William “Squire” McDonnell (1814-1900)

Early settler in Lindsay, Ontario, William McDonnell is perhaps best known locally as the author of Manita, a poem he created about a local legend. The legend tells of young Iroquois chief Ogemah, who fell in love with Manita, a beautiful chief’s daughter of their rivals, the Heron peoples. Since the poem was written without the consent or input of indigenous peoples, it is an example of cultural appropriation.

While the poem spans 26 pages, the book opens with several pages describing the town of Lindsay, and with the last pages of the book consisting of advertising for local steamboats, it appears the book was created to draw tourism.

The controversy around Manita is not new.

Watson Kirkconnell asserts many of the facts from the original legend were changed. “From this era, too, dates the legend of Manita. In the version told me by Johnston Paudash, son of the Mississaga Chief at the Nanahazhoo Reserve, Rice Lake, Manita or Nomena (“light of love”) was the daughter of a great Mississaga chief who lived at Pleasant Point, Sturgeon Lake. Ogemah, an Iroquois chief, paddled alone from his own country to ask for her in marriage, but was murdered by a jealous Mississaga brave. About 1886 a poem on this theme was published in Lindsay by the late Mr. William McDonnell. This poem is a pretty little idyll, but as a portrayal of Indian psychology it is hopelessly sentimental and therefore unbelievable. It also substitutes Huron for Mississaga, Sturgeon Point for Pleasant Point and brings Ogemah on the stage by way of Lindsay, the wrong direction entirely.” (from Victoria County Centennial History, 1921 edition.)

(Paudash’s version of the story of Manita and Ogemah has been captured in this Ford Moynes’s article.)

The only known remaining copy of Manita, once belonging to local writer and historian Ford Moynes, is located in the archives of the Kawartha Lakes Public Library. They’ve recently digitized the book and made Manita available to view online.

Although he was known locally as Squire McDonnell and the author of Manita, outside of Kawartha Lakes (then Victoria County), he was the author of several books, which were published in the hundreds of thousands and read around the world, and a play that was performed in Toronto:

From the pen of Mr. George Beall, Albert Street, and from his scrap book comes a second interesting story: “Wm. McDonnell, 1814-1900, born Cork. Ireland. Wm. McDonnell went to Peterborough in 1830 and then studied law at Pennsylvania, U.S.A. He settled in Lindsay in the 1840’s and founded a tannery, and later a store about 1852. He was in the Lindsay Customs Office and also a Lieut. Colonel in the Militia. He was a good musician and composed both libretts and music for the 3-act opera “The Fisherman’s Daughter”, which was put on at the Princess Theatre, Toronto.

He very successfully wrote several books the sales of which ran into hundreds of thousands. He published two narrative poems – “Manita” and “Cleope”. Manita was based on an Indian legend of Sturgeon Point, and later a steamer, owned by Charles Burgoyne of Fenelon Falls, and ran daily trips between Lindsay and Coboconk was named “Manita” after the heroine of this poem.

Wm. McDonnell was always known in Lindsay as “ Squire” McDonnell. He built two houses on the north end of York Street on the river bank. The first was burned in the fire of 1861 and the second is with some additions, the present Canadian Legion Hall.

After his father brought young McDonnell to Canada, business reverses compelled the father to return to Ireland, but he died on the way home and young McDonnell was left alone in Canada to fend for himself at the age of 16 years.

His indomitable energy, intelligence and uprightness won for him the place which he was to hold until the day of his death, a place in the hearts; of all who knew him. His record was an exceptionally good one. He was chosen as clerk of the Division Court and appointed Justice of the Peace. He was a member of the County Council, was Reeve and for many years a member of the Council of the Town of Lindsay. He was a frequent contributor to the Public Press and wrote a series of articles on “ Government” for the Toronto Globe.

It is interesting to note that he supervised the taking of the first census in Victoria County and appointed Census Commissioner by a warrant issued the 2nd of January, 1852, by his Excellency James Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, Governor General of Canada.

Wm. McDonnell was a member of King Hiram Lodge A.F. and A.M. He was interested in education and for many years held the position of chairman of the Grammar School Board. Up to the time of his death he maintained a keen interest in public affairs. He died at the age of 81 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery.”


(Note: the above quote from an article by Ford Moynes published in the Lindsay Daily Post, no date known, cites McDonnell’s biography as written by George Beall and taken from the Beall scrapbook. Upon searching the digitized copy of the Beall scrapbook, made available online by the Kawartha Lakes Public Library and courtesy of the Kawartha Lakes Museum & Archives, it appears the McDonnell biography pages are missing. Perhaps they will turn up in the Ford Moynes fonds.)

Although the publication of A Man from Mars was announced in The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Missouri, USA) of Saturday 5th December 1891, it appears it never made it to print:

A theosophical novel by Mr. W. McDonnell, author of the very successful “Exeter Hall,” and of “Heathen of the Heath,” is announced for early issue by John A. Taylor & Co. of New York. The title selected for the forthcoming book is “A Man from Mars,” and the story is said to run on the lines of Edward Bellamy’s sociological “Looking Backward.” * The work purports to describe a visit to the planet Mars by two adepts in theosophy by occult powers. They find a perfect social system in operation amongst the inhabitants of Mars—society being organized on the same principles as those laid down in Mr. Bellamy’s story.

source: https://wordhistories.net/2021/05/14/man-from-mars/
McDonnell’s house, now the Royal Canadian Legion branch 67. The riverbank is now McDonnell Park. This postcard is from the Beall scrapbook (from the Beall collection at the Kawartha Lakes Museum & Archives)


A Man from Mars (1891)

Exeter Hall: a theological romance (1873) (also at Kawartha Lakes Public Library)

The Heathens of the Heath (1874)


Marina, The Fisherman’s Daughter: an operatic romance in three acts (1884)


Manita: a poem (1884) (also at Kawartha Lakes Public Library)


Other possible publications:

Family Creeds: a romance (1879)

Reminisces of a Preacher: a theological romance (1887)