Dig up your roots
From a single name at the bottom of the page erupts a flow of connected boxes, each full of data about an ancestor. Some are familiar names, but many are not.
Along the way are the mysteries, some of which become stories along the way: who served in France during the war; the sudden end to one of the lines, and the tale of that early death; a lunatic asylum and the school mistress who ended up there.
Tracing your roots is like putting together a puzzle. It’s intriguing and satisfying and it answers questions as well as posing some new ones.
There are many pitfalls to searching out your ancestors, but there’s a lot of help available these days too, not the least of which is the Kelowna and District Genealogical Society, which is hosting a conference in September called Harvest Your Family Tree.
Turns out my ancestors were the salt of the earth—carpenters and bricklayers, millers and school mistresses.
That information is revealed in a variety of documents, some dating back to the 1600s, and confirmed in census data, marriage certificates, passenger manifests from great ships and the patient rosters of lunatic asylums.
Yes, that’s right, my great great Aunt Martha Long, who was born in 1821, was a school mistress who was committed to the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum in 1852, the year it opened. It was renamed the Knowle Mental Hospital in 1923. It closed in 1996. It’s not clear from the documents what precipitated her arrival there, but her mother died the same year she was committed, so perhaps that had something to do with it.
First cousin twice removed Millicent Maud Froud, who was born in 1886 in the south of England and died in North Carolina in 1968, actually petitioned for divorce in 1919 from Ebenezer Beale, rare in that era, so she was probably a character.
She left England in 1920 for the U.S., to join her fiance, cattleman George Andrew Barnett, in Spokane, Wash. They were married almost immediately on her arrival.
She was predeceased by Barnett, who died in 1939 of tuberculosis. He was born in Chehalis, Wash. On her death certificate, she’s listed as a retired housewife, although her occupation was listed as dressmaker when she left England. (I didn’t realize housewives ever retired.)
My Gran and Gramps arrived in Quebec from Southampton, England, on June 9, 1912, on the passenger ship Ausonia, along with my mom and her older sister.
It gave me a bit of a shiver to see the ship’s manifest with their names on it, rather like reaching back through the years and touching them, imagining what it would have been like for them, arriving in a new country with all their belongings to start a new life.
One of those belongings stands in my living-room today—an old English piano with brass candlesticks, apparently one of the possessions they didn’t feel they could do without in their new home.
It weighs a ton, as anyone who has ever helped me move knows, so I wonder who carried it across the country to Medicine Hat. If it could only talk.
And that’s just on Mom’s side of the family.
As for Dad, there’s already been considerable research done, books and papers written.
There’s even a Steeves Family Incorporated in New Brunswick, which is considered the home of the Steeves and is where he was born.
It’s been 250 years since the Steeves name was established in the Peticodiac in 1762, anglicized from Stieff, after Rachel and Heinrich immigrated to Canada from Pennsylvania.
Of their seven sons, my line is descended from Lewis.
Peeling back the layers
Layer by layer, like the skin of an onion, ancestral information is being peeled back, revealing my bared roots.
First, there’s the layer I know and can picture, even if they’re no longer on this earth—my parents and their parents.
Beyond that, though, we’re digging up names that are only faint memories from way back in younger years, mostly from hearing references to Gran And Gramps, Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather and someone they all referred to as ‘Dumps,’ likely Great Uncle Afred Attrill.
But, as information is dug out, it triggers memories of stories about some of these people and that leads to new searches, armed with a tidbit of new information.
Who knew these roots would extend forever? But then, of course, they do, don’t they?
From tap roots right out to the hair roots on the tips, they just go on forever, back in time.
We are the product of all those ancestors, from beyond where we are able to go in our searches.
And our children and grandchildren are the next recipients of all those combined personalities, health qualities and physical traits of all that went before—plus our own contribution.
Wheezy, sneezy, cheery, sunny, fat and thin are all determined to some extent by our genes, supplied by our ancestors. They’re what makes us, well, us.
Which may explain why there’s so much interest these days in digging around in our roots, trying to unearth the reasons why we are who we are.
In the absence of live ancestors to whom such questions can be posed, there are many websites, libraries, church and community archives, and other sources to which you can turn to research your family tree.
In fact, the Internet has become a great boon for genealogy enthusiasts, providing a shortcut to all sorts of information stored in databases all over the world, wherever someone has taken the trouble to digitize the data and upload it.
Digging among your roots is possible from the comfort of your favourite chair today.
However, beware the temptation of the easy dig and don’t graft branches of someone else’s research efforts onto your family tree just because there appear to be some links.
Claire Smith-Burns has been involved for many years with the Kelowna and District Genealogical Society. She is conference 2012 chairperson for Harvest Your Family Tree, where she hopes to see hundreds of people interested in researching their family trees attend workshops to learn more during the Sept. 28 to 30 event at Okanagan College.
This three-day genealogical conference and marketplace is Western Canada’s largest since 1998. It will include talks by seven internationally-acclaimed speakers as well as dozens of workshops for people at all levels of experience.
People must pre-register, but there are some free sessions, including the open house, marketplace and reference help and you can just register for a single workshop.
For details of speakers and workshops, go to www.kdgs.ca
Beware of badly-grafted branches
There are pitfalls lurking on the Internet for those who are embarking on a search for their roots.
For instance, when genealogist Claire Smith-Burns began to trace my Mother’s mother, Emily Attrill’s family roots, she discovered that while it’s not a particularly well-known name here, it’s extremely common on the Isle of Wight, off Southern England, where Mom’s mother’s father was born.
And, James Attrill was a not-uncommon name there either. There were two of them born within a year of each other on the Isle of Wight, Smith-Burns found, after adopting a family tree from someone else’s research that looked like it fit in with the other branches of my family tree.
She discovered she’d been led out onto a limb by this easy ‘graft’, so she now had to cut it out and begin anew.
As any experienced researcher knows, only your own work can be considered reliable, so it’s important not to build on someone else’s foundations.
“Family trees posted on Ancestry.ca and elsewhere on the Internet can be fraught with error. Often these trees are a result of compilations where family tree researchers have grafted several branches of other people’s family research onto their own tree.
“As in this example, they are not being careful about proving that the branches belong on their tree, but just trying to grow their family tree by fitting on branches using minimal proof,” commented Smith-Burns.
Some impossible relationships can result, such as an actual instance in which my third great-grandmother born in 1799 ended up with a son born in 1763, 36 years before she was even born!
Research culminating in that branch of the family tree obviously had gone awry, she notes.
In another instance, on one branch of the family tree the research indicated that a 105-year-old woman would have given birth.
“It is easy to be led down the wrong path in genealogy, so be sure to do your own research using reliable sources and recording what you found and where you found it,” she advises.
“Do not move on to the next generation until you have found solid evidence for all the important events for the ancestor in your current generation of inquiry,” she adds.
Names are a fascinating part of the search. They are often repeated throughout the family, but that can be mis-leading too.
My middle name and my granny’s middle name are the same, and my daughter was named Emily after her.
My grandson carries the same middle name as his grandfather.
It’s about families; family trees and ancestors. We were born with them and we can’t escape them.