Shedding Light on the Family Tree: How Curiosity leads to Compassion

The fourth in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Curious

Family lore can be fascinating. Gather around the family circle and enjoy tales of crazy Aunt Hettie’s obsession with hiding money in odd places, or grumpy Grandpa Robert’s prolonged moments of brooding silence. Maybe even laugh about it. Such small tidbits of information will, rightly or wrongly, often define who these people are for us. We accept as gospel these skewed, often prejudiced observations and hand-me-down interpretations as if they’re the de facto truth, but is there a story behind the story?

The Telephone game comes to mind. Jimmy marches to the beat of his own drum becomes Jimmy March is really dumb, the message losing its truth and integrity as it’s filtered through layers of short attention spans. Sharing of family stories can be a lot like this. Unfair assumptions are made about our ancestors based on incomplete or distorted information. When shedding light on the family tree I want to be curious enough to look a little deeper for the truth. I remind myself that their story is part of my story and my truth; the more I know and understand my ancestors, the more I can know and understand myself.

Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall

My maternal great, great Grandmother, Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall, (b. 30 July 1851, Co. Tipperary, Ireland; d. 19 November, 1915, Bad Axe, MI) had a particularly bad rap. She married Joseph McDonall* (b. 3 March, 1842, Delaware, ON; d. 15 June 1902, Sanilac, MI) around 1874 in southern Ontario. Soon afterwards they immigrated to the Thumb of Michigan, along with a great many other people looking for available land and opportunities, and settled in Huron County, near Bad Axe. Several siblings also took up residence on neighbouring farms.

With respect to family lore Elizabeth was always accused of being “nutty.” My mother recalls her grandfather, Steve McDonall, eldest son of Elizabeth and Joseph, regaling the family with tales of his mother’s raging (Irish!) temper. For instance, she was renowned for chucking large items, like blocks of wood, at her children for no apparent reason. He described how they walked on egg shells around her, and likely for good reason. Who wants to be hit in the head by a piece of lumber?

A few years ago I began to wonder about this so-called temper. Was it truly rage she was displaying or evidence of something else? My exploration of this question through observation of the family dynamic, my own extensive healing work, and some digging into the family story has led me to consider that Elizabeth deserves our compassion, not criticism. My intention by sharing here what I’ve learned (and thoughtfully surmised) is to bring honour to Elizabeth’s memory, and hope that in so doing the terrible stigma attached to her character can be softened.


After arriving in the heart of Michigan’s “Thumb” in 1875, Elizabeth and Joseph had four children in quick succession ~ Violet (1875); Steve (1877); Joseph Jr. (1878) and Jackson (1880). It’s reasonable to imagine that like all young families they faced many challenges and setbacks, as well triumphs and happy times while setting up their new life. I also imagine being among extended family would have offered a measure of support.

Elizabeth and Joseph McDonall and family, ca. 1880. Violet (centre), Steve (left), Joseph (right), Jackson (baby), Olive Bell, ward from Canada is seated on Joseph’s lap.
Image: The Ubly Historical Society

By early September 1881 trouble brewed in the Thumb. A hot, dry summer created severe drought conditions leaving the entire area tinder dry and vulnerable to fire. The following is an extract from a series of reports published by The New York Times regarding the Great Fire of Michigan of September 4-6, 1881. The full text is available in the links below.


