The Ties that Bind: Colonial Families, British North America, and the Imperial World

by | Nov 15, 2023 | Canada and the World, Communities, LCSC, War and Society

Canada and the World invites prominent scholars from across the country to discuss Canada’s relationship to the wider world, and the ways in which history has shaped its international relationships. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

In this article, Cecilia Morgan examines concepts of transnationalism, class formation and settler colonialism in Canada and across the British world in the late-eighteenth and early-twentieth century. Her current research project explores these themes within the context of the Harris family of London and the Hamilton family of Queenston in Upper Canada as they rose to influence during this early period of military conquest and revolutionary ideas. Morgan highlights the importance of these family and their histories as they struggled to build and retain a middle-class status and legacy.

OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES, historians of Canada have demonstrated a keen interest in seeing its past as tied to multiple other worlds and sites: transatlantic, transnational, borderlands, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific. While this shift is not quite as unprecedented or as original as is sometimes claimed – historians of British North America, for example, have long argued that the histories of its colonies could not be understood in solely local terms – nonetheless the histories of this territory we call “Canada” is being reworked in ways that are capacious.   

In particular, family history provides us with a way of exploring multifarious vantage points within and beyond national borders. So much depends on the family (or families) in question, of course, as well as the particular vantage points and approaches of historians. Earlier work in Canadian family history clearly illustrated the centrality of specific locations in shaping – and binding – family fortunes. Recently historians have highlighted the dynamics of imperial and colonial forces in creating, and then shaping, familial relationships, as well as the ways in which families both took advantage, negotiated with, and resisted such dynamics. Treating the concept of “family” as a fluid and permeable one, and drawing on the methods of biography and collective biography, can open up a wide range of areas, sometimes leading to more questions than answers.

The project that I am currently researching, a study of two middle-class settler families whose histories span the late-eighteenth to the early-twentieth centuries, deals with several themes in the history of Upper Canada and nineteenth-century Ontario: the nature of middle-class formation, the colony – and then province’s – relationship to other places, the ways in which we might think about settler colonialism, and the place of families in all of this. These two families, the Harris family of London and the Hamilton family of Queenston, shared much: both were formed out of the crucibles of late-eighteenth centuries wars and revolutions and the contractions and expansion of the British Empire; both were quite large (ten children in each family survived to adulthood); both became headed by widows, whose lives were marked by the struggle to retain middle-class status; and both were marked by various kinds of mobility: mobility within that very capacious category of “middle class,” and geographic mobility across borders and oceans. Their lives also were marked by illness and death, not to mention the omnipresent threat of children’s mortality, and the struggle to reconcile grief with Christian beliefs in divine providence and the promise of the afterlife. Moreover, the family’s copious correspondence is full of a range of emotions, testifying to the power of affect in middle-class formation. Finally, the homes that both families built – Queenston’s Willowbank and London’s Eldon House – still mark landscapes in southern Ontario, the former as a National Historic Site and the latter as a City of London Museum.

But the ways in which they differed also were telling, and caution us against that all-too-easy use of the term “middle class,” “elite,” or even “settler.”  For one, the geographic and social mobility these family members experienced did not encompass the same sites or locations.  For the Hamilton family, such movement took place within Ontario and Canada and across the Canada-United States border. In contrast, the fact that many of the Harris daughters married members of the British military and, for one daughter, British explorers, coupled with the contingencies of a daughter-in-law’s inheritance, meant their familial networks encompassed transatlantic and imperial worlds and a much more affluent lifestyles for at least some members of the family. Artefacts displayed at Eldon House attest to the family’s extensive global travels. Moreover, even within a family personal circumstances, decisions, and proclivities, not to mention factors such as gender, age, and health (either one’s own or that of spouses and children) – could lead to a wide range of experiences for family members. Becoming – and, equally importantly, remaining – middle class was a process that could not be taken for granted, and one marked by anxiety, apprehension, and fearfulness.

Moreover, these families’ histories point to the significance of the military in British America and the early Dominion. While Canadian historiography tends to focus on war and the military in its twentieth-century manifestations – the First and Second World Wars in particular – it is worth remembering that the eighteenth and nineteenth-century British military was an institution with a wide, indeed global reach, one that consisted of performances, practices, and relationships that tied colonies to both the metropole and to each other. Among its varied functions, the military was a pedagogical institution in which lessons about gender, class, race, ethnicity, and, above all, cultural and social identity were meant to be inculcated.  In a future project I hope to explore those themes further but, for the time being, I can say that the family correspondence highlights the significance of garrisons and their members, both for their cultural and social opportunities (providing the young women of the Harris family with marriage partners, for example), and also for their abiding reminder of the colonies’ imperial importance. When rumours began to circulate in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, for example, of the impending withdrawal of British troops from British America, family members’ anxiety and concern about this potential loss of British support were palpable. Even for those without a direct tie to the British military, service in the colonial militia might be an important marker of colonial masculinity.

Finally, while much has been written about liberalism in nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Canada, not least about the liberal, bureaucratic state, scholarship which highlights themes such as individualism and autonomy, my work on these families has prompted me to think in other directions. This is not to jettison the importance of either liberalism or the state, but, rather, to juxtapose families alongside them, to think about the many ways in which they provided connective tissue for middle-class formation in many realms, the economic and political as well as the social and affective.

Headshot of Cecilia Morgan

Cecilia Morgan is professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE/UT and holds an adjunct appointment to the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on the relationships between gender, culture, and middle-class formation; she is particularly interested in locating nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Canada within the imperial and transnational worlds. Morgan is the author of eight books, two co-authored collections, and has published numerous book chapters and journal articles in both Canadian and international publications. She has been a member of the Canadian Historical Association’s Council, served on the editorial board of the Canadian Historical Review, was CHR co-editor, and Section Editor, Nineteenth-Century North America, History Compass Journal, and was an associate editor for the Journal of British Studies.  She is the recipient of four major research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Feature Image: A map of the province of Upper Canada describing all the settlements and townships &c. with the countries adjacent from Quebec to Lake Huron ca. 1872. Digital Archive Ontario. SOURCE