Exploring the lives of First Nations’ Ancestors Through Investigations of Social History!


If, like me, you have been lucky enough to discover you have First Nations’ ancestry you may soon after feel somewhat unlucky when you find that the records we rely on as Genealogists quickly dry up!  As we start to wall up that family line one brick at a time we should step back and rethink.  Is there no way to combat this scarcity of documentation?  How do we as Genealogists and Family Historians handle cultures which thrived on oral tradition rather than written records?

As an archaeologist and history researcher I can assure you that the scarcity of records proving the life events of your individual ancestors does not have to represent a research wall but rather a unique research opportunity.  Once the usual records dry up remove that first brick by discovering what other post-contact documents may exist.

huron-missionsMy 8th Great Grandmother was Huron or Wendat (Wyandot).  The Wendat people no longer exist as a nation.  They were drastically reduced as a result of European introduced disease, and Iroquoian attacks.  Those who survived were often assimilated into the other Iroquoian nations.  I encountered my 8th Great Grandmother through the Roman Catholic Church parish records (Drouin collection).  She had married my French Canadian 8th Great Grandfather and was described as a “Huron”.  Her parents were named as was her birth place in a Huron mission in the “land of the Huron” now part of Ontario.  While these parish records would seemingly represent the end of the research road they were not.

The Huron missions were the purview of the Jesuits who were prolific writers, journaling and writing letters detailing their experiences.  The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents provide an amazing source of documentation and social history.  Though written from a European perspective a picture of life can be painted.  An interesting aside to always consider is regarding the perspective and worldview of documents created during colonization and their pitfalls.  Dr. Sarah Nickel has touched on this problem in an interesting presentation entitled, Revealing Indigenous Histories Through Oral Interviews.

le_grand_voyage_du_pays_des_hurons_1632_gabriel_sagard Can one turn to Indigenous oral history interviews to discover the social histories of our ancestors?  It is possible, though the value of these oral histories may fade the further you venture into the past.  If ones researching First Nations ancestors in more recent generations the options are more varied and available.

In the case of my Huron ancestors few records exist beyond those involving my 8th Great Grandmother.  While she can be found in parish and notary records her parents were only names appearing on her marriage record.  It was through the Jesuit Relations that I found one mention of her father.  A stroke of luck!  To fill in any further gaps I was reliant upon sources of social history to understand the Huron world of the 1600s and before, the world of my ancestors–context!

History books, ethnographies, dictionaries/linguistic studies, archaeological reports are all examples of pre and post contact sources of helpful contextual information.  Having worked on a pre-contact Huron archaeological site in Ontario I was already a step ahead in my understanding but here is a list of reading I discovered:

“From Mother to Son: The Selected Letters of Marie de l’Incarnation to Claude Martin” or “Word from New France: The Selected Letters of Marie de L’Incarnation to Claude Martin”Words of the Huron by John Steckley
The Children of Aataentsic by Bruce Trigger
An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649 by Elisabeth Tooker
The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs by Emma Anderson
Huronia by Conrad Heidenreich
Huron Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle by Georges Sioui

Many of you who were previously unaware of your First Nations heritage will likely have Metis ancestors.  Compilations particularly of French-Canadian and First Nations marriages exist and can also prove useful.  If they have been sourced, all the better!

  • First Metis Families of Quebec Series by Gail Morin

Metis documentation is perhaps easier to find, most specifically in the prairies.  Metis are of mixed Aboriginal and European heritage.  The government wishing to expand in the west used scrip to extinguish the aboriginal land title of Metis peoples.  Métis Scrip Records can be found in the Library and Archives of Canada collection.  Other excellent prairie Metis record databases and collections can be found at Glenbow Library and Archives, The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

perles_christi_belcourtWe must remember that First Nations is meant to indicate a multitude of indigenous nations.  As a first step attempt to determine which nation to which your ancestor belongs.  It is this knowledge which will provide a starting point when determining available sources.  What region of Canada might your ancestor have lived in? In what treaty area?  Consider the time frame.  Then begin!  Research the particular First Nation through history books and ethnographies to determine what was happening during the period of interest and perhaps what documentation might be relevant.

Library and Archives Canada has several collections which could be useful and provides a Guide to Researching your Aboriginal Genealogy at LAC.  Of particular interest to those researching more recent generations might be the registers which start around 1951, Treaty Annuity Pay Lists 1850-1982, and Residential school records.

Other wonderful sites which may provide you with valuable resources:

  • Our Legacy
  • Canadiana (which is unfortunately a subscription site but one can browse the collection titles before subscribing)

2_huron-villageLook to archaeology reports to gain a greater understanding of the life of your ancestors pre-contact.  Archaeological societies exist for most provinces and publish regular journals.   Here are two examples of archaeological reports from a Huron site I once worked on:

Finally, think outside the box by reading well researched fiction for a broad feel of the period and the culture.  Keep in mind it is fiction!  A wonderful example would be The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. Explore historic sites, cultural centres, and museums dedicated to First Nations history.

