This letter from John Kaine to Aunt Bess is full of so much information that it sent me to search the internet for a few days. I looked at Victorian hankies, Canadian militia, background of the Fenians and land clearing in the pioneer days to name a few topics.

It was so sweet of Aunt Bess to send a little gift of handkerchiefs to her nephew. He was very happy to get them as he expressed, “But my gratitude is not so much on account of getting the Hanf but it was a tangible evidence to me that I am not forgotten by you”

Page 1 Letter from John Kaine to Aunt Bess March 25, 1866
Page 2 Letter from John Kaine to Aunt Bess March 25, 1866

23 Kaine Letter March 25, 1866 Transcribed from the original by Kerrin Churchill January 10, 2020 John Kaine to Aunt Bess from Gorrie, Ontario Canada to Freshford, Kilkenny, Ireland

Gorrie Mar 25, 1866

My Dear Aunt,

I cannot find words to express my thankfulness to you for not only the Hdscfs that you sent to me which my father duly received but I did not get for some time afterwards as my father was paying a visit to James and my mother would not let the Handkerchiefs come to me until my father would see it first. But my gratitude is not so much on account of getting the Hanf but it was a tangible evidence to me that I am not forgotten by you. I hope that will receive my sincere thanks for this another token of your kindness. You may be sure that we are no more afraid of the Fenians here than you are at home. There is a great deal of talk about there coming to Canada but our brave  Volunteers are with the Regulars at the Frontier and we rest in peace. We are all well at present. There is very little change in the times since I wrote to you last. Since I wrote to you last I bought 100 acres of land in which there is a comfortable house erected. There is only ten acres cleared ready for crop. I got ten acres more of the woods chopped down this winter so that if I can get it burned off this next summer I will have 20 acres ready for crop for next year. I am still clerking in the store and having good health as does all the family. I am very much hurried so you see? this very short letter from

Your affectionate and much obliged Nephew

John Kaine


After a long thank you for the handkerchiefs, John briefly mentions the Fenians who were becoming a threat in Canada and Ireland. I remember hearing about the Fenian raids in school but recalled little about them.

“Fenians were members of a mid-19th century movement to secure Ireland’s independence from Britain. They were a secret, outlawed organization in the British Empire, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They operated freely and openly in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood. Eventually, both wings became known as the Fenians. They launched a series of armed raids into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. The movement was primarily based in the United States, but it had a significant presence in Canada.” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fenians

Founded in the mid 19th-century, the Fenian Brotherhood was an association of Irish-American veterans of the American Civil War who plotted to gain Ireland independence from British rule by attacking Britain’s overseas colonies within striking distance. In response, 20,000 Canadians volunteered for militia service, many from the Orange Order... The first serious raid came in June 1866 with 850 Fenians attacking at Ridgeway in the Niagara region, then withdrawing quickly back across the border. This was the largest and best-organized raid, and militia units, again primarily the Queen’s Own Rifles and Hamilton’s 13th Battalion, were called out. The engagement ended with Fenian victory at Ridgeway, but the Fenians withdrew back to the United States through Fort Erie, where another skirmish was fought before the invaders withdrew across the Niagara River. Militia units skirmished with the Fenians sporadically until 1871. …The Fenians accomplished little, but the Canadian colonies came to recognize a shared need for a vigilant and coordinated defence: a key factor leading to a confederation of the provinces into one country in 1867.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenian

The Fenians were obviously felt to be a serious threat and may have been the impetus for John Kaine’s enlistment in the militia. A photograph of John displays him looking very ceremonial in his full military garb. The documents that I discovered on line indicate that John became a captain in Battalion 32, Number 8 Company, Gorrie. The fact that his son Christopher Charles (b. 1862), my great grandfather, became a lieutenant in the same unit in 1883 indicates that the militia continued for a long time after the Fenian threat had subsided by 1871.

