The black sheep of the family?

My great great uncle Nicol Slater was the black sheep of the family. He left his young family in Orkney, went off to Canada and never returned. The name Nicol, shared with his father and grandfather, was not used again for two generations.

I’d assumed that he left and never contacted his family again so I was astonished, and very pleased, to see him listed, with his siblings, in a series of sasines (property transactions) from 1920, almost 30 years after he emigrated. And not just his name, but also where he lived: Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota, USA. So he was still in contact with the family after all. My research antennae were really twitching now and I had to know more.

Born in 1861, Nicol was the seventh child of Nicol and Barbara S(c)later. His grandfather, Nicol, who died in 1875, left him the small farm of Nether Scows, Orphir, as he was his ‘name son’, but Nicol became a carpenter and then farmed at the Glebe, Orphir, before he emigrated. He married Margaret Stevenson in 1885 and by the time he left Glasgow, bound for Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 13 June 1891, she was pregnant with their fourth child. Far from ideal, but was he going to find a better life for them all?

If that was the aim, it is certainly not how it was conveyed to later generations. Margaret, Nicol’s wife, died in 1907. On her death registration ‘phthisis exhaustion’ (TB) was noted as the cause of death; family lore attributed it to a broken heart. Late in 1908, the two sons, aged 17 and 19, set off for New Zealand. Thomas, the older son, was a rifleman in the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and died at Passchendaele (3rd battle of Ypres) on 12 October 1917. The two sisters, Barbara and Maggie, remained in Orkney.

Nicol himself moved from Canada to the USA in 1892 (1894 or 1900 according to two censuses) and had his own business as a carpenter and contractor in Minnesota as early as 1900. By the 1910 census his status had changed from married to widower, again evidence of contact with family in Orkney. And where was he in both the 1910 and 1920 censuses? Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota of course. Curiously, in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, his first name was recorded as Nickolas or Nicklas, but taking all the information I was collecting together, it definitely was him.

In 1921, aged 60, he married Martha Harris (née Fecker), a German widow, at Waterloo, Black Hawk, Iowa. Nicol in 1925 Directory LAThere is an entry for him and Martha in a 1925 directory of the Santa Monica area, California. In the 1930 US census, they were listed in Los Angeles, California, where he died in August 1942.

With greater knowledge of his story, was he really a black sheep? Leaving a young family with one unborn child does not reflect well on him and I also wonder why his sons went to New Zealand rather than joining him in the States. On the other hand, it was not unusual for the husband emigrate first and then come back for his wife and family. Rightly or wrongly, part of me warms to him in the hard, lonely task of establishing himself in a new country. Perhaps there was a restlessness too, farmer’s son, carpenter, farmer, needing more than 1890s Orkney could offer? Did he ever wonder about Robert, the son he’d never known, and the other three children who were so young when he left?

As someone said, there are three sides to any story: what he said, what she said and the truth.