Notable Women Ancestors - Esther Silverthorn McNaught
Esther Silverthorn McNaught

Esther Silverthorn McNaught was born in Sarawak Township in the County of Grey, Ontario, Canada in 1868. Esther's mother, Esther Ann Lundy, was reportedly 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 his family in 1857, and they were among the earliest settlers of Sarawak Township. Robert 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, Sabbath School Superintendent and, in 1889, was elected Warden for the County of Grey, embracing the Townships of Keppel, Sarawak and Brooke.

The McNaught family, with their nine children, lived on a 122-acre farm, so there was much work for Esther to do, milking cows, hauling barley, picking berries, raking the fields, and binding wheat, to name just a few of the tasks. 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. At about age twenty or so, Esther took a job helping a lady in town, so 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, rain or shine, Esther thought nothing of walking all the way.

About 1900, Esther moved out to Alberta to be of assistance to her uncle, Mathew McNaught. 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 250-plus head of cattle, twelve horses, five oxen, 100 acres under cultivation, and an interest in a thrashing 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 The Leavings, which is now called Granum. Being a bachelor of some 51 years, he clearly needed help with the ranch.

Other relatives would come and stay at the ranch from time to time. There was Esther's sister, Maggie McNaught, who married Charles Goff; they were there for awhile, also their sons, Robert Walker (Breeze) Goff and Charles Goff, who helped out on the ranch. Esther's sister, Jeannie McNaught, who had come out from Owen Sound to teach school in Manitoba, later went west as far as Alberta where she married Walter R. 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. People enjoyed listening to Mathew recount humorous stories of his colourful early life as a cowboy, and of his freighting days working for the I.G. Baker Freight Company, which ran bull trains between Fort Benton, Montana and Fort Macleod, Alberta, before the advent of the railway.

Consequently, as a true pioneer woman, Esther did all the things that were required around a large ranch, and contributed greatly to the success of the operation.

In the spring of 1925, Mathew took ill from an internal ailment and died on November 19, 1925 at the age of 76. He was buried in Granum, Alberta with full Masonic honours. Now, one would think that Mathew would have left his large ranch and entire estate to Esther, who had been by his side, 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. For whatever reason, Mathew left his estate to the six surviving, grown children of his brother, Duncan. Perhaps it was because Mathew and Esther had been to visit Duncan and his family some time previously in San Francisco. Perhaps he felt compassion for his brother's children after their father had passed away five years earlier. 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 for her rights to the home and land she had been living on all these years. 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 her 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.

This finding of the Appeal Court was a very popular one in Granum where Esther was well known and respected. She and her solicitor, Charles F. Carswell of Granum, received general congratulations on the result, as all felt that she had not been fairly dealt with in the original administration of the estate.

Unfortunately, Esther passed away just three years later, on May 15, 1928, in Granum, Alberta. Although I have come to know Esther (my second cousin) only through my research, I am so very proud of her indomitable spirit and what she was able to achieve.

If you wish to exchange family information,
please send e-mail to Lois McNaught.
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