Who Were The
with their young son, James Jr., migrated to Canada from Tipperary,
in the early 1840s. Some newspapers of the day report the family
in 1844, while various books on the subject have the year listed as
1842 and 1845-46. Whatever the year, the Donnellys were just an
family like everyone else emigrating to the New World with dreams of a
better life tucked away in their simple luggage. They had been born
poverty, had known famine, and yes, even murder, so life in the Canadas
had to be an improvement on what they had left behind.
Sr., found work to feed his wife and child, and it was during their
in the Forest City, (London), their second child, William, was born; a
child with a deformed foot who would eventually be nicknamed, "Clubfoot
Will". But life in the city was not meant for a family who
to till their own land and put down roots. The call of the Canadian
beckoned, and it wasn't long before they were headed for Biddulph.
there are discrepancies in the dates as to when the family arrived in
township. Taking all facts into consideration, it is probably safe to
that the Donnellys came to the area around 1845-46.
This Land Is My Land
The one thing
that drew many
of Upper Canada's early settlers was land, and James Donnelly was no
He wanted it just as bad as his Irish brethren who had flocked to the
of milk and honey to stake a claim on some farmland that was owned by
Canada Land Company, and leased out with the option to buy. But James,
being poor, could not afford even a stone, let alone an entire plot of
land. So he did what many destitute pioneer families had to do... he
a squatter; someone who took over vacant land illegally and moved onto
it. It was a practice quite common among many poor people who settled
The land that
was situated on Lot #18 on the sixth concession of the Roman Line that
was named after all the Roman Catholics that settled the area. The 100
acres belonged to an absentee landlord, a Mr. John Grace, but James
not, and after raising a crude, log shanty, moved in his family for
he hoped would be a long, happy tenure. But the skies over Biddulph
prove to be just as black as they were over Tipperary.
this is not the Donnelly log cabin, their log shanty may have
very similar to this one. Credit: National
Archives of Canada.
With his wife
at his side,
James set about the arduous task of clearing his land, and in the fall
of that same year, the couple was blessed with another son whom they
John. Over the next few years, four more children, Patrick, Michael,
and Thomas, were born. The family, now numbering nine in all, live
contentedly in their little shack on the Roman Line until 1855 when the
absentee landlord, the rightful owner of the property, sold fifty acres
of the Donnelly homestead to Michael Maher.
not go over well with James Donnelly. He had worked his fingers to the
bone clearing his property, and there was no way he was going to give
up now. It was his land; land that had broken his back, but not his
Defiantly, James stood his ground, and dared anyone to take the
fifty acres from him, and no one on the Roman Line challenged him. No
except Patrick Farrell.
He rented the
land from Michael
Maher, but when he ventured to lay claim to the property, he was
met with a matching pair of fists. Stubborn as ever, James refused to
himself from the land, so they went to court over it. This resulted in
a trade-off where James could keep the northern fifty acres of his
but he would have to give up the southern half. It was a transaction
would have deadly ramifications. On June 25th, 1857, Patrick Farrell
pay dearly for this land loss.
The Death Of Patrick
days, there was a custom known as "bees", a neighbourhood get-together
where settlers would gather to help each other in whatever task
attention. Some of these bees were logging bees, quilting bees, and
bees, and it was one of these functions that brought James Donnelly and
Patrick Farrell together in a fateful encounter.
The scene was
logging bee, and as usual, the farmers in attendance were drinking as
the custom at most gatherings. This included the two men who, by now,
the sight of each other. There are different accounts as to how the
thing started and what ensued, so it may never be known who actually
the fight, but it resulted in one man laying dead with a hole in his
temple; a fatal blow that had been delivered with a handspike. Fate had
reared her ugly head, ushering in an era of horror that would change
In the eyes of
the law and
Biddulphers, James was now a murderer. A warrant was issued for his
but when the constables set out to the homestead to bring him to
the Irishman was no where to be found. He had vanished into thin air.
For the next
nobody knew where James had disappeared. But Johannah knew, as did
older children, James Jr., now 15, William, aged 12, and ten-year-old
They all knew, but they weren't talking, especially to the officers of
the law who showed up regularly on their doorstep to make an arrest.
all that time, the head of the Donnelly household had been hiding right
under their noses -- in his own back fields.
Every so often
caught glimpses of James disguised in his wife's clothing, and working
at her side in one of their fields. If they knew secretly who the
'woman' was, nothing was ever said, and James continued this way
until the icy breath of winter blew across the land. By then, it was
too cold to sleep outdoors, so he sheltered himself in stables, and in
the homes of his friends who risked their own freedom to help a
Close to the
of Patrick Farrell's murder, May 1858, James turned himself in. It was
mostly due to advice from his closest friends which included a certain
Justice of the Peace, Jim Hodgins, and the misery of living life on the
lam. Canadian winters were brutal, and the thought of enduring another
in the backwoods of Biddulph must have played a big part in James'
to hand himself over to the law.
A Date With The Hangman