Kiss me, I’m Irish – or so I thought

I always tell students that as historians we very often study ourselves – that is, that we pursue topics not just that interest us, but that speak to us about who we are, how we view the world and sometimes even where we came from. My earlier work on Nova Scotia was very much driven by my own family background in rural Nova Scotia. None of it was genealogical in any way – despite spending some fair amount of time in several large 19th-century Inverness County archival collections I don’t think I even stumbled upon relations – but I always somehow knew I was studying “my people”.

Halfway Cove, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, birthplace of my “Irish” grandmother Katie George.

Much of that conception revolved around three things: that my family were Acadians and Highland Scots, that they were poor, and that they were Catholic. These don’t provide me any essential features of identity – I grew up a middle-class suburban boomer and nominal Catholic – but it offers a framework for situating myself in the past. That my ancestors suffered at the hands of the British – Jacobites driven out of Scotland, Acadians driven out of Acadie/Nova Scotia – offered me a sense of my family’s place in the broader history of the Atlantic world.

Of course I didn’t know any of this growing up, and only put it together piecemeal as I both dabbled in some genealogy and taught the Atlantic world with a centre on Acadie. And over the past ten years I’ve dabbled more in the genealogy. I’ve found the first settler Samsons on the Lauzon seigneury across from Quebec, and one sons’s movement to Port Royal; I traced the MacInnis family from the Jacobite stronghold of Glenfinnan through the British army’s preemptive strikes against Jacobite villages during the Napoleonic wars to the backland farms behind Port Hood.

Katie George, ca 1925.

But I’d never found the time to explore my paternal grandmother’s side. That’s perhaps not surprising as I barely knew her. She died when I was 6, and my grandfather when I was 10. So all I knew of Katie George was what I was told: she was Irish and from Halfway Cove, Guysborough County. And that made sense. Irish girl meets Acadian boy, perhaps at a shared Catholic church in Halifax where they both appear to have lived in the 1920s.

Last fall, while in PEI waiting for a plumber, I saw tweets by Stephen Archibald about a weekend tour of the eastern shore of Nova Scotia and that prodded me to begin a quick look at my own eastern shore background. I had my grandparent’s wedding certificate and so I had the names of her parents: Thomas George and Mary Boudreau. Oh look, I thought, another Irish-Acadian match. How very poor-Catholic-fisherfolk of them! Both 29, they married at St Mary’s Basilica in Halifax in 1925. Fancier digs than they knew growing up the children of fishers from L’Ardoise and Halfway Cove.

Joseph Samson and Katie George were married at St Mary’s Basilica in Halifax, 16 June 1925. Fancier digs than they knew growing up the children of fishers from L’Ardoise and Halfway Cove.

I began in the 1901 census. I found only one good match, a Thomas and Maggie George, with a daughter Katherine, 7 (about the right age) in Crow Harbour. Crow Harbour is no longer a registered place in Nova Scotia, but in the 1901 census it included a section of shore that included Halfway Cove. Close, I thought, but they were listed as German Anglicans, and with no other good matches I moved on to 1911, when Katie would have been around 15.

Thomas and Margaret George, in the 1921 Census – Catherine, 25, is still at home. I know nothing of her whereabouts before 1925. Joseph, my grandfather, shows up in L’Ardoise in the 1921 census, but I know he was in Halifax during the war, but have no record between 1918 and 1925. Their wedding certificate describes him as a labourer, and her as a waitress. Poor working-class country folk in the city.

Same thing: really only one good match, and it was clearly the same family. The entry, however, was slightly different; they were “Dutch” – no doubt Deutsch, but still wrong, right? And, for that matter, I’d never heard of German settlements at this end of the province. Google, however, found an online Guysborough County gazetteer. And lo’ and behold, Germans in Halfway Cove:

Germans in Halfway Cove! Who knew? Well, obviously some people did, but I didn’t. And so I tried one more census, 1921, and it’s the same thing – the same family, though they’re finally “German” [including formerly French Maggie] – and now all Catholic – did the “Dutch” chapel close, and so they shifted to the the wife’s Catholic tradition? Or just errors?

But, as I’m bumbling about here, I’m also beginning to think, ok, so there’s less than 200 people in Halfway Cove, and that location is one of the few things I know for sure about her, and I keep finding this same near matching family and … and … my goodness yes, she was German! Or least her male lineage was German. And of course that means I’m part German (and not even part Irish! – well, actually a tiny bit – as I discovered later, Katie’s grandfather, Valentine, married an Irish woman, so I’m still one sixteenth Irish!). I continued on. I pursued Valentine, and discovered another Thomas and a Ludwig, and other new non-French, non-Scots names; I discovered a new dimension of me!

I take great delight in this, particularly as my partner Ingrid’s first-language is German, and I can now toss this around in conversation with her Germanophilic mother Lilli. And I love, as a historian, being linked into another set of stories, ones that I’d not imagined to be part of my past. And I love that my past has this messier dimension. “My people” is seldom what we imagine.

I also wondered, why did people call Katie Irish? Did she describe herself as Irish? Her mother was a Boudreau, so at least partly Acadian, and one grandmother was Irish, but that’s a slim claim. Maybe confused family lore (she died a long time ago – I have few known relations on that side of my family) – or perhaps it was a way to make her Catholic for a Catholic wedding?

Or maybe it was about World War 1? Maybe this young woman with a German name (if a German-Acadian family) felt she needed to hide that. It’s the angle that makes the most sense, and it’s the angle that most makes me wish I could ask her questions. Did she experience hostility in Halifax during the war? Was this an extension of the same idea that prompted Berlin, Ontario to change its name to Kitchener, that prompted a wave of anti-German sentiment across the country? We know many German-Canadians did this, though “George” is not obviously German. Of course, in Halfway Cove, it was, and maybe she carried that with her to Halifax. Maybe she carried it with her for the rest of her life.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Mapping Acadian farms on Isle St-Jean

I spent the morning yesterday with Josh MacFadyen at his lab at UPEI. We ranged over a lot of topics, but I was really intrigued by his copy of a version of Samuel Holland’s 1765 map of the Island of St John [Isle St-Jean/Prince Edward Island]. It’s an amazing map in many ways, and Max Edelson’s marvellous The New Map of Empire (Harvard UP, 2017) tells the story of its creation well. But there are apparently different versions of the map and Josh has a superb digitisation of one I’d never seen before – said to be “the original” – which notes actual buildings in settlements across the island. Students in my 2020 colonial North America course mapped Acadian families who were expelled after the British conquest of 1758. They offered a powerful sense of the losses many families incurred in Isle St-Jean’s part of le Grand Dérangement. What I want to sketch here is how we could recreate some of these sites, allowing us to see, among many things, productive farm data across almost 300 years.

