A family quest

Curious about your ancestry? I can relate, and there’s no time like the present to explore your family history

By Alex Newman

Special to the Star Wed., March 17, 2021




Since the pandemic began, what’s been true for many of us is that we have some time on our hands. Indeed, for some of us, we have taken that time to turn to the study of our own family history.


Google trends show that while genealogy searches tend to spike around Christmas, in the last year there has been a steady increase in interest. And ancestry.com has experienced a 37 per cent jump in new subscriptions globally, says Lesley Anderson, the company’s genealogy and family history expert.


I can relate. With the future uncertain and no desire to stay where we are in the present, the pandemic has produced a kind of emotional paralysis. The only way I have seen is back. And back some more.


There’s a little irony in this. We are locked down, unable to travel or move around much at all, but the stories of many of our ancestors are ones of movement. Genealogy is often one big migration story.


I was drawn into my own family’s history in the early 1990s by my great aunt. Thanks to her hard work, researching, digging, and archiving our family’s past, I have learned a few important things that may be of value if you want to start your own journey into the past.


Seek out your elders

At 88, my great aunt had already done most of the leg work on our family history, building up information on several ancestral lines by snail-mailing historical societies in the U.K., Ireland and the U.S., searching for more tidbits. She also regularly rode the subway to the Baldwin Collection of Canadiana at the Toronto Reference Library to spend entire days digging through the archives there.


Her goal wasn’t to find out who begat whom, but how and why they ended up where they did to put flesh on the bones of our family. So when I began to help her in her quest, I was interested in the social-political situations that gave rise to migrations. Together, we made a great team.


Latch on to your elders and probe their memories for family stories. On country drives, my father would talk a lot about his family; every time my daughter visits her 93-year-old grandmother, she takes iPhone videos of her, getting snippets of the story of leaving Soviet-controlled Lithuania, sneaking out of a German refugee camp and eventually getting to Canada. But with physical distancing restrictions still in place, you will have to rely solely on the phone or video chats for now.


If there’s no one left to talk to and you have a few names to go on, try ancestry.com or the Canadian ancestry.ca. With more than 100 million family trees on its database, the company has broken the sites down into localized research bases.


After signing up (there’s a free two-week trial, then $20 a month after), plug in as many names and details as you know, and hints will arise on where to look next to construct the family tree. Those hints, says Anderson, “act as a research assistant, bringing records (historical, marriage, birth, death) to you based on info that you have plugged in.”


A deep dive into research

It’s said you don’t know who you are until you know where you came from. The goal in searching out family history, for me, was finding authentic stories; what I discovered was a long line of mostly regular folks trying to preserve their families, facing adverse situations and uncertain futures, and responding with resourcefulness and grit.


While the genealogy sites can get you started, they don’t have all the information. That’s where a comprehensive Google search comes in. Be as specific with dates and locations as possible — search engines will sort results based on your current location and your past search history.


Cemeteries also provide hands-on information but, before you head out looking for Grandma’s grave, call the cemetery or church first to find out where exactly she is buried. If the cemetery is overseas, Ancestry has a find-a-grave component; volunteers all over the world go out and photograph gravestones specifically for this purpose.


Stories get passed down in your family through the generations. Like the broken telephone game, these stories expand with the telling. Solid research will add truth to the mix. Apart from the internet, actual book and journal research can send you down the right paths for more info.


My family’s legend included a claim that we were direct descendants of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, who was burned at the stake with Bishop Hugh Latimer in 1555 for their part in the English Reformation. The story was easy enough to debunk: Ridley was one of the few priests at the time who did not have a secret wife and family, ergo no direct line of succession.


One story we managed to find out a lot about is the tale of Mary Beebe. An ordinary woman who could neither read nor write, she embodied the migrations, violence and upheaval that characterized colonial North America. Living to over 100, she survived three husbands, a multitude of epidemics, the American Revolution, a land-dispute war, a wilderness march with five children under the age of 15, refugee camp and resettlement.


