Making Assumptions

One of the many perils that ‘modern’ family historians face is assuming that the world in which our ancestors lived is the same as or at least similar to the world today. There can be an easy tendency to not put their lives, and decision making, into its proper historical context. I have certainly found myself caught in that trap.

When I was young, my mother often recounted tales of her grandfather, John Foley, a man she never knew as he died suddenly in 1927 before she was born. The family story that she would pass along was of a man from Barrie, Ontario who was orphaned at a young age, forced into a harsh world far too young but who overcame this early obstacle to become a teamster only to lose everything when his horses fell through the ice on the Don River in Toronto. Eventually, he was said to have become a very wealthy contractor. My view of ‘teamsters’ was an image of Jimmy Hoffa and U.S. union scandals alleging corruption and ties to organized crime. Why, I would question, would connecting my great-grandfather to teamsters be something in which to take pride? I also couldn’t fathom why anyone would think it possible to cross the Don River in winter with horses for the river never seemed from my observation to freeze over, and certainly not sufficiently to consider a crossing.
My research into John Foley is incomplete and there are many facets of his life that I have yet to discover but some things have become clear. What I do know is that John Foley was born around 1859 in the United States according the 1861 Canadian Census (although subsequent census reports list different years and the headstone on his grave lists his date of birth as February 16, 1864). John is listed in the 1861 census along with his parents William and Bridget (nee McTague), a sister, Mary and two brothers, William and Thomas, living in Pickering Township. A younger brother, James, was born in Pickering Township before the family did move to Barrie. Later records indicate that John did become a teamster and a contractor and, in fact, his will indicates that he died the equivalent of a millionaire by today’s standards.
But what of the ‘walk’ across the Don River with horses? I have found no accounts (yet!) of the river tragedy. However, to set the proper historical context, in the 1880’s and 1890’s, teams of horses were used for hauling and delivering various goods – in the summer by wagon and in the winter by sled. Those who ‘ran’ the teams of horses were referred to as ‘teamsters.’ It also seems that the Don River of my experience is not at all like the Don River that my great-grandfather knew. The photo above (from the Archives of Ontario collection) shows teamsters cutting ice on the Don River in the 1890’s. The ice would later be sold in appropriate sizes for use in “ice boxes,” the ancestors of our modern refrigerators. So John Foley likely was out on the Don River in the winter – making a living with his horses!

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