Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Significant Women of Brick Street Cemetery: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell

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It’s a common theme throughout history, that women’s stories are swept under the rug, intentionally or not, to make way for the stories of history’s great men. Of course, with cis women, trans, queer, and otherwise non-gender-conforming individuals being present throughout history, the tales of ‘men’ are only a small fraction of the whole story.

Gravestones from the 19th century have a common formula when it comes to remembering women, and that is by labelling them as wife of… and often not providing any additional information about them. Often nothing much is recorded throughout history about them either, making it even more difficult to find anything else out other than who they married. Today I’d like to talk about three young women who are buried at Brick Street Cemetery, and were early settlers in the area in the mid-19th century: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell.

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Phoebe McNames

Phoebe is not an uncommon name in the London area, often called the ‘Laura Secord of Westminster’ for her role in one of the battles of the War of 1812. Born Phoebe Brink on November 26, 1796/7 in Pennsylvania, USA to Nicholas Brink and Elizabeth Monger, Phoebe’s father moved to Canada in 1797 to claim a land grant in Oxford County, and returned south to collect his wife and infant daughter in 1799.

While we unfortunately don’t know much about Phoebe as an individual, nor what she looked like, the legend that surrounds her shows that she was a brave and resourceful young woman. During the Battle of Hungerford Hill, a skirmish which broke out on modern-day Reservoir Hill in October or 1813, a woman only referred to as ‘Mrs. McNames’ was labeled a heroine for her role in the battle. A contributor to the Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Middlesex, Ontario wrote an account of the battle nearly 60 years after the event, but research by the Friends of Brick Street Cemetery have since confirmed many of the dates and underlaying facts. The account read as follows:

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Gravestone of Phoebe McNames (Photo by author, 2019)

“The defeated and disorganized army of General Proctor retreated after the Battle of the Thames by way of the Longwoods and Commissioners’ Roads, through the County of Middlesex, to Burlington Heights.  During this retreat a skirmish took place in the Township of Westminster, near the Village of Byron. Captain Carroll having under his command a troop of volunteer cavalry and a detachment of militia infantry, all of the County of Oxford, was engaged in convoying a number of wagons containing wounded men and baggage from the scene of battle, when he was attacked on the Commissioners’ Road, near Byron, by the advance guard of General Harrison’s army, consisting of Kentucky mounted riflemen.  Carroll being in charge of wounded men and baggage, could not retreat, and was obliged to make the best defence in his power.  He posted his little command on the summit of a beautiful rounded hill, which was covered then as now with a scattering growth of scrub oaks, and around which the Commissioners’ Road winds.  The enemy dismounted and charged up the hill in greatly superior numbers, but found more than their match in the gallant band of Canadians, who repulsed them and continued their retreat without losing a wagon or prisoner.  To the record of this gallant exploit must be added a brief mention of the heroic conduct of a woman, Mrs. McNames, who then and until her death, which occurred a few years ago, resided in Westminster. Her husband was away on duty as a militiaman, and when the fight began near her house she sprang upon a baggage wagon and, regardless of the bullets which whistled around her, she handed out ammunition to the troops and carried water for them to drink during the whole of the engagement. A country inhabited, as Canada was, by a people as brave and as loyal as Mrs. McNames, although it might be overrun by a hostile army for a season, could not be conquered, as the sequel proved.” (H.R. Page & Co. 1878:6)

While the account does not call her by her first name, another typical trend in 19th-century recording, it was likely Phoebe and not Rachel, Peter McNames second wife, who contributed to the battle effort, as Rachel did not arrive in Canada until sometime later. It was likely that Phoebe was visiting her aunt Margaret Brink who lived nearby, when the battle broke out, or that the battle date was actually in 1814, by which point Phoebe and Peter had already been married.

Phoebe married Peter McNames in 1813 at age 16 (he was only about 25) and had 6 children before dying in childbirth at age 26, in 1824. After her death, her husband quickly remarried Rachel Curtis. Unlike many women of her time, Phoebe is remembered for her acts of heroism during the War of 1812, but is still not remembered for the individual that she was. Her gravestone is the only piece of her story left clearly visible to researchers and visitors today.