DETROIT, Mich., Sept. 7. – Reports are beginning to arrive from the northern and northeastern portion of the State, showing a terrible condition of affairs. The long-continued drought has rendered everything as dry as tinder, and numerous “flashings” or partly cleared tracts of land, covered with brush, decayed timber, and other inflammable materials, afford the best possible medium for the rapid spread of the flames, carried by the high winds which have been prevailing. Sanilac and Huron Counties, lying on the shore of Lake Huron, between Port Huron and Saginaw Bay, are the scenes of the greatest destruction, which is growing positively appalling in character. Hundreds of farms have already been reduced to blackened ashes. Stock, crops, farm buildings, and fences, all have been swept away. Men, women, and children have been overtaken by the flames, and several lives are known to have been lost. It is feared, when full accounts are received, that the loss of life will prove terrible. The little hamlets of Anderson, Richmondville, Charleston, and Sanilac are all reported to have been wiped out, while Port Hope, Verona Mills, and Bad Axe, Huron County, are reported wholly or partly burned up. The people are flocking to the shore of Lake Huron from the interior of these counties as the only refuge from the flames. Some were overtaken by the spreading fire. Not less than 20 deaths are already reported, but it is hoped that these statements may prove incorrect. In Tuscola County, in the next tier of counties back from Lake Huron and south of Saginaw, fires are also raging, but with less severity. The losses there are overshadowed by the more terrible condition of things in the adjoining counties. The same state of affairs exists in Lapeer County, next south of Tuscola, and the whole country around Saginaw and Bay City is ablaze from the marshes taking fire. Reports of many losses to farmers are beginning to reach here. The weather continues excessively hot, and there is no sign of rain.

The New York Times, New York, NY 8 Sept 1881
Map of the burnt district of the Thumb, September 1881


Surrounded by an inferno our family, like everyone else, had to find a way to survive. There was no sophisticated firefighting protocol at the time, so measures to contain the conflagration were primitive at best. Wells were dry in many areas and so access to water was limited. Consider also the bulkiness of the clothing worn in those times; the proliferation of wooden structures; the panic of humans, animals (domestic and wild) as they tried to overcome smoke and flames to find places of safety. The following account, extracted from The Huron County Centennial History (full version available in the links below) mentions the McDonall’s/McDonald’s farm.

Monday, September 5 was a bit drier, a bit hotter, the southwest wind blew a bit harder, there was more smoke. The women were more fearful and many of the men were fighting to protect fences, crops and out-lying buildings. There was, however, no general feeling of alarm. No one foresaw the disaster that was so imminent.

About 1 P.M. the wind became a gale. Smoke, sparks and even burning brands seemed to fill the air. Probably the first building to catch on fire was the Edmund Cole barn, situated just back of where the Hubbard Bank building is now.

Fear and panic came to every heart. Most persons rushed to the court house, recognizing it as the one possible source of safety. It was the only brick building in the town. It was soon crowded with men, women and children, about 450 persons.

All but a handful were there and that small group had gone east over the causeway of burning logs, to the gravelly hill, then the McDonald farm. There, a large trench was dug, covered with rails, over which blankets and quilts were spread. The women and children were put in the trench and the men carried water and fought for their lives. Allison L. Wright and W. B. Irwin were leaders in this battle. Their shoes were burned from their feet.

The Huron County Centennial History


Joseph McDonall would have been among those brave water-carrying men. Elizabeth and the five little ones would have been among the other terrified women and children hunkered down in that trench, their only protection from the engulfing flames a series of water-soaked quilts suspended above them. One can only imagine the horror of the scene unfolding and the unfathomable carnage that awaited once the quilts were pulled back.

The Fire Quilt … reported to have been used by Elizabeth McDonall to protect the children from the flames of the Great Fire of 1881. On display at the Ten Cent Horse Barn Museum, Ubly, Michigan.
Image: The Ubly Historical Society.

Curiosity becomes compassion

The extent of the family’s personal losses is unknown. However, it’s reasonable to assume that like most who survived they did so with little more than the clothes on their backs and a deep sense of survivor’s guilt. As well, I can only imagine the overwhelm they experienced while contemplating what they’d survived and what kind of future lay ahead. It’s worthy to note, at this point, that this disaster marked the first relief effort of the newly-founded American Red Cross.

This is a story behind the story. To me Elizabeth’s rages likely reflected a deep mental and emotional fragility fuelled by unresolved trauma related to the fire.

Today, we acknowledge that such events can leave an indelible mental and emotional scar. We’re also fortunate to have at our disposal extensive resources that can help us to recognize, process and heal unresolved trauma, if we so choose. For survivors like Elizabeth there were no such resources. They simply picked up what was left of their lives and carried on.

