The Butter Knife

In the Scottish Highlands of the late 19th century, the privilege of inheriting the family farm always went to the eldest son. This was based on the old feudal system, and was his right and no one questioned it. When his father died, or became to frail to operate it himself, and the younger man moved his wife and children in to help him run it. But what if this son didn’t want the farm?

It was unusual for this to happen, but in 1893 in an isolated and wind swept area of the west Highlands, George McMillan “chucked it all”, as they might say in those parts. He walked away from everything and became a mystery man to his relatives for many decades. He turned up eventually in the unlikeliest of places.

George McMillan was born in 1857 in Kilberry, Argyll. His father, John McMillan, descended from McMillans who had been in this area, known as Knapdale, for centuries, while his mother, Elizabeth Hamilton, was an incomer born in Lanarkshire. In 1891, the household at the farm of Strone consisted of John, Elizabeth, George and his younger siblings, Angus, Elizabeth and Donald, plus a niece, Margaret.

As we will never know exactly what occurred in the house to sour family relationships, we can only make some guesses. Those who knew George’s younger sister, Elizabeth, remember her as wilful, headstrong and stubborn and she was likely growing very comfortable with her position in the household at that time, perhaps imagining herself as the lady of the house some day, as her elder brother was still unmarried at 35 years old. He would need someone to keep house, after all. But marry he did.

A few miles away, at Lochgoilhead, his uncle George Hamilton had a successful sheep farm. As was his custom, this uncle employed his own relatives to work for him, and he had plenty of those. In a house near his own, lived the family of Dugald and Margaret McGregor. Margaret was George McMillan’s sister. She had a brood of 5 very small children, all born since her marriage to Dugald in 1883. In her later years, she would to look back and sigh “Aah Teenie” when she thought about George Hamilton’s servant girl, Christina McPherson, who had helped her so much with the children in those days. Christina was her best friend and an indispensable extra pair of hands to the young mother on the isolated hillside. Apparently, her brother, George McMillan, had seen something special in Christina too because it was she that he finally chose to marry.

Could Elizabeth McMillan’s feathers have been ruffled when her bachelor brother announced he was bringing another female into the hen house? Could Christina’s position as a domestic servant have tainted Elizabeth’s opinion of her? In any case, George never brought his bride to live at Strone. Whatever happened seems to have been hinged on something to do with Elizabeth because it was she who later perpetuated the false stories about where her brother George had gone.

“He went to Yorkshire, had a family but now all contact has been lost.”

Elizabeth eventually married and had 2 children of her own. Now and then, folks would ask her about whatever became of George. She had a ready reply. It sort of satisfied the inquirer’s curiosity and also put up a wall to avoid more questions. It was also mostly untrue.

In time, people stopped asking, Elizabeth passed away and that would have been the end of it if not for the relentless digging of a few McMillan descendants who would not give up searching for George. Of course, they were searching in the wrong place. How many years were lost trying to figure out what part of the very large county of Yorkshire George McMillan made his home? He never showed himself on any records and there is a very good reason for that — he never set foot in Yorkshire, England.

Well played, Elizabeth, well played. Like the Mountie who always gets his man, the family historian almost always gets their dead relative eventually. The first crack in the brick wall came early in 2002, when I teamed up with another Knapdale McMillan descendant, my 4th cousin, Robert MacMillan. He stumbled upon George McMillan’s marriage to Christina in Glasgow in March of 1893. As we knew they never returned to Argyll, we had to keep looking and it wasn’t very long before we discovered the newlyweds at Top End, a farm just outside of Little Addington in Northamptonshire in England. Yorkshire indeed.

The record that pinpointed that location was the birth registration of their first child, Mary McMillan, who arrived in November 1893. George kept busy working the farm while Christina put her child-minding experience to good use chasing an ever-expanding brood of her own. Mary was followed just shy of a year later by her sister, Eliza. After that, came George Jr., Christina, Eva, Margaret and Robert Donald. Very tragically, Christina didn’t recover from the birth of her seventh child in seven years, and passed away in February 1901, nine days after Robert Donald’s delivery.

What does a man with seven young children do when he is suddenly widowed? First, he asks his parents for help and they hop on a train bound for England, possibly the first time they had ever left the Scottish Highlands. The appearance of John and Elizabeth McMillan, both nearly 80 years old, proves that all contact was lost is a bunch of baloney. Their southward mercy trip in 1901 must surely have been big news in their community at the time.

After John and Elizabeth returned to Scotland, George hired a local girl to look after his house and children. Jane Ann Strickson was 27 years old, one of 11 children of William Strickson and Hannah Blowfield in nearby Barnwell Farm. George was some 20 years older than Jane, but that does not seem to have been a problem with her. They married in December 1901. Their first child together, William John, made his debut 3 months later.

After adding Annie, Percy, and Richard to the family, George and Jane had their hands quite full with 11 children. But then the trail went cold again — no more births in Little Addington, no marriages, no deaths, no trace of the rather large McMillan family. Where had they gone now?

One last birth registration brought us to Toxteth Park in Liverpool, Lancashire. Little Alice McMillan was born there in 1907, arriving into a family consisting of numerous rough and tumble siblings, her mother and an absent father.

