Last Page Activity:  October 6, 2011            

Birth: abt 1798 Place: County Donegal, Ireland2,3

Death: 1880 Place: Perth, Lanark County, Ontario2


Spouse:   Laura Ann TOOLEY1,4

Birth:     6 Jul 1816 Place: New York

Death:   24 Oct 1870 

Father: Samuel TOOLEY (1790-1854)

Mother: Leticia L. Letitia/Letecia LAMKIN (1797-1865)

(no marriage information available to date)


Children:  (dates ca 1851 census)

Edward  (~ 1833-)

Leticia [Letty] Lamkin Brian ? (~1835-)

Susan (~1837-)

Samuel (~1839-)

Henry (~1841-)

Melinda (~1843-)

Mary (~1845-)

James Colin (~1848-1932)

Hugh (~1849-)

Levi (1851-1919)

Click on image to enlarge. Canada Census 1851 for Darling Township, Lanark County - O'Brian household highlighted. 

HUGH O’BRIEN 1798 - 1880

Hugh O’Brien came from Donegal County, Ireland - The parish or village is not known at this time.


A wee bit about his homeland.

Donegal County county wasn't effected much by the Norman invasion of the twelfth century and it wasn't until the later 16th century that England gained a foothold in the county. In 1592 they lost that when the O'Donnells, under their chief Red Hugh O'Donnell, joined with the O'Neills against the English. In 1861 the census showed 75% Catholic, 11% Presbyterian (those of Scottish ancestry) and 13% Episcopalian (those of English extraction).

The county was not badly affected in the Great Famine of 1845-47. The population fell from 296,000 in 1841 to 255,000 in 1851. Thousands emigrated to America, Australia and Canada.

Surrounded by mountains and sea, Donegal has preserved its Gaelic culture and language longer than most places. Today, that language and culture remain strong in its extensive Gaeltacht area stretching from Fanad Head to Slieve League. Fishing and tweed production are Donegal’s major industries, with exports world-wide. The county's friendly people, lively pubs and fine restaurants all add to the charm of Donegal.

Passage to Canada  

There are no comprehensive lists of immigrants arriving in Canada prior to 1865. Until that year, shipping companies were not required by the government to retain their passenger manifests.

Emigrants leaving home in the west of Ireland. 
National Archives of Canada

NOTE:   Max Sutherland, a long time researcher on Darling Township in Lanark County, Ontario is writing a book. We look forward with anticipation to its publication. He has kindly shared some of his findings on Hugh O’Brien. Our thanks is heartfelt.

To paint a broader picture, addition information has been added to that given by Max Sutherland.

Hugh O’Brien arrived in Darling County Ontario in the late summer of 1822 with 31 other settlers and their families (these families were the first people to get land in Darling and Hugh stayed far longer than any of them - in fact, he lived the rest of his life there and outlived all the others who’d come with him. Most of them took one look at the quality of the land, which was made of mostly "muddy swamps, rocky terrain and steep slopes" and although the intention of the original settlers was to farm, it soon became apparent that the only lands that could be cultivated were those that were located in flood plains, along rivers or adjacent to lakes. 

Hugh O’Brien went to the office of the Bathurst District Land Board at the corner of Foster and Gore Streets, Perth in October 1823. He applied for land and identified himself as being 26 years old, a native of County Donegal, Ireland and as having arrived in Canada the year before.

The new Township of Darling, about 20 miles north of Perth, had just been opened to settlers in the summer of 1823. Hugh was given a location ticket authorizing him to settle on 50 acres of land, namely the South-West Quarter of Lot Number 4, Concession 4 of Darling. That 50-acre ticket signifies that Hugh was classed as an "indigent settler", also know as a "50-acre settler", the fifty-acre system being reserved for the more needy immigrants, or those who said they were penniless. Once they had cleared the required number of acres, built a habitable dwelling, cleared half the road allowance in front of their lots, they could then obtain the deed free of all charges, including the "patent fee" (a service charge covering the government’s expenses in preparing a legal description and filling out the deed on costly parchment).

