of British Loyalist and Onieda people after the American Revolution that settled the very area that Ellen called home in Canada. The very trails that made settlement possible, also made her migration a possibility, as well as my family tree.
Thank you for coming by the Maple Family Treehouse.
Oh hey, before you leave, I want you to meet my Great Uncle Fred. He led a simple life, as a bachelor – he never married (or even dated anyone as far as I know). In his later life he lived with his sister Bessie – my grandmother. He never drove a car, but he owned a few tractors throughout his life and rode a bike all over London, Ontario. His passion in life was growing hybrid potatoes. Even well after the family farm was gone, he maintained a garden plot to grow food for years. He loved to tell stories and every story he told started with, “Well, I’ll tell you what”. In that exact same cadence, every time. I always thought of him as an extremely practical guy with a great deal of wisdom when it came to growing food. So, one day I asked him for some advice as a new gardener, and he replied, “Well, I’ll tell you what, everything you need to know is in every cell of your body, you already know how to grow food, just do it.” This response took me by surprise, now I also think of him as a metaphysical gardening philosopher! I took his advice, and I now grow a jungle of food all around my house, even a few potatoes. Fred would be proud.
I hope you found this second episode of the Maple Family Treehouse inspiring. Family history is a great way to connect to a larger cultural narrative. That connection can bring a profound sense of belonging. There is a story behind why you are where you are. I would love to hear about the connections you are making while doing your own family history. Tell me about it at maplefamilytreehouse.com. Take care. Cheers!