And That Has Made All the Difference

One of the things that fascinate me about genealogy is the fact that so much of who I am is the result of both happenstance and the decisions of my ancestors. Well, duh, right? okay, it may sound obvious or unremarkable at first, but think about it: Your ‘prehistory’ is full of events and decisions, some major, some tiny, that went a certain way and led to…you. Even the moment of your conception could have gone a million different ways. Then there were the decisions, big and small, that culminated in that moment. You may know about some of them. Now go back further, beyond your parents, to events and decisions in the lives of their parents, and further still to your grandparents’ parents. The further back you go, the more events and decisions there were, most of which you will probably never know about. And every single one of them had to happen just that way, at just that time, or you wouldn’t be you.

I’ve thought about stuff like this for as long as I’ve been interested in genealogy, over 20 years now. But what prompted me to write about it now was the story of one particular branch of my family tree: the MacKenzies.

Neil MacKenzie, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, was born in Scotland around the year 1764. He and his wife and three children left Scotland in the early years of the 19th century, most likely because of the Highland Clearances, and settled in Pictou, Nova Scotia. While living there, Neil became a follower of a fiery preacher from Assynt (I believe Neil MacKenzie may have also been from there) named Norman McLeod, who was no stranger to controversy in Scotland and would court it eagerly in Nova Scotia as well:

But a person who at this time made more disturbance and excitement was Norman McLeod, who arrived in Pictou about the year 1818. He was not only not connected with any religious body, but denounced them all, even going so far as to say there was not a minister of Christ in the whole establishment. Those who have heard him at this time, describe his preaching as consisting of torrents of abuse against all religious bodies, and even against individuals, the like of which they had never heard, and which were perfectly indescribable. He had never been licensed or ordained, but regarded himself as under higher influences than the ministers of any church. “I am so full of the Holy Ghost, that my coat will not button on me,” he said once in a sermon, as he made the attempt to bring the two sides together in front.

In 1820, McLeod received an invitation to move to Ohio; his loyal followers, who later became known as Normanites, built a ship (which McLeod’s critics in Pictou dubbed ‘the Ark’) and left with him. The plan was to sail down along the Atlantic coastline and then up the Mississippi to Ohio. I’ve read two versions of what happened next. One says that the Ark, on its maiden voyage and stuffed full of Normanites, ran into a storm and got blown off course, then found a safe harbour which turned out to be St. Ann’s on Cape Breton Island. The other version, which is more plausible, says that when the Ark had been completed, some of the men took her on sea trials and stopped near St. Ann’s to do some fishing, then went back for their families later. Either way, that part of Cape Breton reminded them of Scotland, and they decided to stay. Neil MacKenzie, his wife, and their three adult children were among those first settlers. They settled just north of St. Ann’s in what is now called North River Bridge.

Life in St. Ann’s was fine at first. The community flourished, with McLeod as their minister, schoolteacher (most classes were taught in Gaelic), and magistrate — essentially their leader in every way. Despite their initial success at building a thriving community, though, the pioneers’ life eventually became almost unbearable. The winters grew harsher, sea-ice clogged the harbour, and a potato blight brought the community to the brink of starvation. Then McLeod got a letter that changed everything:

It was when the famine was at its worst that Norman received a letter from his son Donald who had run away with a family ship and cargo seven years previously and been unheard of since. He had ended up in Australia as the editor of a paper and wrote his father urging him to move to this land of promise and wondrous climes. This chance letter awakened the pilgrimage spirit in Norman once again, but his age was a barrier – nearing 70, and his wife Mary over 60 was in poor health. However, after prayer and reflection, the spirit prevailed and he wrote: “Tho’ the distance is long indeed, the direct course is over the mildest ocean in the world.”

He urged his followers to join him. Donald’s letter passed from hand to hand, families debated long and hard and worried. It was not only about their family – they were taking part in the breakup of the unity of the community – their home for thirty years. There is little question that, if their leader had not been determined to move, the stubborn Gaels of St. Ann’s would have stayed and somehow survived. But, Norman was the shepherd and they were the flock and the decision was made that would eventually lead to the virtual depopulation of a substantial part of Cape Breton.

