Preface: My cousin Pat Forrest Collins recently sent me some old historic family documents. Among them were three separate accounts of the life of my 3x great-grandfather Dr. Alexander Forrest about whom I have written before. These documents have some conflicting details, and some mistakes, but generally they provide the kind of human details that are only passed down through a family and cannot be learned from census, birth, and death record. One of the versions was written by his grand-daughter Jean Fairbanks Forrest [1880 – 1962, daughter of my 2x great-grandfather Rev. John Forrest], and as such is quite valuable in terms of it being a version of his life as told by his own children. I’ve amalgamated, augmented, and edited these three accounts to create this version of his life story.
The Forrest family is Scottish in lineage, but family legend says that the family originally came from France and were called “de Foret”. It is said that the de Foret family came to Scotland with William the Conqueror in 1066.
My 3x great-grandfather Dr. Alexander Forrest was born in Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire, Scotland on 25 Feb 1806 on the family property, which was called Redmire Mill. It was in the southwest corner of Cambusnethan Parish, and can be seen on this map from the 1860’s:
He was baptized on the 21st of April. His father, also named Alexander Forrest [b 1760], had married Catherine Young in Cambusnethan on 13 June 1790.
Alexander Forrest Sr. was a mill-owner, and his wife Catherine helped with the family business. Alexander was the sixth of seven children born to Alexander Forrest Sr. and Catherine. They were: James [1791 – 1809], Gavin [1792 – 1848], Unknown [b ~1794], John [b 1796], Mary [b 1800], Alexander [1806-1875], and Helen [b 1808]. Most of the children’s birth/baptism records were helpfully noted with, for example, “their 4th child”, so we know there weren’t other children born in between. Gavin was their 2nd, and John their 4th, so there is one unknown child born about 1794.
Birth and Baptism record: “Alexr Forrest son to Alexr Forrest at Redmyre Mill & Catherine Young, his spouse, was born 25th Feb & bapt. 21st April”
Alexander’s father died on 12 April 1815 when Alexander was only 9 years old. His mother Catherine and possibly another son took over the family business. It’s not explained exactly how, but after her husband’s death Catherine had been left “in comfortable circumstances” and Alexander was sent to school in Lanark at an early age. His teacher there was renowned in that region of Scotland as an instructor in Latin and young Alexander was one of his best pupils. He became almost as fluent in Latin as in English, and in later years would gather a large personal library of Latin literature. He read Latin texts as a recreation until his death.
Alexander began his studies of medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1823 at the remarkable age of 17, studying with Drs. James Jeffrey [Anatomy] and Thomas Lyle [Pharmacy]. When he completed his courses in 1825 he was too young to graduate, so his mother offered him a choice of spending a year in Paris or a year in Edinburgh. He chose the latter and studied at the University of Edinburgh from 1826-1827. When that year was completed he received both his M.D.C.M. (Medicinae Doctorem et Chirurgiae Magistrum, or Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery) from Glasgow and his L.R.C.S.E. (Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh).
It was Alexander’s intention to go into the Royal Navy and receive his commission after he graduated, but while he was on the reserve list he was appointed as physician to the Carron Iron Works at Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, which was the largest iron works in Europe. The cannon for the Royal Navy were made there. Dr. Forrest was quickly able to grow his practice to the point that it gave him a “respectable income”. Several accounts mention that he did work as a surgeon in the Royal Navy about 1830.
About this time, many people were leaving Scotland for the promise of the New World. Dr. Forrest gave up his navy commission and his practice and set sail for Nova Scotia in late 1831, leaving from Glasgow and sailing out the River Clyde aboard the brig “Charlotte Carr”. While on the Atlantic, a large storm rose up, ravaging the ship and snapping her masts with its fierce winds. With no sails to propel her, the wreck drifted with the current for weeks, eventually ending up on the island of Mull, Scotland where it remained for four months while being refitted to complete its journey to Nova Scotia. [Various reports of this incident conflict in the details. One says the ship had almost reached Newfoundland when the story hit, but it is highly unlikely a ship set adrift near Newfoundland would drift back to Scotland. Another account says that they were adrift for “months”, which also seems unlikely due to the lack of fresh water and food.]
