Religious Conflict and the Search for Historical Explanations
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 5

Religious Conflict and the Search for Historical Explanations

Author: Ruth Sandwell

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16-18

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Early in the morning of February 4, 1880, five members of an Irish immigrant family were murdered in rural southwestern Ontario, allegedly by an armed band of vigilantes from the community. No one was ever convicted of these crimes. While “Who did it?” is the most obvious question here, in an important sense the real mystery is why these crimes happened at all and how we should understand them now.

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In this MysteryQuest, you are invited to take on the role of advisor to a team of historians beginning research on the Donnelly massacre of 1880 in Biddulph Township. You have been asked to examine selected primary and secondary documents for evidence to support one of the key theories about the reasons behind the massacre: it was the result of religious hatred among Irish immigrants who settled the township in the nineteenth century. First, you will be introduced to the idea of causal explanations in history. Then, you will be introduced to the Donnelly massacre and to the three main theories for the conflict. Working individually or with a partner you will examine five historical documents, looking for evidence of religious conflict. You will then prepare a 250-word report for the historians that summarizes the evidence and offers your own conclusion about whether there is enough evidence of religious conflict to proceed with a more detailed search for evidence of this explanation.

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STEP 1: Think about historical explanations

Because the task you are asked to undertake requires looking for the causes of the Donnelly murders, it will be useful to review the kinds of explanations historians are looking to uncover. To help you think about this, read the following fictional story:

Just before midnight one dark, cold, and stormy night, a man named John Smith, an engine mechanic, was sitting in an isolated cabin in the woods. As he reached for a cigarette, he noticed he had only one left. Glancing at his watch, he realized that he had just enough time to hop in his car and drive to the gas station down the road to buy cigarettes before it closed. As his car pulled out of his lane and onto the highway, it was hit by his neighbour, who, returning from a long night of drinking, was unable to stop soon enough on the icy road. Smith was killed instantly. Later, as the townspeople were discussing the sad event, they shook their heads one after another and said, “We always knew that smoking would kill Smith.” It is worth noting that local officials had long been warned of the dangers of that part of the highway, especially in winter, and yet they seemed uninterested in doing anything about it. Apparently, this was because the residents of that part of the town did not have any influence with local authorities. Others wondered if the liquor laws had been more faithfully enforced in the town whether the neighbour who smashed into Smith would have been as drunk as he was.

Were the neighbours right? Did smoking kill Smith? Make a list of all the contributing factors leading to Smith’s death and the reasons to support each. Which cause seems most significant in explaining how Smith came to be in the situation that brought about his death?

In exploring what or who was really responsible for Smith’s sudden death, you are doing what historians do when they look at evidence about the past. They are interested in explaining more than what happened; they want to explain why things happened the way they did. The question “Did smoking kill Smith?” asks for exactly the kind of causal explanations that historians seek. In a sense, what you have been trying to figure out are the underlying factors that contributed to Smith’s untimely death. Do you think that drinking and driving or official neglect are more significant underlying factors than Smith’s desire for a cigarette?

For more about historians’ search for underlying causes, read the briefing sheet Causal Explanations in History.

STEP 2: Review the facts of the case

Before proceeding further, you will find it helpful to read The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys. For even more information about this unusual family, go to Heaven & Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the "Black" Donnellys and explore the various documents found there.

STEP 3: Examine the historical causes

Now that you have some understanding of the history of the Donnellys, you are ready to explore three theories about the underlying causes of the conflict which led to their murders. Read the briefing sheet Roots of Conflict in Biddulph Township. Use the activity sheet Examining the Roots of the Conflict to summarize the three factors leading up to the Donnelly massacre and list the evidence to support each causal explanation.

STEP 4: Look for evidence

Your next task is to work on your own or with a partner to examine five historical documents that might shed further light on the role of religious conflict in bringing about the Donnellys’ deaths. These documents are found in the Evidence in the Case section of this MysteryQuest. For each document, complete a separate activity sheet of Looking for Evidence of Religious Conflict. You are to briefly answer the following questions:

  • What is the nature of the document?
  • What do we know about who created it?
  • What is the main message?

For each document, identify at least four statements that relate to the causes of the conflict. Record these statements and indicate whether or not each supports the religious hatred explanation. Provide reasons for your conclusion. Make sure the statements you identify are relevant to understanding the causes of the conflict and that the conclusions you draw from the statements are plausible.

STEP 5: Prepare your recommendation

When you have examined the documents and completed a chart for each, you are now ready to answer the question “Do these documents provide enough evidence of religious conflict in Biddulph Township to justify a more extensive examination of this theory?” Prepare a 250-word report that clearly indicates how likely it is that religious conflict was a main source of the conflict that involved the Donnellys. Justify your conclusion with specific reference to the evidence contained in the primary and secondary sources you have consulted.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Inferences Drawn from Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the five historical documents and draw plausible inferences from them.

The evaluation rubric Assessing Historical Conclusions may be used to assess your success in preparing a report that offers a plausible conclusion supported with clearly explained, relevant evidence.

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What additional evidence would you need?
Describe the amount and kind of additional evidence you would need to conclude whether or not the Donnelly massacre was largely motivated by religious conflict.

Examine additional documents
Locate other historical documents in Heaven & Hell on Earth: The Massacre of the "Black" Donnellys that provide more complete evidence to support each of the theories behind the conflict.

Learn more about the Donnellys
Apply your detective skills to another MysteryQuest associated with the Donnellys, or explore the Prelude section of the MysteryQuest home site to learn more about the history of the Donnelly family.

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Briefing Sheet: The Massacre of the “Black” Donnellys

Briefing Sheet: Roots of Conflict in Biddulph Township

Activity Sheet: Examining the Roots of the Conflict

Activity Sheet: Looking for Evidence of Religious Conflict

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Newspaper article, M. McQuaide, Letter to the Editor, “What Shall Be Our Future?”, Irish Canadian, February 11, 1880

Newspaper article, “Biddulph Notes – An Offer to Buy the Donnelly Farm Refused”, London Advertiser, June 24, 1880

Letter, to C. Hutchinson from William Donnelly, June 29, 1880

Diary, William Porte, October 27, 1897

Pamphlet, “The Evils of Wholesale and Improvident Emigration from Ireland” c. 1863