Here’s a detail from sheet 10 of the Holland map. It’s from what is today the head of the Hillsborough River. The small red squares (and one mysterious red circle – it’s on a brook, perhaps a mill?) appear to mark farm sites, though it’s not clear exactly what they are – buildings? houses? farms? Elsewhere we can also see other indicators such as churches (a cross) and mills (a windmill-like shape).

Twelve years later, DesBarres’s Atlantic Neptune shows farms and cleared lands along the same bends (red arrows). To the southwest, (blue arrow) other farms where Acadian farms were indicated in 1730.

From J.F.W. DesBarres, The Atlantic Neptune (London, 1800 [1777]. Source: Library of Congress.

We can examine this location on other maps. Here I’ll use the portage to Tracadie as a reference. At that point, the river turns east and then splits at about Pisquid. [the 1730 French map says this portage is to Havre St-Pierre, but that’s surely an error – a portage to Havre St. Pierre would not start when the river is still running north, it would need to run ENE [this seems NNW], and would be much longer – about 5 km – than suggested here].

That location seems to match this cluster of farms noted on this unauthored French map from 1730: Plan de la rivière du Nord Est (Bibliothèque nationale de France – here). This detail shows only a small corner of the map, but we can see a cluster of individual farm sites, identified with what appears to be an extended family named Martin, noted along the southern shore of the river.

Though this map is from 1730, thirty-five years before Holland, we can locate some of these people in the 1752 census of Isle St-Jean. Here’s Joseph Martin, on rivière du Nord Est, as noted by Sieur de La Roque in 1752:

Joseph Martin was 50 years of age, having arrived from Acadie thirty years earlier [ca.1722]. The 1730 map shows a group of Martin households .We can presume Joseph was 20 when they arrived, and granted this land. It’s possible that he was the son or nephew of the Paul, Charles, Pierre, or Joseph indicated, but given the ages and dates this is probably the same man.. Thus we get a quick picture of a family, a farm and its stock on a farmed site under continuous occupation since at least 1730.

Again using the portage as a reference, we can locate those farms roughly here, where the Hillsborough River forks just below Mt Stewart.

It’s worth noting that these sons of ploughmen from Acadie chose marshy tidal sites along the river, prime sites for dyking and creating grasslands – the kind of site Acadian farmers knew well.

Indeed, google maps shows some of that land to be a lagoon/barrachois.

Though satellite imagery shows that piece to be dyked. It doesn’t appear productive – i.e, it’s not being farmed – but it’s not a marsh like the land to north.

And that particular site appears to have drained and flooded and other occasions. This 1968 aerial shot shows the site as a marsh again [orientation is north roughly to the right]. (PEI, aerial photo reference 1085-95)

Can we see more, or back further in time? There’s little evidence of the Mi’kmaq on Holland’s map. Holland renamed most of Isle St-Jean [though occasionally noting “Called by the French …”]. Some of the French maps included significant amounts of Mi’kmaw data – more so in Isle Royale than Isle St-Jean – but almost none of that is evident in what Holland produced in 1765, or on the 1730 French map. Other French maps prior to 1758 show Indigenous names only along the north shore [Quiquibougouat/New London Bay, and Cascamquesques/Cascumpec Bay], areas still commonly associated with Mi’kmaw sites. While the accuracy and beauty of the map is extraordinary, it was very much a tool of empire: establishing certainty on land and possibilities for settlement and government, and representing this newly-captured island clearly as a British place. But there is one very interesting possibility. In the little corner I examine above, across the river from those farm sites, is the Scotchfort Mi’kmaw [Abegweit First Nation]. I don’t anything about this history of this reserve, but if it was based on a then-known Mi’kmaw site then there’s still more human history to be explored on that bend in the river.

This is very much me a dabbler in mapping, and Josh and his lab folks no doubt saw these possibilities long ago. But I was really fired by the possibility of what I saw in Josh’s lab: of bringing a longer view of history to such sites. For the past few years I’ve been teaching using projects based on that period around the Seven Years War and I’m really excited to see some new possibilities for extending those projects into new directions.

POSTSCRIPT (February 2022): I now think I positioned the Martin cluster too far south/west – they were, I now think, about 2 km further up the river, in this marshy area just west of what is today Cherry Hill. My Evernote file on Lot 29 explains.


My biscuits, and one of my mother’s recipe notebooks, most with attributions to friends – Grace, Marie, Gloria – from whom the recipe came.

I wrote a blog for “Cooking the Past”, the marvellous Montreal-based public history project run by Stacey Zembrzycki, Cassandra Marsillo, and others. Asking people to reflect on food, and more particularly cooking, during the pandemic, the organizers seek ways to understand home, the kitchen, and our historic selves during moments of crisis. In social isolation but not alone, the kitchen (a place) and cooking (a practice) allow us a context for examining how the experience of food and food-making enables resilience, cut with sadness and cheer. Such reflection takes us beyond nostalgia, exploring the ways historic practices enrich our capacities to dream of what might be. Here, my mother’s story and particularly her relationship to baking prompted some reflection on my own world.

A taste:

Food has always been important in my family. My father was an only child. His father left L’Ardoise during the First World War. Like many poor Maritimers, most of his family left Nova Scotia and lived far away – Boston, Montreal, and a residue in L’Ardoise. Relatives, Samsons and the broader family of Martels, Mombourquettes and Landrys, would often visit our home outside Halifax. This fully anglicised, frozen-pizza-eating boy joined them at the table but was unable to speak their language, and unwilling to share their feasts of lobster, eels, and various bivalves. My mother’s family were closer. Descendants of Highland Scots from Glenfinnan, their Jacobitism long forgotten but still evident in certain habits of dissent, the MacInnises  were more clannish, much more seeking of each other’s company. My mother’s family was my family. My childhood revolved around western Cape Breton in general and Inverness in particular: summer picnics at the beach, Easter and Thanksgiving dinners, odd weekends, all spent somehow connected to family, and food.

The full piece can be found here.

Ann Samson having lunch with friends and work-mates, Halifax, ca.1958.
Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel told the tale of a group of young women coming of age in the 1950s and struggling with the many tensions of modern womanhood.

James Barry’s Aesthetic World

James Barry was a man of taste. By that I don’t mean to suggest a proper or “correct” taste, or that he was appropriately fashionable. I mean that he cared about art and beauty and believed he had a judicious aesthetic sensibility. This is most obvious in his musicality and his mission to record fiddle tunes, but the diary offers numerous moments when aesthetics and a discerning taste become evident. The miller was in many ways a coarse and sometimes vulgar man – though even here we might see a kind of Rabelaisian spirit of enthusiastic engagement – but several dimensions of his life speak to a certain cultivated refinement and a delight in both the consumption and creation of aesthetic experience.

