Letters from P.E.I. - Ephraim McNeill to family, 1906


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Transcribed by Terry Spear, tspear@flash.net


Letter of Ephraim McNeill, great grandson of Malcolm McNeill and Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyle, Scotland

NOTE: This a letter written in 1906 by Ephraim McNeill, son of Duncan McNeill and Jane Campbell, born 1834, Prince Edward Island, in an attempt to explain the oral history passed down by his family to him. From this letter, I could not determine if Ephraim's father, Duncan McNeill, was the son of Charles McNeill, born in Campbeltown, Scotland in 1764, or his brother, James McNeill, born in Campbelltown, Scotland in 1762. Many of the McNeill descendants assumed Ephraim was the grandson of Charles McNeill, because Charles and Elizabeth Matthews McNeill had a son named James, married to Mary Taylor, who was listed in Pathways to the Present with son, Ephraim. There was no mention of a Duncan McNeill as being one of the sons of Charles and Elizabeth Matthews McNeill in Pathways to the Present. However, Charles and Elizabeth did have a son Charles, married to Hannah Campbell. Could Charles and Duncan be one and the same? And Hannah and Jane Campbell one and the same? I could locate nothing further on Charles McNeill and Hannah Campbell, nor of Duncan McNeill and Jane Campbell, nor of Ephraim, son of James McNeill and Mary Taylor. I believe Ephraim, son of Duncan and Jane, was adopted by James McNeill and Mary Taylor.

So begins Ephraim's tale:

My great grandmother's name was Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyle, Scotland.

At a mature age she was sent to a finishing school, some distance from home. It was there she met Malcolm MacNeill, they were married, but whether the Duke her father, knew of their attachment to each other, or even their marriage, until after it took place, I don't know.

The Duke tried to help the young man by getting him several government jobs but the young man could not hold them, because [of lack] of an education. About that time people were emigrating to America. There was some excitement about Carolina and with MacNeill deciding to emigrate. But the Duke was against his daughter going, and to induce MacNeill to remain he offered him a free deed to all the land he could walk around on a given time. MacNeill wouldn't take it. As he was too proud, he had an independent spirit, he would go to a country where one man was as good as another.

They sailed from Genuch [Greenock], Scotland on the Brig Jessie, my great grandmother was well supplied with a grand outfit of clothes of the best. [NOTE: There was no such place as Genuch, so must have been Greenock. Also, Pathways to the Present states the family came over on the Annabella, but since there is no true passenger's list, this is merely supposition. The Ships List doesn't have any listing for a Brig Jessie for the right time frame that would have landed at PEI, however I was told that many ship's lists were lost, and a Brig Jessie may have existed.] My grandfather was then 6 years old. [NOTE: If they left in 1770, Ephraim's grandfather would have been Charles, born in 1864.]

In these days there were soldiers who had served the king and country but the government could not pay them for the lack of funds. So the government gave great tracts of land on Prince Edward Island instead of cash, on condition that those men put a certain number of settlers on the land within a certain amount of time. It was not easy to get people to go to that island they would rather go to Carolina where it was warmer. Our people and the other passengers had paid their fares to Carolina the ship being bound there.

The PEI land owners bribed the Captain to take the passengers to Prince Edward Island, when the Brig was at sea. The Captain came to those Highlanders with the chief mate as interpreter, whose name was MacDonald, to get them to sign the paper or they would never see Carolina, they did not sign. The Captain instead of landing his passengers in Carolina, ran down the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and be at about there all the latter part of the summer. They ran short of provisions and water. In fact he was determined to starve the people into signing the paper that would clear him of landing them on PEI. Finally in late October the [Captain] ran the Brig ashore on PEI near a river now called New London. [NOTE: The additional story: The two little McNeill boys, James and Charles were dying of thirst and one of the crew members finally gave them some water while he said, "Drink ye little devils, drink."]

The fall and winter on Prince Edward Island was as bad and cold as Manitoba, I believe worse. [NOTE: Ephraim and his cousin, James Edward McNeill, settled in Treherne, Manitoba in the 1880's.] There were some Indians and a few Frenchmen, scattered along the rivers. The Highlanders could not talk to them. There were no stores, no roads, no place to buy anything, no one to advise them, no shelter, and winter was near at hand. Whether or not they had any money, I have not been told. But it is a fact that they subsisted for awhile by my great grandmother selling her clothes (silk gowns, costly shawls, jewelry) to the few French and Indians for potatoes, corn and anything else to eat. But an end came even to that. Sometime about mid-winter it looked as if the end had come.

They noticed the Indians making hand sleds and the Indians told them by signs how to make sleighs and come with them and they could get plenty to eat, so they did so.

They went to a place that has been called "Seacow Pond," ever since. I don't know the distance across the frozen bay that they went, but I suppose it took several days.

I have been to Seacow Pond. It is a pond of about 4 or 5 acres. A large sand beach is formed between it and the sea, the beach is 8 to 10 rods wide (I speak from memory). Well this pond was piled full of seacows (walruses) so all they had to do was kill and eat. That was their work for the rest of the winter. There is no doubt but that was what saved their lives.

Spring came and with it any amount of fish of different kinds. Also wild geese and ducks. Early in the spring a small vessel arrived from London with more English settlers. They brought seeds of grain, potatoes, hoes, axes, spades, etc...That was the beginning. But return to the people. Sometime after their arrival on the island, perhaps a year or so, another son was born, but the poor lady who was brought up in luxury pined away and died. [NOTE: If there was another son born to Elizabeth Campbell McNeill, he might have died. Elizabeth had Ann in 1769 in Campbeltown, Scotland, who married Malcolm Ramsay, and she along with Malcolm and his brother, Edward, were raised by Malcolm and Edward's uncle, John Ramsay, who had come over on the Annabella. Both James and Charles were young, but Ann was just an infant when they arrived in PEI.]

What of the old Duke her father. He believed his daughter and her husband would come back, so he changed his will and willed her all the tract of land which he had offered to her husband before they went away. At that time it was mostly forest, but now I am told it is built up with splendid buildings. The whole property is worth millions. It is all there. I am told, awaiting Elizabeth Campbell MacNeill's Heirs. You say why didn't they look after it. It is not likely that my great grandmother knew about Campbell making that will. I don't think my grandfather knew. I am sure that my own father did not know anything about his grandmother's heirs being left an estate, but still he may have. In the final analysis the Heirs could not prove it so they lost their estate.

[NOTE: Ephraim is referring here to Scotland Yard investigators asking McNeill family members in Treherne if they had the family Bible that would prove the connection to Elizabeth Campbell. Other branches of the McNeill family were also approached by Scotland Yard. The Duke's own line had died out in Scotland, and they were looking for Elizabeth Campbell's descendants of Prince Edward Island. In the end, it was said that the current Duke of Argyll isn't related at all to Elizabeth Campbell's father.]

Final Note: Some of the descendants of James McNeill who married Mary Elizabeth MacLean have a similar story about the Duke of Argyll's daughter, only in their version, Malcolm MacNeill worked for Elizabeth's father as a groomsman and that's where they met. But essentially whichever version is true, most everyone agrees to the rest of the story!

Terry Wilde Spear


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