Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Common Thread

The 28th in a series on my family tree

Prompt: Character

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”

― Edna O’Brien, 20th Century Irish novelist


While scaling the branches of our family tree I’ve met a host of interesting characters. For instance, I’ve been introduced to ancestors who demonstrated great courage in the face of grave danger; showed resilience in the wake of war, famine, and persecution; embraced hope while encased in the dark shadows of religious and political strife; and engaged in industry while pioneering unchartered foreign territories. They lived with, and made the most of, their choices even when the going got really, really tough. Some fared better than others, of course. Many died for a cause; lived with a purpose; and, followed and fulfilled their dreams, all while exemplifying dignity, honour and a sense of duty in the conduct of their daily lives.

From my Scottish great grandparents who, in the 1920s, abandoned a gentrified life in Motherwell, Scotland, for pioneering and all its hardships in northern Alberta, to the colonists who pursued religious and political freedom in the New World, to the United Empire Loyalists who sacrificed their all in service to the British Crown ~ the strength of character of these ancestral families enabled them to overcome the innumerable trials and tribulations they faced while forging their lives.

From what I can tell from the records our ancestors were people of faith. Their word was their bond; a handshake sealed a contract. Of course, every family has its miscreants and ne’er-do-wells, but it’s pleasing to note that there appear to be few rotten apples hanging among the branches I’ve leafed through so far.

The Palatines

While researching for this topic the floodgates opened to our Palatine ancestors of Rathkeale, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. These people originated in the Rhineland-Palatinate and around 1709, greatly discouraged by the continuous destructive raids of King Louis XIV (among other challenges), made the trek west. England’s Queen Ann facilitated the settling of Palatines in England and then Ireland, while William Penn made arrangements to transport others directly to America (New York and Pennsylvania.) (1) Some 125 families ended up in Co. Tipperary and surrounding area, and were assigned by lot to take up residence on the vast estates of landowners sympathetic to the Palatines. They brought with them their expertise in agriculture and weaving, much sought after skills in their new homeland. Palatine surnames found in our lineage include Sparling, Switzer/Schweitzer, Ruckle, Teskey, Delmege/Dolmege, Bowen, Corry, and Shier, to name a few.

For the most part the Palatines were seen as a peaceful people:

Home of Johann Christopher Schweitzer, my 7th great-grandfather. He remained in Ireland and died 29 May 1755 at Courtmatrix, County Limerick

In their dealings they are considered upright and honourable; like the Quakers of old, they do not interfere with either politics or religion, are cautious as to land-taking; and in the troublous times, when the generality of persons were afraid to walk forth, the quiet Palatine pursued his avocations without let or hindrance, being rarely if ever molested.”

Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, etc. Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Hall, 1841, London

To take advantage of the opportunities offered them the Palatines had to take an oath to the Queen and Church of England, which meant renouncing their Catholic origins. Over time many adopted the teachings of John Wesley and identified as Protestant/Weslyan Methodist. This became just another source of grief for their Catholic neighbours and by the end of the 18th century led to civil unrest. Many, like my 6th great granduncle, Christopher Sparling (1726-1787), were killed or maimed in senseless acts of violence. Robbing the Palatines (many of whom served in the local guard or yeomanry) of their weapons, which were usually kept in their homes, was an all-too-common practice. Eventually conditions became so unbearable that many Palatines elected to emigrate to North America or Australia to start new lives.

News article on death of Christopher Sparling
Sourced at FamilySearch

A Character with Character

Our Palatine Canadian progenitor was my fourth great grandfather, Peter Sparling (1793-1861), who arrived to Chinguacousy, Peel, Ontario in 1851 with his wife Elizabeth (Barry) Sparling (1800-1878) and a contingent of other family members (some of whom had arrived earlier).

In our family archives we find this description of him:

“Peter Sparling was born in the year 1793 in the county of Tipperary, Parish Kilcooly. He married a woman by the name of Elizabeth Barry. She was a strong willed woman who had the final say when it dame to the decision of leaving Ireland. When her favourite son, George, decided to go to America she also decided to leave even though her husband did not want to make the move.

