Biographies of James Smith and Helen McWilliam

(actualisé le ) by Ray

Helen McWilliam and James Smith

Helen McWilliam and James Smith were married at the home of her sister, Mrs. George McIntyre in Banffshire, Scotland, June 13, 1850. They spent a short honeymoon visiting the brothers and sisters of each. This honeymoon was not spent at a seaside resort in the glamour of grandeur. The transportation was entirely on foot. Mrs. Geddes, the eldest sister of James Smith, told the writer of their coining- to visit her in her home, Cotton Hill, Banffshire they had walked seven miles and, on leaving her, set out on a further journey of eleven miles, to another brother. It should be remembered that at this time even in Scotland there was no railroad, north of Aberdeen.

This modest honeymoon had in it a note of sadness, that neither of them fully realized. They went about visiting their relatives and friends and saying "Good-bye"— a good-bye which was to be forever, for neither of them ever returned to the native heath.
Their last night at home was spent with Mrs. McIntyre, the sister of Mrs. Smith, and on the following morning she walked down the road with them about a mile, to a small bridge. There the final parting took place, and this young couple, full of hope for the future, and with aspirations and expectations to return in a few years to the dear scenes of their youth, set out by horse and cart for Aberdeen, forty miles distant, where they were to set sail for the great unknown land of Canada.

They were drawn to Canada and to Ontario, to Oxford, and to Zorra because Mrs. Smith’s eldest sister, Mrs. David Innes had settled here four years before. The making of a home in Scotland, with any prospects of success and to attain any reasonable standard of comfort at this time, 1850, looked discouraging. This brave young couple, James Smith, of 29 and his 18 year old wife, had the fortitude to face this long, long journey into the wilds of the forests of Canada.

One condition of the passage on the sailing vessels - there were no steamers in those days - was that the passengers must bring with them their own food for the voyage; the water was supplied on the ship. The voyage took thirteen weeks ending at Montreal. During the long voyage, Mrs. Smith was seasick the greater part of the time and suffered very greatly. The water supply on the boat became stale from long storage and there was nowhere to rest, but to lie on the deck without couch or cushion. This voyage held so many horrors and terrible memories for the young bride, that she always vowed she would never return.

At Montreal they transferred to another sailing vessel with all their worldly possessions, a few small boxes, and money to the extent of $300.00. This vessel took them to Hamilton, and there they loaded their luggage into a wagon and set out through the forest for the home of Mrs. David Innes, Lot 10, Con. 3, West Zorra, a journey of 70 miles.

The meeting of these sisters has not been recorded, but it is small play of the imagination to picture what the sight of a familiar face meant to the young bride, when she met and embraced her sister in her own home. There would be many a "crack" in front of the fireside, about the dear ones left behind in Scotland.

To adjust themselves to this new environment - to fit into this new life, to find their own niche, to map out a plan and path for the future, was now the work of this stalwart young couple. no time could be lost. Ambition was beating haid in their breasts, they must be up and doing; they had deft bands and willing hearts.

The first place where James Smith was employed was at the farm of Remember Thornton, South of Beachville, and for this work he was not paid in money, but received a cow, as pay for his labours.

But that ambition that was whetting them led them early to acquire a home of their own. They bought the north-east quarter of Lot 12, Con. 2, West Zorra. They paid thirty-five pounds, ten shillings for the fifty acres. James Smith received the Crown deed for this parcel of land, and set himself the task of clearing the forest and turning it into arable land. This farm had previously been taken up and there was a small log house and log barn there.

At this juncture the husband brought into play another of his acquired faculties. He had a fairly generous educa­tion for those days, at the Fordyce Academy, Banffshire, Scotland. This school was quite noted in his day and still is. A man by the name of Smith had it endowed with Bursaries which were to be given to children of the name of "Smith" who showed special aptitude and industry in their work. James had been given this bursary and was destined for a higher education, but had to interrupt this work be­cause his eldest brother was not managing things well at home, and his Mother needed him. However, the education which he had, proved a real asset to him in Canada, for he went to Woodstock and tried the examination for school teacher ; he passed this and got his certificate.

He then was appointed teacher of the old log school north of Brooksdale, which was seven miles from his home. Here he taught for three years, three strenuous years. In the summer months he walked seven miles to his school, through the woods, taught school and walked back at night. Further, he worked his farm mornings and evenings, and in those days they had only a half holiday on Saturdays and two weeks in the summer.

These were very trying times too on the young Mother. In the summer, the husband would cut with the scythe, long into the moonlight nights, and the next day, she would bind this. In the long winter months she lived in their small log home with her wee children, and was dependent largely on the neighbours for protection.

As a young bride in Canada her life was saddened for it is recorded that she was not happy in this wild country and did not like it at all and did not feel that she could stay and yet facing her was the awful realisation that she must - that she could not face again that voyage across the deep. This, with the thought that she had said good-bye forever, to all that was dear to her childhood, made life seem dull for the present and dark ahead. These feelings however, were sweetly tempered by the fact that her hus­band had liked Canada from the first, and as she had been the moving spirit in coming here, she used to tell in later years how thankful she was that it was she, and not her husband who found life so difficult. As the years went by, conditions began to improve. The advent of children in the home cast her mind’s eye forward instead of backwards.