McLeod’s followers built a ship (which he had to sell his farm to complete) and 140 of them sailed with him to Australia, followed several months later by 136 more on a second ship. Unfortunately, Australia turned out to be a less-than-suitable home for McLeod and his flock, not least because that side of the country was experiencing a gold rush and all the debauchery that went along with it. So McLeod sent a letter to the Governor of New Zealand, got an invitation to settle there, and the Normanites set sail again. They settled in Waipu, north of Auckland, and were later joined by hundreds more who sailed from Nova Scotia to New Zealand on four ships. This would be the last great migration for the Normanites, who settled permanently in Waipu, and for their leader, who died there in 1866. Though the people there no longer follow McLeod’s strict ways, and Gaelic is no longer the language of daily discourse (in fact, I’m not sure there are any Gaels left there at all), Waipu still celebrates its Highland heritage; there’s even a museum dedicated to McLeod and the Scottish settlers who followed him.

As for St. Ann’s, while Gaelic is no longer the language of daily discourse there, either, it was just that for many years after McLeod and his followers left. In 1938, another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend A.W.R. MacKenzie (no relation to my MacKenzies, as far as I know), opened a Gaelic school in a log cabin on McLeod’s old farm. That school, the Gaelic College, is still there and remains “devoted to the study and preservation of the Gaelic language, arts and culture.”

But what about my MacKenzies? At the time of the Normanites’ migration, my ancestor Neil MacKenzie had probably already passed away. His son Angus (my great-great-great-grandfather), who had been born in Scotland, would have been around 50 years old. He and his wife Janet (who was a MacLeod, probably a daughter of one of several MacLeods who had followed Norman McLeod to Cape Breton) had several children, including my great-great-grandfather, Hector MacKenzie, who was around 20 years old and not yet married. Angus, Janet, and most (if not all) of their children stayed behind when the Normanites left.

There were MacKenzies (and MacLeods) among the Waipu settlers, so it’s possible close relatives of my ancestors joined McLeod. So why did Angus and Janet and their children stay when so many of their neighbours and relatives were leaving for greener pastures? Why didn’t they follow the man who was their leader in pretty much all respects? It’s impossible to know for sure, because the further back you go in your family tree, the more you have to rely on official records as opposed to family stories. But if I were to guess, I’d say the MacKenzies’ reason for staying behind was that they thought the Reverend Norman McLeod was too extreme in his ways:

Ruling in an autocratic fashion, McLeod led and exhorted his followers towards moral perfection. As the minister he could scold a person from the pulpit on Sunday for drunkenness; as a magistrate he could fine him on Monday. He even criticized his wife’s bonnet during a Sunday sermon and quickly castigated anyone he suspected of moral laxity. On one occasion in his judicial capacity he ordered the tip of a boy’s ear removed in punishment for a suspected crime. Some of his congregation eventually withdrew because of his autocratic manner. Not even the Presbyterian clergy in other parts of Cape Breton were spared from his censure and criticism. His preaching was described as “torrents of abuse against all religious bodies and individuals”[.]

Their decision could very well have been based on simple logistics, or maybe they just chickened out, or maybe not everyone thought Cape Breton was hopeless. There are a few possibilities, but I like to think the MacKenzies’ decision to stay in Cape Breton was based at least partly on a rejection of religious extremism. Whatever their reasons, they stayed in North River/St. Ann’s, and Angus died there in 1872. Hector, meanwhile, married Isabella MacRae in 1868 and they had several children, including two sets of twins. During the 1880s they moved to Sydney (Nova Scotia, not Australia), where Hector worked as a carpenter. Their son Hec (my great-great uncle) was a member of the original Sydney Millionaires hockey team, which almost won the Stanley Cup in 1913. Their daughter Christina was my great-grandmother. She married Robert Davison, an electrician who worked at the steel plant, and they had several children, at least four of whom died very young. Among those who made it to adulthood was Muriel, my grandmother, who married Frank MacVay in 1934. There’s more, leading all the way down to me and my kids; none of it would have happened if the MacKenzies had decided to leave Cape Breton. I’m glad they stayed.