Wednesday, August 07, 2013

An informal talk on compiling McLennan/MacLennan genealogies in Stormont and Glengarry

Note: this is the talk I gave on August 3, 2013 at the Clan MacLennan tent at this year's Glengarry Highland Games. Since the Clan MacLennan was the featured clan at this year's event, I was invited to give an informal talk on working my ongoing genealogical project. Photo of myself with Ruairidh MacLennan of MacLennan, Clan Chief (among others), taken by Ray McLennan.

As genealogists, predominantly amateur and self-taught, we work to attempt to understand the depth and breadth of our own beginnings, even as we come to terms with their limitations.

Glengarry County, the east half of Stormont, the lands north to the Ottawa River and parts of Quebec were originally founded as a semi-single unit of immigration from the Glengarry Highlands of Scotland, the bulk of which occurred between 1770 and 1820. When Glengarry was first surveyed in 1770, it extended as far north as the Ottawa River. Prescott County wasn’t created until 1800, when those north of what is now Highway 417 complained that it was impossible to travel through the swamp to get their produce down to the rail at Alexandria.

Glengarry is the oldest county in the province of Ontario, and yet, the last to get phone service. The county pre-dates the United Empire Loyalists. My own household growing up, like so many around us, contained numerous books on the area, including multiple works by Ralph Connor, the Illustrated historical atlas of the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, 1879 (1972), A History of Glengarry (1979), by Royce MacGillivray and Ewan Ross, Dorothy Dumbrille’s Up and Down the Glens: The Story of Glengarry (1954) and The Campbells, and Other Glengarry-Stormont and Harrington Pioneers (1983). Through my paternal grandmother, a Campbell from the former hamlet of Athol, just north of the village, we’re listed on page 113, although with our name as “MacLennan” instead of “McLennan,” as well as my sister’s name misspelled.

I originally started to think about working on a genealogy for our McLennans around 1991, triggered by the publication of Maxville: Its Centennial Story: 1891-1991 (1991). An older cousin of my father’s had provided information on our family, and had managed to get my birth year wrong. The most recent item she had in her history was the arrival of my sister, in 1976. To this day, I’ve not managed to acquire a copy of the portrait of my great grandparents, Findley John and Julia McLennan, surrounded by their children, that she provided for the book. So far, it’s the only picture I’ve seen of either of my great grandparents.

My daughter, born the year of Maxville’s centennial, isn’t mentioned.

My great aunt Belle (1895-1978) originally compiled a genealogy of our family in the 1970s. Once I started digging through her genealogy some fifteen years after she’d died, I realized she had written it in such a way that you had to know her directly to be able to comprehend it. “Such and such lived with my grandmother,” she wrote, not specifying which grandmother she might have been referring to. It took a few years to not only decipher what she had recorded, but to realize a third of it was actually incorrect, and that she had managed to miss out on an entire generation, buried in the same plot as most of the other family members she discussed. It read like a genealogy built on the presumption that she knew what she was talking about, without much in terms of actual research.

History moves in more than a single direction; we exist temporally, moving ahead, with the option of either a single or both eyes behind us. As McLennans, we historically shake our fists at the Frasers, who killed the Logan chief in the 15th century and left his pregnant wife, thus inadvertently creating the MacLennans of Kintail, the point from which many of the McLennans in the two counties originate. A McDonald friend from high school once attacked me, drunk, with a wooden spoon when we were nineteen, upon hearing my paternal grandmother’s lineage. You scurvy lowlanders, she scowled, you killed us in our beds. It might just seem ridiculous to think about, but to some, these connections still hold serious and dire meaning. As Kim Campbell ran for Prime Minister, there was a sign in South Glengarry that read, “Remember Glencoe.”

Our branch of the McLennans appeared on this side of the ocean as a couple with six children from Kintail, Ross-Shire, Scotland, somewhere between 1820 and 1840. My great-great-great grandfather, family patriarch John McLennan (1786-1857) received a land grant of one hundred acres at Lot 3, Concession 7 Roxborough, on what is now known as MacDonald’s Grove Road (between Dyer Road and Sandringham) in 1845, and sold the property fifteen years later, to immediately purchase the adjoining property, Lot 4. Given that they were in Lancaster during the 1851 Census, I’ve theorized that they quite possibly never lived on the first property, selling it for the sake of neighbouring land that had already been cleared. It was at Lot 4 that two more generations of McLennans were born, down to my grandfather, John Duncan. Not being the eldest of his siblings, he ended up in the log house across the road from the two properties, where my father was born in 1941. When my father was six months old, the three of them returned to Lot 3, without knowing it was the original property, and my father has lived and farmed there since. My sister now lives where our father was born with her husband and their three children.

