Happy Birthday, Mary MacLane!

Happy 138th birthday, Mary MacLane! In honor of the day and in response to a number of friends’ inquiries, it’s time for admirers to have a bit of the forthcoming biography. Below is the first bit of Chapt I of the biography – “A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life” – up to the coming of Mary’s father, James “Flatboat” MacLane, on the scene. Chapt. I is very much about James, and his life-story has finally been put together. The ending total is 13,300 words and 121 citations, and it’s a fascinating tale with unexpected resonances with Mary’s life and career. Viva Mary!

[ excerpt copyright 2019 by Michael R. Brown ]

I. Alpha’s Daughter

It was called, simply, “Upper Canada” – this land of forests, fields, farms, great lakes, and a great river passage, opened in 1825 via the Lachine Canal around impassable rapids near Montreal, to the Gulf of St Lawrence and out to the Atlantic. Along Lake Ontario’s shore, towns had begun to develop in the wake of surveyors’ work in the 1790s, and one place set in bounds and measures in 1792 would be – like nearby towns founded on the same survey – named after a town in Yorkshire: Whitby, in whose abbey England’s first poet, Cædmon, had lived and worked.

First settled around 1800 without a name, its natural harbor at Windsor Bay was made a government port of entry in 1831, and when grain shipments from farmers in the fertile northward lands commenced in 1833, energy began flowing into the area, leading to former politician turned merchant Peter Perry’s founding a downtown in 1836, which saw erected the Commercial Hotel in 1842 and, in 1850, a general store in the fancy Montreal style (and sided with fire-resistant brick). Initially called Perry’s Corners, then Windsor, the town was renamed Whitby in 1848 and was incorporated in 1855.

In the middle 1840s, Perry persuaded the provincial government to overhaul the road into town from Lake Scugog (at whose lower reach he had, not coincidentally, built a store at Port Perry), about 20 miles to the north. With a road connection northward to Lake Huron completed in the late 1840s, the port became the third busiest on Lake Ontario – led only by Toronto and Kingston – and his firm scored a coup in 1850 by buying the Scugog Road and Windsor Bay’s harbor facilities at half the government’s cost.

Peter Perry would die the next year, and so never witness Whitby’s being chosen as the seat of the newly-formed County of Ontario’s government in 1852.

In this rich land with an expanding economy based on water-borne agricultural exports settled John MacLane , born in the 1790s in Carrickfergus, Ireland, a commercial center on the water just north of Belfast and across the Irish Sea from Scotland. A stronghold of United Irishmen involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Carrickfergus was the site of the execution of the rebel William Orr, the injustice of which so outraged the citizenry that they left town for his hanging-day.

John’s father, also John MacLane (c. 1773-?), had been born in Ecclefechan, a rural village in southern Scotland’s western Uplands, five miles from the sea and about eight miles from the English border, now known as the birth- and burial-place of Thomas Carlyle and of Dr. Arnott, Napoleon’s physician at St Helena. John’s father, also John (1750-1855), was the son of John (1732-?), whose father, too, was John (1699-?). The family, rooted in sea-bordering Argyll in western Scotland, apparently lived on the Isle of Mull for a time, but though their famed Canadian-American descendent would claim a spiritual as well as physical descent from the fearsome warriors of Clan MacLean, her family’s older history – and precise connection with the Highland clan with the vast land ownerships in Argyll and the archipelagan Hebrides – is obscure.

Frustratingly, nothing significant is known of the females among her ancestors but the names that vary the succession of Johns: Barbara MacDonald (1702-?), Jessica Ross (1733-?), Isabel MacDougal of Argyll (1755-?), and Dorothea Cameron (1780s?-?).

It is not known why John left Ireland (or why his father moved there), but waves of Scots were motile in the years of the Clearances, when families’ traditional agricultural lives were upended in the great landowners’ remaking of their lands into pasture as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Though rooted in the Dukes of Argylls’ decision to auction the Kintyre leases in the 1710s, the Clearances are generally dated 1760-1815 – dovetailing well enough with John’s birth c. 1794. The family’s passage from Scotland to Ireland and then from Ireland to North America was within a greater movement that would continue in the next generation – both among and outside the MacLanes of Upper Canada – with a further thrust westward.

Slightly more is known of Mary Scott Reid (1809-1907), the first female to enter the family in the New World. US-born daughter of Asa Farrar Reid (1787-1859), a scandal-ridden American surgeon, and Irish-born Margaret Wilson (1793-1874), a later story had it that at age twelve she rode horseback with her parents from Kentucky to a new home in Upper Canada. Asa, with colonial American forebears and of near-noble British descent, became one of the Toronto area’s first doctors and would see a street in Richmond Hill named for him.

In 1827, at the age of 18, Mary married 33-year-old John MacLane, and the next year gave birth to Margaret, followed by Mary, Diadama, Maria, Sarah, James Whitby, Asa Markham, and Elizabeth. The family was evidently on the move, with Mary’s birth in Richmond Hill (whose first European residents were a ferment of French Royalists and British immigrants), Diadama’s in German-settled Markham, and James Whitby’s in Perry’s Corners.

Upper Canada and Lower Canada, having been swept by revolutionary broils in 1837-1838, were dissolved by the Crown in 1841 and reconstituted as a single governmental entity, the Province of Canada, with Canada West and Canada East coextensive with the earlier colonies. The MacLanes cannot be identified in the 1842 Canada West census, but in 1851 John shows as farmer and head of a Presbyterian household in the town of Whitby on Lake Ontario’s north shore. Ten years later, his son James was 22 years old, working as a laborer – whether on or off their property is not recorded – and living with three of his sisters and their parents in a one-story log house.

Asa left home before his elder brother. He cannot be found in the 1861 census, but does show in 1871 as a newly-married farmer and Presbyterian head of family in Oro – a township on the far shore of Lake Simcoe, about 70 miles north of Whitby – with Diadama and their widowed mother Mary, her husband having died around 1864, living with them.

James left not long after Asa but went further. An 1889 account would recall his departing at age nineteen at the height of an unnamed gold rush, having outfitted teams to cross the Rockies and accompanying them to the Pacific coast – at the time, a most adventurous enterprise. That age would put his departure between 1858-1860 and may be rejected out of hand with his appearing on the 1861 census, but the story is, beyond that, true.

While he was too young to have participated in California’s rush of 1849-1855, there were several significant gold rushes further north on the Pacific coast – among them the Stikine, which began with the colorful Alexander Choquette’s 1861 claim on the Stikine River, and the mighty Cariboo, founded in early discoveries at Hills Bar in 1858, with further strikes in the next two years and publicity around 1860 drawing streams of miners which would crest by 1865. Although the Stikine would soon peter out, the Cariboo was longer-lasting and sparked the founding of towns and construction of the famed 600-mile-long Cariboo Road – and indeed, in an 1890 history, there is a direct mention of James under a later nickname: “Flat-boat McLean … was one of those who crossed the plains and mountains in 1862, to the Cariboo gold fields”. This fact, echoed by independent sources , indicates that he was among the celebrated Overlanders of ’62, the first major company of Canadians to cross the continent to what would be called British Columbia. Inspired by reports of gold riches, more than one dozen small parties rose in Canada West and Canada East and would travel to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Garry, near to what would become Winnipeg, to form a company of about 150 souls to strike out west.

[ End. ]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s