Cousins Lost and Found (Part Two)
Our interview continues with librarian and genealogist Jane Dyment who offers superb advice to anyone thinking of wading into their family genealogy. Also, if you have any more questions for Jane, please add them to the comments section of the article. Enjoy!
For me personally, I was so excited when I found a connection to Lucy Maud Montgomery! I read all of her books when I was growing up, and then her diaries when I was older. It’s a very distant, and perhaps tenuous relationship – we’re something like 5th cousins, which is the same relationship that my Portuguese Water Dog has to President Obama’s dog. I don’t see an invitation coming from the White House based on their cousinship.
For the most part, my families are made up of ordinary, hard-working people. There are no connections to nobility, and I have yet to discover a famous person. But I find their lives interesting. Not only did they come to Canada not knowing what to expect, but they did well in both Canada and the United States.
I love finding stories in PEI local histories that add colour to the official records. For instance, there is the story about William Mann’s work on the interior of Geddie Memorial, and how, after a few drinks he gave the first (uncredited) sermon in the church to test out the new sounding board he had built. (See the History of Long River for the full account.) This summer, when I was visiting Geddie I bumped into a woman looking for the entrance to the Church. I mentioned my family’s connection to the building, and it turned out that she had a connection, too. She was a descendant of the Reverend John Geddie. So there we were – the descendant of the carpenter and the missionary.
Now I wish I’d asked my grandparents more about their grandparents when I was young.
Then there are the mysteries that the official records will never answer. Archibald MacFadyen and Mary Ann Beer lived in Lot 31, and had a family of 7 children. Their eldest daughter Jane Elizabeth Bowman seems to have died young, leaving a family of five. Lucy and John Wesley went to the States; Harry Whitefield Bowman was adopted by the Hyde family, little Alvah was a domestic servant from the age of 8 with a family in Lot 31 and then went to the States, and I can’t find a trace of Annie Lulu, born in December 1888. Did she die as a youngster, or was she adopted by a family in Lot 31?
For Thomas Beer and his wife Jane, there is the question of her last name: it is Robinson on some records, and Robertson on others. A grandson was named Robertson, but a granddaughter was called Jane Robinson. Plus, her obituary said she had been one of a handful of survivors on a ship that was wrecked on its way from Ireland to Canada, in 1836. But by that date, Thomas and Jane had children born and baptized on Prince Edward Island. Given the difficulties of the trip, it seems unlikely that she had been travelling back and forth across the Atlantic. What ship was she on? In those days, she might have been on her way from Ireland to the New England States, to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.
For most of my working life I was a reference librarian, tracking down obscure references or finding the right answer to a question. My original plan had been to do part-time work at a local library when I eventually retired, but as they say, life is what happens when we’re making plans.
I decided to see what I do at home, using genealogy sources available on the Internet. Although I am by no means a professional genealogist, (if I can brag) I have an excellent ability to find things, especially in online databases. (However, if people can use local archives, I encourage them to consult the collections available. Transcriptions of records don’t tell the whole story.) I wanted to share what I had found with other researchers.
PEI families are perhaps a bit easier to trace than others. For one, the population is smaller and second, there is a wealth of material available. There is free access to the census records for 1881 and 1891 through the National Library and Archives Canada website, and to 1901 and 1911 records through the website Automated Genealogy; the PEI Baptismal Index is on the PEI Public Archives and Records Office website; PEI Marriages and death records are available on Familysearch.org. The PEI Genealogical Society has put its Computerized Master Name Index on the web, and has inexpensive transcripts of cemetery records that can be purchased. The Island Register has an impressive number of family trees, directories, transcripts of wills, and other documents that volunteers have shared. Then there are the digitized maps and atlases on the website Island Imagined and the full text of local histories on Island Lives. It’s easy to get a start at home.
If other folks are researching their genealogy, what are some important tips that you would offer them?
I’ve probably broken every rule mentioned by experts and regretted it. But first, I think people have to decide what their purpose is. If you just want to organize the information you have on hand, and discover a bit more about your family, then you can take a more casual approach. However, if you want to prove, for instance, that you have a claim to the throne of England, or that George Washington was a cousin, you’ll have to be a lot more careful with documenting your finds and you should consult a book or an expert.
1. As I said, I wished I’d asked my grandparents more about their families. If you have a member of the family who knows the family history, start taking notes. It’s possible that stories about your great grandparents might be of more interest to future generations than absolutely perfect names and dates.
2. It is very important to keep track of where you found the information and to take down all of the information. Sure enough, the name of the witness at a wedding will turn out to be of interest later on! Since this is supposed to be fun, I don’t think the references have to be good enough for a published paper, but you should be able to find the information again, or get back to a good source, without a lot of trouble. If you want to share your family tree with others, it will help them judge the accuracy of your data. I think it’s also valid to say “this information came from my Aunt Annie” or “this is from a family bible” on a record, and let others decide if they want to use your family tree.
3. When searching, be creative with spelling and dates. People made mistakes on records, even official ones. You might know that the name was Beer, and not Beers, but the person taking the census might not have heard correctly. Archibald MacFadyen appeared in one census record as Arch McFadgeon, for instance, and Beer was spelled as Beers, Bears, and Bear. With my families, people might have been named for a relative, but to avoid confusion they were called by their second name. Depending on the question asked by the census taker (what is your first name, or what are you called) they might have given different answers in two sequential census records. So don’t assume that Annie L, born in 1896 in the 1901 census, is necessarily different from Laura A, born in 1897 in the 1911 census. On the other hand, there were two Charles Aulds living in Queens County PEI, born within a year of each other and both with a wife named Margaret. One had a son named Ramsay and the other had Bertram R. At first, I thought that Bertram must be Bertram Ramsay Auld.
4. Be careful what you copy from others. This requires simple common sense. A mother born in 1840 is unlikely to have had a daughter born in 1845; women had a lot of children, but never four months apart; dates on tombstone might be wrong, but a mother who died before 1860 did not have a child born in 1870; a man might marry at age 14, but not at age 4. Just because something has been published in a book does not necessarily make it more accurate than your family Bible.
What advice would you give people in captioning old photos which would help future generations in their research?
This drives my father crazy. He had a pile of old family photos, and has no idea who the people are. “Why can’t people write names on the back?” he complains.
For the photos that I’ve digitized, I’ve tried to give them a meaningful name, with a date if I know it, and then I put them in my family tree with the correct record, or on my computer in a folder for that branch of the family. I try to keep it simple, because I know if I make a complex system I’ll just find it too much work and stop doing it. Over time, I hope to improve my system.
It’s too bad that a lot of family history gets thrown out because no one remembers who the people in the family photos are. Sometimes once you do the family tree you can sort out who the family groups might be, based on the approximate date of the fashions and the size of the family. If you aren’t sure, you can always write “I think this must be cousin Gertie”.
I have a photo labelled “Burlington PEI” that someone gave my grandfather. Are my great grandparents in the group? I am going to put it on my website in the hope that someone might know. I also have a picture of a woman who I think is Margaret Boulter Dyment. I’ve put it on her record, with a note that I’m not sure. I was lucky with my Aunt Laura’s photos because the pictures were labelled with enough just information to identify the people.