The fourth in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
Michigan Great Thumb Fire, 1881: GenDisasters.com ~ Events that Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives
Thumb Fire: Wikipedia
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.