From the perspective of anyone who has taken on this kind of work, genealogy isn’t hard, it just takes time and attention, although some of that time could easily become years. I’ve spent time in the National Archives in Ottawa, the Provincial Archives in Toronto, and county archives in both Cornwall and Williamstown, and know that there is an enormous amount of research I have yet to approach. We have access to internet research, including, something that barely existed twenty years ago.

One of the best sources of genealogical information to connect relatives often come from obituaries, giving a whole slew of family relation that are difficult to discover anywhere else. Frustratingly, The Glengarry News is a century younger than immigration to the area, losing an enormous amount of potential information. And yet, this area is incredibly rich with local histories, many of which are small or self-published, and I’ve amassed quite a collection of titles over the years on the United Counties. A particular favourite I’d recommend is Marianne McLean’s The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820 (1993), which explores not only the reasons behind the mass immigration to Glengarry, but the complex decades of history in Scotland that led to the exodus.

Through the wide net I cast for the sake of researching my own family, I started discovering connections between other branches, seeing what other histories had been published, posted and compiled, and started to connect families together that we weren’t related to. The names easily move into the hundreds, and I’ve so far compiled a two-hundred-and-fifty-some page main document on forty-five families who are most likely far less unrelated than I’ve so far managed to connect. Throughout the two counties, McLennan concentrations exist around Lancaster, Williamstown and Cornwall, with smaller family groupings in Maxville, Alexandria and other locations.

Tales tell of seventeen unrelated McLennan families that helped found Williamstown.

One of the most visible McLennan families I’ve discovered lived near South Lancaster on a two hundred acre estate that has entirely disappeared, and the McLennan name along with it. John McLennan, Esquire (1821-1893), was known as John McLennan (By the Lake), and was the grandson of Murdoch McLennan, who sailed on the infamous Neptune in 1802, en route to Glengarry. As John wrote in The Glengarrian, December 24, 1885:

My grandfather, Murdoch McLennan, gave up a valuable holding on the Seaforth estate, in order to keep with his friends and neighbours who were emigrating. They were 1100 souls in the vessel, and were four months at sea, encountering wintry weather on the coast of Labrador, a rough introduction to the New World.

John (By the Lake) became president of the Montreal Board of Trade, was vice-president of the Merchant Banks, and a director of other companies, as well as Conservative M.P. for Glengarry from 1878 to1882. He built many of the fine homes along the lake, including their own property, which became known as the “Ridgewood” estate. The family couldn’t even turn around without The Glengarry News recording it, from hosting garden parties on their estate on the St. Lawrence River to the fact of his daughter spending a summer in Boston. They constructed a church on their property, known as the Church in the Wildwood, the first Anglican Church in the area, where their infant son was one of the first to be interred. Ewan Ross, in the book LANCASTER TOWNSHIP AND VILLAGE wrote:

The Anglican Church of St. John, the Evangelist, (Church in the Wildwood) held its first service on July 21, 1899. This church was erected on the McLennan (Ridgewood) property on the east front of Lancaster township by Mrs. John McLennan in memory of her husband. Though Anglicans in the area at the time were few in number and the church was almost a private chapel, population change in the next three quarters of a century brought more Anglicans to the community and the importance of St. John’s as a place of worship increased with time. There is a small cemetery beside the church.

As the name moved or married away, barely a trace of the family remains in the area, but for the red wooden church tucked into the bush. When the 401 Highway came through in the 1950s, it cut straight through their estate, and the last remnants of the property was sold soon after to the Lancaster Campground. This is a considerable absence from multiple generations of a storied family. Dorothy Dumbrille’s Braggart In My Step, More Stories of Glengarry (1956) includes not one but two rich and amazing chapters on the lives of a number of members of this McLennan line.