Elizabeth and Joseph McDonall and family, 1888.
Children: (left to right) Steve, Joseph (Henry), Jackson, (middle) Stanley; (front) Eva and Sue. Violet died in 1887 aged 12. Image: Family Archives

And so, in my quest to understand how Elizabeth came to be labelled “nutty,” and having done an extensive amount of my own trauma release work, I consider this life event and how a lack of opportunity to process and release the painful imprint of the fire kept an easily triggered trauma response active, her children being easy targets. Sadly, these rages were misconstrued as an outlet for the “Irish” temper, something which her son, Steve, and grandson, Stan, took great pride in owning and expressing in their respective homes. Raised in such a volatile environment my mother made the conscious decision not to engage with the “temper” and chose another way that provided my brother and I a home in which we always knew we were loved. The stories of our ancestors became a colourful backdrop, not a controlling narrative.

Family lore can be fascinating, however as this exercise in curiosity has demonstrated, to me at least, it’s important to dig deeper. To understand that crazy Aunt Hettie’s obsession with hiding money in odd places was about having a nest egg if she ever found the courage to leave her abusive husband, or that grumpy Grandpa Robert’s prolonged moments of brooding silence were the only way he could cope with the leftover trauma of military combat is to free them from a stigma and us from our ignorance.

We judge people and make assumptions about their behaviour based on ignorance. I ask you to consider someone in your ancestry who keeps getting the bad rap. Is there a story behind the story and if so, are you curious enough to do a little digging for the truth?

Great great Grandmother Elizabeth survived a catastrophic event and wore the trauma for the rest of her life. Four generations later I am here to share her story and I hope, in the process, cast it in a different light.❦



*The surname “McDonall” was often incorrectly spelled as “McDonald” in census, etc.

Links to further reading:

Fires Ravaged Michigan’s Thumb ~ 1871, 1881: Michigan News, University of Michigan

Michigan Great Thumb Fire, 1881: ~ Events that Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives

Thumb Fire: Wikipedia

1881 Fire Great Tragedy in County

The Great Fire of 1881: Huron County (This is the piece in which the McDonald farm is mentioned.)

Disclaimer: I make no claims to be a mental health professional. The observations shared here are born of many years of personal work and my experience as an advanced practitioner of equine experiential learning. I have studied the dynamics of my family at length and base my findings on the observation of familial patterns of behaviour and their effects on the generations. My intention is to shine a light in the darkness and reveal ancestral truth as much as it is within my power to do so.

17 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: How Curiosity leads to Compassion

  1. It is easy to ignore the events that shaped our ancestors, how they responded and coped. That was a terrible experience your great great grandmother lived through and you’re quite correct that there really were no resources available for help with that kind of trauma. One was expected to go on like nothing had happened. With all the hardships our ancestors went through, the loss of children, moving west searching for something better but still left struggling to survive, the accidents that proved fatal because there were so few doctors and how primitive medicine was at the time. There are quite a few stories that need to be looked at with more understanding and compassion.

    1. I agree. We don’t really acknowledge the strength, tenacity and sheer willpower it took just to survive those times. None of us would be here if our ancestors hadn’t met the challenge. It’s sad that more people don’t appreciate this. 🙏

  2. The more I learn about my ancestors the more amazed I am that I even exist. They battled so many circumstances and lived to see another day. Your story was well told to put us in that place and time.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my story and respond to it. I agree, it’s a miracle any of us exist. Had Ggpa Steve not survived that fire along with his parents there would be nothing to read here as I wouldn’t exist. It saddens me to think how few people appreciate the path paved by those who came before. In my small way I would like to help change this. Be well … 🙏💫

  3. Thank you for this story! I have wondered for years about my father’s terrible temper. I am the oldest of four, and I have often used the expression “walking on eggshells” to describe what it was like growing up in that house. However, he could also be warm and charming, but we didn’t trust him because of his explosive temper. I have written many stories about him, all of which are so outrageous that they are stories we laugh about now. Your writing about your great-great grandmother has given me some things to think about. Thank you.

    1. My pleasure, Paula. My mother describes her father very much the same way. Some context regarding his upbringing has been able to help her (and me) see the programming from his own father and how this showed up in his day to day interactions. It’s healing to gain some perspective and thus compassion. My grandpa did plenty of outrageous things too. One day I may share them, in context. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my story. Be well … 🙏💫

  4. This is such a lovely post – terrifying, and tragic, but really lovely in its compassion. My own trauma work and interest in the mental health of my ancestors, has been an important component in my own current genealogical research. Thank you for sharing this story!