Reports conflict on another key part of this story, namely, how exactly Alexander Forrest met his wife Barbara Ross McKenzie. However, all three versions of the story maintain that this time period during the sea voyage and immediately after the shipwreck was when they met and fell in love. Barbara was born in Nigg Parish of Rosshire, Ross and Cromarty, Scotland on 3 Jun 1805 to John McKenzie, a weaver, and his wife Isobella Ross. It is generally agreed that Barbara McKenzie and her brother Rev. Hugh McKenzie were passengers on the same ship. One version mentions that they were traveling from Scotland to Newfoundland “to be missionaries to the Indians”, however, Hugh was, in fact, appointed to be minister to Wallace, Cumberland, Nova Scotia by the Glasgow Colonial Society.] Alexander and Barbara fell in love during the voyage and subsequent long period adrift on the sea. Most version also agree that they were married on the Island of Mull while repairs were being made to their ship. However, mention was also made that Alexander returned to Scotland after the accident and married Barbara just before heading out for a second voyage to Nova Scotia.
The text of William Gregg’s “History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada” indicates that Rev. Hugh McKenzie set sail for Nova Scotia in September of 1831 and “was driven back by a severe storm, and he remained in the winter months with his friends in Scotland. He left the next spring, and arrived in Nova Scotia in May, 1832”. So it’s possible that Alexander and Barbara did not wait in Mull while the ship was refitted, but rather returned home and set out again in the Spring after they were married.
Further complicating this story is the fact that a letter exists from Barbara’s father John MacKenzie, written in March, 1831, where Barbara is described as being at Harthill, Lanarkshire, Scotland. This could be how Barbara and Alexander met, since it’s so close to Alexander’s home town, or could indicate that they were staying there together. It’s hard to say just from this one line.
Whatever the facts of their meeting, Barbara Ross McKenzie and Alexander Forrest were married on 3 Jan 1832 when the groom was 25 and the bride was 26, and by October of the same year they had settled into their new home in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada. By all accounts it was a hard life for the young doctor in his new homeland. Dr. Forrest’s practice covered a great deal of territory, “[it] extended over the eastern half of Pictou County as far as St. Mary’s in Guysboro, and almost down to Antigonish. The roads were terrible.” You can imagine his travels far and wide on muddy, rutted roads on horseback. In addition to his medical practice, Alexander taught at the New Sabbath School.
While in New Glasgow, Dr. Forrest and Barbara had nine children:
Isabella "Bella" Forrest [1832 – 1905] Catherine Forrest [1834 – 1912] Mary Forrest I [1835 – 1836] Mary Forrest II [1838 – 1838] Alexander Forrest Jr. [1839 – 1919] Helen Forrest [1840 – 1926] Rev. John Forrest [1842 – 1920] Barbara Forrest [1844 – 1844] James Forrest [1847 – 1901]
After more than two decades of hard work, Alexander finally made the decision to move his family to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1853. The citizens of New Glasgow were saddened to see such a beloved figure leave, and they presented Dr. Forrest with a gold watch with matching gold rings for his family as a gesture of their gratitude for his faithful service.
It was in Lunenburg that his son (and my great-great-grandfather) John Forrest would meet his future wife, Annie Prescott Duff, whose father, the renowned Rev. William Duff, was the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church there. In 1854 Alexander became one of the founders of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia. The family remained in Lunenberg for six years, then left for Halifax in 1860, where they are listed in the 1861 census.
While in Halifax he served as the President of the Medical Society of Nova Scotia and as a member of the Board of Governors for Dalhousie College from 1869-1875. The family is seen again in the 1871 census for Halifax with listed occupations of Physician, Broker, Minister, and Student:
Dr. Alexander Forrest died early on a Tuesday morning on 22 June 1875 at the age of 69 after a “long and trying illness”. One of his obituaries said “[he died] as the result of doing about three men’s work with all the trials and fatigues of life in a new country”. Another described him thusly:
“In every sphere of life and action, wherever he was known, he commanded the highest respect and the fullest confidence. He was a man of profound and extensive learning, and his reading in the whole field of literature was immense. In his profession he was never behind the foremost. He was one of the most hospitable, kind-hearted, and benevolent of men. There was no taint of the mercenary or the mean about him. His death will be regretted and his memory gratefully cherished. The wonders of his skill, his patience, and his self-sacrificing benevolence are related from year to year by parents to children and children’s children. He was widely known and wherever known he was justly regarded as a true man, an accomplished physician, and a genuine Christian.”
Dr. Forrest was buried in the Forrest Family plot at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His wife Barbara Ross McKenzie died on 21 April 1880 in Halifax, and was buried next to him.