Barry was in many realms a critic – be that of his workers’ skills, a housekeeper’s beauty, or a neighbour’s talents at the bow. Sometimes this was formal, and he was often called upon to judge fiddle and piping competitions in Pictou, Barry took great pride in his critical assessments of local musicians – good and bad. He could be a harsh critic, often totally disparaging a local fiddler’s abilities. But he loved few things more than to play and engage with those he considered fine players. In fiddling and numerous other creative acts, in that space between assessment and creation, Barry found much room for experimentation and possibilities for design and expression. In his home, his music, art, writing, and printing, he found ways to express himself and to define an image of his self.

From a series of photos taken on the visit of Bessie Barry, her daughter, and grand-daughter, some time during the Second World War. The addition is on the left. Photo courtesy of Everett McCullough, Six Mile Brook, NS

In some ways, these discerning tastes spilled over into a kind of bourgeois appetite for comfort and improvement. In the 1860s, as he built a significant addition to the house he had acquired from his parents – what in the diary he terms “the new house” – he took great care in making it tastefully attractive and comfortable. The only photo we have dates from the 1940s and the house had been poorly maintained since his death in 1906. But the photo clearly illustrates the old and new sections of the house and some sense remains of arrangement and decorative detailing on the windows. What the diary makes clear is that Barry played a direct role in its design, offering regular commentary on everything from flooring to wallpaper. He also notes planting ornamental and fruit trees around the house, noting their price and provenance (the apple trees, for example, were not local grafts, but purchased from a nursery in the Annapolis Valley). The house was painted, not white-washed, and he spoke approvingly of the “soft” yellow he had chosen. Early in the diary, Barry made clear his commercial ambitions (and anxieties) and one consistent thread of the diary is Barry’s marking of his passage from indebted young man to successful business operator. New purchases – a sofa, a steel stove, and a comfortable new bed – were noted with pride, marks of successful fulfillment of his bourgeois aspirations.

As in so much of his life, though, in order to see what really drove Barry we need to turn to books and print for the most striking expressions of his aesthetic sense. His “manuscript diary” for example, shows a playful experimentation with “fonts”. In both the diary entries themselves – where the handwriting often differs dramatically, even day-to-day – and in the headings we can see a clear sense of the artful play.

Composite of page headers from October 1855 – a good illustration of his endless experimentation with “fonts” in his “manuscript diary”.

Barry also illustrated the diary with numerous drawings and poetry. Not every page header was as ornate as the one that opens this post, but the sense of play continued in fonts and illustrations throughout the diary. And his printing, much like the diaries, also made use of several fonts and numerous decorative images ending chapters and other notable transitions. No doubt part of using multiple fonts owed much to economy – that he only had so much type – but even the constraint of economy compelled thinking on page design and the appearance of his books.

More evident in the first two decades of the diary, this variety marked a daily play of styles and representation of how best to find the right style to convey the proper tone in his work.

This sense of experiment and play is most evident in Barry’s illustrative presentation of self: his name and how he signs and prints his name in his books. Indeed, it is here that we best see the connection between design, text, and self in his textual world. Barry fashioned himself in print. The diary was the centre of his on-going project of self-fashioning. But it also found expression in his books and printing. The clearest example here is in how he printed his name, both by hand and in type. Here too we find a near endless series of different forms as Barry plays with fonts, swirls, embellishments, colours, shadings, and locations in developing new ways to write/type “James Barry” owned this book. Barry, his self centred in text, engaged in an on-going wrestling match over how to present the most elemental representation of his textual self: his name.

A composite of different Barry signatures/book plates from his library. Source: Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
Composite of signatures and book plates from James Barry’s library.

In one way or another, art, playful engagement, and some form of aesthetic design played a role in James Barry’s life. It’s worth thinking about his daily practice – what it meant to play the fiddle, to write poetry, to choose and set type, to take the time to craft a new style of heading in his journal. His was a crafts-person’s life. Each day, in picking the millstones, assessing the grind, maintaining the machinery of the mill, gauging the weather and the water, he exercised dimensions of a fine crafts-worker’s skillful hands and eyes. He extended that deeply in his intellectual-artistic work. But I think it’s best to see it all as a unified whole, a life lived in critical intellectual engagement, in music, in design – as much in beauty as in craft work. Barry had an artistic sensibility, of observing and creating beauty. That he struggled to express all this, that he looked to the wider world for inspiration, speaks to a man no doubt frustrated by his limits, but still inspired to create. His free-thinking ways – both his earlier Morisonian Presbyterianism and his later secular free-thinking – were those of a mind willing to explore new possibilities, new insights, new ideas, and new visions. His open-mindedness, his aesthetic playfulness, and his disciplined craft skills combined to shape an artist on Six Mile Brook.

The outlay of the diary changed over the years, but a consistent format included month/year headers. Pointing hands were used decoratively, or in the text to indicate major news – usually deaths. Dozens of small images of people – never labelled – adorned margins.

Is this a James Barry edition?

Henry More Smith. The Mysterious Stranger. Originally published in New Haven in 1817. Partly set in New Brunswick, the story was very popular in the Maritime colonies and there were at least 8 editions published.

James Barry was a miller, a fiddler, a diarist, an infidel, and a printer. When I began working on him, I was drawn to the miller. I’m now fascinated by the diarist and printer. While presenting at Congress in Vancouver this past June, I noted that Barry “sold Johnny McLeod a whole Back-load of Books” – three dozen of one title, four dozen of another. It presented the possibility that Barry was printing more than broadsheets and pamphlets; that he may have been printing entire books.

Eli McLaren, a historian of copyright at McGill, asked if I was suggesting that James Barry was illegally printing books. My answer then, as I suggested in an earlier post, was that I think so because of some contextual evidence, but don’t know for sure because I’ve never actually seen either a book that directly pointed to him, nor does he ever indicate anything specific in his diary or accounts. At that moment, co-panelist Gwen Davies, Emeritus Dean of Arts at UNB and one who knows more about Maritime books than anyone, piped up “I’ve seen one” and told me the story of an edition that she thinks Barry printed. And it’s in the Bell Library at Mt. Allison University. Last week, I went ot the Bell Library, and here’s what I found.

The book is Henry Bates, The Mysterious Stranger, or the Memoirs of the Noted Henry More Smith. First published in New Haven, Conneticut in 1817, the book tells the story of Henry More Smith, part grifter and part Harry Houdini, whose New England and New Brunswick exploits were widely read in the 19th century. At least nine 19th-century editions were published in the Maritime colonies: one in Halifax (Cunnabell, 1835), six in Saint John, New Brunswick (William Avery, 1840 and George Day, 1857, 1866, 1872, 1878 and 1895), one in Southampton , New Brunswick (George W. Miller, 1855) , and one in Charlottetown, PEI (Haszard, 1855). Later two 20th-century editions were published in Saint John (Bowes, 1910) and Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1912 (no publisher indicated). It’s a fascinating tale and numerous other versions have been published into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

What, then, of this mysterious edition? At first glance, it’s by George Day, though with the curious addition of “Originally printed by George W. Day”. None of the Day editions include that, and why would they? So who printed this edition? There’s no direct proof that it was Barry, but lots more to suggest it’s possible. First, and most obviously, there’s an annotation on the inside cover signed “G.H.C.” that says so – indeed, not only that this was printed by Barry, but also that this was his second edition.

