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A 200-year-old family feud comes to an end in East Gwillimbury

Six generations back, the Doans and the Willsons fell out over religion. But this summer, they buried the hatchet
August 26, 2019
Steve Paikin

Two hundred years ago, a man named Ebenezer Doan brought his family north from Pennsylvania to what today is East Gwillimbury, in York Region.

Doan made the move to Upper Canada in search of religious and political freedom. Two of his family members had been hanged in Pennsylvania; others were imprisoned. That’s because the Doans were members of the Children of Peace, a breakaway sect from the Quakers. Doan was considered quite a progressive force in his time. For example, he insisted that all his children, not just his sons, receive a formal education.

In 1819, the Doans built a house in East Gwillimbury. Remarkably, that house still stands today. In fact, it was the site of a Doan family reunion last weekend. Nearly 100 of Ebenezer’s descendants gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its construction. The house stands in the shadow of one of York Region’s most spectacular historic sites, the Sharon Temple, which was built under Doan’s leadership less than a decade after he’d built his own house. Doan was the “master builder” of the temple, which was to serve as the headquarters for the Children of Peace, headed by David Willson.

Ottawa journalist Holly Doan, who is Ebenezer’s great-great-great-granddaughter, came up with a novel way to observe the occasion. She and Jim Pearson, of the Sharon Temple Museum Society, decided to conduct a so-called interview with Ebenezer Doan. Holly asked the questions, and Pearson, in period costume as Ebenezer, gave the answers. The pair did considerable research so that all the information contained in their interview would be historically accurate. (If you remember Patrick Watson’s groundbreaking television series Witness to Yesterday, you’ll get the gist of what they were trying to achieve.)

For example, we learned that Ebenezer had seven children and 41 grandchildren. He also knew the leader of Upper Canada’s 1837 rebellion, who would eventually become Toronto’s first mayor: William Lyon Mackenzie.

In fact, it was because of Mackenzie’s revolt against the Family Compact in 1837 that Doan experienced a major falling out with the Children of Peace’s leader, his friend David Willson.

“Ebenezer clearly left the sect because he disagreed with Willson leading his clan into Mackenzie’s rebellion,” Holly Doan says.

The relationship between the two ruptured and was never repaired.

Here’s where the story gets even more interesting: Pearson, who played Ebenezer Doan in the 200th-anniversary interview, is actually the great-great-great-grandson of David Willson. So, when the program ended with a hug between Holly Doan and Jim Pearson, it was, in effect, the end of a multigenerational feud between two of the most important figures in the history of the Children of Peace.

That the Sharon Temple is still around today is a miracle of another sort. Built in 1825, it featured doors on all four sides, as if to welcome people from all directions to worship and seek peace. But it eventually fell into such a state of disrepair that, by the end of the First World War, there were cattle grazing in and around it.

It might have been turned into a barn, if not for the extraordinary efforts of the York Pioneer and Historical Society, which intervened to save the temple and restore it to its previous grandeur. It is now a national historic site and museum, as well as a must-see for local history enthusiasts.

“It’s one of the earliest known projects of historical preservation in Ontario,” Doan says. “How cool is that!”

Meantime, given the success of this year’s interview, Doan and Pearson are thinking of reprising their performance next summer, with Pearson instead playing his great-great-great-grandfather David Willson.

What does Doan think of that?

“I’ve already assured him if that’s the case, he can expect a tougher interview,” she says.