John Kaine Captain Drill Pay Record 1869

The next bit of exciting news that John rather casually mentioned to his aunt was that he had purchased a farm. As I shared previously, John seemed to have an entrepreneurial spirit! https://acompellinglifeblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/05/a-john-of-all-trades

At this point in 1866, John was was employed as a clerk in a shop and he bought a farm on Concession VIII, lots 3 and 4 on the Maitland river adjacent to the town of Gorrie in Howick township, Huron County.

https://digital.library.mcgill.ca/CountyAtlas/showrecord.php?PersonID=79664

It appears that Gorrie has not grown much as a town since John bought his farm near there over 150 years ago. When the current travel restrictions due to the COVID pandemic in Canada are over, I will go to Gorrie to see the area where John had his farm. I found a picture in the family archives that I believe is John having a lovely time boating on “Riverview Farm”.

Boating on the farm John Kaine? date unknown

However, John had a lot of work to do before he could relax on a boat. As he wrote to Aunt Bess, “There is only ten acres cleared ready for crop. I got ten acres more of the woods chopped down this winter so that if I can get it burned off this next summer I will have 20 acres ready for crop for next year.” Hard to imagine that he cleared 10 acres in only one winter!! There were no power tools in 1866 and other folks may have been busy clearing their own land so John may not have had much help. He and his wife Mary had 6 of their 10 children at that point with the oldest being Eliza aged 10. It must have been a busy household. And not to forget that with the Fenians threatening the borders, John had his military duties to fulfil as well. No wonder he wrote in closing to Aunt Bess, “ I am very much hurried so you see

Bush Farm Near Chatham, ca. 1838. Phillip John Bainbrigge

Cutting trees was hard work. Settlers used a felling axe to chop down trees, a broadaxe to square logs, and horses or oxen to move timbers for building. Settlers also burned trees that they did not need for building. The family then boiled the ashes in a kettle to make potash, a soap ingredient, for household use and sale.It could take years to clear a typical farm lot. Most farmers left some trees standing, for firewood and for maple sugar production.https://www.historymuseum.ca/history-hall/edge-of-the-forest/

The scene in the painting might be typical of the landscape on John’s new farm. A real challenge, though John seemed up to it.

5 thoughts on “Letter #23 March 25, 1866: Handkerchiefs and Homesteading

  1. So wonderful to still have all these family photos. John McKaine was indeed very busy and very driven, To have done all that with so many children is remarkable.
    Great research too. I didn’t knew that the Fenians were also in the States and that Canadians had to protect themselves from raids !

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  2. very interesting. How hard they worked and how stressful their daily lives must have been with so many dangers and challenges, It’s quite remarkable to have such a record for family history.

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  3. Dear Kerrin

    Thank you for this information about John Kaine. How nice that you have all these family letters going back 160 years as a basis for exploring your family history. They really bring to life those early years of settling in Canada. As you say, it was such hard work clearing the land, but how full of hope and promise life must have been, compared with living in Ireland where memories of the hungry forties must still have been strong.

    Thank you for the lovely fireworks card. Congratulations to Alexandra on getting engaged! I was trying to remember when she came to stay with her firends – it must have been about 15 years ago because I think I was still working then. We didn’t see Simon and Mary over Christmas because Mary’s boyfriend had covid and so she and her girls were isolating, but we hope to see them soon. Simon had what appeared to be a cold but could have been covid. Not a good start to the year, but we live in hope!

    Alan and I are well, though and hope that you and Ron are too. Love from Andrée

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  4. Lots went into researching this one Kerrin!! I definitely remember talk of the Fenians and also the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the IRB, by my own father and one of his cousins. Their take on things was of course slightly different from what the Kaines’ would have been!! And fabulous to be able to see your relatives’ names on the Militia list and even a photo of John Kaine in uniform!! I also appreciated the maps to see exactly where the farm would have been located–it would be lots of fun to explore!! Almost like a pirate treasure map. Looking forward to the next letter!!

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    1. Thanks! Much more time spent in research than in writing. But the technical part of adding photos etc is the hardest. As my millennial daughter mentioned a few years ago when I asked her how she knew so much about computers, she said, “Mum, that’s because I am a digital native and you are a digital immigrant.”

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