Getting to Know Eleanor Bryan

Eleanor Bryan in old age

Eleanor Boyce Bryan was born in Iowa in 1832 and moved to Upper Canada with her family as a child. Somewhere around 1849, when Eleanor would have been roughly 17, she became the second wife of William Bryan (a fact not mentioned in The Haweaters for a variety of reasons) and soon gave birth to her first child, Harriet (Hattie). Hattie was promptly followed by several more children, including Charles (Charlie), Caroline (Carrie), William Bryan Jr., Abel, Clara Ann (Annie), and Arthur. The birth years of these children tend to vary from one document to the next so the exact years of their births proved difficult to pin down. Also, a few more children appear in one record then disappear in the next and it's unclear whether that's because these children died or because they were temporarily under the Bryans' care.

While the Bryan children were growing up, the family made their home on a farm in Garafraxa Township (now East Garafraxa), Ontario. In 1873, William and Eleanor Bryan relocated to a 102-acre homestead in Tehkummah on Northern Ontario's Manitoulin Island. They had likely been contemplating the relocation for a few years. Records suggest that eldest daughter Hattie had moved to the island with the Skippen family three years earlier before marrying one of the sons in 1871. At the time of the murders in 1877, the only Bryan children living on the homestead were Charlie and Arthur. All of the other children had scattered to various locations across the island.

On the day following the murders, Hattie would walk from her home in Green Bay down to the family homestead in Tehkummah -- a distance of roughly 40 km -- to be with her mother and Arthur. From that point on, Eleanor would never again live under her own roof. Instead she resided with each of her surviving children in turn, beginning with Hattie in the years immediately following the deaths of William and Charlie.

I was unable to track down the date of Eleanor's death although it likely came in the first decade of the 20th century. Several sources (none of them official) suggest she is buried alongside several family members in Green Bay Cemetery. When I visited that cemetery, I found the cluster of graves in the Skippen section overgrown and despite a valiant search, I couldn't find a grave marker with her name on it. However, I did find the gravestone for her son-in-law, Frank Skippen, so presumably she is buried somewhere near him.

The above photo was taken of Eleanor Bryan at some point early in the late 19th century. The ill-fitting black Victorian dress would no longer have been fashionable at the time this photo was taken (if it ever truly was), but it certainly did the job of informing anyone and everyone that Eleanor was a widow in a permanent state of mourning. I've only ever seen three photos of Eleanor -- all of them taken later in life -- and in all of them she is wearing a heavy black dress while rocking a severe hairstyle and stern expression. And yet somehow it's always the large, arthritic hands that draw my eye. These are definitely the hands of a women who has known a life a ceaseless labour.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.