Will Fielding and the Boer War

The question of Will Fielding and the Boer War is more family mystery than family history. For nearly a decade, I’ve been searching for evidence to either prove or disprove this tidbit of our oral tradition. Today, unfortunately, I am really no closer to solving this mystery.

In 1872, William James Fielding was the first child born to Rose and James Fielding in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1884, twelve-year-old Will was the first of the Fielding children to leave school in order to work at Hamilton Cotton Company and contribute to the family’s finances. In 1899, Will was the first of the Fieldings to emigrate to the Unites States.

William James Fielding in the late 1890s . Picture was taken in Hamilton, Ontario

If we were to rely solely on the oral history that was passed down to me over generations, Uncle Will also fought for the British or Canadian Army during the Boer Was in South Africa. The origin of this story comes via Will’s sister (my great grandmother) – Alice Violet Fielding Merry. My Uncle Jim Merry remembers Alice telling the story of Will going off to war, while the rest of the family was settling in Utica, New York. Jim took it at face value and it became part of the Fielding story. At least that was the case in my branch of the family tree. There was even a picture in my grandparent’s family photo album that showed Will in a uniform, holding a clarinet. Certainly, he must have been a musician in the British forces. Right?

Not so fast.

One of the first lessons I learned when I started this research in 2010, it that oral history is a fabulous jumping off point to begin research of your family. But, very often, the stories will contain mistakes, inconsistencies, and sometimes, outright lies. I’ve learned to take these stories with a grain of salt.

The Boer War was fought in south Africa from October 1899 until May 1902. This is the same time period during which the Fielding children started emigrating from Canada to upstate New York. It’s also the same time period during which Rose’s role as wife and mother were coming to an end. In September 1902, Rose was committed to the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, and her husband, James Fielding, joined his daughters in Utica, New York.

I have tried to find evidence of Will Fielding’s military service. I’ve contacted both the British and Canadian military archives. Neither organization has any record of William James Fielding having served in the military. I’ve sent the picture of Will in his uniform to several Canadian historical sites. All confirm that the uniform is not military, but likely belonged to a band the Will played with while in Hamilton. Additionally, I’ve been in contact with our cousin, Debby Hayden in Maine. Debby is Will and Magna Fielding’s granddaughter. She, nor anyone else in that branch of our family tree, remembers hearing anything about Will having served in the military.

I do know that, according to the US Census, taken on June 30, 1900, Will resided in Whitestown, New York in a boardinghouse on Henderson Street. He worked as a “Loom Fixer” in one of the area cotton mills. He claims on the Census that he came to the States in 1899. I also know that in 1906, according to the Portland City Directory, Will Fielding was living in Portland, Maine. The five years in between are a complete mystery at this time.

It’s hard to prove a negative. But to believe that Will fought in the Boer War, we would have to believe that he came to New York, got a room and a job, then returned to Canada to enlist for service. We would have to believe that the records of his service have gone missing from the British and Canadian military archives. We would also have to believe that Will never related this part of his story to his children or grandchildren. Possible? Yes. Probable? I don’t think so.

One the other hand, I have no theory as to who had the biggest motivation to fabricate this story. I’ve learned to be skeptical about Alice’s version of history, as I’ve found a number of inconsistencies in her tales. But, it’s not clear to me that Alice lied about her brother Will’s service. Perhaps Will told his sister he was joining the war effort as a way to escape dealing with what was becoming an untenable situation with his alcoholic father and depressed mother. He was 28 years old in 1900 and had been contributing to his family’s coffers since he was a boy of twelve. I have no doubt that Will wanted to start his own journey and he had every right to that desire.

I hope to one day solve the mystery of where Will was from 1900 until 1906 when he shows up in Portland, Maine. I have been able to track him from 1906 until his marriage to Magna Olive Nilsen in 1912. Will Fielding led quite an interesting life during those years. I’ll be sharing that story in the very near future. Stay tuned!

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