The Space Where the Story Should Be: or, of Blacksmiths and Bastards

I have not abandoned Montagu and Bath, but I have put them on pause for a bit, partly because I’m trying to decide what to do now both with them and with the blog posts; and partly because of my need to indulge a sudden wave of nostalgia for my early (embryonic, really) scholarly identity – as a Canadianist. Indulging this wave has meant plunging into an unknown area for me, sleuthing along—an explorer, beginning a journey into the small world of the long eighteenth century in Canada.

photo from http://theottomanempire.ca many thanks

Eighteenth-century Canadian letters and documents – even counting those produced by the Loyalists – aren’t nearly so plentiful as British ones. However, they do exist, sometimes in significant quantity; sometimes as meager scraps; and often like tiny threads, some tied or tangled with others, that can be picked apart, fondled, and then followed to see if they are cut short or if they lead to a half-decent ball of yarn from which narratives can be unraveled and stories can be knit.

Thus, during one hot and sweaty week in the Maritimes this August, I found myself discovering the joys of the climate-controlled Nova Scotia Archives for the first time. I love the old, wooden card catalogues – once endemic to all libraries; now a rare pleasure — their warm and often worn wooden drawers cradling secrets, and demanding a tactile, physical relationship to research, so different from the mouse click that leads us into virtual labyrinths.

The Nova Scotia Archives has a satisfying number of these drawers that slide open to reveal creamy cards that lead to rows of binders that lead to slips of paper that lead to incredibly patient librarians who bring boxes of fragile documents and white gloves that allow the curious to pluck away, following thread after thread after thread towards balls of possibility.

And here, in the final hours of my last day in the library, as I idly perused a box of scrappy pieces of paper, I found a tiny thread that seemed to lead nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The papers I was perusing (I later learned) have been fully digitized, and are available here. They record the lives of the Eassons, a founding family in the fort town of today’s Annapolis Royal, situated in southern Nova Scotia, on the Annapolis River. This collection is primarily a collection of business documents and transactions – receipts, bills, records, and letters – letters like the one from 1749 that discussed mill stones to be shipped from England to Boston and eventually to Annapolis.

The Easson family was large and sprawling, descended from John Easson who emigrated from England in the early 1730s. John Easson had 4 children, one of whom was David (1748-1790). David had 5 children, the youngest of whom was Alexander “Sandy” (1786-1862). Once David died, the records suggest that Alexander’s elder brother David took over as head of the family business enterprises, and was eventually joined by Alexander who was making purchases in his own name by 1806. Alexander’s transactions through 1806 and into 1807 include receipts for all kinds of goods: cloth, rum, tea, nails, mending chains, blacksmith services. Each receipt is on a scrap of paper, carefully ordered within the library box, and each is followed by another receipt on another scrap. The receipt for fabric from June 8, 1807 – June 13, 1808, though, is followed by a scrap smaller than most—recording a payment made to William LeCain:

“Received of Alexander Easson the sum of ten pounds, in part for a Bastard Child Begotten by Ann Henderson this 18th Day of August 1807.”

When I first saw this receipt, it knocked the wind out of me, and I was stunned to stumble across something that seemed so momentous and extraordinary, casually placed in the midst of so many things that seemed so commonplace. It’s almost as if the exchange of money for a bastard child was, to the participants in the drama, simply another business transaction.

But to me, as a reader hundreds of years later, this receipt stands out as the kernel of a story quite different from those suggested by the amount of molasses purchased or the number of nails or the quantity of rum. And unlike those other receipts, this one inspires a host of questions and speculation. For example, Easson paid 10 pounds, in part for the child. And so I wonder, does this mean that the 10 pounds was only part of what he would eventually pay, or does this mean that the 10 pounds was for several things – part of which was the child? Almost 20 years later, Alfred Whitman, “overseer of the poor” in Annapolis submitted a bill to the town for 3 pounds 5 shillings, “being the balance on ten pounds” due to Hugh Lynch, “which he was to receive for the support and maintenance of a child of the name of Mary Jane McDonald.” Ten pounds, it seems, might have been the going rate for a child—orphan or bastard.

