vanessa farnsworth's blog

The Amazing Thing About Research

single rose lying on pages torn from a book

It's amazing how much research goes into the writing of a historical novel and there were times, I can now happily confess, when it seemed endless. Facts needed to be checked, historical documents needed to be foraged, and context needed to be nailed down. Failing to do so would be at my peril, yes, but it would also be to the detriment of the story and that was really what was most important.

Farming 19th Century Style

Heavy horse team pulling hay wagon

I had to learn a lot of things about life in the late 19th century in order to get into the mindset of the real-life people who populate The Haweaters. But the one thing I didn't have to learn was how land was farmed in those long ago days before tractors had been invented, industrializing the landscape and becoming so ubiquitous it's hard now to imagine a rural landscape in which those roaring metal beasts don't churn away all day and most of the night during the harvests.

Tracking Down a Missing Map

Map of murder scene

When I began tracking down documents related to the Bryan murders, it fairly quickly became clear that I was going to run into difficulties locating some of the more intriguing bits of paper. One of the bits I came up short on was a hand drawing of the neighbourhood where the murders took place.

Getting to Know Eleanor Bryan

Eleanor Bryan in old age

leanor Boyce Bryan was born in Iowa in 1832 and moved to Upper Canada with her family as a child. Somewhere around 1849, when Eleanor would have been roughly 17, she became the second wife of William Bryan (a fact not mentioned in The Haweaters for a variety of reasons) and soon gave birth to her first child, Harriet (Hattie). Hattie was promptly followed by several more children, including Charles (Charlie), Caroline (Carrie), William Bryan Jr., Abel, Clara Ann (Annie), and Arthur.

What Became of Arthur Bryan?

Arthur Bryan family portrait

Arthur Bryan was born in Erin, ON in 1869 and moved with his family to Tehkummah in 1874 at the age of five. In 1877, he joined 33 neighbourhood children ranging in age from 4 to 15 in becoming the first students at the freshly minted log schoolhouse S.S. No. 1 (locally known as Blue Jay School House) just a few lots down from his family's homestead. Other students that first year included the children of Sam Sloan and Andrew Porter.

Nothing Says Family Quite Like a Subpoena

Criminal Subpoena

Above is a copy of the subpoena ordering Eleanor Bryan, her son Arthur, and her son-in-law William Skippen to appear in court in Sault Ste. Marie. Although the subpoena appears to suggest that all three would be required to testify, only one of them actually does, and in doing so, Arthur Bryan gives some of the most damning testimony of the trial.

When Is a Road Not a Road?

Crime scene drawing showing Porter and Bryan homes

This crime scene drawing was used at the trials of George and Laban Amer in an effort to illustrate for the presiding judge and jurors several key details relating to the murder. I think we can fairly safely say that it is not to scale nor is it terribly well labelled. I don't know who added the typewritten descriptions and therefore have no idea whether any of the information contained in those descriptions is accurate.

A Boyish Almost Feminine Appearance

Wanted Poster Laban Amer

This real-life wanted poster was printed in Sault Ste. Marie shortly after the murders of William Bryan and Charles Bryan when a local constable who had been tasked with arresting George Amer and his son Laban informed the crown attorney for Algoma that Laban Amer was nowhere to be found. The young man didn't stay missing for long. By June 30th, just four days following the murders, he would be spotted by two neighbours hiding in the woods north of the Amer homestead and would turn himself in.

A Glorious Hodgepodge of Information

Murder on the Manitoulin pamphlet

My introduction to the Bryan murders came in the form of a pamphlet given to me by my mother, who in turn got it from her mother. This pamphlet, entitled Murder on the Manitoulin, was published in February 1993 as part of the "Through the Years" series put out by the Manitoulin District History & Genealogy Society. It is a glorious hodgepodge of information.

The Proton Murder of 1861

Paper files in an archive

Why did George Amer kill William and Charles Bryan and what made him think he could get away with it? It seemed like an important question to answer and the more I studied the trial transcripts, the more I came to believe that the violence that exploded on that hot June night in 1877 was premeditated and that Amer's actions in the hours, days, and weeks following the murders were part of a calculated effort to shape reality into what he needed it to be in order to get away with the cold blooded murders of his neighbours.


Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.