Annotation by “G.H.C.” claiming the book was published by James Barry, Six Mile Brook, Pictou, County

So who’s “G.H.C.”. Gwen Davies doesn’t know. I’ve begun writing to collectors and Special Collections librarians around the region, but this might take some time. The annotation is striking for its confidence. No “maybes” or speculations: “was printed by James Barry”. He appears to have been local (an American or central Canadian would surely have included “Nova Scotia” in the description). 

There’s lots more that’s curious about this edition and most of these oddities open other possibilities. The title page notes that it was “originally published by George Day” of Saint John, New Brunswick, but the texts are not identical. This edition has a Preface. None of the Cunnabell or Day editions have one, and this Preface is not the same as the Haszard or Miller editions. The title pages, and the full titles are different. There are also some minor modifications in the final paragraphs. This edition also has three types of paper and two fonts (one on very thin paper with a dense font, the other more substantial but a less dense text).

“Henry More Smith” on the spine

What really marks this edition is the addition of material from Pictou County. The final seven pages are three letters from Pictou County residents recalling the time More spent there in 1816. None of the letters add significantly to the story, though in spirit they certainly confirm the pattern of the Houdini-like grifter. Of course, that consistency could mean that these 40-year-old memories are somewhere between imagined and apocryphal, but in any event they added local colour to this edition – a feature no doubt intended spark local sales.

Assuming for the moment, at a minimum, that it was printed in Pictou County, could someone else have printed the work? Possibly, though not this bound version. To my knowledge, there were only two other presses in the County, both for local newspapers, the Colonial Standard and the Eastern Chronicle. Neither appear to have published any books, though both did some pamphlets. An exception is William Harris (who purchased the press of the Colonial Standard around 1875) who published Teare’s Directory of Pictou and New Glasgow (210 pages) in 1879. While the Eastern Chronicle could have printed the work, they don’t appear to have had any binding capacity as McConnell purchased bound volumes of his own newspaper from Barry.

Barry’s diary entry noting the Mysterious Stranger also noted H.B. Skinner’s The Family Doctor, or Guide to Health (both Worldcat and have the 1844, 9th edition from Boston). Barry also gave away several copies of Eugene Becklard’s Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love Courtship and Marriage (the edition is New York, Holland and Glover, 1844; Worldcat lists several mid-century editions from Boston and Philadelphia). Were these Becklards also a Barry edition? Further research here and a more rigorous assessment of Barry’s remaining libray in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia may well turn up other possible Barry editions. If so, Barry represents a significant addendum to MacLaren’s work on 19th-century copyright in Canada. His Dominion and Agency details the concerted efforts of the Canadian government to regulate the irregular book trade, and copyright law, often at the insistence of British and later American publishers. Barry may well have been escaping the state’s observance. And if he was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t other small rural printing presses doing the same.

It’s too soon to say this is an accurate picture. But if Barry was pirating copyrighted materials, then he presents a challenge to a national and trans-Atlantic literature on colonial book publishing. More interesting to me, though, is what this means for our understanding of the production and consumption of local knowledge. If he was publishing and selling these works, then the local networks of books, reading and ideas were much more complex than we’ve imagined – indeed, still more so than I’d argued in Vancouver. Textual modernity arrived in the countryside not as an outside force, but something more carefully and locally mediated than we’ve seen before. And James Barry, no friend of the state, may have been even more subversive than I’ve imagined.

Update: While in Halifax in September, the good (and knowledgeable!) folks at Schooner Books in Halifax identified G.H.C.


Eli MacLaren, Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867–1918 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2011).

James Barry’s Transatlantic World of Books and Ideas

D. M. Bennett, Champions of the Church: Their Crimes and Persecutions (New York, 1878). Bennett was a radical tree thinker, and publisher of the Truth Seeker (1873-1883): “Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind mentally or physically.” Exactly the kind of truth James Barry sought! Image source:

Co-published with Acadiensis blog.

James Barry (1822-1906) was a Six Mile Brook, Pictou County miller, printer, fiddler, iconoclast, and curmudgeon. Born, like so many Pictou County folk, into the Presbyterian church, over his life he became intensely critical of Christian theology. His route is visible in outline, but the details are less clear; his diary, detailed in so many ways, offers no “Eureka” moment. But there are clues. Most of those clues, I argue, stem from his immersion in text – that is, that he saw text as defining the world, and thus critical engagement was necessary to properly understanding it. Very early in life, Barry distanced himself from both free church and Church of Scotland Presbyterianisms. By the time he was in his 30s, he was describing himself as a Morisonian, a small sect of Scottish Presbyterians defined mostly by their rejection of any form of church government. In the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, his Morisonian thinking was certainly more radically individualistic and textually-focused than that of his Free Church neighbours. But this was not that far outside dissenting Presbyterianism; his critical engagements were within Presbyterian theological controversies. 

By the 1870s, however, that had changed dramatically. Where in 1857, for example, he celebrated and strictly observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day, [as] a day of rest for man and beast”, by August 1879 he maintained that “Sunday is only a manmade day … All religion is of man’s manufacture”. Even his early focus on the universality of the Atonement – a significant feature of Morisonian theology – came under critique: “I am reading works on the Atonement”, he recorded in December 1853, citing particular biblical passages as textual proof of his position:

Barry’s daily diary spanned over 56 years, from 1849 to 1906. Source: MG1, vol 1219, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

“I am firmly of the opinion Christ died and thereby made Atonement for every man – every human being. For the sin of Old Adam sunk the human race and the apostle says “that where sin abounds grace did much more abound’ [Romans 5, 20] and ‘that Christ tasted death for every man’ [Hebrews 2, 9] and ‘he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world’ [John 2, 2]”

By the 1870s his reading patterns were quite different. And by 1883, after six or seven years of reading Charles Watts, Robert Ingersoll, and other free thinkers, Barry’s thinking had shifted ground significantly:

“I was in my Shop all day setting type for an article by Charles Watts entitled ’The Fall and Redemption’ and an able handling he gave it. In fact he knocked the fall and redemption into nonsense, which every sensible man and woman can easily see ….  ‘Fall’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Atonement’, in fact the whole jumble of incoherent nonsense in ‘Theology’ is absurd … and ordinary people are coming fast to see it, and reject it in toto.”