And I wonder why William LeCain collected the money. Was he, like Alfred, acting as a go-between, or was he more personally involved? LeCain was a blacksmith in Annapolis, but I can’t find evidence to suggest that — like the later Alfred Whitman — he had any professional interest in children and their support. Nor, can I find any family connection between LeCain and Ann Henderson who, like so many women, seems to have disappeared into the vortex of the past. There were Hendersons who became a prominent Annapolis family; however, these Hendersons didn’t arrive in the region until many years after this birth. If not a relative, is it possible that Ann Henderson was a domestic servant who worked for the LeCains?

And I wonder if Alexander was actually the father of the child? Or was he just the one paying the debt? In 1807, he would have been 20 or 21 and single, making it possible for him to have been the father – and it wouldn’t have been the first time that a lusty young scion had ruined a domestic servant. Alexander was still single in 1814, when, as the only remaining single son, he married Zeruviah Fairn, the widow of his elder brother David. Does this fact suggest that Alexander was a bit of a player, choosing bachelorhood over marriage? Or that he was cautious or awkward with women? Or, just that he was busy with other things, and waiting for the right woman?

As a reader, I so want to be able to follow this tiny thread to the rest of the story. The story of the lusty entitled son and the helpless domestic servant; the story of “the passion that could not be” between the scion of a wealthy family and an “unsuitable woman” and their desperate love that produced a child; the story of a wanton, seductive woman, who got more than she bargained for when she seduced Alexander.

It’s not as easy to find information about the LeCain family as it is about the Eassons, but one genealogical database provides the information that William and his wife Sarah Henshaw had 5 children:

  1. Peter Lecain, born about 1800; married Sarah Tomlinson.
  2. Thomas Lecain, born 1804; died Dec 17 1886; married Sarah (Elizabeth) Orde.
  3. William Lecain, born about 1804; married Helen Ritchie.
  4. Elizabeth Mary Lecain, born about 1805; died Aug 11 1851; married Alexander Easson Ritchie.
  5. Ann Lecain, born about 1807.

When I discovered this information, I immediately seized on the fact of that final child – a girl about whom nothing (compared to her siblings) is known; a girl who was born – coincidentally – the same year that her father accepted payment for a bastard child whose mother was named Ann. If this were an eighteenth-century novel, like Humphrey Clinker or Tom Jones, our suspicions would be confirmed, and in the final pages of the novel, we would discover that – aha– Alexander Easson, charming, lusty, and persuasive, had fathered a child by Ann Henderson, the LeCain’s domestic servant; and we would discover that the LeCains had sent Ann on her way, but adopted the child, and given her her mother’s name.

But this is not an eighteenth-century novel. It’s a tiny fragment of history, plucked from the larger context, and separated from the rest of the story. It’s a messy, raggedy thread that leads not to a good yarn, but to an odd-shaped hole, connecting us not to a historical narrative, but to the space left by those lives lived and lost within the thick fabric of time.

7 comments on “The Space Where the Story Should Be: or, of Blacksmiths and Bastards

  1. April JESTINGS Wallace says:

    There is a mystery mariage record that even the historians in the little family history museums of Nova Scotia couldn’t claim a truth to. There is a marriage record for an Elizabeth LeCain (listed in your LeCain family) to Alexander Easson Ritchie and also one between Elizabeth LeCain and Joseph Jestings (my 4th g-grandfather) which seems to be sadly lost, forgotten and confused. One of the witnesses to her marriage to my Joseph was an Ann LeCain (her sister?). Do you know anything about this? Your story is fascinating. Thank you.

    • jlmag says:

      WOW — I don’t know — this is my first foray into the LeCain/Easson families, so I’m quite a newbie; but I intend to do some more with these records, and will definitely note your information — and if I DO come across anything or find anything that might help make the connections more clear, I’ll certainly let you know. Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to respond:)

  2. Deirdre says:

    To continue with your metaphor, Jane, you have created a garment here; even though your quest was for a particular, you give a story of the whole cloth. Can we talk about Zeruviah Fairn for a moment? May I steal that name for a character in my novel? Thanks for the fascinating excursion.

  3. box761 says:

    Lovely. You should follow up on this.
    As an aside, I read something the other day that I share with you now:

    http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/whose-archive-whose-history-destruction-of-archives-at-ruskin-college-oxford/

  4. robpatrob says:

    Anything you write is worth reading

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