Nancy Hawley’s Secret

Un texte de Heather Darch

Paru dans le numéro

Publié le : 24 février 2024

Dernière mise à jour : 27 février 2024


Nancy Hawley was an itinerant teacher. She lived to be 101 years old. Here is her history and the secrets of her longevity.

history Nancy Hawley
Nancy Hawley, Third Report of the Missisquoi Historical Society, 1908.

Nancy Hawley was, “given by God,” 101  years, 9 months and 4 days before she died on January 27th, 1908. In fact, she was the oldest person, not only in her community, but for miles around and while she now lies peacefully in a heritage cemetery, she still holds the record as the oldest person buried in that site. 

The Hawley’s were Loyalists who came to Quebec in 1777. Grandparents Peter Hawley (1741-1800) and his wife Hannah Partridge (1743-1824) were granted land for their loyalty to the British Crown, and settled in Caldwell’s Manor in the hamlet known as Beech Ridge, southwest of Clarenceville. Their farmland on concession 9, lot 10 was called “Hawley Home.” Here, Peter and Hannah raised five children including their son Asahel Hawley (1773-1854).

Asahel Hawley married Mary Gibson (1779-1862) and had six children at Hawley Home. Nancy was their fourth child born on April 21st 1806. For her entire life, she lived in the same house. Even when her parents passed away, Nancy and her sister Polly welcomed their brother Asahel Jr. and his wife Maria Frost and six children into the family home. 

Nancy only left Hawley Home for schooling. As a child, she and her siblings boarded with a family in Stanbridge East. That way, she could attend the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning School headed by the Anglican Church. Until the arrival of the Reverand Micajah Townsend in 1815, there was no established school in nearby Clarenceville; meaning that the Hawley children travelled a significant distance through forest trails to receive their education. 

At the Stanbridge school, Nancy studied under American schoolmaster Uriah Laflin. Mr. Laflin taught English, spelling and arithmetic and also ensured that his students studied Church of England catechism weekly whether they were Anglican or not. While Nancy’s elder sister Hannah married the schoolmaster in 1822, 15-year-old Nancy was already a teacher.

As an itinerant teacher, she travelled on horseback and taught in many of the one-roomed schoolhouses throughout the region. The log cabin schools were equipped with rough-cut benches and desks and had an iron stove for heating. Nancy was responsible for the general maintenance of the schools when they were in session. She would prepare her own kindling and light the stove to signal to the children that school was open. She boarded with local families and taught school for several weeks before travelling to another schoolhouse. Her accommodations were often rugged and sometimes meant sleeping in a single room alongside the entire household or waking up with snow covering her bed. Her board also included the extra responsibilities of sewing, spinning, housework and farm chores for the host families. 

history Nancy Hawley

A story Nancy was fond of telling was about the day she taught school for 24-hours. A mother in a house where she was boarding became very ill and Nancy removed the children to the school house in order to keep them safe. Even while the sun was setting, she taught the children their lessons to keep them occupied, but when neighbours perceived that the school was in session, they brought their children too. Nancy taught into the night by candlelight until all of the children fell asleep at their desks. She remained awake to keep the fire going. And, in the morning, parents returned bringing breakfasts and noon dinners for their children so they could have another full day of learning.Nancy outlived all of her siblings and many of her nieces and nephews and toward the end of her life, she shared her secret of longevity.

She revealed that because she enjoyed remarkable good health, she never took medicine; and “had not her name on any doctor’s book.” Nancy Hawley did not drink tea or coffee, preferring hot water, sugar and cream. Nor did she never took a train and she never left the Eastern Townships. She never had a husband and never had children. Nancy Hawley was also a staunch Methodist. Meaning that she never drank alcohol and never dancedas it was inherently sinful and a vessel for sinful activities. She did not sing songs, or read books, which did not expand her knowledge or love of God, and she never played cards or board and party games. In addition to this, Nancy always kept a Bible with her and never ever missed church on a Sunday morning. 

There you have it dear reader – the secret to a long life? Never leave the Townships! 

Heather Darch


Miss Nancy Hawley of Clarenceville: Pioneer School teacher of the Townships,” In: Third Report of the Missisquoi Historical Society, 1908.

Vital and Church records. Institut Généalogique Drouin; Montréal, Quebec; Drouin Collection; Gabriel Drouin.

Library and Archives Canada, Census Returns: 

1861; Roll: C-1297; 1871: St Georges de Clarenceville, Missisquoi, Quebec; Roll: C-10070; Page: 32; 1881; St Georges de Clarenceville, Missisquoi, Quebec; Roll: C_13204; Page: 12; 1891; St Georges De Clarenceville, Missisquoi, Quebec, Canada; Roll: T-6404.

Robert Dunn and Derek Hopkins, comp. Alphabetical Index to the Land Grants by the Crown in the province of Quebec from 1763 to 31st December 1890. Pointe Claire, Quebec: Quebec Family History Society, 2005.