As a United Empire Loyalist, Mary’s details were fairly well documented. What took time for our family was building up the details around her story by poring over maps, journals, books and online letters. I got a lot of ancillary information about Mary’s life from Laurel Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “A Midwife’s Tale” because it was set within 10 years and under 10 kilometres from where Mary lived, who herself became a midwife.


I was obsessed with Mary for months. I even drove to Pennsylvania in a snowstorm — my great aunt bundled up in the passenger seat — to dig through historical society archives.

While the trip didn’t yield much in the way of a paper trail, it gave us a good sense of the topography: of her farm and her trip from there to Niagara, Ont., in 1778.


She left behind her whole life: “30 acors (sic) of land on grants but not paid for, 9 acors cleared and fenced with log house, stable, 2 large corn cribs, 2 cows and 2 heffers (sic), 10 hogs large and small, 20 pound lining yarn, 1 crop flax flock, 1 acor all the crop left on the ground wheat, corn, potatoes and turnups (sic).”


There wasn’t much choice, though, since her husband, Joshua, and eldest son, Adin, just 16, had joined the Butler’s Rangers to fight on the side of the British Crown. And she was alone and pregnant, with four small children.


Joshua returned when the situation worsened in 1778 to take Mary and children to her brothers’ farms near Tioga Point in Pennsylvania, where a number of Rangers’ families lived. There, she gave birth to the youngest child around the same time Joshua died of cholera, somewhere in the woods near Albany. As skirmishes escalated, Mary and four other women packed their children and some belongings and travelled about 320 km (by wagon and foot) to the British post in Niagara.


From there, Mary took her brood to a refugee camp in Quebec where she married the camp rations officer and applied for land grants for herself and each child. In 1784, she travelled to then uninhabited Gaspe to clear their land. Along the way, she picked up invaluable skills of midwifery and sewing, managed to keep all her children alive and became a centenarian. (Her full story was published by Canada’s History magazine.)


Ephemera and photos

When people start to downsize, that’s when you can find treasures to support the family story. Don’t throw out anything until you’ve had a chance to examine it carefully — you never know what you’ll find in an old shoebox.


Luckily, I come from a family of hoarders who kept collecting from previous generations — except my father who was forever whisking boxes out the door to Goodwill. Other things he’d burn, like the sheaf of papers I found on top of the kindling box ready to light the next fire. It turned out to be a 15-year correspondence between my grandfather and the mayor of Diever, a small town in the northern Netherlands where the plane navigated by my uncle, Richard John Newman, was shot down in 1943 en route to an attack on Berlin.


The letters began shortly after the MIA Telegram arrived. My grandfather wrote two or three times to a Dutch tulip producer he had met at the Toronto flower show in 1934. He was desperate to know if his son had contacted the man, as he had instructed him to do if the plane crashed.


It wasn’t until the war was over, nearly two years later, that the first letter from the Diever mayor arrived, confirming that all on board had died. Continuing until 1957, the correspondence offered a fuller picture of the grandfather I hardly knew.


Photos shared a similar fate as the documents: stuffed into boxes in the back of the hall closet — they’re now scanned and sorted into computer documents. Some have identification on the back, most do not, but painstaking cross-referencing has narrowed down the subjects. Moral of that story: go through your own photos now and write down who’s in them.


Reference books such as Maureen Taylor’s “Family Photo Detective” have helped with the sorting, but older photos featuring people you don’t recognize are more challenging. Taylor recommends enlarging and printing them, then taping them to a worksheet and marking down all identifying features. Fashion, hairstyles, locations are all clues to help you date a photo.


One last thing: create a place to keep your findings together. I started a free WordPress site to input little stories and research findings, plus photos. For a straight family tree to slot in names, you can create one on the Ancestry website, but you can also purchase a computer program like Family Tree Maker.


Above all, don’t worry about being perfect; you can edit as you go. It’s more important to keep everything together in one place.


Remember, for all the info out there, family history is less an exact science and more a crossword puzzle — unearthing one clue sheds light on another, which allows you to move forward.


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