After a long and drawn out winter closure, Fort Malden finally opened for the tourist season on May 1. I arrived bright and early on May 2 with hopes of speaking to someone at the museum about Private James Elliott, a solider in the 34th Regiment of the British Army and Ann (Elliott) Brett’s father. Alas, the museum was closed to visitors on Wednesday without explanation, but visitors could still participate in a guided tour. And so I did.
You might recall that James Elliott came to Canada around 1833 with the 1st Battalion of the 34th Regiment of Foot. He was accompanied by his wife Mary and their infant daughter Ann. The regiment was garrisoned at Halifax until 1838 when the Rebellion of Upper Canada broke out. Five hundred soldiers of the 34th were deployed to Fort Malden in June, arriving by the end of July, including James Elliott and his growing family. He died there in 1840 at the age of 35, cause of death unknown. From records available at the museum I had hoped to find out why he died and what happened to his wife and children upon his death.
My tour guide, dressed in the simple green militia uniform of Caldwell’s Western Rangers, was very helpful in painting a picture of life at the fort. Only six percent of soldiers were allowed to bring their wives and children to Canada. On the day of departure, they would have arrived at the dock, where an officer would have randomly selected those soldiers who could take their families with them. James Elliott was one of the successful soldiers.
At Fort Malden, soldiers lived in very close quarters. The barracks could hold 64 adults in the space of three rooms, with four adults per double bunk. Wives would bunk with their husbands, but children would have to sleep anywhere they could find some space. Food was rationed over two meals — oatmeal gruel with peas or salt for breakfast, and meat stew (with or without vegetables depending on availability) for dinner. The British government provided only two meals a day. Men received one pound of meat per day, women one-half a pound and children one-quarter of a pound. Soldiers paid a fee (deducted from their pay) for laundry service. If the wife of a soldier could get hired to do laundry, she would be paid more than her husband and could recoup the laundry fee and have a few cents left over. Children were allowed to stay in the barracks until the age of 14. At that point, boys had to join the army or leave the fort. Girls had to marry a soldier or leave the fort.
When I told the tour guide my skeletal story of James and Mary Elliott, she went looking for his name tag in the barracks. Imagine our surprise when she actually found it. Both a bunk and a musket contain modern tags with the name “James Elliott” and his military number – 1198. The names and numbers were taken directly from the payroll records for the 34th Regiment for July 1838, just after the battalion arrived at the fort. Plus we found a tag for a James Gott #1267, who may have been the grandfather of Eccles James Gott, husband of Cecelia Mary Brett (oldest child of John and Ann Brett).
So I asked, what would happen to wives and children living in the barracks when a soldier died. Did the army support the family for a time or offer to send them home? Nope! A woman would have 48 hours to marry another soldier or she and her children would be turfed. Given the close living quarters of the barracks, I’m sure there was no shortage of soldiers willing to marry a widow and raise her children.But did Mary Elliott remarry under such circumstances or did they drum her and her young children out of the fort? It’s a research project for another day.
After a brief stop at the Marsh Collection to review the death records for Christ Church, I headed over to the churchyard on Ramsay Street, hoping to find any family gravestone, but without high expectations of finding James Elliott’s. What a surprise to find such a beautifully tended garden and a thoughtfully curated set of gravestones. None of the names were familiar, but I do know that time is not kind to gravestones and sometimes you simply have to trust that the records are accurate and that your ancestor is indeed buried somewhere in the vicinity.
If you have a chance to visit Fort Malden this year, either for the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 or for any other reason, be sure to visit the barracks. Turn right as you enter and head straight to the end of the building. James Elliott’s bunk is the last one in the corner and his musket and uniform hang nearby at the same end of the room.
The Christ Church churchyard is open to the public. From Fort Malden, head towards Navy Park Yard, turn left at Richmond, then right on Ramsay. Follow Ramsay until you see the church on your left. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place.