By 1831, Hugh O’Brien was living with Laura Ann (aka Laurie, aka Laury) Tooley, daughter of Samuel Tooley, a next-door neighbour. One has to suspect that Hugh was a lapsed Roman Catholic, or converted to Protestantism, because in approximately 1835 Father John MacDonald of Perth, in making his horseback trips around the townships collecting tithes, wrote down notes on Hugh O’Brien in his diary. Nowhere does he ever mention a Protestant in the part of his diary reserved for lists of Catholics with who he visits. When he reaches Darling, he visits Michael Nicholson, Hugh’s neighbour, noting Nicholson’s wife and children; and Michael’s contribution to the church. He then notes Hugh on Lot 4 Concession 4 with obvious disapproval as follows (in Father MacDonald’s poor spelling): "Hug O’brien his woman was never baptised nor married to him Hug O’brien". In 1836 or 1837 Father MacDonald makes another circle tour, repeats the comment about Hugh (this time finishing his first name with an "h") and adds "children Edward 3, Lary 1/4". On none of the 3 occasions when he visited Hugh did he get any tithes from him, and it appears Father MacDonald eventually gave up on him. The Tooleys were radical Methodists, and since Father MacDonald was a very traditional Roman Catholic priest, he might have disputed the legality of the Methodist marriage if there had been one.

Hugh O’Brien received the title to his South West corner of Lot 4, Concession 4 in March 1840 after a frustrating mix-up in the records of the Crown Lands office in Toronto. His location ticket had clearly said the "South West Quarter", but a clerical error made either by a clerk in the Bathurst District Land Board records (forwarded to Toronto), or by the copyists in the Crown Lands office in Toronto, had him listed for the South East Quarter. When Hugh asked for the deed to the South West Quarter in 1838 the Toronto office gave him a bit of a hard time, and also made his two next door neighbours jump through various governmental hoops to prove they had in fact settled on the exact 50-acre quarters they said they had, and had done so in good faith. The Crown Lands Office had given the wrong deeds to the two neighbours and had granted Hugh’s quarter to one of them. These events doubtless caused some anxiety. The messes were eventually straightened out with the help of a Justice of the Peace.
By 1842 Hugh O’Brien had sold his grant on Lot 4 to James McIlraith (this is the name written on the following map) and moved one lot to Lot 3 in Concession 4. This lot belonged to the Canada Company and in the 1842 census Hugh is noted as a "squatter" on the West Half, meaning he’s moved there without telling the Company. In any event by 1845 he signed a lease with the Company for the East Half, 100 acres and, officially at least, remained on the East Half of Lot 3 for the rest of his known life. He presumably paid annual installments on it, but never used his option to buy it with a large final payment. It appears that in fact he farmed all over the whole 200-acre lot (both east and west halves), causing problems today in determining exactly on which half his house (or what the 1861 census taker called his "shanty") was located. After 1865 there were no neighbours left to interfere with him or for him to interfere with, so he cropped and pastured his cattle pretty much where he wished. It is possible that the Canada Company did not pressure him much for payments, for in general the Company was obliged by its government charter to encourage settlers, not impede them, especially if they were lacking in worldly wealth.
Click on image to enlarge
There is little that can be said about Hugh O’Brien’s personality or temperament, or about his family life beyond mere names and dates. There is one petition on which he signed his name himself, usually he signed with an "X", and in all cases had more literate neighbours or officials write his petitions, letters and affidavits for him - a practice which was standard among these early settlers, some of the "writers" making useful pin money, or obtaining food or labour in exchange for the service. He is described by the census taker in 1861 as a "poor farmer" and in the 1871 census as "poor, doesn’t farm much", and it is difficult to avoid the impression that life was not particularly kind to him. Whether he viewed it that way one may never know.

Transcribed  Census for Darling Township:  Above 1861.  Below 1871.

Laura left Hugh O’Brien by 1861. No surprise, as many wives moved out of the bush farms after some thirty or more years of child bearing and hard winters in the frozen wilderness into nearby towns and villages. Their husbands are then politely termed "widower" by the census takers, when in fact the wives are "in town" alive and sometimes well.

The 1861 census of Lanark Township (south of Darling Township where Hugh and Laurie had lived). shows "Mrs. O’Brien", as married, aged 44, living in the village of Middleville, Lanark Township (6 miles away from the Darling homestead) with "Abigail O’Brien" aged 8. They appear to be staying at the home of Mrs. A. G. Hall, perhaps as boarders or maybe Mrs. O’Brien was working as a housekeeper. Hugh O’Brien is listed as "a poor farmer" and "widower" by the enumerator in Darling.

Laurie’s death certificate information: Province of Ontario, Death Certificates 1870, #005419, Almonte, Lanark County

Lucy Ann O’Brian. Died 24 October 1870. Age 54 years 3 months. Cause of death: Cancer, after 8 months’ illness. Born: New York State. Religion: Methodist. Informant: Dr. Noxon, Almonte.