The story goes that George, who always wanted to see what was beyond the hill, decided that the family should immigrate to Canada. In preparation for that eventuality, the McMillans moved into 94 Everley St. in Toxteth Park. It would seem that when Jane became pregnant with her 12th child, the Strickson family was against seeing her travel in her condition, so in the end George set off alone to find a suitable place for his family abroad.

By the beginning of summer 2002, my McMillan cousin and I were stuck again. My mother (Margaret McMillan’s great granddaughter) and father (his father once worked for George Hamilton) were also intrigued and eagerly awaiting the next chapter in the life of the long missing George McMillan. All of his siblings had been found and traced, but old George was a real holdout.

You never know when the brick wall will come crashing down. It could be any day or any time when that long-awaited scrap of a clue allows the bricks to fall away and lets you finally have a look at the answers hiding just behind. My parents had taken a three-week vacation that summer and set off westward in an RV, travelling to British Columbia, Canada and then crossing into America to make their way back home through the northern United States. They left no concrete itinerary nor did they carry cell phones. Of course, that is when the brick wall took its biggest tumble.

Robert phoned me from his home in England, in a state of great excitement, a condition that only family historians can really appreciate. He bubbled over with delight as he told me that he had found a passenger record not for George McMillan, but for George McMillan Jr., his now 23-year-old eldest son, fresh out of World War I military service, travelling aboard the Baltic to his father in Buffalo, U.S.A. My own enthusiasm went sky high as well. Buffalo, N.Y. was just over the border with Ontario, Canada, a drive of less than 3 hours from my home. I easily pictured a family reunion, 110 years in the making, with my family and the relatives that had come to Buffalo, New York.

But the Georges didn’t have a reunion in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1920. The hand-written passenger record actually said Buffalo, W.Y. There is a Buffalo in Wyoming? I had no idea. This certainly was unexpected. From the Scottish Highlands, George McMillan Sr. had travelled to Glasgow, then Northamptonshire, England and on to Liverpool, then immigrated to Canada, and now he has been found in Wyoming?

We began to piece together what we could about how George ended up in this this far-flung corner of America, that is still sparsely populated today. Census records state that he became a naturalized U.S. citizen and had entered the country about 1912. From 1907 until that time, he must have been in Canada but we have never yet determined exactly where. We learned that he lived among the Big Horn Mountains and tended sheep, as he had done most of his life. For a time, he worked for a rancher and later he obtained his own land, and worked on it with his son, George Jr. Of his 12 children, George Jr. is the only one that he ever laid eyes on after departing Liverpool in 1907.

How did this happen? How did Jane and the other children never join George in North America? This remains a mystery to this day. It seems that relations between George and Jane were good at least 10 years later, as is shown in a letter to Jane’s sister, Amy Strickson, dated January 3, 1917. Of course, World War I was raging and almost all non-military travel by sea was suspended. Jane may not have been well herself, as she died in 1924 at age 50. Perhaps she could not see herself immigrating with such a large group of children, or could not afford it. It may be that she was concerned about uprooting her family, particularly her son Richard who may have had mental health issues. After Jane’s death, he was institutionalized and remained there for life. Baby Alice, the child he never met, immigrated to the U.S. long after her father passed away.

I was half expecting to find old George turn up in yet another surprising location, but he hung up his hat in Wyoming and stayed there until he died. He passed away in hospital in Sheridan in 1930 at the age of 74 years. His son, George McMillan Jr., known as Scotty to the locals, never married. He hosted his sister Alice’s children at his small ranch during summer holidays and they remember a fun uncle who made up games and treasure hunts to entertain them. On a winter day, in 1968, the younger George

dropped dead from a massive heart attack on the rodeo grounds in the oddly named town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. He was 72.

Ten Sleep so interested me that I looked it up. I learned that the name comes from the Native American habit of measuring distance by counting how many days, or sleeps, it took to travel from one place to another. Ten Sleep, Wyoming is ten days of travel by foot from either Fort Laramie in the east or Yellowstone in the west. It is a tiny dot of a town today with a population of only 260 folks.

I was nearly bursting by the time my parents arrived back from their road trip. The first chance we got, we met for coffee and a chat. They related their stories of western adventures, beautiful sites in the Rocky Mountains, severe storms in Alberta and a minor car accident at a rest stop. I was well beyond excited to finally tell my story with the final chapter of the mysterious George McMillan, my mother’s great uncle, finally written.

Then my mother had another story for me. During their trip, eastward, heading home through the American states, they had their route well planned out to include stops at famous landmarks like Yellowstone Park and Old Faithful. Some extreme weather had washed out some main highways and forced them to take an alternate route well to the south and landed them in, of all places on Earth, Ten Sleep during lunch time.

Mum and Dad decided that this was as good a place as any to stop for something to eat, so they went into a small coffee shop, with a view of the rodeo grounds. Part way through their meal, my father dropped his knife, but no amount of searching around on the floor could recover it and he ended up asking the waitress for another one. Hours later, and miles down the road, the weary travellers stopped for the night at a motel. As my father removed his shoes, out fell a stainless-steel butter knife. Now isn’t that odd? they thought.

The ordinary restaurant knife, now known as the Ten Sleep Knife, sits in a place of honour among other little family treasures, in the china cabinet in my parents’ living room. It is still looked at with some amazement, this less than special looking piece of cutlery.


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