Could The Foley Family Story Be True?

Like most, perhaps all families, the oral history of the Foley family’s history in Canada sounds fantastic complete with a rags to riches hero. In my last post, I wrote about my great grandfather, John Foley and the new connection I have made with another of his great grandchildren, my second cousin, Margaret. Because Margaret doesn’t have any more information about our great grandfather than I do, it was time to take another swing by the records, hoping to find another ‘needle in the haystack.’

The family’s oral history starts out with, “There were these three brothers ….”

Knowing that endless family oral histories start out with three brothers had me sceptical from the start. But the Foley family story has John being born in Barrie, Simcoe County, Ontario in 1864. This was five years before civil registration began so no birth registration or certificate is available. As devout Roman Catholics, John would certainly have been baptized in their local church so perhaps a trip to the Toronto Roman Catholic Archdiocese archives might result in locating a baptismal record. John’s parents, William Foley and Bridget McTague immigrated from their native Ireland in 1849, suggesting they were likely poor and escaping the ravages of the Irish potato famine. Like many Irish immigrants at the time, they landed at New York City and made their way to Canada. A marriage record exists that shows they were wed on August 24, 1852 at the Roman Catholic mission located at Newmarket, Ontario.

The family story, as told to me by my mother’s older brother, claims that William and Bridget died suddenly when John was about 12 years of age. John, now an orphan, was left to fend for himself. Alleged he took to the back woods to carve out a meagre existence eventually surfacing to make his way to the ‘big city’ of Toronto where he became a teamster. When he suffered business setbacks, as apparently occurred from time to time, he took off back to the ‘bush’ to ‘re-group’ before trying again. Eventually, John’s business began to prosper and grow. He became a prosperous sand and gravel contractor, employing a number of men including his older brother, Thomas. When John passed away suddenly in 1927, he left behind an estate valued in modern terms of more than $1 million.

But what of the ‘three brothers’ Foley family story might be true?

In 1871, the Foley family consisting of father William and mother Bridget can be found in census records living in Barrie, Simcoe County, Ontario with their six children: Mary Anne (aged 15), William (aged 14), Thomas (aged 12), James (aged 9), John (aged 8), and Catherine (aged 6). In 1876, Mary Anne married married Patrick O’Connor in Flos Township, Simcoe County, Ontario and the following year William married Georgina Ducheneau in Barrie, Simcoe County, Ontario.

In 1881, the next census year, Thomas, James, John and Catherine, the remaining unwed Foley children can be found living in Vespra, Simcoe County, not far from Barrie. Although enumerators were required to be literate, the enumerator for their district was struggling a bit as the family name was listed as “Folly” and Thomas’ occupation was listed as “labrer.” It appears likely that William and Bridget had died sometime between 1871 and 1881 leaving their children orphaned and note, there were three brothers, as claimed in the oral tradition. There do not appear to be any records of their death but then would the ‘kids’ have known or cared about civil registration requirements or indeed would they have had the funds the pay the registration fees of that time?

In 1891, John cannot be found in the census records but his brother Thomas was located working as a horse trainer in Hallowell, near Belleville, Ontario. Working with horses would later become the family’s prime means of a living and eventual wealth.

Records show that John was in Toronto, Ontario in 1894 when he married Mary Jane Fitzgerald, in 1901 with the three children of his marriage when the census was taken, in 1903 when he married Annie Teresa McElroy, and in 1911 when the last published census of Canada was taken. According to a newspaper article, dated January 14, 1927, reporting on his sudden death, John had lived in Toronto for forty years which would mean he arrived in the city around 1887. Where then was he in 1891 when the census was taken? Perhaps he had returned briefly to the back woods just as family tradition claims!

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