Hugh O’Brien was on the 1871 census. The 1871 census of Almonte (where Laurie died) has "Abigail O’Brian" 17 years old listed as a "factory worker" (Almonte had a bustling woolen industry at that time). Laurie was listed in schedule 2 of that census among the "Deaths during the preceding 12 months" in Almonte.

On September 2, 1880, Hugh O’Brien went to or was taken to the doctor’s office in Perth and kept overnight by Dr. Kellock.

Hugh O’Brien’s death certificate information 1880 #007587 (Microfilm at Ontario Archives, Toronto, and at Latter-Day Saints collection Salt Lake City):

Hugh O’Brien. Died 3 September 1880. Age 83. Occupation: Yeoman. Born Ireland. Cause of death: disease of heart and brain - chronic. At residence of doctor (Perth). Religion: Presbyterian. Dr. J. D. Kellock, physician.

Unanswered questions: Who brought him to the doctor’s office? Perth is nearly 18 miles south of his Darling farm. Why was there no obituary for him that can be found? Why no record of burial? His nearest known relative was Levi Brian in Carelton Place, but there is no record one can find of burial there.

Update:  Hugh O’Brien’s farm has since grown over with bushes, there are lots of rocks, thin soil, burdocks and thorny brambles. Hugh seems to have farmed, or at least pastured his cattle, wherever he pleased since as he grew older he had fewer and fewer neighbours and didn’t seem to have many fences to bother him. The area - which is actually larger than his legally owned or leased lot - was know to Darling residents as recently as the 1950's as "Huey’s Plains" - but no one locally seems to know who Huey was. "Plains" is a very old and almost extinct Lanark County expression meaning "back fields" - ie: fields that are separate from the immediate area of the homestead and its immediate fields by intervening bush.  
Dr. Kellock
Max Sutherland writes:
"One can argue that mere survival into old age is not a noteworthy accomplishment, or an indication of personal worth; but much depends on context and circumstances. Hugh O’Brien grew up in a notoriously poor area of a notoriously poor country, and left amidst the worst depression the British Isles had known. Yet he must have had a nutritious diet, and came to Canada in 1823 as a healthy young man. And he outlived all of those who had come into Darling Township before 1830, and many of those who came before 1840. By 1880 when he passed away, he must have been viewed as a bit of a landmark which probably explains why the "Historical Atlas of Lanark and Renfrew Counties (1881) speculated that he had been the "first settler" in Darling. He may not have been the first to camp overnight, or cut the first tree, but he spent more years in Darling, where he had started, than anyone else. He spent some 57 years on land that is officially rated today as "Class 4" (unsuitable for agriculture). And ... remarkably when one considers the childhood mortality in the families of his neighbours - there is no provable record of young deaths in that family. Fifty-seven winters? A statistician could reason that heating even a small shanty required cutting, sawing and splitting about 350 cords of wood over that period. And there were a lot of mouths to feed. Who knows what strengths such a person would have .... "poor farmer" or not? "

A 2003 visit to Hugh O’Brien’s homestead:

Terry and Sherrie (Bryan via Hugh’s son James Colin) Thorne went on a North American Drive in 2003. Their journal for September 14 reads:

With some daylight left, we ventured out in search of Hugh O'Brien's (Sherrie's great-grandfather) homestead property. 

As we drove up to where we thought it was, big, heavy trucks came barreling along at a fast pace not only behind us but passing us going in the other direction.  We soon passed the gate they were entering and exiting .... a huge open pit mine.  We drove to the other end of the mine site and parked at a view point.
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The Tatlock Quarry, where we were standing in Darling Township of Lanark County, Ontario, mines a unique high calcium crystalline limestone within the Precambrian Grenville series of metasedimentary rocks.  Quarry work has been carried out in the area since the early 1900's.  At Tatlock, the high calcium crystalline limestone is thought to be approximately 1255 million years old.  Originally, thick beds (blanket deposits) of limestone (in this case with high calcium content) were laid down in warm, shallow seas, from broken shell material, etc..  These beds were then subjected to metamorphism (heat and pressure) from volcanic activity within a predominately carbonite basin, converting or altering the original sedimentary limestone into the calcareous marble mined today.     

Because of the twists and turns in the road, we could not appreciate exactly where we were, so we drove on to Tatlock to get our bearings.                    

