Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Celebration of Ancestral Matriarchs

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

Prompt: Females

It’s an odd sort of truth but a truth nevertheless that vulnerability and strength are not mutually exclusive. In fact, to demonstrate strength one must accept the possibility of being harmed or at risk in some way. A strong woman is one who’s able to stand up for herself and her beliefs sometimes under the most challenging of circumstances. For their trouble they’re often labelled as “angry” or having an “attitude,” usually by those who find her gumption intimidating. By my observation this is a shame, for strong women imbued with the qualities of resilience, courage, love and tenacity weave an important thread through the fabric of society.

Much importance is given to patriarchy however let’s be honest, the male line is only ever half the story. The women ~ the matriarchs ~ have always had an integral role as nurturers, role models and, dare I say, warriors at home and within the community. My mother and I often have occasion to discuss our female ancestors and the strength they’ve brought to the family story. Of those whose stories we know, for there are so many whose stories have been lost to time, their lives have exemplified the courage of their convictions; perseverance when the men folk let them down; the overcoming of immense challenges, both personal and mundane; the struggle for emotional survival, and more.

The purpose of this piece is to celebrate a selection of strong ancestral matriarchs who inhabit the family bloodline. Finding these ancestors has been a relatively fluid process through since I’ve been able to connect my four-generation chart to several ancient bloodlines, particularly on my maternal grandfather’s line. Of course, for most female ancestors there is no “story,” their lives deeply intertwined with those of the patriarchs. For instance, the most I can attribute to many of my New England colonial ancestral mothers is the courage it must have taken to board a wooden ship and sail across a vast ocean for several weeks to a wild territory with a bevy of children at their feet all because their husbands gave the command. In the process they would have left family, property and comfort far behind. True, in some cases freedom from religious persecution played a key part. (How ironic that the very restrictions the colonists had dared to escape caught up with them again as they established their own strict controls within their new communities. The Winthrop Woman, by respected historical fiction novelist, Anya Seton, offers keen insight into these times.)

Still, I digress. Herewith a random sample of direct line female ancestors ~ ancestral mothers ~ and examples of their strength and vulnerability. Not angry. Not attitude. Just true grit.

A Celebration of Ancestral Matriarchs

Ruth (Fairchild) Springer (1763-1856) ~ my maternal 5th great grandmother ~ A woman of “fine intelligence, great energy and courage, and from a loyalist family. Wife of Daniel Springer of Butler’s Rangers. [Had] nine children as they continued to live out a pioneer lifestyle in Middlesex County, [Ontario]. One interesting anecdote that illustrates the struggles of pioneer living, recounted in a later retelling of the Springer family’s life in an 1877 London Free Press article, regales how Ruth once had to wrestle a cougar that found its way into their kitchen: “Mrs. Springer seized the animal by the fore legs and after a desperate struggle got him down and held him to the floor while one of her daughters procured a penknife and cut his throat.”Source: “Daniel Springer, U.E.: A Remarkable Life in a Remarkable Time” by Warren Peters … The Ottawa Loyalist, Volume 36 Issue Number 2 Spring 2020

Margaret (Oliver) Springer (1735-1820) ~ maternal 6th great-grandmother and mother-in-law to Ruth ~ “lost her husband, David Springer, at the Battle of Normanskill in 1777. At the same time her oldest son, Richard, was jailed in Albany. She remained in New York throughout the war, and her son Richard and his younger brother, Daniel, joined the British forces with Butler’s Rangers. With the help of her two oldest sons, Margaret immigrated [walked the Mohawk Valley!] to Canada [Niagara] with most of her younger children in about 1786. In 1793, she petitioned the Crown and a year later was granted 400 acres of land for herself and 200 acres of land for each of the five children (Rachel, Henrietta, Mary, Martha, and Benjamin) who accompanied her to Ontario.” Source:

Elizabeth (Sparling) McDonall (1851-1915) ~ maternal 2nd great grandmother ~ born in Tipperary, Ireland; emigrated to Canada as a baby with her parents George Sparling and Katherine Dolmage and settled in southern Ontario. With her husband Joseph McDonall (1842-1902) of Delaware, Ontario, migrated to Bad Axe, Michigan where they started a family. Survived the Great Fire of Michigan in 1881 by hiding with her five children, and several other women and children, in a trench dug on the McDonall farm, covered in soaked quilts while her husband joined with other men in fighting the inferno. Her mental health, and that of her eldest children, suffered for it. After the fire she had three more children who were bullied by their elder male siblings. Her oldest daughter died in 1887 at age 12. Much was made of Elizabeth’s rages, but as noted in an earlier post (How Curiosity leads to Compassion) it’s entirely possible these outbursts could be attributed to unresolved trauma due to the fire.

Mary Lewis Belton and friends, Escanaba, Michigan,
ca 1900 … Source: Family Archives

Mary (Lewis Belton) McDonall (1881-1966) ~ maternal great grandmother ~ born in Escanaba, Michigan. She was a vibrant and spirited young woman who played the organ and was a talented seamstress. She met and married Steve McDonall, a charmer by any measure, in Escanaba in 1905. For all his charm Steve (a survivor of the Michigan fire) was a cruel character who almost managed to suffocate the spirit right out of her. In later years great grandma Mary managed her anxiety by retreating into herself and finding quiet ways to rebel. Most notably she’d secretly hand-roll her own crudely made cigarettes out of tobacco retrieved from her family’s cast-offs and then sneak behind the chicken coop for a few puffs. When done she’d pinch the burnt end off with her fingers and carefully store what was left in an apron pocket for next time. This story comes via my mother who witnessed this as a little girl and was sworn to secrecy. Interestingly, great grandma Mary ended this practice immediately following great grandpa Steve’s death. She was a woman who conducted herself with grace and dignity in public, however behind the veneer was a secret of emotional abuse kept well hidden.