Remember, the end of the “usual” records we as Genealogists tend to rely on does not necessarily signal a brick wall.  If a wall exists perhaps we can, at the very least, build a window through which we can view the possibilities of the more distant past!



Sympathy Saturday ~ John McGinnis

Obituary of John McGinnis (Collingwood Enterprise Bulletin 14 Oct 1937)

Obituary of John McGinnis (Collingwood Enterprise Bulletin 14 Oct 1937)

John McGinnis was the 3rd Great Grandfather of my husband.  Son of Irish immigrants and born in Flos, Ontario, Canada on 3 Aug 1857. John was a fisherman much of his life.  He moved to Collingwood, Ontario with his parents at the age of 8.  He married his French Canadian wife Mary Jane Burgie 28 Dec 1877 and proceeded to have 8 children, one of whom became a ship’s captain.  John was obviously well-loved and respected and his fellow fisherman nicknamed him “Daytime” due to his early rising!  He was a member of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church in Collingwood and it is in the St. Mary’s Cemetery he was laid to rest joined two years later by his wife Mary Jane.  He died in Oct of 1937 at the age of 80 years.

Headstone of John McGinnis, his wife Mary Jane, and his son Chares. St. Mary's Cemetery, Collingwood, Ontario

Headstone of John McGinnis, his wife Mary Jane, and his son Chares. St. Mary’s Cemetery, Collingwood, Ontario

I have yet to determine the name of John McGinnis’ mother and to trace his ancestors into Ireland.  His father’s name was also John McGinnis (born abt.. 1818).  Ah yes…another Irish brick wall!

Friday Follows ~ Diversions Can Be Practical!

Down the Rabbit Hole

Sorry this was posted late!  My internet went down yesterday.  This is when I realize that reliance of technology can be dangerous! Some great finds this week and the excitement of being interviewed for the Geneablogger series “May I Introduce…” It was a good exercise in self-reflection answering the interview questions.  It definitely gave me reason to contemplate my research and re-evaluate my goals!

The Practical Archivist: Tips and tricks to deal with your archival materials.

~ Family Oral History Using Digital Tools : Amazing articles on ways you can use new technology to record oral histories and also some great ways to prompt oral histories and conversations about family history!  Loved this one about the Census and talking to the blog author’s mother!

Opening Doors in Brick Walls: It was through this site that I discovered Colleen Greene but it also provides great information in its own right!  Lovely family stories which help guide you through the genealogical research process.

Colleen Greene: Colleen Greene is my favourite find this week! Not only is she a Genealogist she’s a librarian, and a web designer.  Because she has a knowledge base in web design and html she has provided fabulous articles on how to improve your blog and how to use my newest genealogy tool, Evernote!  I’m excited to work through her past posts to hopefully gain a better grasp of what this tool can do for me!

Ancestories: Always has great Friday Finds and Follows and she has some great series posts.  I think I will need to try the series of posts on Getting More Traffic to My Blog 😉

Being a Beginner Again from the blog “Life From The Roots” : Great little article that helps put things in perspective.  We all start over as genealogists each time we start a new area of research or delve into the history of a new ancestor…no one is alone!

~ Genealogy Tip of the Day and Genealogy Search Tip of the Day : Always looking for tips, advice, and reminders but it is often hard to find the time to scour the internet and read countless articles.  I like these quick tips!
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Surname Saturday ~ Bryant? Butler? …Overton?

Kinver, Staffordshire Postcard

Kinver, Staffordshire Postcard

It becomes terribly frustrating when you are researching an individual whose surname is entirely baffling!  One often expects to be puzzling over unknown maiden names but there are so many reasons a surname can be a mystery.  I’ve discussed the confusion of the French-Canadian “dit” name, and the anglo-sizing of German names in my family in previous posts but what about the bazaar and unexplained which cause shifts in surnames?

I have been chasing a brick wall ancestor for some time in my husband’s tree with little success.  James Enoch Butler Bryant was my husband’s 2nd Great Grandfather.  Assuming his last name was indeed Bryant and that his father was Joseph Barnett Bryant–the father with which he lived after arriving in Canada–I spent countless hours in search of this Bryant family in England.  But what happens when the Bryant I am in search of turns out to be a Butler?

After fruitless searching I decided that James Enoch Butler Bryant was a terribly unusual name.  It seemed a double surname, Butler and Bryant.  Of course, my first instinct was that perhaps Butler was the maiden name of his mother, or even of a grandmother; Often such names are carried through the generations in this way. I started to search for James and his mother Hannah as Butlers rather than Bryants in the England Census. It took some crazy further searching but I found a James Enoch Butler living with his mother Hannah Butler, grandmother, Alice Sheldon, and  his uncle Edwin Sheldon in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England.  Well, it was a lead so I ran with it!

