The Untold Story
Facts are important, but stories provide meaning - assuming you have time enough to hear them.
Tucked away in the word history is the word story. Genealogists and others trying to discover our present by studying the past often lose sight of the narrative in a Sergeant Friday-style search for "Just the facts, Ma'am." Names, dates and places are details that a family tree requires, but with just these, the tree may resemble un arbre de Noël in late March: lots of trunk and branches, but few needles to remind us that it was once a living thing.
As my wife and I drove home along Nova Scotia's South Shore from a visit to Tusket, I thought of the contrast between the people we met there and the harassed-looking motorists and shoppers we encounter in the city. Tusket residents were willing to converse, to listen and to share an anecdote. There was, to quote a lovely Irish expression, time enough. Everyday living there involves sharing and giving. People are polite to one another-in part because they share a space with only so many others, and will often cross paths.
Have urbanites lost the sense of community that still lets visitors to towns and villages feel at home?
Thousands of workers and students spend a fortune in nerves, time and fuel commuting to the city each day. Hundreds flee metro every weekend and during their vacations. Where do many of them go? Why, home, of course-to Mabou or Souris, Hillsborough, St. Anthony or beyond.
One result of all this coming and going in the city is that we rarely find ourselves at home in the bosom of our biological and social families. Our rushing about reduces human interaction of the more personal kind, resulting in a sense of detachment from others. People spend so much of their lives inside the shells they build around them that some turn to genealogy in the hopes of connecting to someone or something. They may come to know more about great-grandfather than they do about where their 13-year-old hangs out or with whom… genealogy is great, but don't sacrifice the living to the search.
People who live and work in Tusket, and a legion of similar places, are already home. Folks have time to connect as a community when there are fewer distractions, and when they are among those they know. When I meet people in places like Tusket, many times we form an easy connection within minutes. I may be from away, and they may be displaying their "company face," but visitors who come with an open mind and a story or two to share are on their way to making friends.
As we drove along we stopped on the way, in one instance gathering broom (genista) on the roadside to use in making a whisk. The plants didn't just happen to be there; they are the epitaph for a vanished nursery. We found a sand dollar on Rissers Beach-a shell the size and shape of an old dollar coin. Further along we came upon a shoreline littered with thousands of unusual black stones. Is it soapstone? Serpentine? Serpenitite? It can be carved, sawed and drilled without breaking. We'll have to find out what it is. What will its story be? What can we make out of it?
On the LaHave ferry we pointed out Riverport to a woman from Massachusetts… "and there to the right is Five Houses. Well, there's a reason we call it that…" The family history of the Oxners, Reinhardts and others takes on a new currency as we speak.
All the while, in a box on the back seat of our car sits a bowl made from a burl, a hard knot of wood from an old tree. Who made this thing of beauty, shaping and polishing it with care into a masterpiece? What tales could that tree tell us?
People have a history, but everything has a story. In smaller places someone knows those stories and can tell them.
Let's hope the genealogist has time enough to listen to the stories in his or her family history.
Dr. Terrence M. Punch is the author of the newly released book, Erin's Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada 1761-1858 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008).
Finding a Death Date
If not through keepsake posters or commemorative plaques, how do you find out when great aunt Ruby died?
Most people interested in genealogy become stuck at some point, unable to find out when a family member has died. In some cultures, including the Cajun, funeral posters were put up in a prominent place within a community to announce a death and, by implication, invite concerned parties to the wake or burial. Among German Protestants, funeral sermons were sometimes printed as souvenirs of a funeral. These Leichenpredigten were rare, but informative. Another way of marking a death was the funeral hatchment, a shield hung in a church where an armiger - person with a coat of arms - was buried. These are rare in Canada, yet Saint Paul's Church in Halifax possesses eight of them. Just as Protestants may have had a funeral sermon, many Roman Catholics who died were commemorated by funeral cards, useful as bookmarks in missals, asking the recipient to pray for the repose of the beloved's soul. If your family was not German nor Catholic nor armigers - and you've determined that relatives can't help you - it's time to turn elsewhere to find a family member's date of death. Many newspapers keep files of obituaries for the past 20 to 40 years… but the period before about 1960 can stretch back like a desert. What to do? Perhaps you know where the relative was buried and there is a headstone. Maybe Aunt Ruby belonged to a church you can identify, and the church or the cemetery connected with it has burial records.
Or consider this idea. For the past 120 years, funerals involved professional funeral directors, or undertakers as we once knew them, who maintained burial registers. Apart from names and dates of death, you might also find the cause of death, place of burial, names of next of kin and place of residence. Records from some funeral homes have been deposited in provincial archives, through it's more likely that they're on hand, either in their original books or in microform, at various local and regional museums, genealogical and historical societies.
