Coat of Arms of the Barra MacNeils: Buaidh Na B'as

The MacNeils

of Barra Glen


Motto: Vincere Vel Mori

Jane MacNeil

Grandma Jenny Jensen was born Jane MacNeil in the village of Barra Glen, just outside Iona, Nova Scotia. Iona is in the heart of Cape Breton Island, but also near a sea inlet. Perhaps because of its central location on the island, Iona is the location of the “Nova Scotia Highland Village”, a heritage center and museum that features pioneers such as Grandma’s family.

When Jane was a little girl, her family would often spend an evening playing cards and singing Gaelic songs with neighbors.

While Grandma was a girl, her family moved to Sydney, the primary city on the island. Sydney is a port and a mining town.

Jane did not get along well with her father, who was very strict and staunchly Catholic. Once a priest reported to Jane’s father that she was seeing a protestant boy. Her father punished her, and Jane left home and took a job as a house servant. She was 15. Jane alledgedly believed the priest was interested (romantically) in her, and so he reported her out of jealosy.

Jane left Canada for New York in 1920. She is said to have crossed into the United States illegally. This became apparent on the rare occasions when she would return home to visit (ca. 1928 and ca. 1946).

The Clan MacNeil

Grandma’s ancestors emigrated from several small islands off the west coast of Scotland.

A history of the Clan MacNeil can be found at the Meeting of the Clans web site (note: at writing, that server appears to be unreliable).

The MacNeil-of-Barra Tartan

Tartan of the Barra MacNeils



The Emigrants

Most of our Scottish ancestors probably emigrated to the New World because of the "Sutherland Clearances". Here is a description of that 1807 government action, from Skye's Scottish History Timeline :

Tenants removed to make way for sheep-farming in the "Sutherland Clearances". By this government policy, what little remained of Highlanders and Highland lifestyle was "cleared" out of 90% of the Highlands. The people were crammed onto ramshackle hellships with no hope, education or money, and sent to America, Australia New Zealand and Canada. There, many Scots who only spoke Gaelic, had to rebuild their entire lives separated by the Atlantic ocean from their wives, children and family.


John MacNeil and Christy MacDonald

John M. MacNeil - b. circa 1873; died c. 1946 in Sydney, Nova Scotia; coal miner based in Barra Glen, then a logger based on a farm outside Sydney.

Christy MacDonald - born April 15, 1875; died c. 1945 in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Photo of Christy MacDonald

This photo was provided by Mary (Campbell) Broley, who tells us that when Christy was 15, John M. MacNeil traded a horse for Christy, to make her his bride. Mary also tells us that Christy was adopted by the MacDonalds who raised her.

The genealogist at the Highland Village tells us that Christy was born a MacDonald in Ottawa Brook, and was adopted and raised by MacNeils in Barra Glen. John M. MacNeil was close to these MacNeils.

Christy may have been adopted because something may have happened to her mother. Mary Broley tells us that Christy's mother died in a blizzard when she was going out to help with a childbirth. Mary says that this woman was a MacDonald, but that she was Christy's adoptive mother.

The parish supplied us with their marriage certificate, which indicates that Christy was most likely 22 when they married.

Aunt Helen tells us that Grandma's parents lived on a fishing island named "Barra Glen", which is named after the island in the Hebrides where the MacNeils originate from. Grandma told me that she was born in Iona, and it turns out Barra Glen is a small village in the Iona area, but not an island. The "Barra Strait" is the narrow stretch of sea where Iona was founded. John M. MacNeil was reportedly a coal miner when they lived in Barra Glen, though it is more likely he was a farmer, a shepherd, a fisherman, or the like.

Aunt Helen also says the MacNeils left Barra Glen and bought a farm, which Helen remembers was a log cabin. The farm was somewhere outside of Sydney. It was at about this time that John M. quit mining and began logging. Helen probably saw this cabin when she was about 4 years old (1927?), roughly 6 years after Grandma Jensen had left Canada. Christy (MacDonald) MacNeil worked around the farm, while John M. MacNeil worked as a logger.

Aunt Helen says Grandma MacNeil had a beautiful voice. Dad says that she played the violin. He says that she would entertain the miners, who would come by their house, into the early morning until the miners were sober.

Dad says that one time Christy MacNeil got lost in a dense fog, but she found her way home by following a flock of sheep.

These are the MacNeil children:

John M. MacNeil reportedly contracted "black lung", so he switched careers to logging. During these times he would be gone for six months at a time.

Dad says that John would not drink much at home, but he would sometimes binge for extended periods of time away from home. Mary doesn't recall that he was an excessive drinker, but that he was quite strict, especially with regard to religion.

Helen says that John M. and Christy lived long, about 90 years. According to this, Christy may have died ca. 1955. Helen says that Christy died first, of tuberculosis (Dad recalls that John M. died of TB), and then John M. locked himself in a room, refused company and food, and before long died of a broken heart.


Family Tree (1 of 2)

                    Donald "Soldier"-> Hector McDonald -----\   Katie
                    (wife?) [2]         #385                 \  Christy ------->
                                                             /  Ann
Donald -----------> Philip #96 ------> Ann "Mhor" McNeil ---/   Dan Neil
(wife?)             (wife?) [2]        [2]                       - d. young
                                       (from Gillis Point)
Rory "Red"[1]#194--> Malcolm ------\
Mary MacKinnon                      \
                     #206            \ Michael ------------\    John M. ------->
                                     /                      \   Rory M.
Rory "Big" --------> Sarah MacNeil -/                        \  Mary Lizzie
(wife?)                                 (lived in Iona Rear) /  Neil M.
                                                            /   Mary Ann
Rory Donald "og" --> John #20--------> Jane MacNeil -------/    
(wife?)              (wife?)           (from Barra Glen) [2]

[1] Rory "Red" & Mary married in Scotland, then emigrated in 1822 with their
[2] Someone's grandmother died in a blizzard.  Was it Christy's or Jennie's?

