Horatio to Archie: The Mills family
From a Scottish surgeon on a whaling boat to Homesteaders in Medicine Hat, here are the stories of our immigrant ancestors
When Gary and Laura asked whether any Mills cousins would be interested in adopting a couple of old photos of Grandma and Grandpa Mills and great-great grandfather Horatio and his wife Mary Jane, I immediately replied that I’d love to have them. Well, they arrived the other day (thanks Gary and Laura!) and looking at their faces reminded me of some unfinished business.
I have been meaning to write up what I’ve learned about the Mills family during my searches over the past two years on Ancestry.com. I did the same recently for my mother’s side of the family — in fact, it became a three-part series and inspired me to do further research for a book project about Michigan history (stay tuned).
So here is what I’ve found out thus far (spoiler alert: There are more than a few surprises). I suspect some of you may be doing research on your own as well, so please feel free to share any of your findings or insights. All of my research is available on Ancestry.com for any of you who wish to connect with me there.
Horatio Edward and Mary Jane
Let’s start with the two people in the pictures whom we’ve never met: Our great-great grandfather Horatio Edward Mills (1854–1936) and his wife Amerisa Jane Nichols, or “Mary Jane” Mills (1858–1885). Tape on the back of the frames confirm their identities.
These are likely their wedding portraits, taken around the time of their marriage in 1875. Mary Jane was 17 when she wed Horatio, 21.
She bore six children in six years, including one who died at childbirth and one who died at the age of three. The fifth child, and first son, was our great-grandfather Cecil (1882–1953), who was Archie’s father.
Horatio and Mary Jane lived in Wheatley, Ontario, which is south of Windsor along Lake Erie, a few miles northeast of Point Pelee. Sadly, Mary Jane died in 1885 at 26, after nine years of marriage. Horatio, widowed with four children aged 1 through 7, would never remarry.
Horatio’s father, Horatio, Sr. (1813–1879), was one of our most interesting ancestors. The following information is from census, marriage and death records from Ancestry, as well as from a local biography you can find here.
While I had always been told our ancestors were from Wales (we have the coat of arms refrigerator magnet!), it turns out we’re Scottish. Horatio, Sr. was born in Montrose, Scotland, on the southeastern shore between Aberdeen and Dundee. After receiving his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, he worked as a physician for a short time in Montrose, then spent three years as surgeon on a whaling ship before emigrating to Kent County, Ontario.
Contrary to what the biography referenced above claims, Horatio’s mother was not the sister of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. She was Ann Hannah Theckoner (1779–1824), who married a Montrose dentist named William Mills (1784–1848), son of a laborer by the same name (this is where our ancestral trail goes cold). This information comes via a distant relative, Melvin H. Mills of Oakville, Ontario, who in 2000 paid for research in Scotland to determine the lineage of Horatio Mills, Sr. Helpfully, he allows Ancestry users to download the report. The research confirmed that Horatio was one of eight children by Ann, six sons and two daughters. William remarried in 1824 after Ann died.
After emigrating to Canada, Horatio, Sr. in 1838 married Martha Campbell, born in Ballymoney County, Ireland, a week after her 16th birthday. They had five sons and two daughters, including our Horatio Edward. With his sons they cleared 100 acres of land in Romney Township (Wheatley), which the family farmed. He opened a Post Office on the farm, dubbing it Old Montrose (it closed in 1880). In addition to serving as a village doctor, he was a schoolteacher for 23 years.
Horatio, Sr. and Martha were married 41 years, until Horatio’s death in 1879. She passed away eight years later.
In 1954, one of Horatio Sr.’s grandchildren, W.R. Mills of Wheatley, wrote a letter to his descendants (including us!) containing a laudatory obituary of Dr. Horatio Mills, written by a Methodist minister named Rev. T.L. McCutcheon. W.R. noted that he still lived on the farm his grandfather settled. You can find the letter and obituary here, courtesy of cousin Gary.