If not explaining to us in any detail how Watts “knocked” these ideas “into nonsense”, Barry was absolutely clear in highlighting his own shifting worldview. Equally clear is his textual evidence, citing first the bible then later Watts. Indeed, text also enabled what might normally be experiential evidence. The “ordinary people … coming fast to see it”, upon whom Barry rested his belief in progress, were ordinary people in New York and Chicago, not Six Mile Brook – the people of his textual world.

So, we can see that Barry had undergone a radical change in his thinking on theology, and that that came about through his engagement with new ideas in the books he was reading. It also coincides with a shift in local booksellers moving their primary suppliers from Edinburgh and London to Philadelphia and New York, a shift that no doubt was related to the dramatic rise of coal trade shipping to the eastern seaboard. Can we see that trans-Atlantic shift in Six Mile Brook? Can we see him transmitting those old and new ideas into Six Mile Brook, the West River, and beyond? The typically asocial Barry was not a prime candidate for promoter of the unfaith, or much of anything really. He had some regular reading friends, notably Dr Murdoch Munro, with whom he had a generally amiable friendship clearly centred on books and discussion. He admired educated men, and judged them accordingly. When his neighbour William Sutherland died in the summer of 1857, Barry commended his faith, but not his education. “I think he was a true Christian, although not a very learned one”. Barry’s Christianity was profoundly textual and like most evangelicals he explored this faith through “the Word” of the bible; unlike most evangelicals, however, that deep, critical immersion in text and reading eventually pushed him to free thought. For Barry, learned status competed with faith as a marker of worth, but with his faith rooted in textual criticism the door to abandoning faith was wide open. 

List of books lent, ca. 1877. Bennett’s Champions of the Truth is listed four times. Source: Barry Diaries, MG1, volume 1223, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

The diary gives us a very clear picture of the mill as a community hub. Barry certainly could be less than charming but most everyone in the community went there either to grind their grain, saw their wood, or purchase shingles, staves, or fenceposts. These conversations are almost completely inaccessible to us, but we get glimmers in the diary. “Kenneth Irvine was here at the mill and we had a long chat about the Bible and some other things”, reads a fairly typical entry from November 1877. Religion, and increasingly over the years, anti-religion, was the most common topic. “Many about the mill today”, he reported, in July 1883, “talking about the Bible, they are superstitious”. Politics too was common, notably in the period between the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the death of Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement around 1870. Here, some of the talk was based on local public meetings, but the vast majority stemmed from their readings of the newspapers.  The bases for his long discussion with his employee, Sandy Sutherland, in May of 1854 about “Nova Scotia railways and the war in Russia” [the Crimean War] no doubt also came from newspapers.

The focus of discussions, like the focus of his reading, was shifting. By the late 1870s, free thought and a fundamental critique of Christian theology also seem to have become common conversations around the mill. One evening his friend Munro came by and they discussed D. M. Bennett’s recent book: “Dr Munro was here this evening”, he noted in August 1877. “‘Champions of the Church’ was the book that occupied my attention most. It gives fearful accounts of Cruelty practised by one Christian on another. They are all tarred with the same stick it seems”. It’s hard to say how influential Barry was here – in other entries, Munro seems more intrigued than invested – but the miller was certainly bringing new ideas to everyday conversation in Six Mile Brook.

In all these discussions, Barry was always right. In town buying supplies in 1883, he “had some talk about Bible stories to various persons but [I] always came of conquerer [sic] by a long chalk. Most don’t know much, they are stupid and ignorant”. He wasn’t much of a proselyte, typically dismissing the ignorant and praising only those with whom he agreed. But he tried. “McDonald the miller came by this morning. I presented him with a Book of Tracts on free-thought. He is no bigot not a pious fool. He will learn”. There were numerous such discussions and it’s still clear that most involved an exchange of ideas and Barry loaning, selling, and sometimes even giving a suitable book. If he suffered no fools, and thus often spoke only to those already onside, Barry was nonetheless an active agent of intellectual exchange. In the market for ideas, he had a product and some willing customers.

We have a less clear sense of how many then purchased those ideas. The diaries and an account book give us only fragmentary clues on Barry’s reach, but if we take into consideration his place at the centre of the community (that is, as a miller, not as a social person!), his frequent trips to town where he almost always reported engaging with someone, and combine that with the fact that he was printing and binding dozens of the free-thought works (among much more), then he certainly had the potential to reach a lot of people. 

Part of the “backload” from 1884? The Mysterious Stranger was republished dozens of times over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This edition is the 1st US edition published in New Haven in 1817. I think, but can’t yet prove, Barry printed his own edition and this then would give us some sense of the volume of his work. Source:

Precise numbers are scarce. But a single entry in the diary from April of 1884 offers a hint. “I sold [Johnny McLeod] a whole Back-load of Books – Henry More Smith and the family doctor, 3 doz of the former and 4 doz of the latter”. We don’t know that he printed these, but he was printing books and here at least he’s selling dozens of copies. He printed a wide range of materials and neither of the titles noted here were free-thought works. But he was tight with his money and however much he loved printing (a point he made several times) he wouldn’t cast type, print and bind works purely for the pleasure. It suggests that the miller on Six Mile Brook, who spent much of his time in his “little shop”, as he termed it, was not only a miller but also a printer, a bookseller, and very much a critical node in this tiny corner of the transatlantic world of books and idea. A decidedly uncharismatic proselyte, he was nonetheless an able aggregator and disseminator of everything from domestic self-help guides to radical free-thought works. James Barry brought distinctly modern ideas and debates into the back-country world of the West River. Six Mile Brook was a tiny place far from the colonial metropolis, but it was it was very much a centre of the modern world.

The Presbyterian Communist: J.B. McLachlan’s library

Jean Sandeau, Madeleine: A Story of French Love (Glasgow, 1883 [1848]). Source: Beaton Institute.

My colleague Keith Grant and I are building a digital repository of the private libraries of Nova Scotian readers. On that quest, I recently spent a day at the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, going through the private library of the early-20th-century Cape Breton labour leader J. B. [James Bryson] McLachlan (1869-1937). This piece is co-published by The Nova Scotia Advocate. I thank Robert DeVet for his interest.

I didn’t expect to find a story of French love in J.B. McLachlan’s library, but there it was. Nor did I expect to find a series of adventure novels by Bret Harte, poetry by Shelley, and readers in French and Greek language instruction. But why should I be surprised? People are always more varied than their public personae and their libraries often offer helpful insights into that complexity. McLachlan was, I think without doubt, the most important labour figure in Nova Scotia history and his role with the Communist Party also gave him a national public prominence. And that side of McLachlan is well represented in the collection. There’s some Lenin, Engels [The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State], a history of the Paris commune, and even works on evolution and H.G. Wells’s Short History of the World. More surprising was the number of religious texts – I didn’t count, but about a third – with a heavy concentration of Presbyterian works from the middle and late 19th century.