In 1853 John McWilliam and his wife, Jessie Smith, arrived in Canada. In the fall of 1853 the younger brother James and his wife, Betty Shearer, came and settled on a farm in Westminster, south of London. Accompanying them, was his Father, George McWilliam, and the youngest sister Ann, afterwards Mrs. John Hamilton.

What a reunion this must have been! Here was the whole family of McWilliams except Janet, Mrs. McIntyre, who was married in Scotland, and their Mother who had died in 1847, and in addition the two members of the Smith family - James and Jessie. How interesting it would be to us now if we could but listen in on the occasion of their first visit together, here in this unbroken forest that must have looked so forbidding to their untrained hands. Their minds must have cast backward to all that they had left so dear in the old land, and yet to their young hopeful, and courageous hearts the vision was forward. What of the future? In effect they had burned their bridges behind them, the wish to succeed, buttressed by the absolute necessity of succeeding, made their tasks take on a different hue and each branch of the family began at once, literally, to hue out for itself, a home in this bleak unknown country.

We must now after this short respite, when welcomes were being said, proceed to trace further the interesting life of this young couple James and Helen Smith, who had trusted their all in the firm confidence, well bolstered up by a very strong religious faith, that they could and would succeed. The early life of this young couple in Zorra was very strenuous and many instances of this were related to the family as they grew up. One of these told how in their earlier years when the husband was teaching school, they had bought a cow on the 6th line of Zorra, six miles distant and brought her home. In a day or two the cow was miss­ing, and as the husband was teaching, the wife left her young family with the neighbours and trudged through the almost solid forest - the long six miles. Her labor was rewarded by finding the cow where it had been bought and she returned with it in triumph.

This young mother was very busy and knew nothing of leisure. Her Father bought her a small spinning-wheel and in the early days she spun with this wheel, all the yarn that made the entire clothing including the blankets, socks and mittens for the family. The wool was spun and sent to the weaver to be made into cloth, but the stockings and socks and mittens were all knitted by her own hands. Later as the family grew larger, a large spinning-wheel was procured and the eldest daughter, Jean, became very expert with this and with these two spinning-wheels the yarn for the whole family budget was spun.The family owe a great debt of gratitude to Jean. She was a second mother to them. She spun the yarn and became expert in sewing and made their dresses, suits and underwear from the wool of the sheep that were raised on the farm.

James Smith was a very fervent, devoted Christian. Just previous to his leaving Scotland, in 1847, was the dis­ruption in the Presbyterian Church. He had taken an active part in this and brought all his fervour and religious devotion with him to Canada. This zeal was rewarded by his being appointed an Elder in Knox Church, Embro, about the year 1856. He held this office until his death in 1917. The duties of an Elder in those days entailed a great deal of work. There was the family visitation and review of the shorter Catechism, which was conducted regularly by the Elder in his district. This work along with the con­ducting of a local weekly prayer meeting, the visits at death beds, and wakes when religious services were con­ducted, all took much time and thoughtful preparation. In addition James Smith was a moving spirit in the organ­ization of the Gospel Sunday School and for a period of about thirty years was the Superintendent of this School.

For many, many years the Season of Sacrament was cel­ebrated quarterly and this meant service on the preparatory days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and the following Monday was a day of thanksgiving. The Thursday was "Fast" day when no work was done, this was very faithfully observed, no matter how busy the season, all work ceased on this day.

Family worship was an institution in the home. The day was begun and ended with the reading of Scripture and Prayer. A blessing was asked before each meal and thanks returned after each meal. Such was the institution that James Smith and his wife Helen McWilliam founded in this new country. The log house where the whole family was born, and the subsequent home, "Glenness", were hallowed by much fervent prayer and the home was en­deared to all the family as well as to many who knew so well its deeply religious character.

The Glenness farmhouse

Leaving the eldest son James, on the homestead, in 1874 they purchased the Manse property, owned by Rev. Donald McKenzie, being Lot 10, Con. 6, West Zorra, known as "Glenness". The family lived here till 1904 when they moved to Embro. The "Glenness" farm was taken by Peter, the second-to-the-youngest son, and he is still at this writing (1939) living on this farm.

This union was blessed by a large family - twelve in all: Jean, James, William, Jessie, George, Alex, Helen, John, Annie, Peter, David and Margaret. They all grew to manhood and womanhood. John died when twenty years of age. James lived to forty-three. William lived to sixty-five. George died at seventy-three and Jessie aged seventy-six. Margaret died in 1938 at the age of sixty-two. James and Helen Smith celebrated their golden wedding on June 13th, 1900, when they were each present­ed with a gold watch by the members of the family.

Mrs. Smith lived a full life, devoted to her home, and her family. She was a dominant figure, widely known for her hospitality. She gave freely of her time, to help those in need of it. She died one year after retiring from "Glenness" to live in Embro, on July 5th, 1905. One who knew her well, said of her; "She was a great woman, and she never knew it".

James Smith lived to the ripe old age of ninety-six. His mind remained alert, and his interest in the affairs of the world was as keen as ever. His religious fervour and his power in prayer deepened as life came nearer to a close. His trust was implicit and beautifully simple. He died on May 21, 1917.}


These biographies have been extracted form the booklet The Maisley McWilliams in Canada Family History Book (1846-1987).