    1. I’m so happy you found some value in reading this story. We do ourselves a disservice when we don’t take into account ancestral traumas while consciously going about our personal healing. Congratulations to you for taking this step for yourself and your ancestors. And thank you for reading, and responding to, my story. I really appreciate it. Be well … 💫

  5. I’m really impressed with the story you uncovered, and the compassion you show for those labeled as being difficult. I am probably guilty of lacking in empathy in some of the stories I cover in my blog. This is a good lesson to keep in mind.

    1. Well, there are plenty of outrageous stories I could tell about certain family members and at some point they’ll likely surface. But I hope to be able to offer some context in the re-telling. We’re all guilty of doing strange things at times. The lens through which we observe these moments can benefit from a little compassion. … Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I really appreciate it. 🙏💫

  6. I found this story fascinating, especially in the light of the very recent fires that swept through Colorado. I was not personally impacted by them, but one of our oldest daughter’s high school classmates and his family lost everything. They had two cars to drive away in, and (based on the time Jonathan’s weather equipment stopped broadcasting), left their house about 10 minutes before it was engulfed in flames.

    Jonathan has blogged extensively about their experience. They’ve had many family and friends “come to their rescue,” supplying them with emotional support, food, clothing, toys for their boys, a temporary place to stay . . .

    They also have insurance, government assistance, and access to trauma-experienced mental health counselors. And, they had the ability to go to a motel, and to Walmart to immediately purchase basic necessities — clothes, warm jackets, toiletries, food . . .

    And neither he nor his wife lost their jobs. But they’re still struggling to get back on their feet.

    Your great-great-grandparents had none of that.

    This has also heightened my curiosity about a “family tale” that my maternal great-grandmother “caught” her husband (my great-grandfather) “in bed with the maid.” According to the story I grew up hearing, Grandma DD immediately kicked him out, but later took him back in during the last few years of his life because of some illness.

    As I’ve looked at records . . . he was in the home at the time of the 1910 census, and died in 1914. Either he wasn’t out of the house very long, or something has been “invented” for whatever reason. He died 10 years before my mother was even born, and her grandmother never talked about her deceased husband, although she had plenty of opportunity, because she raised my mom and her siblings. Since I, as a great-great-granddaughter, am in the oldest still-living generation, there’s no one left with first-hand (or even second-hand) information around to ask. He had no chance to defend himself and there is very little other information available that I’ve found. None of the descendants of my mom’s siblings (that I’ve been able to connect with through DNA testing) seem to have heard the story, either.

    I have an (unverified) hunch (based on DNA tests) that the story might have a much different twist than I’ve been told, but I have not had time to do any digging.

    Thank you for sharing, and for pointing out that “things are not always what they seem,” especially with regards to things that happened in a very different environment, and many decades before our time.

    1. It’s a fascinating journey, isn’t it? We grow up believing one narrative and then one day some little tidbit of information gets unearthed that asks us to re-examine what we have always understood as truth. There’s always more to a story than meets the eye ~ this plays out all around us every day. So, when we have a chance to re-visit the old stories with the perspective of age and wisdom a whole new world opens up to us. … I hope you’re able to find some answers around the family mystery you so generously shared. It does become more difficult as the generations die off, but you never know who (an old family friend?) recorded something and tucked it away somewhere. My mother is the last of our older generation and I’m fortunate to have her nearby to talk about her family. … Thank you for reading my story and leaving a comment. It’s very much appreciated. Be well …

  7. My 2x great grandfather, Charles Wilder, lived in Colfax Township, Huron County during this time. I had read one article about a fire there in 1871 and it mentioned that the area burned again 10 years later. Thank you for including all of the additional articles to read.

    1. My pleasure, and thank you for hanging out at my blog for a while. There are a lot more articles out there. I only included a few because I was beginning to find the subject matter overwhelming. I hope you were able to find more context for your family by connecting with this period of their history. It certainly helped me. 🙏

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