While we were gazing around a red pickup truck pulled up and the driver asks if we are lost.  We explained that we were trying to hunt down the O'Brien homestead at Concession 4 Lots 4 and 3.   "Oh," he said with his teenage son in the passenger seat, "You'll want to talk to Willie.  He knows all about that kind of stuff."  Then he gave us directions to Willie's place. 

We arrived at Willie's place just as they had finished dinner.  Their welcoming hospitality made us feel less like intruders and more like friends who had stopped by.  "Why I just read something about Hugh last night when I couldn't sleep," Willie said leaving the room to fetch a book.  He came back with a copy of the "Historical Atlas of Lanark & Renfrew Counties 1880-1881" and looked up the section he had read.  "Here it is," and he read, "Darling received its first settlers soon after immigration into the more southerly townships became general, and Hugh O'Brien is said to merit the distinction of being the pioneer of the township."  We read on further "The increase in the population was such, toward the close of the first half of the century, that Mr. Smith, in his work on "Canada," says of the township: 'Darling is but little settled.  In 1850 it only contained 571 inhabitants, and 1606 acres of land under cultivation.  The quantity of produce raised was consequently very small.'"

Willie then offered to take us to the property, " I was just up there a couple of days ago to find our property pegs [they own lot 3 he explained].  I can take you right to them. "  With that we hopped into Willie's pickup with 4-wheel drive and headed to Hugh O'Brien's homestead. 
First stop was a look at the site where the school used to be ... at the south-west corner of concession 4 lot 4 as shown on the 1880-1881 map.  The last school that was built here met the fate of the previous school ... fire.  

Then he took us further along the concession road right to the property peg between Lots 4 and 3 where remnants of both an old stone fence and a more recent bobbed-wire fence lay.

While taking pictures in the quickly fading light of evening, Sherrie made sure she stood on both lots ... one lot being her great-great grandfather's original homestead and the other the first home and most likely the birthplace of her grandfather.

Sherrie brought something back to the truck and confessed, "I took a rock from the fence to take home to Dad .... it's what Mom would have done!"
"Let me show you what's underneath the land", Willie said as we piled back into the truck and bumped back to the road, crossed it and went through the gates where the trucks had earlier turned.
On the opposite side of the open pit mine from where we had stood at the viewpoint, Willie drove through tall piles of aggregate and down into the quarry itself.  The fading daylight seemed to return as we became surrounded by white rock.  Willie shared with us some of his knowledge about the site where both he and his geologist son both work. 

When we came back out of the valley of limestone marble and weaved our way through trucks and loaders that work around the clock, Willie stopped and said, "Maybe your Dad would like a rock from here too."  With that Terry jumped out and grabbed a small piece.  "That one will grade out with only about 2% impurities."

With the luck of the Irish, great-grandfather Hugh O'Brien ... or as we have taken to calling him "Hughy" ... was sitting on rock worth millions more than the small amount he made eking out to keep himself alive on the little amount of soil that lay on top.  Hugh probably cursed the white rock each time he dug a hole for a well, an outhouse or a fence post. Hugh sold his original homestead and consequently, years later, some other owner became very very rich.  Oooooh  Huuuughy!
September 15, 2003

We drove to the township office and picked up a current map of the concessions and lots and where the quarry is currently located.  With those in hand, we were able to go back to the properties and take a closer look.  Willie had told us that Concession 4 Lot 4 was some of the best farming land in Darling Township.  His family has been farming the area for four generations next door to the O'Brien homestead.  The field had not yet been harvested, "He was suppose to take the crop off," said Willie, "but it's awful late now." In the south-west corner of Con4 Lot4 we found two open fields divided by rock fences intermingled with trees ... and to our delight Terry spotted discarded wheels ... perhaps from the days of James McIlraith ?

While dropping off a thank you gift to Willie and Linda for their time and hospitality Willie mentioned that a number of people from the area were buried in the Clayton cemetery and that we might want to take a look there for Hugh's grave.  The daylight was fading quickly as we made our way to Clayton and there were sprinkles of rain.  By the time we reached the cemetery gates the sprinkling of rain had turned into a torrential downpour.  We waited .... but darkness came before the rain let up.  IF Hughy was there, he was going to have to be found another day.

Follow-up - The questions of his burial may have been answered by a neighbour who has seen crosses on the land suggesting a family burial place.   Another visit is in order. 


1. Max Sutherland

2. Darling Township Land Records

3. Census Records for  Darling Township, Lanark, Ontario.