A Pioneer Woman of Indomitable Spirit: Esther Silverthorn McNaught
Esther Silverthorn McNaught
A Pioneer Woman of Indomitable Spirit - 1868-1928
Esther Silverthorn McNaught was born in Sarawak Township of Grey County, Ontario on July 4, 1868. Esther's mother, Esther Ann Lundy, was reported to be a direct descendant of the Lundys of Niagara's Lundy's Lane. Her father, Robert Walker McNaught, had come out to Canada from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland with the rest of the family in 1857, and they were among the earliest settlers in Sarawak Township.
Robert McNaught took a most active role in local community, religious and municipal affairs, being the longest serving councillor Sarawak ever had, eighteen years, with twelve of those years as Reeve. He was also an elder of the Sarawak Presbyterian Church, Superintendent of the Sabbath School and, in 1889, was elected Warden for the County of Grey, embracing the Townships of Keppel, Sarawak and Brooke.
Esther's grandfather, William Brisbane McNaught had also been involved in the legal system, being the first Reeve of Sarawak Township and also a Justice of the Peace. From 1860 to 1863 William was a Councillor on the County Council of Grey, representing Keppel and Sarawak Township and, in 1865, was one of the three Magistrates. Little did Esther know that this exposure to the law would serve her well in the future.
The McNaught family and their nine children lived on a 282-acre farm in Sarawak, so there was always much work for Esther to do--milking cows, hauling barley, picking berries, raking fields, and binding wheat. Every Sunday Esther and the family went to church and every Tuesday to a prayer meeting. Many days were spent getting the church ready for special occasions or cleaning up afterwards.
From an early age, Esther displayed a lot of spirit and tenacity, no doubt acquiring much of this from her father and grandfather, and their interest in the legal system. At about age twenty, Esther took a job helping a lady in Owen Sound, which meant much of her time was spent getting to and from town, a distance of some seven miles. She also took pleasure in visiting family and friends in neighbouring villages. When there was no horse and buggy available, Esther thought nothing of walking all the way--rain or shine.
In 1900 Esther moved out to Alberta to assist her uncle Mathew McNaught with his farm. Mathew had served as a trooper with the Rocky Mountain Rangers in the Northwest Rebellion, or the Riel Rebellion as it is more commonly known. Mathew owned a 480-acre ranch, with over 250 head of cattle, 12 horses, 5 oxen, 100 acres under cultivation, and an interest in a threshing business. He was one of the earliest white settlers in Southern Alberta and had built a homestead on the banks of Willow Creek, five miles southwest of a village known as The Leavings, now called Granum. Being a bachelor of some 51 years, he clearly needed help with the ranch.
Numerous relatives would come and stay with them from time to time. Jeannie McNaught, Esther's sister, who had come out from Owen Sound to teach school in Manitoba, later went west to Alberta where she married Walter Thompson. They lived with the McNaughts until they could build a place of their own. Mathew was of the old Scottish hospitality, so their home was always open, with people coming and going all the time.
Consequently, as was expected of true pioneer women in those days, Esther set to work doing all the things that were required around a large ranch, contributing greatly to the overall success of the operation.
In the spring of 1925, Mathew took ill from an internal ailment and died seven months later on November 19, 1925 at the age of 76. He was buried in Granum with full Masonic honours. Now one would think that Mathew would have left his large ranch and estate to Esther, who had been by his side all this time, tending him during his illness and generally helping him to keep the ranch running successfully for the past 25 years. Such was not the case, however. For whatever reason, Mathew left his estate to the six surviving, adult children of his brother Duncan. Perhaps it was because Mathew and Esther had been to visit Duncan and his family in San Francisco where they lived some years earlier. Perhaps he felt compassion for his brother's children because their father had passed away five years before. The ranch should clearly have gone to Esther. She was entitled to it. But this was 1925!
Summoning up her fighting spirit, Esther made a claim through the courts that the home place, occupied by herself and the deceased up to the time of his death, was her property by virtue of a land exchange agreement made with her uncle in 1909. Alas, she was turned down. The trial was held at Fort Macleod and the trial judge, Mr. Justice Boyle, decided against her claim on legal grounds, although expressing that she had moral rights to the premises.
What was Esther to do--she appealed! In March of 1927, the Court of Appeal, sitting in Calgary, gave a unanimous decision in honour of Esther and her action against the Royal Trust Company, executors of the will of her deceased uncle, Mathew McNaught. The Appeal Court expressed the view that the trial judge had made an error in his interpretation of the law and ordered that Esther be entitled to absolute ownership of the half-section on which the home was situated. The earlier trial judge's finding that Esther was entitled to one-half of the cattle was not disturbed on the appeal.
The finding of the Appeal Court was a very popular one in Granum where Esther was well known and respected. Charles F. Carswell of Granum acted for Esther, assisted by Joseph D. Matheson of Macleod as counsel, while Bennett, Hannah and Sanford appeared on behalf of the Trust Company and Charles F. Adams, K.C., on behalf of the residuary legatees under the will. Esther and her solitcitor received general congratulations of the result, as all felt that she had not been fairly dealt with in the original administration of the estate.
Unfortunately Esther did not have long to enjoy her success as she passed away the very next year on May 15, 1928, at the age of 60. Although I have come to know Esther (my second cousin) only through research, I am so very proud of her indomitable spirit and what she was able to achieve.
Early life, Diary of Robert Walker McNaught, 1889
Notice to Creditors and Claimants, In the Estate of Mathew McNaught, late of near Granum, Alberta, Farmer, deceased, Claresholm Review-Advertiser, June 4, 1926; June 18, 1926; June 25, 1926; July 2, 1926; July 9, 1926; July 16, 1926
Decision of Trial Judge is Reversed by Court of Appeals; Granum Woman Given Property, Miss E.S. McNaught Wins Important Action Against Royal Trust Co., Fort Macleod Times, March 10, 1927
Important Case Decided by Appellate Court, Blairmore Enterprise, March 17, 1927, Page 9