Adventures in Research, Opus 2

Adelaide Hunter Hoodless and Amelia Hunter Tennant

This is a bit of a shaggy dog story, so I hope you will bear with me; the way it weaves in and out of past and present peoples’ lives brings me back to one of my favourite epigraphs, E. M. Forster’s “Only connect…”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a moment in history that has always interested me greatly. Notable is that many of the battles between 1812 and 1814 took place in Brant County, Ontario, a location that has always interested me greatly. At a Children’s Literature conference down in North Carolina in 2007, I met fellow academic Dr. Lisa Wood, now a close friend, who lives in Brantford and teaches at Wilfrid Laurier U. Putting these details together, it is not surprising that last September I pulled my history-loving daughter from school and travelled across to Brantford ostensibly to see a historical reenactment of the Battle of Malcolm’s Mill, the last battle of the war fought on Canadian soil.

My daughter was very patient with my concomitant design of visiting the homes and haunts of the myriad of, as she calls them, “dead women writers” who hailed from the Brantford area. My interest in Brantford began over 20 years ago when I discovered Sara Jeannette Duncan, but the more I learned about early Canadian women writers, the more fascinated I became with the seeming coincidence that so many Canadian “female first” achievers came from Brant County: not only Sara Jeannette Duncan, but also E. Pauline Johnson, Emily and Augusta Stowe, June Callwood, and Adelaide Hoodless. There are others, I know; I have not compiled a comprehensive list, although I would love to.

The evening after we arrived in Brantford, Lisa (whose historical period is the 18th century) called in her early Canadian Literature expert and friend, Dr. Kate Carter, whose name many of you may know, as she worked on the Orlando Project. Over tea—or was it wine?—we drew up our game plan. During the discussion, Lisa casually mentioned: “oh, yes, Adelaide Hoodless: she’s a relative of mine…” and my spidey senses began to tingle…

Adelaide Sophia Hunter (1857-1910) was born at what is now the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead near St. George, Brant County, national headquarters for the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, the first branch of which Hoodless was instrumental in founding. Her father died shortly after her birth, and her mother struggled to keep the homestead running, while still managing to educate her children. Adelaide moved in with her older sister, Lizzie, while attending “Ladies’ College,” where she met John Hoodless, who became her husband. Their fourth child, John (1888-1889), died in infancy, apparently from tainted milk. Adelaide Hoodless took it upon herself to campaign for better attention to sanitation in the delivery of milk in urban settings; from there, her career as a domestic science educator and an activist for women’s education took off. In addition to a number of articles and government publications, she published Public School Domestic Science in 1898, “a compilation of recent scientific findings derived from the application of chemistry to the understanding of food values, preservation, and preparation” (DCB), aimed at prospective teachers.

Lisa’s great-great-grandmother, it turns out, had been adopted by Adelaide Hoodless’s sister Amelia. Lisa had tried to discover more, but the records were sketchy and inconclusive. Even the Dictionary of Canadian Biography notes that Adelaide was the youngest of 12 children, although the lists found in family records on ancestry.ca do not include an Amelia. When we visited the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead, the director remembered Lisa from their shared attempts at discovering more about the elusive Amelia, whom even the historians at this National Historical Site were not 100% sure was not apocryphal. Intrigued, and loving a mystery, as well as helping others, and of course playing on ancestry.ca, I promised to try to track down a real, documented connection between Adelaide Hoodless, the seemingly non-existent Amelia, and Lisa’s great-great-grandmother, Mary MacKay.

Late into the night, Lisa and I poured over ancestry.ca. We telephone her mother to get all the details she could remember about who married whom in Mary MacKay’s more immediate circle, including the name of the adopting family (verified by the historian at the Adelaide Hoodless Homestead): Tennant. Eventually, we found what we were looking for: a Mary MacKay listed on the 1881 Census of Canada as living with James and Amelia Tennant and their 5 children, in Toronto. From there, we traced Mary MacKay’s line to her immigration to the United States, and virtually met her descendants searching back up their family tree into Canada. Mary married an American man named Solon Washington Barnes, and we even have photographs of her husband and son, as well as records of all of her other children. Significantly for my friend Lisa, Mary MacKay bore Gertrude Barnes in 1897; who bore Gertrude Buckle in 1916; who in turn bore Mary Kerpan in 1937; and Mary Kerpan is my friend Lisa’s mother. But we had travelled a long way from Adelaide Hoodless, which is of course where my interest began and still lay. The shaggy dog has travelled all the way from a small homestead near St. George, Ontario, in the 1850s to Michigan, USA, and back to Brantford, Ontario, so close to where it all began. In tracing this web of relations, we discovered that—in contrast to the commonly recorded data—Adelaide Sophia Hunter Hoodless was born on 27 February 1857, youngest of 13 children of David Hunter and Jane Hamilton of St. George, Brant County, Ontario. It feels satisfying to have solved a mystery that others have wondered about for years; I love ancestry.ca.

A later addendum: in the Hunter family tree, I have noticed, two sons are registered as having been born in 1853: Joseph and George. For Joseph, we have documentary evidence dating from 1871, but nothing conclusive for George, who appears only in family lore. It is possible that he was a twin who died young, as was not uncommon in those days. It is also possible, of course, that he never existed, which brings the number of children back to 12 as stated in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, despite the difficulty encountered by other historians in discovering references to the elusive Amelia. So part of the mystery—or rather, a new mystery—remains…

~Karyn Huenemann, Project Manager, Canada’s Early Women Writers (SFU)