Family Tree (2 of 2)

Family #208
                         Michael Hector
                          - mar. in Toronto & had a family.
Christy MacDonald --\    Michael Rory
1875?-c.1950         \    - mar. & had fam. in Barra Glen
from Ottawa Brook     \  Janie (Jane, Jennie) (1901-86)
                      /  Annie - mar. a Campbell; big fam in Sydney
                     /   John Joseph - unmar.
John M. ------------/    Elizabeth (Lizzie)
1873-?; Barra Glen        - mar. Bernie MacNeil; fam in Sydney
                         Sarah (suicide)
                          - mar. a Campbell; fam in Sydney
                         Rory Angus

Grandma Jennie MacNeil Jensen

Grandma Jensen was born Jane MacNeil in Iona, Nova Scotia, on June 6, 1901. During her childhood, the MacNeil family moved to Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Grandma may have been to Halifax a few times. She mentioned the city occasionally.

The culture in Nova Scotia didn't have much to offer a young woman. Dad tells me that a woman would marry very young, only to be a servant to her mother-in-law. Grandma wanted no part of this, so she emigrated (illegally) to the United States.

Helen says that Grandma met Grandpa at the Aster Hotel (previous existence of the Astor has been confirmed by Dawn) in New York City where, word has it, she was a waitress. Grandpa was a milkman. It was probably 1922, about a year after Grandma arrived in the country. She was 21, and he was turning 31.

The MacNeils were a very staunch Catholic family. They were so staunch that they disowned Grandma after she married Grandpa (a Lutheran). Grandma still managed to return for a visit when her children were very young (she almost couldn't return to the United States when she was caught at the train station).

Grandma Jensen passed away on April 21, 1986 in Le Grand, California. She was living with Helen and Helen's husband Leonard Wilder. She was buried at Plainsburg Cemetery.


Photo of Grandma's gravestone at Plainsburg Cemtery.

Photo of Gravestone:
Jennie M. Jensen
June 6 1901 - April 21 1986
Beloved Mother and Grandmother


She has a record on the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), under the name "Jennie Jensen".

Aunt Sarah (Grandma's youngest sibling)

Helen says that When Grandma MacNeil was on her deathbed, she asked for her eldest daughter Jennie (Grandma Jensen), whom the family had disowned. Helen's husband Bob, a pilot, flew Jennie up to Nova Scotia to see her mother, but they were too late. Sarah was by Grandma MacNeil's side just before she passed on. Grandma, looking at Sara, said "Janie you made it!", and Sara replied, "yes mother, I made it."

Helen says that Sarah was gorgeous, and a sweetheart.

Lucy MacGillivray (Grandma's first cousin)

Lucy was most likely a daughter of one of Grandma's sisters (Elizabeth or Sarah). She married a con, named Gene MacCarthey. He had threatened to kill himself if she didn't marry him. He was at one time a body guard for Dutch Schultz, an infamous gangster. After marrying Lucy, Gene served 10 years at Sing Sing, then got a job as a guard at "Remington Rand" (?). He took advantage of this job by trafficking guns on the side. Gene and Lucy lived well when he wasn't in prison. He protected Grandpa by threatening any potential troublemakers. Of course he may have been more trouble than help. Gene's brother was a police captain.

The following record of John M. MacNeil's only sister shows how Lucy MacGillivray may have been related to Grandma Jennie, making them first cousins as expected:

3)Mary Lizzie mar. 1st. Dan MacGillivray, Sydney, large family. 2nd 
mar.Mr. Agnew from Newfoundland, lived in Sydney, had a family.

The name, as related by Dad, sounds like "MacGilry".

Lucy, I think, had two sisters named Tilly and Jane, also in the United States.

According to Aunt Helen, Lucy died at age 40 from a heart attack while cooking Christmas dinner. Gene outlived Lucy.

Mary MacNeil (Grandma's second cousin)

Mary also came to the United States, and married Nicaraguan-American truck driver Albert Espinosa, probably to gain citizenship, and they had a child. Since Albert was black, and their child partially so, Mary never told the family in Nova Scotia of either Albert or the child.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) shows an Albert Espinosa who got his SSN in New York, and was last known to have resided in Seaford NY 11783, who lived from Dec 1 1910 to Nov 1986. A "Mary Espinosa" is also on record as having had lived from May 5 1910 to October 1981. She too got her SSN in New York, but was last known to have lived in zip code 92073.

Mary (Campbell) Broley (Dad's cousin, slightly younger) visited Grandma on occasion, even later in California. She's a daughter of Grandma's sister Annie, and currently lives in Ottawa. I've exchanged email with her daughter Debbie in Toronto.


Aunt Helen says she was born in Willimantic, NY. I only know of a Willimantic, CT.

According to Aunt Helen (?), Grandma Jennie's grandmother died in a blizzard when she lost hold of a rope between the barn and the house. This was either Ann "Mhor" (MacNeil) MacDonald or Jane MacNeil.

1901 Census:

This family (#119) was found in Iona, NS:

Michael Malcolm is not in the record of family #208. Perhaps he died in early childhood.