Six Generations of Sad Endings

On my father’s side of the family, I have discovered one line with at least six generations in a row of family catastrophes. Men in this family just kept dying in all kinds of ways for 100 years. This is the Zealand line.

Death at an early age is not uncommon in most families, especially for people living during or before the early 1900s. In fact, both my mom’s mother and my mom’s father had sisters who died young. One of my mother’s aunts died in 1909 of pneumonia at the age of 21 while my mother’s other aunt died in 1921 of influenza at the age of 30, leaving behind a husband and two daughters.

Of course, death by pneumonia, influenza or other contagious illnesses like tuberculosis was pretty commonplace in the early part of the 20th Century. But it is the way in which the Zealand men died that caught my attention as it was always so sudden, so tragic and so constant through six generations.

Let’s begin with Edward William Zealand, Sr. He is my grandfather three generations removed. He was born in 1793 in Scarborough, in the Yorkshire part of England. By the time he was 20, he had immigrated to Ontario, Canada and was serving in the British Navy there. Perhaps this was how he got experience to be a sea captain himself. In time, Captain Edward Zealand married and had six sons with his wife. By 1840, he had his own wharf and transport business. Here is a photo of his wharf taken in 1855.

Seven years later, Zealand had three schooners as part of his business. Thankfully this successful Ontario resident lived a long life. But death came for him suddenly in 1869 when he was gored by a cow who had escaped from the market. According to the book, The Hamiltons, this well-known sea captain was buried in the Hamilton, Ontario cemetery with “full military honors.”

Most of Edward Zealand’s sons also became sailors. His oldest son, Edward Zealand, Jr., was born in 1829. Though not my grandfather, this son drowned on the ship Zealand that went down in a storm in Lake Ontario in November 1880. He was 51 years old. At least 8 other people died with him.

Notice of the sinking in Nov 12 1880 Detroit Free Pres
This a photo of my great uncle, a Canadian sea captain who drowned on Lake Ontario

One of the younger brothers of Edward Gordon Zealand Jr. was my grandfather two generations removed. Unlike his brothers, he was not a sailor. But he died a horrible death anyway. His name was Samuel Gordon Zealand. He was born in 1840 in Hamilton, Ontario. He lived a more ordinary life. He married in 1866 and had three children. Unfortunately, his first wife died. Sam Zealand married again in 1874, two years after his first wife died. With his new wife, Sarah Holmes, a lady of English decent, he had three children, two sons, and a daughter. One of his sons, Charles Herbert (Bert) Zealand is my great grandfather.

On July 15, 1887, Samuel, wife Sarah and baby Norma all took a ride on a train to go to a church picnic. Unfortunately, on the way back, the passenger train ran into a freight train loaded with oil and it set fire to both trains, including in the cabin where my relatives sat. All three of them died from burns as a result of the fire. This event was known as the St. Thomas Train Disaster and it was a big news event, as you might imagine. According to news stories at the time, at least 25 people died there or shortly thereafter from burns.

According to the news reports of the tragedy, my great-grandfather Sam Zealand, a clerk at Nickleborough’s Dry Goods Store, died from burns sustained in the blaze along with his one-year-old daughter, Norma. His wife was badly burned and died shortly afterwards. My great-grandfather Bert was either in a different part of the train or didn’t attend the picnic. He was nine years old at the time of this catastrophe.

Great-grandfather Bert ultimately recovered from this terrible tragedy, got married and had four children. His older brother, Theo, who was 12 at the time of the train wreck, never married or had children. Bert married a woman named Christina (Tena) McKay, who was of Scottish descent.

They had four children, including my grandmother Norma. She was named after Bert’s sister, who died in the train wreck. Bert and Tena had three other children, including another daughter and two sons. All was well until World War II started. Then both sons went off to fight in the war. One son named Gordon came back home alive. Their other son, my great uncle, was killed in Germany after the heroic taking of Remagen Bridge in Germany on March 7, 1945. The capture of this key bridge over the Rhine River enabled the allies to move east more quickly and helped end the war sooner.

My great-uncle’s name was Donald Edward Zealand. He was a Lt. Colonel in the Army and he must have done some impressive things during his war service because I have a photo of him receiving a Bronze Star medal for “meritorious achievement in connection with operations against the enemy.”

Major General Edwin Parker, Commanding General 78th Lightning Division, presenting Lt. Col. Donald E. Zealand, with Bronze Star Medal for “Meritorious Achievement in connection with operations against the enemy.”

My great-uncle Donald Zealand was buried in Liege, Belgium at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. My great-grandfather Bert didn’t die suddenly like some of my other male Zealand relatives but he was certainly touched by tragedy with the death of his parents, baby sister and later the death of one of his sons.

Grave Marker for my great uncle Donald Zealand

I have covered four generations of Zealands so far but now we get to the really hard stuff that personally affected me as I lived through it. Donald Zealand was the brother of my grandmother Norma. I didn’t realize until I started getting deeply interested in genealogy that she was named after the baby who died in the St. Thomas Train Disaster. Little kids are protected from these kinds of stories and by the time we want to know about such things the people to ask have died.

My grandmother Norma had two children with her husband Warren Blodgett. One was Virginia Blodgett and the other was my father, Charles Blodgett. My aunt Virginia had a successful career as a clothes designer in New York City. She had bad luck with men, however, and ended up with a Dutch sailor who wasn’t nice to her. After having a son together called Donald Edward, named after his deceased uncle Donald Edward Zealand, they ended up splitting up. Her husband was later deported to Holland and her life then revolved around her son Donald. He was my cousin. All was well until the Vietnam War. Cousin Donald decided he wanted to be a Navy medic in this conflict. He could have stayed stateside but he chose not to.

Donald died on April 1, 1968 after suffering mortar wounds to the torso and legs at the Battle of Khe Sanh. I remember the day my parents received the telegram about the death of their nephew Donald Van der Schans. Life turned upside down then. Not much later, we went to Arlington Memorial Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, to participate in the burial ceremony for Donald.

Many years later, I went to visit Donald’s grave with our children. I didn’t know then the reason why Donald’s mother, my aunt Virginia (Ginny) only lived less than one year after her son was killed in Vietnam. The death of her son was too much to bear and I will leave it at that.

Grave marker for my cousin
Donald Edward Van Der Schans

Genealogy is about uncovering the past, be it good, bad or awful. With the Zealand family line there certainly was a lot of awful…but I bet you it was mixed in with much good too. There are certainly many hundreds of Zealands out there descending from the English immigrant Edward William Zealand, Sr, judging from the happy family photos and detailed biographical information on Zealand family members I have seen and included in my family tree.

Despite the terrible blows life can deal us, if you look back into your own family history, you will undoubtedly see that our ancestors had to face similar, if not worse, situations. All we can do in the face of this certain knowledge is carry on living, loving and laughing until the end comes for us.


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