McLachlan remains a vibrant figure in our day in part because of his place in popular memory, but increasingly so because of David Frank’s superb J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto, Lorimer, 1999). It’s a wonderful book that allows us to see the powerful orator and leader in action. There are few more careful historians than Frank; his research is extensive and his highly skilled and subtle writing really brings McLachlan’s world to life. Having read it twenty years ago, I remembered it as heavy on politics and light on religion. Returning to Frank’s biography, not surprisingly, the politics of labour dominates, but there is no doubt as to Presbyterianism’s moral, foundational role in the development of a communist life. While rarely specifically raising the issue of faith, the biography doesn’t allow religion to fall by the wayside in the narrative push to McLachlan’s full immersion in working-class radicalism.

What we might exepct to find in McLachlan’s library. G.B. Benham, A History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (San Francisco, International Publishing, 1898). Source: McLachlan papers, Beaton Institute.

Presbyterianism seems to have been a powerful force in McLachlan’s life and I’m intrigued by his apparent movement to secular politics. Faith, as opposed to the residual culture of religion, appears to have been messier. It’s fairly clear that he drifted farther from his foundation as he grew older, and as the very real demands of political struggle overtook the struggle of faith. But that movement from someone reared in critical Free Church, Presbyterian thinking, with its overt anti-statist, in some ways anti-authority, position on church, and broader, forms of government, to that of a Communist leader is remarkable. The injustice of a state church – be it Scottish, English, or Roman – imposing its way on good and pious men and women surely found expression in his later Communist politics.

The continued existence of a library with the Bible and works of biblical criticism suggest that foundation was not wholly forgotten, and that it may have continued to influence McLachlan in parallel with the many radical texts he consumed in the 1920s and 30s. Most of the older books no doubt belonged to his parents, and it’s certainly possible that he held onto them as nostalgic mementos. Even for the later works, we don’t know for certain that he purchased them, only that they were in his library. But he signed and dated several after 1890. One, Andrew M’Lean’s The Commission Given by Jesus Christ to His Apostles (Elgin, Peter Macdonald, 1848), is signed and dated “James McLachlan, April 30th 1900”. To that extent, then, in the 1890s, when his biographer has him already radicalised, he appears still to have been actively engaging his faith. All of this suggests that the man who brought his family to Cape Breton in 1902 remained a man of faith.

Joseph McCabe, The Truth About Secular Education (London, Watts & Co., 1908). Source: J.B. McLachlan Papers, Beaton Institute.

Some evidence of a dramatic shift in McLachlan’s faith comes from his possession of Joseph McCabe’s The Truth About Secular Education (London, Watts & Co, 1908). Similar to a good many evangelical Christians in the late 19th-century, McCabe drifted from Franciscan Catholicism to rationalism in the 1890s. McCabe’s path was common during the rise of rationalist and secular free thought in the late 19th century. Few of the major figures of the secularist movement were muddy-eyed liberal agnostics; they were more commonly raised in deeply religious households, often including formal religious training. McCabe’s book was published in 1908, six years after McLachlan arrived in Nova Scotia. Whether it marks a real engagement with the secularist movement, or simply a curiosity about a fashionable subject, his acquisition of the book suggests some kind of critical exploration of the path from faith. Similarly, the books on evolution and Wells’s history may suggest other dimensions of what may have been a protracted movement from Presbyterianism to Communism.

There is, however, one religious dimension of the library that is not treated in Frank’s biography of McLachlan. It suggests a still more protracted route, one marked by older elements of his Presbyterian past: the presence of a clear anti-Catholic dimension to several of the religious works. British Protestantism was steeped in anti-Catholicism, and probably no sect more clearly embraced that antipathy than the Presyterians. Indeed, the presence in McLachlan’s library of John M’Donald’s Romanism Analyzed … An Examination of the Errors of Popery (1894) and William Anderson’s Exposure of Popery (1878), as well as the classic anti-Catholic text, John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (originally 1573, but republished often throughout the 19th century) suggest a continued immersion not only in theological texts, but also in anti-Catholic thinking. It’s likely that Foxe’s book belonged to his parents, and perhaps Anderson’s, too, but M’Donald’s book was published a year after McLachlan married. At the very minimum, then, at a time when McLachlan’s reading was transitioning into more radical terrain, and as he brought his family to Cape Breton, older anti-Catholic works, and at least one new one, remained on his shelves.

What does it mean that J.B. McLachlan held onto these books? For me, this was the most interesting dimension of his library. There’s lots of possibilities here, but the most obvious question is, was McLachlan an anti-Catholic bigot? I don’t think so, but it would not have been unlikely given the make-up of the older Nova Scotia union, the Provincial Workmen’s Association where there was plenty of anti-Catholicism, as well as flat-out racism. Certainly the McLachlan we see in the 1920s showed no signs of such bigotry. His biographer Frank notes that such charges were occasionally made, but these were invaribly smears tossed out by business leaders and the church, designed to distract their increasingly left-looking members. McLachlan spoke clearly, and directly, to all industrial Cape Breton’s peoples: Catholic, Protestant and Jews, blacks and whites. There is no evidence that he was in any way actively anti-Catholic.

William Anderson, The Exposure of Popery (Edinburgh, Oliphant, 1878). Source: Beaton Institute.

And thus it’s worthwhile considering the path of a man, steeped in the ages-old anti-Catholicism of 19th-century Scottish Presbyterianism. While there’s no evidence of him every having been actively anti-Catholic, it’s hard to imagine he was unaffected by the deep culural force it held in Presbyterian practice. He appears not to have regularly attended church. Yet, Frank tells us that McLachlan continued to read aloud to his family from the Bible on Sundays, keeping alive at least parts of the old faith, just as his parents had. But this was not his parents’ world, and it’s here where we can imagine something of the Presbyterian Communist’s path. The complex, culturally plural experience of Cape Breton must have made clear to him that ancient prejudices and their cultural divides were the enemy of the working class. McLachlan’s Old-World radicalisation combined with the challenges posed by the more varied culture of New-World, industrial Cape Breton must have compelled him to examine the shared plight of workers in new ways. It was precisely in overcoming those divisions, particularly the privileging of some workers over others, a game played by the companies and the older unions alike, that enabled McLachlan and the other left leaders of the day to move industrial Cape Breton from the era of company towns to that of labour towns. J.B. McLachlan had a profound impact on Cape Breton, but Cape Breton seems to have had a profound influence on him as well.