Silvany Tunks

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Gravestone of Silvany Tunks (photo by David Hall 2015)

Oh Silvany. If you follow me on twitter, you’ll have already seen me yelling in outrage about Silvany’s life, but lets recount her story in a bit more clear terms (i.e. not irritated tweets?).

Silvany Barnes was born on August 15th, 1813 in Vermont, USA to Whiting Barnes, and the name of her mother is unknown. Her family relocated to Westminster County at…some point. In fact, prior to 1829, there is very little known about her life, which is irritatingly not a surprise at all. It is likely that she had relationships with the local children, including the eldest daughter of veteran Richard Tunks, who was the same age as her. This is most likely how Richard got to know the young girl, and a few months after the death of his first wife Catherine (who died in childbirth), Richard married Silvany.

She was 16 years old. Richard was 50.

It was the unfortunate reality of the period that young women and girls were married to help support their families or to help support their new husband’s existing family. This was likely the case for Richard who was a widower with 12 children. At 16 years old, Silvany was mother to 12, including her own peers. We don’t know what Silvany thought about this, or whether she had a choice in the matter, but over the next 15 years she would have 6 more children before dying in childbirth at the age of 31, having spent half of her life married and bearing children for a man three times her own age.

Hannah Caldwell

Unlike Phoebe and Silvany, it appears that Hannah never married, although she did die at a young age as well. The daughter of Matthew and Maria Caldwell, Hannah was born at Brick Street in 1856. According to the 1861 Canada Census, she lived with her parents and five siblings in a one and one-half story brick house.

Her name was smeared in the London Free Press in 1877, when the paper reported a dramatic trial where her father sued another local farmer named Henry Nichols for ‘the seduction of his daughter’ who was only 22 years old at the time. We cannot say whether seduction in this sense referred to exactly, but it appeared that the couple had been courting or were lovers, and her father saw this as a loss of his property. The court sided with Matthew, and he was awarded 500$. It is very unlikely that Hannah saw any of this money.

This event was called a ‘tort of seduction’ and was one of the most popular civil court actions in 19th-century Canada. It arose from the idea that individuals could hold property interest in other human beings (Backhouse 1986:45). Originally a servant-employer relationship during the medieval period, this act dissolved in the 19th-century to represent ‘extension of property right in women’ (Backhouse 1986:45). These actions were ‘a deliberate attempt to assert parental property interests in the face of a family unit undergoing dislocation, dispersement, and a crisis of authority’ (Backhouse n1986:46). It is clear through a definition of this event, that the 19th-century father felt he was entitled to his daughter’s services at home in the same way as a servant, and felt a financial loss at his daughters falling in love and ‘being seduced’ by a young man.

It seems that after this even, Hannah did not remain together with Henry, perhaps out of public humiliation, and did not marry. Only 10 years later she died, at the young age of 32, not of childbirth but of another huge 19th-century killer…consumption. Her death certificate and gravestone are pictured below, with her age recorded incorrectly on the death certificate.

 

Conclusions

Gravestones offer us an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the death, about those who have gone before us. However, they are not the only source of information, nor are the physical representations of the individuals themselves. We should remember that as cool as gravestones are, they exist to commemorate and mark the grave of an individual (for actual gravestones, and not a cenotaph of course). Without the context, the location of the gravestone over the grave, they lose so much of their information. Archaeologists, historians, and volunteers, need to remember the individuals buried below that allowed these stones to be created in the first place, and explore the whole picture, always.

As pieces of art, as forms of remembrance, as documents telling the story of the dead, gravestones are a cultural heritage resource and part of the archaeological record of a burial ground. They offer a glimpse into the life of the individual, a means of beginning to tell their stories while standing before them.

References: 

Backhouse, Constance
1986    The Tort of Seduction: Fathers and Daughters in Nineteenth Century Canada. The Dalhousie Law Journal. Pg. 45-90. Available online: http://www.constancebackhouse.ca/fileadmin/publicationlist/TheTortofSeduction.pdf

H.R. Page & Co.
1878 (reprint 1972)     Historical Atlas of Middlesex County, Ontario. Edward Phelps: Sarnia.

London Free Press, 1877 article.

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

2 thoughts on “Significant Women of Brick Street Cemetery: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell

  1. My oh my! Women had it very tough in those days! How many years later…there remains inequality!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Doors Open London: London’s historic burial grounds | Spade & the Grave

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