Great grandma Mary migrated with her family across the northern plains with the building of the Great Northern Railway; survived the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Steve McDonall. She died alone while fighting a barn fire on the family farm.

Not surprisingly, Mary’s sons followed their father’s example and treated their wives with equal disdain.

Alice (Gordon) McDonall with daughter Lois Jeanette (Jean), Edmonton, AB ca 1948
Source: Family Archives

Alice (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994) ~ my maternal grandmother ~ born in Motherwell, Scotland, married Stanley Lewis McDonall in 1934 at age 18. In 1936 she gave birth to stillborn twin girls and was told by the attending doctor it would be a miracle if she were to get pregnant again. In 1939 granny Alice produced that miracle and gave birth to her only child, Lois Jeanette. She fled home with her young daughter on several occasions but with nowhere to go always went back. After 27 years granny Alice finally made a successful escape. Her story is the subject of a novel currently in the works.

Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959) ~ maternal great grandmother and mother of Alice ~ born in North Shields, Northumberland, England. Married William Alexander Gordon in 1902 and had 13 children, six of whom died before age 10. A seventh died when his plane was shot down during WWII. In 1926 great granny Jane migrated with great grandad William and seven children from the comforts of Motherwell, Scotland, to the barren, unwelcoming bush country north of Edmonton, Alberta, as pioneers. She was happily married for more than 50 years. (For further reading check out The Gordons have Landed)

Lois Jeanette McDonall as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, English National Opera, London Coliseum. Source: Family Archives

Lois Jeanette McDonall (1939-) ~ my mother ~ born in Larkspur, Alberta. One of the strongest women I know is my own mother. Her story warrants more than a paragraph, however suffice to say that through strength, determination and perseverance she rose from the poverty mindset of her father, Stanley Lewis McDonall, to follow a dream and establish herself in grand opera on the world stage as a dramatic soprano. In the 1970s and early ’80s she performed as a principal soprano at the English National Opera in London and was a celebrated exponent of the Bel Canto repertoire. She made numerous recordings of rare operas, including the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Padilla from whom, as we found out 30+ years on, she is descended. A number of works were written specifically for her voice by British classical composer, Iain Hamilton. Pretty good for a miracle baby born in a one-room log cabin in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere Alberta.

Mothers in Antiquity

Looking back more than 20 generations through the Fairchild and Sumner lines we meet St. Margaret of Wessex Queen of Scotland (1045-1093), Eleonore d’Aquitaine (1122-1204), Matilda of England (1102-1167), Joan Beaufort Countess of Westmoreland (1375-1440), Countess Alice de Saluzzo (1269-1292), among others. Women who, by virtue of their station and the times in which they lived, proved resilient in the face of stark challenges and the fulfillment of their duties.

And so …

Engaging with the ancestral mothers this past week has helped me to appreciate my own strength and find compassion for those areas of my life in which I still experience some vulnerability. Also, it has reminded me that there is a source of strength beyond my own, garnered through myriad generations of strong women who have overcome much in order to live life on their own terms as best they can. It’s a strength I can tap into at any time simply by remembering these ancestral matriarchs, their self-respect and their will to thrive and not just survive. ❦

5 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Celebration of Ancestral Matriarchs

  1. Excellent essay and stories. It’s too bad Mary didn’t get a divorce, I suppose, but having a strong support network was probably a must in her time. I love that photo. I’m guessing those two women are holding figs?

    1. Mary loved her husband as so many in these types of situations do. I have no idea if she thought of divorce, however think it unlikely. For all its troubles the family was close knit and divorce was still pretty taboo back then. It would be her daughter-in-law, Alice, who would make the bold move of leaving her husband. This happened in the early 1960s and even then was frowned upon. Again, I’m writing a novel based on her story because it’s an inspirational tale and worthy of sharing. Mary was born of a gentle family and married a bad boy. Happens all the time.

      As for the photo, we have no idea about the context. Looks like a celebratory moment. Do figs grow in Escanaba? 🤔

  2. My late spouse shared St. Margaret, Eleanore, Joan and more of those long ago women. He went to St. Margaret of Scotland School as a child and was quite shocked to hear that he was a multiple great grandson of that very lady. His mother was, sadly, rather down on his father’s family and told me they were nothing, while her own family were Irish. He asked me to look into his father line and they were certainly far more than nothing. I remember him talking to a friend and relating the scope of his heritage with new-found pride and saying he was happy his children were not going to be denied their heritage like he had been. It was a grand surprise finding those gateway ancestors leading to the crowned heads of Europe and England. I have finally taken one of my mother’s father’s lines back to the late 1500s. Best wishes on your novel.

    1. Yes, it was a surprise to us to when we discovered our link back to that heritage. I’m so glad your late spouse had a chance to know this. Of course, millions of people are descended from the crowned heads of Europe and England but the privilege of knowing this is extended only to those who bother to acknowledge the past. … I guess this means we’re related by marriage. Welcome, cousin. 💫🙏

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