Barry, Death and Emotion

James Barry wrote a lot about death. The Presbyterian spoke confidently of the afterlife , yet there’s a perceptible fear – and something of an obsession – that’s evident throughout the diary. Though he lived to be 87, he several times predicted his early demise. “I am considerably damaged” he wrote 46 years before his death, “and will feel the effects of it as long as I live, and I am of opinion that will not be long” (20 January 1860). He was sick often, and also seemingly slow to recover. Colds lasted for weeks and he had endless complaints about his stomach (“skitter” in his “pudding”), with many too vivid descriptions of what was emerging from his “port-hole”. But if he seems obsessive, we can’t really say he was unduly fearful. Death was everywhere in 19th-century Six Mile Brook. Babies died soon after birth; people were killed by machinery (he reported several threshing machine deaths); people drowned swimming in summer and falling through the ice in winter; and there was an endless stream of mysterious purported causes. Six Mile Brook was not insulated from the major communicative diseases, especially in tuberculosis. His wife Bell died of TB in 1883, as did four of her sisters, at least one brother, and probably her parents. And just locally and within the family, there were many other deaths noted in the diary ranging from his parents, Bell’s parents, their siblings, neighbours, and local notables in the news.

Barry’s typical response was detached, often brutally cold. He was sometimes weirdly playful – “Old ‘Christy Gordon’ is Dead as a Herring – So be it, Amen” (2 January 1869) – and sometimes painfully detached – “Old Alexander McKay died last night. He was owing me 20s and will owe” (9 November 1849). He sometimes eulogized at length: “The Celebrated KENNETH MUNRO of this Brook DIED some time this morning. He was ailing this many a year, although going about and working some. He recently came from P.E. Island. He was a bad character, a thief and a liar and a quack doctor to the bargain and a real piss-the-bed”. (12 July 1854) He didn’t attend any of his siblings’ funerals, and it was his refusal to attend Bell’s mother’s funeral in the summer of 1867 that really marked the beginning of the slide in their relationship.

His responses to death were most often directly tied to his relationship with the deceased. That’s not surprising, of course, but the deaths provide interesting indicators of his emotional connections not just to individuals but also to people, their lives and life’s value. This is, I think, very much tied up with his spirituality – and the changing nature of his spirituality and his evolving position on Atonement – but I’ll leave that aside for today. What I will explore is his relationship to three deaths – Bell and two of her sisters – as a way of assessing how he thought about death and how emotion charged these thoughts in powerfully repressive ways.

Barry’s response to the death of Annabella in October 1878 illustrated his common detached position. In the months leading up to her death, he noted in passing her illness, occasionally commenting on her poor appearance, but the details were very scarce. When she died, the death simply was recorded, not unlike those of neighbours, often neighbours some distance away whom he barely knew. Annabella was his sister-in-law, a woman who probably held no great love for him but who visited regularly and cared for his children very often between 1868 and 1878. “Poor Annabella died this morning at 8 o’clock of consumption. Her troubles are over. I sold our cow to George McLaren from Pictou for $30”. The next day “they took Annabella away from here this morning to be buried”. If there was a hint of sorrow in acknowledging that her “troubles are over”, it was not enough to compel him to attend the funeral.

Barry had little good to say about any of the McLennans. Except Liza. It’s hard to know why precisely because he doesn’t say much, but her death certainly affected him in ways that few others did. Uncharacteristically, Barry offered numerous lamentations on her illness, and ultimately her death. He explicitly says she was the only one of the McLennans he liked. Indeed, he probably in some way loved her (though like his positive feelings for most other women, this too would surely have diminished with time) and expressed a genuine sense of loss. “Liza is getting still worse I understand. I do not see her, but it is not anything I have against her but the other curse [Bell] and the damned Rogers Hill Buggers [Bell’s family]. Poor Liza, if I could save her it would soon be done at any cost – even to the whole of my Kingdom.” (12/11/1868, emphasis in original)

This is a striking acknowledgement of loss and desire. Through most of Liza last months, Barry recorded occasional updates on her well-being. It was clear to him that she had TB – “Consumption is the complaint of their family” – and that she was dying. And yet there is not a single recording of an interaction with Liza, indeed of no one in the family except Josephine. “Liza is still here”, he reported on 3 November 1868, “but I do not see her. I hear that she is mending some”. Isolated in his own house, set apart from the McLennan sisters who came through the house in support of their eldest sister, Barry seems enamoured, perhaps yearning, but wholly aloof, his pride unremitting.

There are lots of other examples we could draw from. He was certainly saddened by the death of Finlay McIntyre, a fiddler and friend from Truro for whom he had a deep respect, though not so moved that he travelled to attend the funeral. Of course, he attended very few funerals, and rarely offered any kind of explanation. Even he must have seen how weak was his plea that distance – 12 miles, less than the distance to Pictou, a route he often walked – kept him from the funeral of his brother William (30 June 1884). Nor did he attend the 1859 funeral of his eldest sister Julia. He didn’t even name her, simply noting “Old Widow McDonald, my eldest sister, died yesterday night”.

Bell’s funeral in December of 1884 stands out as a moment of fuller emotional expression and yet still fits his pattern of detached observation and deeply repressed emotion. In the months leading up to her death, Barry betrayed no sense of emotional pain. Bell and he had had no real relationship since 1868. For most of the period between then and her death in 1884, what he tells us about Bell is usually appended with something like “so I’m told” – i.e. where others have informed him of what is underway in his own house. My chapter on emotion and Barry explores this prolonged estrangement in more detail, but we can simply note that while he expressed much anger and resentment, there were moments too when we see hints of sadness.  

Bell’s gravestone. The McLennan family plot in St. John’s Presbyterian Cemetery, Scotsburn, Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

She died on 4 December 1884. She was 58. Like her four sisters, a brother, and probably her parents, Bell died of tuberculosis. The symptoms began in the summer, and by early fall Barry knew the coughing indicated more than a persistent cold. But never did he drop the callous commentary on “the animal”, as he often termed her. And this continued even on the day of her death. “Poor ‘Crature’. She suffered greatly … and declined rapidly”.  Though here “Crature”, a derisive epithet he took from Walter Scott, sounds affectionate, he remained unable to even write her name, to properly acknowledge her as a person. Life went on. The next day he dressed the mill stones and dried 50 bushels of oats. Perhaps while he worked he contemplated his wife’s death and their long estrangement, but the man who often engaged himself through the diary offered us no sense of reflection.

Barry attended the funeral, though only “to keep people’s tongues quiet”. The procession began at the house and a “large number of people”, though not Barry, listened to their minister’s “loud Blather”. He then joined the procession, carrying Bell’s coffin 10 km on a neighbour’s sleigh to the McLennan family plot in Rogers Hill. We can only imagine Barry’s thoughts, but in his cynical asides on the Minister’s blather we can see the extremes of his critical free-thinking mind and a long-standing anger. That long walk, on a cold December morning, allowed him ample time to reflect on his life with Bell. At the graveside, Barry demonstrated that along with the anger there was also a profound sadness. Viewing the coffin being laid into the ground, his distanced resolve fell apart: “I broke down and had to retreat crying or sobbing in spite of all I could do”. And yet even here, in the midst of acknowledging his pain, he was unable to continue the story as one rooted in loss, but rather in his loss of control: “It was some time before I could regain my composure. Sad, sad, spectacle indeed”. For the only time in the 56-year-long diary, James Barry fully exposed a deep emotional pain. Though brief, it’s hard not to believe it exposed long-sheltered fears and desires.