Horatio Edward, our great-great grandfather and the guy in the portrait, is listed as a farmer in Canadian census records. But in 1911, at age 57, the widower (remember, Mary Jane had died in 1885), along with his brother Hugh, 29-year-old son Cecil, Cecil’s wife Margaret and their infant son Archie, pulled up stakes and became Homesteaders in Western Canada.
Who remembers the family myth that our ancestors were “horse rustlers in Medicine Hat”? That might not have been too far from the truth.
The Canadian Homestead Act, more commonly called the Dominion Lands Act, passed in1872 and was in use until 1918. For a $10 administration fee, it gave 160 acres for free to any male farmer who agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres and to build a permanent dwelling within three years.
In his 1911 application to be granted a Homestead, Horatio lists four children and no wife. The 1916 Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta lists three Mills families living on adjoining lots: Horatio, 62, who lived alone, his son Cecil, 34, with wife Margaret, 26, and sons Archie, 7, and Milt, 2, and Horatio’s brother Hugh, 53.
The Mills stake-hold was near a boomtown about 90 miles west of Medicine Hat called Bow City, Alberta, which one town history dubbed “The Village Born Unlucky” (you can read a fascinating history of this town here). Coal was discovered about five years before the Mills’ decided to emigrate west. Advertisements at the time touted the creation of a new city plan to attract settlers, dubbing it “Pittsburgh on the Prairie.” Unfortunately, the boom quickly went bust, due to drought, World War I and a decision by the Canadian-Pacific Railway not to run its line through the region.
The Mills family hung in there for awhile, however. The 1921 Census shows Cecil, 39, Margaret, 31, Archie 12 and Milt, 7, as living in Jenner, Alberta. Cecil’s occupation (wait for it): Manager of a livery stable. Maybe the Mills boys did run horses!
On February 6, 1923, Cecil packed up the family and emigrated to the United States, landing in Detroit by ferry. Upon inspection at the border, his immigration form attests he was from Jenner, Alberta, 5’ 11”, fair complexion, with gray hair and brown eyes and “accompanied by wife and children.” He claimed to have $600 and swore he was not a “person who believes in or advocates the overthrow, etc.” of the United States (in other words, he was not a communist).
The frustrating thing about ancestry research is, except for whatever details we can glean from official documents, we usually don’t get to know what any of our ancestors were like as people. I’m sure Archie and his sons would have told us lots of stories about Cecil and even Horatio Edward. We do know that, on May 29, 1934, a Wayne County judge granted Margaret Mills’ petition for divorce from Cecil. Handwritten onto the decree was the stated cause: “Extreme & Repeated Cruelty.” At the time of the divorce, Archie and Ellen, both 26, had been married five years, and Delbert, Doug and Al were toddlers and infants. Cecil died in 1953 at 71; Margaret died in 1962 at 72.
It’s uncertain when Archie’s grandfather Horatio Edward returned east from Alberta. He died in 1936, at the age of 82, and had been living back in his hometown of Wheatley (Romney Twp) for only one year. On Horatio Edward’s gravestone at Erie Cemetery is the inscription:
“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
His young wife is also buried at Erie Cemetery, with “Amerisa” carved into her more weathered gravestone. I’m curious about whether they are buried next to each other.
Our Protestant past
My trip through our ancestors’ records revealed one final surprise: Our Canadian Mills ancestors were not Catholic. Horatio Edward and his father and mother were members of the Methodist Church of Canada. Archie and his parents, Cecil and Margaret, also are listed as Methodists in the 1901,1916 and 1921Canadian Census.
When Archie’s younger brother, our Uncle Milt, married Caroline Dice in 1936 in Detroit, they were married by an Evangelical Lutheran pastor. But Archie converted to Catholicism when he married our Grandma, Ellen Gardner, in 1928, by Father James E. O’Brien at St. James in Ferndale.
(Updated Feb. 26, 2019, with link to the Horatio, Sr., letter and obituary and photo of Cecil and Frank)
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I hope this bit of family history has been fun and informative. Again, please let me know if you have anything you wish to add here.