From the same branch, his nephew, John Stewart McLennan (1853-1939), was a native of Sydney, Nova Scotia, where he built an estate he dubbed “Petersfield.” He was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1916 by Prime Minister Robert Borden. The “McLennans of Petersfield” website ( writes:

Hugh McLennan, J.S.’s father, had been very involved in Montreal and this involvement led him to be interested in McGill University. An endowment to the university was funded by the McLennans and in 1969, the McLennan Library was built to house research books for graduate students. The library was named in honour of Isabella McLennan, daughter of Hugh, whose estate helped finance the library. Much earlier, in 1881, Hugh McLennan had given financial aid to McGill. In 1883, Hugh became a governor of the university. Hugh also financed the McLennan Traveling Library of Montreal in 1901. This library was the first of its kind in Canada.

So, for those who might not have known, the McLennan Library at McGill University has its origins in Glengarry. Given that John Stewart McLennan had few heirs, there was little in the way of the Canadian government claiming the estate for its strategic location during the Second World War. His unmarried daughter moved into Halifax where she volunteered as a nurse, and Petersfield was all but abandoned, with buildings that ended up in such ill-repair that they had to be bulldozed.

At six foot six and two hundred and fifty pounds, Roderick “Big Rory” MacLennan of Charlottenburg (1842-1907) was legendary, as both an athlete and as a businessman, and was fictionalized into a novel by local scribe Ralph Connor. A former MPP for Glengarry, you can find him in the Glengarry Sports Hall of Fame for his prowess in the hammer-throw, and in 1855 in Toronto, he won the hammer-throw championship of the world. Another Williamstown inductee is Dr. Donald David Randolph McLennan (1870-1935), who throughout his life managed to play professional football and hockey, including twice for the Stanley Cup: first for Queen’s in the 1893-94 season, and again in Dawson City, Yukon, in 1905.

McLennan, Alberta is a small town in the northern part of the province, and was named as a required stop during the construction of the rail. Named after the nice doctor who worked for the rail company that everyone still remembered, he himself was already in Vancouver by the time his namesake was christened, and now the town exists, a century later, as a predominantly French-language town some five hours north of Edmonton. To my knowledge, a McLennan might never have set foot on the land. I’ve been attempting for years to discern Dr. McLennan’s genealogy, to possibly connect him to some part of Glengarry, but so far, I haven’t managed to discover the names of his parents, or where he might have been born. His relatives scatter out across British Columbia, and down into Los Angeles, California.

Genealogies incorporating such a wide array of the population is tricky, in that very little actually gets recorded of day-to-day life. Predominantly, the people listed in my ongoing document lived and worked quietly, whether as farmers, merchants or other working-class Scots just beneath the radar of recorded history. Apart from knowing the requisite birth, marriage, offspring and death of these people, there is little that might ever be discovered, losing out on the essential details of who these people might have actually been. The closest my own family gets into newspapers comes from my great-uncle John McLennan (1853-1931). The first Canadian born of our family, he was first-born of the first-born, both son and grandson of our original McLennan settlers. A carpenter by trade, he built many buildings in the Maxville area including St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in 1899, and in the winter of 1900-1901, he was one of two carpenters for the new Bank of Montreal building in Ottawa. Now, barely more than a century later, I know some of the things that he did, but still know extremely little about him. Was he an active reader? Was he kind to his children? Did he have an easy laugh?

He left Maxville to settle in the Longlaketon District of Saskatchewan with his family in 1904. When I finally met some of his descendants a decade back, they had no idea of their grandfather’s history in construction, or that he had built a church in Eastern Ontario. That would explain, they told me, why he didn’t go to church. He claimed he’d spent enough time in churches.

Genealogy really is akin to archaeology. I have yet to discover if anyone recorded the name of my grandparents’ first child, “Baby girl McLennan,” as the newspaper called her, who lived barely a day more than a year before my father was born. Anyone who might have known her name died years before I started to ask. Information can be buried in newspaper clippings, diary entries, letters, on tombstones, in church archives, and obscure local histories that often feel impossible to hear about, let alone find a copy of, all of which needs to be sorted, absorbed and understood. One fact might impact immediately upon another fact, and change the direction of everything you might have previously known. What if you didn’t know your great-grandfather had an earlier marriage and family? Or the possibility of a girl pulled from school for six months, to suddenly return with a new-born “sibling.”

As they say, some write to escape, and others write to discover. I would think, as genealogists, our goals are two-fold, attempting to comprehend histories that culminate in our immediate selves, and are far larger than we could ever hope to imagine.

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