Bell was not buried with Barry, but in the McLennan family plot. The distance from their home in Six Mile Brook to the cemetery aptly reflects the distance in their relationship. The blue line here shows the most likely route to St. John’s Cemetery in Rogers Hill (today Scotsburn). There were at least four Presbyterian cemeteries closer (Gunn, in Six Mile Brook, Stillman in Eight Mile Brook, Gladstone in Four Mile Brook, and Ebenezer in Saltsprings) . Google maps, taking a slightly more direct route over Fitzpatrick Mountain, measures this as 10.2 km. That’s a long walk on a cold December morning, providing ample time for Barry to have reflected on his life with Bell. Source: J.H. Meacham, Illustrated Historical Atlas Of Pictou County Nova Scotia (Philadelphia, 1879) David Rumsey Maps.

Some thoughts on teaching the colonial Canadian survey (from Borealia)

I contributed a post to Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History, offering some thoughts on how we frame the early Canadian survey course. Denis Kim of Borealia asked me to contribute something on teaching, prompted by a brief Twitter conversation I had had with Tom Peace of Huron University College this past spring. Tom, at the meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in Regina in June 2018, presented a piece discussing Huron’s decision to shift their Canadian survey to a broader transnational focussed course.  That work is outlined in a post for

Comparing the two, it’s clear that Tom and I are very much concerned with similar issues, and equally to break with a traditional nationalist view of colonial Canadian history. We differ on where our basic framing begins:  on the nation-state that defines us today or in a blurrier transnational context. Blurry, I think we agree, is good, but some of its assumptions demand different expression.

A taste:

In teaching about Canada, I want my students to see something that is both familiar and strange – something they recognise as their country, but often in ways that they had not previously imagined. In the colonial survey, I often begin with the map on our header, Nicolas Bellin’s 1744 map of Isle Royale (Cape Breton/U’nama’kik). It looks like Cape Breton, but it also introduces us to this strange island off the coast of Acadie/Mi’kmaki/Nova Scotia (in 1744, it was very much all three of these!). In this one image, we see the familiar (the simple outline of what is normally today called Cape Breton), places we’re coming to know (like that fortress along the coast named for the French king), and places we can’t see any more like Port Toulouse/Quescouminigan, Moulagash, and le grand lac Bideauboch “rectifee … sur l’orginal des sauvages.

Read the entire post here.

Community and History

This past September, for the first time in several years, I was able to spend an extended period of time in Nova Scotia doing some research. Most of that time I was working on the Colonial Library project that Keith Grant and I are working on. I tweeted a fair bit about that at the time, but I’ll note very briefly that I visited the rare books library at Acadia University, the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and examined collections at Nova Scotia Museum sites: Haliburton House in Windsor, Prescott house near Port Williams, and the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. I also had a great afternoon playing miller at the Nova Scotia Museum’s Balmoral Grist Mill, a mill quite a bit larger than James Barry’s mill, but using similar technologies and built about the same time.

It was a great trip. Just from the standpoint of what I was hoping to achieve in terms of research I was very happy. Between what Keith was doing on his own, what we had done together earlier in the summer, and these visits, we now have a really solid foundation established upon which to start building our Colonial Library [a preliminary sandbox version can be see here].

I met a lot of wonderful people. Pat Townsend, the archivist at the Vaughan Library at Acadia, was an informative guide to the rare book collection. Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum, Karen Smith at the Dalhousie Special Collections, and others at Museums sites across the province were all really helpful, clearly going beyond normal front-desk efforts.

But I also found myself talking to a range of really interesting community people who shared some of my local passions. I spent an evening at the provincial archives talking with the incredibly knowledgeable David States about African-Nova Scotian history in Kings and Pictou Counties. I met with Debra McNabb, the curator of the Museum of Industry, who then invited me to a community archaeology dig at the foundry of the General Mining Association (the GMA, the company that initiated capital-intensive industrial development in Nova Scotia in the 1820s and which plays a central role in my 2008 book Industry and Improvement).  I’ve known Debra for many years and she’s done significant work on Nova Scotia industrial history. But there I also met provincial archaeologists (where I learned more about the precarious existence of academic archaeology in Nova Scotia) and several local historians. John Ashton, for example, is a local graphic designer, but active in local historical societies and publishes industrial history the New Glasgow News (in fact he’s presenting at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, this coming Monday November the 5th).  Hearing about my work on James Barry, he very generously took me to Springville (about 10 km up the East River) to show me the remains of the Grant mills which date from the 1790s.

Back wall of the Grant mill, Springville, Nova Scotia. The original mill was constructed in the 1790s, though this probably dates from mid-19th century.

I also met David Rollinson, the chair of the Nova Scotia Industrial Heritage Society. David and I had a long chat about lots of things, but my favourite detail was our convergence on a skilled worker from Staffordshire, Thomas Neville, who worked in the GMA foundry from 1827 to about 1842.  David mentioned that he knew where Neville was buried. At first, I wasn’t especially intrigued until he said in that the grave was in Middleton Corner, Colchester County – an agricultural area about 60 km away. I found the gravestone the next day (and that of many other later Nevilles born in Middleton Corner). And now I was able to identify him in the census of 1871. I’d looked for him before in the census (he has papers in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia), but had lost track of the foundryman; I hadn’t known I was looking for a farmer in the next county! But there he was, not an Old World skilled worker, but a relatively prosperous New World farmer. A man who had passed through my research orbit some years ago was given much fuller expression.

Buried at Holy Trinity Anglican in Middleton Corner, NS, Neville had travelled far from Litchfield, Staffordshire to Albion Mines, to Sydney Mines before settling down in his 50s as a cattle farmer.

None of these discoveries will change my work. But a few days of simply talking to local historians had taught me a great deal.  More significant, however, was the energising effect of simply being part of these conversations. I’ve always been an archive-based researcher. I say that with pride, of course, but there’s also a limitation. There’s so many people out there who know so much, and whose enthusiasm is so contagious. Talking to archaeologists, walking 200-year old spillways, touching the handiwork of skilled workers, seeing their paths extended beyond the archival trail: all of this reminded me of the tremendous value of being more fully a part of these communities. I don’t need to be in the communities I study; most of my historian friends live far from the places they study. But it was this kind of connectedness that first drew me to study Nova Scotia, to understand my own place, my own community. It was good to find that again.