Does your family have stories that you’ve heard over and over again, but you are not sure whether or not they are true? My father shared the story of a larger-than-life character, C.H.J. Snider (my grandfather’s cousin) whom we only ever knew as ‘Uncle Charlie’ and the Nancy—a small fur trading schooner conscripted by the British during the War of 1812. I heard this story while growing up in the Yukon, about as far away from the Great Lakes as you can get in Canada.
Until recent years, our family thought these stories were tall tales and humoured Dad as he shared them. This all changed in the spring of 2015, when my son, searching for a topic for his grade six heritage fair project, told me that he wanted to learn something about ships from the War of 1812.
As my son researched the Nancy (with a possible family connection) I began a more personal project, trying to learn more about our fabled Uncle Charlie. I soon realized that these childhood stories were true, and that Uncle Charlie was a very real, and a very fascinating, person.
Uncle Charlie grew up and lived out his life in Toronto where he was an accomplished journalist with the Toronto Telegram. He wrote a weekly column called ‘Schooner Days on the Great Lakes,’ authored a dozen books on marine history and was a passionate storyteller. I like to think of Uncle Charlie as a historyteller, someone who is able to spin historical facts into engaging stories.
Aside from being a marine historian, Uncle Charlie also loved being on the water. He was an avid sailor who raced on the original Schooner Bluenose twelve times, as well as on numerous other sailing vessels, many of which he owned and for whom he was the Skipper, a term of endearment that was precious to him. Also a talented artist, he drew likenesses and made wooden models of water vessels.
It seems that Uncle Charlie was knowledgeable and passionate about anything to do with Great Lakes maritime history, but he was especially passionate about the Schooner Nancy. By all accounts he seemed determined to locate her watery remains, and, 100 years after the War of 1812 ended, he did.
In 1911, Uncle Charlie dove into the Nottawasaga River and located the burnt hull of the Nancy. Over a decade later, in 1927, he was one of the people proudly standing on the shoreline and taking photographs, as the Nancy resurfaced. Imagine how he must have felt watching his life-long dream come true!
When my son and I made a trip from the Yukon to Ontario’s ‘Nancy Island and Wasaga Beach Park’ to finally meet the infamous Nancy, it was a dream come true for us as well, this tall tale becoming a reality.
For as long as I can remember, as I was growing up far away in the Yukon, I heard stories from my dad about Uncle Charlie and the Nancy. Akin to Uncle Charlie, my late father, Kenneth Snider, was also passionate about history and storytelling. And similar to Uncle Charlie, my dad had a gift for remembering historical details and spinning them into a great yarn – another historyteller.
For the passing on of tales – tall and true – I am grateful to my son, to my dad and to my Uncle Charlie. May we all continue to listen to our family stories and to pass them on. May we all strive to be historytellers.
By: Grace Snider