Duffy Family // Ontario

Contributed by Al Duffy

During the late 1820s and early 1830s there were a number of Irish families from County Sligo who decided to immigrate to Canada in the hopes of a more prosperous life. They were all Wesleyan Methodists, and it is believed that they all left on sailing ships from Sligo Bay. This being an organized endeavour the Shaw family went first and acquired 100 acres from the Crown (The Canada Company) and then hosted numerous other families as they became established in this new world. The Duffy family was part of this Irish group.

In 1830 Andrew (45) and Elizabeth Duffy (39) with their four children Robert (18), James (16), Jane (12) and Mary (8) boarded a sailing ship at Sligo Town knowing that they would be at sea for about three months. They would have been required to bring their own provisions for the journey. The trip must have been arduous because it is believed that Andrew became ill and died at sea, leaving Elizabeth and the four children to make their way to Toronto (York) from Montreal where they would have been put ashore in Canada. They arrived in York and connected with the other Irish families.

After a short time, Elizabeth (Eliza) had enough money to put a down payment on 100 acres from The Canada Company in August 1832. The land was just outside Bolton, Ontario. At that time married and even single women were unable to buy or own land, but a widow could. With the help of her children and the Irish community Eliza started clearing the land and put up the first small crude log home. Her sons Robert and James, now being 17 and 16 years old, would certainly have been able to pitch in, as Eliza’s husband Andrew had been lost. It was during these first tough years that her son Robert decided that farming was not for him. He moved to Weston and married Mary Walker. He became a saddler and eventually owned a few carriages for hire. Eliza’s second son James continued clearing the fields and expanded the farm.

1837 was a milestone year for James. He was now running the farm with his mother’s help and married Ellen Walker, his brother’s wife’s sister. James had joined a local militia, the 3rd Regiment of Gore Militia and Volunteers. Ironically, he was called up for active service to fight the rebels in the 1837 Rebellion a day after his marriage.

In 1841 the Agricultural census showed that after about seven years of clearing the land the family had a modest return of 60 bushels of wheat, 60 bushels of barley, 15 bushels of rye and 100 bushels of potatoes.

Recognizing the one-story log cabin was far too small for James’s growing family, a much larger one-storey log cabin was built nearby on the same lot. Eliza remained in the original log cabin. Her two daughters were to live with her off and on until she died in 1872.

In 1861 James and his family had grown to thirteen, with five teenage boys to help manage the farm. The census shows 60 of the 100 acres have been cleared and that year they produced 350 bushels of wheat, 200 of peas, 300 of oats, 100 of turnips and 300 of potatoes. It was sometime in the early 1860s when a second floor was added to the new log cabin that James and Ellen moved into 20 years earlier. The current log cabin reflects this expansion today.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 many young Canadian men sought adventure south of the border. James’s brother Robert who lived in Weston had two of his boys go south and enlist in the New York 150th Infantry Regiment. Both survived the war and remained in the United States. James and Ellen’s oldest son Robert is also believed to have enlisted with the Union forces during that conflict, but sadly after he left, he was never heard from again.

In 1866 The Fenian Brotherhood attacked Canada, making a series of raids from across the American border. The largest of these was at Fort Erie, Ontario. James had a few of his sons in the local militia. After the Fenian threat was known James’s second and third sons were called up to active service to repel what was considered at the time to be a major threat. The two boys, Michael Duffy and James Taylor Duffy, were privates in the Albion Infantry Company.

From 1839 to 1864 James and Ellen had twelve children. They were very successful in this new land. Ellen passed away in 1887, and James himself died in 1891. They were buried on the farm overlooking the beautiful Humber River. James’s coffin was carried by six of his sons to his final resting place.

James’s second youngest son George took over the farm, building on his parents’ legacy. He married Mary Appleby and had three daughters and one son. Wanting to look more successful and upgrade their home they took the 60-year-old two-storey log cabin and in 1906 put a brick veneer on the outside with an impressive front porch with four big white pillars and side porch. It now had the more modern look of an affluent Victorian home. Quite the transformation.

During the First and Second World Wars many of the greater Duffy family were actively involved both in Canada and overseas. George was also active in local politics and was a member of the local school board. He continued to manage the farm with his son Walker until his death in 1941 at the age of 80. Walker and his wife Isabel McLaughlin never had children. Walker continued farming until 1955 when he decided to sell.

From 1955 until 1975 the farm basically lay dormant. The company that acquired the land from Walker severed off a few lots and sold them separately. The house and barn were sold on a three-acre lot. In 1975 the house went through a major renovation to make it more modern and was purchased by a businessman and his wife. This is where Alan Duffy comes in.

Alan was born in Oshawa, Ontario about an hour’s drive from the old family farm. In 1976 at the age of 23 he started asking about his heritage. Where did the Duffy’s come from? Where in Ireland? When did they come over? His father and uncle did not know much and suggested he speak with his grandmother Gladys Duffy. She had some information, but it was enough to get him started.

Gladys spoke of Walker Duffy, and within a few months Alan had connected with Walker and all the pieces started to fall into place. He took Walker and his
wife Isabel to visit the farm which they had sold over twenty years ago. They were all amazed at seeing the original farm with the log home and barn and the land which became Duffy’s land in August 1832. About two years later the original Duffy Homestead on three acres was offered to Alan by the owners for $110,000, which he couldn’t afford at that time.

Over the next 40 years Alan would periodically drive by the farm to take pictures and wish he could have gotten it. In 2018 his daughter Lauren called him saying she heard that the Duffy farm on the three acres was up for sale. Over 40 years had passed since it was offered to Alan. He was now in a position to buy it and within a month the deal was done! After 63 years the Duffy farm is back in the Duffy family.

The family has rallied around the heritage property. Alan’s son Michael, daughter Lauren and sister Gail are all actively involved in the project. Their goal is to restore the barn and farmhouse back to its early look. The house is already a designated heritage site.

In 2019 at Alan’s direction the owners of the surrounding lands were found and by November another 56 acres of original Duffy lands have been acquired. About 60 acres of the original Canada Company land purchase in 1832 by the widow Eliza Duffy are back in Duffy hands. Alan is involved with the Ireland Park Foundation in Toronto and its research around early Irish immigration and the Irish famine immigration. As of 2020, 16 acres of Soybeans have been planted in the original Duffy fields, while the restoration of the log home and barn continue.