If the person lived in a city or good-sized town, there will be sets of directories in the community library or a heritage-related body. If you can find that Ruby is listed in the 1942 city directory, "Slippers, Ruby, wid. (widow of) John," and she is not listed in 1943, it's possible that this omission from the directory followed a more permanent disappearance. Check the directories for two or three years on either side of 1942 and 1943 to ensure that she was there until 1942 and gone after 1943. Note that directories missed people - or misspelled names - through carelessness or because there was no response at a specific address. But at least you can narrow down the likely period of death in which to focus a search through, say, the obituaries of newspapers.
You can sometimes learn a death date most readily by examining an index to probate records for the county or district where a family member lived - assuming the deceased owned property. Since 1900, death dates were usually entered in indexes to estates probated. If not, and you find that there was a will, find the date of the will and the date of the earliest probate document and you'll know that the death date falls within the period. For example, Ruby Slippers made her will on September 18, 1942, and a document in the estate file is dated August 8, 1943, so you have 11 months of obits to search through. If you know the province, but not the specific probate jurisdiction, there will be notices in the province's Royal Gazette, inviting people with claims against the estate to put in their accounts. From these notices you can see which county/district applies.
A few final ideas to keep in mind. Did the person belong to a society that might have noted members' deaths in minutes, newsletters or bulletins? There were Masonic Lodges, Royal Canadian Legions, Charitable Irish and North British societies, etc. University publications also sometimes note deaths of alumni. Leave no stone unturned. One man discovered that his grandfather was dead by a certain December because his estate made a donation to the Goodfellows fund, which appeared in a daily newspaper. Be prepared - with an open eye, ear and mind. Genealogical clues turn up in the darndest places.
Same but Different
People have always moved around, spreading their culture to the far corners of Atlantic Canada.
Genealogists quickly learn that people do not remain in one jurisdiction. Most learn to cast their nets wider than one church, one community, or one record, since not all members of an extended family stay in one place, denomination, or line of work.
There was movement across this region from the earliest years of human settlement. The Mi'kmaq migrated. The French began in New Brunswick in 1604, but within a year set up house in Nova Scotia. In the century before the Expulsions, the growth of pastoral Acadie spread people of French ancestry or birth across the expanse of the Tantramar, which forms part of both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The "Foreign Protestants" of the 1750s did not remain in Lunenburg, or even Nova Scotia. A Beck (Peck) and DeLesDernier turn up early in Chignecto; the LaRoque's census of 1752 reveals a few others (Henry dit Maillardé and Abraham Louis) at Port La Joye, while Jonahs and Jaillets moved to southeastern New Brunswick before 1780. Likewise, the Yorkshire settlers of the 1770s straddled the border of the two future provinces.
In the 1760s, Prince Edward Island had been shared out by lot among 67 proprietors. Many Scots and Irish discovered that they could not obtain freehold title to their land. In general, tenants have less incentive than owners to improve a property. A man who proposed to farm had first to make the fields. Should the tenant farmer's rent fall behind, he could find himself turned off the land he had cleared, together with his family and livestock. This encouraged removal to the mainland, where land could be bought or granted.
The New England Planters of 1759-1774 distributed themselves over the western mainland of Nova Scotia and in the Saint John River valley of New Brunswick. The Loyalists of the 1780s founded new communities all over the Maritime region, in places as diverse as Guysborough and St. Andrews, Digby and Bedeque, Sussex and Shelburne. They migrated internally within the Maritimes in search of better opportunities. Black Loyalists reached Charlottetown and Saint John, Preston and Manchester.
The Highland Scots and the Irish immigrants of the early 19th century preferred to settle among their own people, so the same Gaelic traits arrived in all three provinces.
With local exceptions, the people who settled in the Maritimes were drawn from the same basic human stocks. Mulgrave could have been described as an Irish community at one time, and Pictou as Scots. Likewise, Kinkora was Irish, and Mount Vernon was Scottish, but each pair is located in a different province. Meteghan, Tignish, and Caraquet are Acadian communities, but found in three provinces. In varying proportions, the same kinds of people came to each part of the area.
Any historian or genealogist needs consciously to remember that many families have members or branches in more than one of the Maritimes.
An illustration of how people got around is the Bradshaw family. Abraham was born in Medford, Massachusetts, and died in Chester, NS. His son, Joseph, lived at Kempt, NS. Another son, William, died at St. Martins, N.B., and a third, Isaac, lived at Bedeque, PEI. It would be an indifferent family historian who confined his work on that family to one province.