Peter’s reason … was they had a good home built of stone somewhat like a fort ~ quite large with a slate roof, windows with heavy shutters and portholes beside the windows and doors through which, if necessary, assembled Protestants could defend themselves whenever the Papists were in rebellion, which was quite often. … Peter was the one man in his community who at the time of the uprisings, could go about his work without fear of getting bullet or spear in his back, or being overpowered by numbers. Apparently he was a fine workman with tools. Also, was somewhat of a dentist, extracting teeth; also a natural animal doctor. He did all this work as a neighbourly act, not charging. His special work was making flax-spinning and weaving machines. At that time Irish linen was made largely by hand. He appears to have made a good living. Even in those days it cost considerately to raise a family of ten children. He also raised two orphan relatives. He disposed of his property and moved to Canada. He was a man up in years and it was quite hard for him to adjust himself to the new mode of living which at that time was in the pioneering stage. He had to work for others at whatever he could find to do as moving and settling took all his money. Peter was a very proud man and whenever he went to town or church he dressed in his best, wearing a plug hat and using a fine walking cane. While being respected, yet in that community he was considered as an aristocrat, which did not tend to improve his financial condition. His sons, except Peter, were not old enough to do much. When they did get to the age of helpfulness, they married and had their own responsibilities.”

Source: McDonall Family Archives

With respect to a character, the following is an excerpt from a piece written by the Reverend Richard P. Bowles, a descendent of Charles Bowles and Ann Nancy (Barry) Bowles, sister of Elizabeth (Barry) Sparling. (It’s possible that the Peter Sparling mentioned here is the son of Peter Sr. and Elizabeth):

I confess I feel considerably interested in my great‐grandmother, Mrs. George Bowles, nee Barbara Young. I have the impression that the original Bowles’, whether in England or Ireland, were not noted for their interest in religion, yet in my grandfather’s life, and down through the lives of his three sons and their succeeding generations, religion has been a conspicuous and dominating force. How much of this was due to the environment or pioneer life in primeval forests, with its heart‐longings and loneliness, I do not know. Some of it no doubt had its origin and nourishment in the zeal and warmth of Methodism which, as has often been pointed out, was the sort of religion eminently suited to pioneer life in a new land. The only characteristic of Barbara Young of which I have any knowledge was her intense religious life. Of that I did often hear my father speak. He remembered well her German Bible which was her most prized possession. George Bowles (I) and his family came to Canada about the year 1829, and my father, George Bowles (III) was born in 1832. From childhood he would know his grandmother.Two things he told me regarding her. One was his vivid remembrance of her sitting before the immense fireplace in the old log house reading by the hour her German Bible. The other was the prominence she gave to her concept of the Devil. Satan was to her a very real person, an ever near and dreaded adversary doing her bodily and spiritual harm. This element in her piety did not commend itself to Peter Sparling who belonged, I believe, to the second generation of these exiled Germans. Peter was, I judge, a unique character who frequently found his way into my father’s “on the record” remembrances. There was a wild streak in him. He loved to tell tall stories with which his lively imagination had abundantly provided him. One of these stories which he palmed off on my grandmother was a follows:

“You have heard,” he said to grandmother, “of so and so.” Yes, she had heard of him. “Well,” proceeded Peter, “he has been bothered with someone stealing his cabbage, so the other night, hearing a noise in the patch, he picked up his axe and ran out. It was dark, he saw no one, but thinking he heard something, he threw his axe at it and came in. The axe hit the thief on the neck and was so sharp it cut his head clear off. But the fellow clapped it on with his two hands and held it there until it froze on. Next morning the intruder, being cold, came into the house and sat down by the hearth to warm himself. When there he tried to blow his nose, holding it between his thumb and finger. The fire had thawed the head loose and sure as you live he threw his head into the fireplace.” This was too much for the old lady who, up to this time had listened attentively. “Peter Sparling,” she said, “you are a liar.”

Peter loved to cup up capers and didos of all sorts. He was a tall talker and a superb “blow.” “Blow” was the common word by which, in my day, the boaster was described. Once Peter determined to cure the aged Barbara of her Satan obsession. Knowing how for hours she would sit before the hugh hearth fire in religious meditation and German Bible‐reading, and concluding that Satan had a prominent place in these exercises, Peter secured the cloven foot of a dead animal ‐ just what kind of animal I do not know. He ascended the roof of the house and, with a long string, kept gently lowering and raising the cloven hoof down the chimney just far enough to be seen. The effect on the old lady was all and more than Peter hoped for. It threw her into an hysteria of terror. What the after‐effects on her religious thinking were I do not know. It is not likely young Peter’s clever trick had any exorcising effect on her religious beliefs.

Source: The Bowles of Canada and their Roots in Ireland and EnglandThe Tipperary Bowles by The Reverend Richard P. Bowles, deceased Jan 1960 at 92 years

The Final Word

Though I’ve highlighted only a couple of ancestors here it would seem that honour and integrity, resilience and tenacity weave a common thread through the generations of my maternal ancestors. Certainly, they weren’t perfect, but clearly demonstrated a lot of character, something I endeavour to honour through the way in which I live my own life. ❦



(1) The Irish Palatine Family of Switzer … Switzer, Byron Wesley. 1994, Book

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

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