Thursday, November 17, 2011

Slow Pastime: Genealogy

Since my teens, I've had an interest in learning about my family history. I'm fortunate to come from regions and families that are rich in records and fairly well-documented (at least for the male ancestors), so there is a lot of primary and secondary genealogical source material to work with. However, when I began, nobody had researched the families of most of the women in my family's ancestry, and there were a handful of mysteries: conflicting stories about the parentage of children who were adopted, whispers of an unsolved murder, and rumours of kissing cousins hidden deep in our family tree. Solving those mysteries, and tracing my husband's family (about whom we knew little) back a few extra generations through census and military records, has been one of my most satisfying hobbies.

Martha Stewart Living have a free downloadable PDF for a 7-generation fan chart. via Pinterest.
Researching family history and genealogy is also an inherently Slow activity. By documenting your family history, you are creating an heirloom of sorts, that you will share with other family members and hand on to your children; and you are creating a deeper connection to places where your family has lived (perhaps even planning trips to see those places yourself). Often, people become close friends with their distant cousins or people with similar research interests who they meet through their research. The research process itself can require a lot of patience and persistence, once you've exhausted the initial connections to information that already exists online - which can easily get you really deep into your family's history, if you're lucky enough to have a family that has already been researched (The first couple of days I spent exploring my family tree online took me back to 1464 on one branch of the family, and another branch supposedly traces back to Geoffrey Chaucer, although there are some links there that really need verification.). Also, the latest genealogical software and the trends toward record digitization and cloud data storage are conspiring to make family history research ever more accessible and immediately rewarding to casual hobbyists. That means now is a great time to get started on your family tree (especially since family gatherings during holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are great opportunities to ask your relatives any questions you need answered!). Personally, I'm a fan of the Family Tree Maker software and the / / subscription websites for most online research purposes, but there are lots of free resources out there to help you with your research, and lots of genealogists who are blogging about research strategies and resources. I won't list them here - that's what Google is for - but the Library and Archives Canada website has a comprehensive guide that's both a great place to start as a beginner, and a good reference with links to practically every major website and society.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been working on two tasks. With Remembrance Day on my mind, I decided to look at all the guys in my family tree who served in World Wars One and Two, to see if I could add documentation of their service using these tips from Library and Archives Canada. I was able to add a half-dozen Canadian Expeditionary Force records so far, but most of my family were in the Navy and the Merchant Marine, so I'm still figuring out where exactly their records are held. This can be tricky for Canadians, since the records are split between Canada and the UK, and some of them burned in the Blitz.

My other task has been trying to track down the family of my husband's great-great-grandmother, about whom I knew only what was documented after her marriage in 1879. She's the only Scottish ancestor we've found in our tree, so adding her story to our family history will not only fill in a missing female branch, but create a connection to another country and its history. Family stories say that Christy married her husband, who was a gunner in the British army, as a result of a Lonely Hearts column in a newspaper. I knew her approximate date and place of birth:
Christie (or Christy) Peckham, nee MacFarlane (or McFarlane or McPharlane),
born about 1844, or Sept 1846, or 8 Sept 1844 (depending on which census record you believe), in South Cove, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (according to family records),
Scottish, Protestant (Methodist or Presbyterian, depending on the census).

All the usual online searches were coming up blank, so I needed to use a more old-school approach. 

First I figured out where, exactly, South Cove is, thanks to an 1885 history of the area that's been put online by the Google Books people and a little hunting on Google Maps (thanks, Google). It turns out that South Cove is in Victoria County, southwest of Baddeck on the south side of St Patrick's Channel on Bras d'Or Lake. I also learnt from the 1885 history of the county that most of the Scottish residents along the Channel spoke Gaelic as their first language, and weren't fluent English speakers (the historian had relayed this information as a way of excusing his very short entry on the area).

Once I knew the family's location, I started looking at the online lists of cemetary inscriptions to try to find the MacFarlane families. There was a cluster of MacFarlane grave sites in Boularderie, and another in Orangedale, but both those cemetaries could be too far from South Cove for a Victorian-era burial. I made a note of the names I found in case they'd be handy later on.

The next step was to look at the 1881 and 1871 census forms for the area to find probable families. South Cove itself wasn't identified in the census, so I needed to figure out which district it was in. I ended up spending a few days' worth of my free time gradually reading the original-copy images of all the census forms for Victoria county for 1881 before I found the right district: Little Narrows. Little Narrows is just west of South Cove on the channel, and the high proportion of Mi'kmaq surnames listed in the district (compared with others which were overwhelmingly Scottish) is consistent with Washabuck being nearby South Cove. There were two multi-generational households of McFarlanes living side-by-side listed, and (as I had suspected) the transcriber had misread the entries, so they were entered as having the surname Farlane. No wonder the families weren't showing up in the search engine results! (This seems to be a common problem for the Mc and Mac surnames, since many of them in the census forms I read had been entered by the transcriber as if the Mc was just a middle initial M instead of part of the surname. This is why it's important to take a look at the original copy instead of relying on transcriptions.)

Next I compared the list of family members from 1871 to 1881, and sure enough, an adult child named Christy was present in 1871 but absent in 1881, and was very close to the right age to be our Christy. Eureka! Based on the census, her parents are Murdo and Mary McFarlane, both born in Nova Scotia, and Murdo's parents are Donald and Christy McFarlane, both born in Scotland. They would have emigrated around the time of the Clearances.

This is pretty decent circumstantial evidence that I have found the right family, but not absolute proof. The next steps are to enter the information for this family into my family tree, then follow up any 'hints' the software gives me - and to look for confirmatory information. I'm hoping that one of the decendants of Christy's siblings or cousins are also working on their family tree, and will be able to provide confirmatory evidence. I also hope to make a trip to the area around Baddeck (where my husband and I honeymooned, coincidentally) the next time I'm in Nova Scotia to take some photos and touch base with the local historical society to find out what they can tell me.

PS: Library and Archives Canada is facing funding cuts and mandate changes that dramatically limit the ability of the national archive to preserve and provide public access to Canadian historical and genealogical documents. Read more and take action here.

PPS: I'll tell you more about the kissing cousins and the murder mystery in a future post, I promise. Sorry to tease!

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