Chester people were drawn to the Bay of Fundy in the age of shipbuilding. The Bradshaws were not unique. Saint John and Halifax were once regional mercantile rivals. Halifax was the mercantile hub for the Atlantic seaboard, from Barrington to Sydney, and through the Gut of Canso into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Chatham, NB, was closer to Halifax by sea than was Saint John, so Halifax enjoyed its traffic. Saint John held sway throughout the Fundy rim, including the Nova Scotia coast all the way around from Yarmouth through to Amherst.
This rivalry decided where each province built its first long railway. The line from Halifax to Windsor was intended to cut into Saint John's hegemony on the Bay of Fundy, while New Brunswick's Shediac line was meant to wrestle the business of the Gulf coast away from Halifax. Each time a business interest established links with an outport, personnel moved to new places. Crewmen made homes ashore in another province, perhaps marrying local women.
All of this does not even begin to talk about the Newfoundland folk who settled near Ingonish for the fisheries, or in industrial Cape Breton for the mines and steel works, nor the Scots from Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island who moved to the Codroy Valley, or the Acadians at Port-au-Port.
Blessed if we aren't all the same bunch in many ways.
Secrets & Social Norms
You can't find records if they don't exist.
Genealogists love it when all the pieces exist, and they solve the puzzle. If only that were always true, how happy we'd be. It isn't true, but you can still be happy - if you're prepared to accept facts. Repeat after me: "Some records don't exist."
But why not?
The first reason may be resolved some day when the record that does exist gives up its secrets. Poor penmanship, wretched microfilm, language difficulties, illiteracy, bad spelling… each of these can cause a record to "disappear," in the sense that no one reading it gets anything relevant from it.
Some records do exist, but they are just plain wrong. Let me provide an example. We find Johnny buried on January 5, 1859, age four months. In the baptism register we have Johnny christened on October 10, 1859, one month old. Perhaps the minister made the sort of human error we can all make, forgetting to change his mental year to the new date. Once we figure that out, we see that Johnny was born in September 1859, and buried in January 1860. So the record was there, but it was wrong.
The same thing occurred sometimes where the clergyman confused the names of married parties and witnesses, and the best man is entered as marrying the bride, while the groom looked on. I have seen this, and more than once!
So far I've mentioned records that exist but mislead. There are also cases where there was no record produced at the time and therefore we're seeking in vain. As colonies, the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland were casual about such things as passenger lists, so thousands of newcomers, mainly from the British Isles, turned up here by means unknown.
Some officials did not consider people from Ireland or Britain immigrants at all, but simply British subjects moving from one jurisdiction to another. This may have lead to a few of those tales of ancestors who "jumped ship" as an attempt to explain where the family came from.
If your ancestors were Baptists, there are no baptism records because they didn't practice infant christening. If ancestors died in the country, out of reach of a resident clergyman, they were probably buried in a plot on the family land, or in a community burial ground for which no one kept written account. If no one entered the death in a family Bible, then there may be no record to find. Perhaps you can approximate the time of someone's death by finding probate records or land sales.
And does it matter whether great-grandfather Jones died in 1877 or 1880? Presumably you have established that he is your ancestor, which is what matters. Simply enter in your family record that he died between March 1877, when he witnessed a deed, and the date the census was taken, April 1881.
The most common source of genealogical angst, in my experience, is when people can't find any record of the marriage of ancestors who had large families. Ask yourself this question: How many neighbours or acquaintances live together nowadays and raise children, and you don't actually know if, or when, they were married? Why would people back then be any different than we are now?
Think how easy it would have been to pass yourselves off as a married couple at a time when immigration was taking place on a massive scale. You didn't want to risk bigamy, but you were fleeing a failed marriage and met up with someone else in Minnesota in 1870, or interior BC in 1890.
You became a couple, and if any neighbourhood Nosy Parker asked, you'd smile and say, "Oh, we were married back east before we came out here." As long as no one from back home turned up to spill the beans, you were scot-free. It happened.
So don't think there will always be records. Perhaps what you can't find, never was. Quel dommage! You'll live; I know I did.
Hansel and Gretel?
Finding your ancestral bread crumbs so you don't get lost.
Many of the stories we know as children have a moral wrapped up in the candy-coating of a good tale. Dragons and elves, wicked witches, nasty stepsisters and granny-eating wolves keep us listening to the ?fabulous yarns. We all have our favourites. The tales deliver insights into human nature-our jealousy, greed, selfishness, kindness, love, anger and sense of fair play.