1881 England Census (unfortunately on two pages)

1881 England Census (unfortunately on two pages)

census 1881 (2)

It is funny how the more genealogical research one does the more instinctual it becomes.  I sometimes imagine it is the hand of an ancestor pulling us along, curling a pointer finger in a come hither motion, visible only to one’s psyche. Regardless of what triggers that sense of correct direction, it’s there!  It is this instinct which aids us to pick up signs, clues, and cues in tracking down the individual or individuals we are hunting.  I felt this lead tugging me onward.  The 1881 England Census indicated that Hannah Butler was married and because she was the daughter of the “head of household” Alice Sheldon I knew the likelihood was her maiden name had been Sheldon but where was her husband?  Beyond having the common last name Butler I had no idea who he was.  There were many Butlers in West Bromwich, as well can be imagined, and I could not find a marriage nor a birth record to indicate the Butler-Sheldon connection so a brick wall was soon laid, each resultless search adding one more solid brick.

It is never futile to try searching various sites in a variety of ways.  I finally did find a marriage record for Hannah Sheldon and a John Thomas James Butler in Neighbouring Dudley, Staffordshire, England in 1876 (James Enoch was born the following year in 1877).  Knowing now I likely had the correct family, I found Hannah Butler’s second marriage in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada to Joseph Barnett Bryant in 1882.  Most poingiant is the fact that, like Hannah, Joseph was also a single parent of a young boy about the same age as James Enoch.  Both were from West Bromwich originally so, while they married in North America, it is likely they met in England.  Five year old James Enoch Butler Bryant was obviously raised by Joseph Bryant as his own kin.

St. Peter's Church, Kinver.

St. Peter’s Church, Kinver.

The mystery now is: What happened to John Thomas James Butler?  Did he die between 1877, the year his son was born, and 1881, when he does not appear with his wife in the census?  Did he desert his family?  I have yet to track his death but this weekend’s free records access on Find My Past has produced one more document which both helps and complicates things further.  I thank John Thomas James Butler’s parents for naming him so prolifically for I found a parish baptismal record for John Thomas James Butler born 23 May 1858 in Kinver, Staffordshire, England to James and Jane (and yes, James was stricken out just as I have here).  More name confusion!  If Jane was his mother and no father was meant to be listed is Butler Jane’s maiden name or the father’s name? And although we know James was not meant to be written was that truly his father’s name but accidentally recorded or was it a complete error?

Baptismal Record of John Thomas James Butler 1858

Baptismal Record of John Thomas James Butler 1858

What I have learned is that John Thomas James Butler at the age of three can be found in the 1861 England Census in Kinver, Staffordshire living with 53 year old John Overton and his 52 year old wife Sarah.  My first instinct is that these are his grandparents but ironically the relationship field for John Thomas James Butler was left blank!  If these are truly John  Thomas James Butler’s grandparents was his mother’s maiden name Overton? Or perhaps Overton was indeed his father’s last name.  I think I must continue seeking the pieces to this puzzle! What else might I discover before the weekend comes to a close?

1861 England Census showing John living with the Overtons

1861 England Census showing John living with the Overtons

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Tombstone Tuesday ~ Just Because it is Written in Stone…

My Great-Grandparents' Headstone

My Great-Grandparents’ Headstone

It is hardly an elaborate, beautiful, or notable tombstone but tonight’s post is not meant to feature some lavish stone with intricate markings or ornate carving.  It is rather a cautionary tale in assuming that everything written in stone is true!  This headstone is a prime example of how inaccurate tombstone’s can be!

Newspaper article with the account of Thomas Carter's death. Woodstock Sentinel Review, May 1943.

Newspaper article with the account of Thomas Carter’s death. Woodstock Sentinel Review, May 1943.

My Great-Grandfather’s name was Thomas with a “Th”.  Though he had lied about his year of birth on occasion, including on his WWI attestation papers, he was more accurately born in 1885 in England. What is most remarkable however is the absolute incorrectness of his death year.  My Great Grandfather, Thomas Carter, died not in 1945 but rather 1943.  Not only had my grandmother recorded his death year as 1943 but his death was actually recorded in a local newspaper article in May of 1943.  His death had made the news because he had passed away at work.

Humorously, it is likely my Great-Grandmother, Margaret Sloan, was born in 1888 rather than 1889. Most documents indicate 1888 as her birth year though I suppose I have yet to find her birth record so I cannot be sure.

Though inaccuracy in a birth date on a gravestone is understandable it is very difficult to comprehend how someone can be confused as to the year of a person’s death while carving a tombstone unless perhaps it was not carved until years later.  It is possible my Great-Grandmother could not afford a stone or its carving initially and it was done years after the death of my Great-Grandfather.

Regardless, it is important to note that while tombstones are a great starting point for information but should never be relied upon as the final word on the vital events of an individual!
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Tuesday Tips ~ Keeping a Brick Wall Ancestors File!

My Old-Fashioned Brick Wall Ancestors File!

My Old-Fashioned Brick Wall Ancestors File!

I do not always feel willing to share my systems of organization.  I am terribly tactile and visual and still find hard copies appealing regardless of all the amazing technology available and the shift to the digital.  However I do realize that I can save far more in far less space and far more efficiently digitally.  It also has become apparent that portability is essential when travelling to archives and libraries, cemeteries, and well, just anywhere our research takes us!  I always carry my phone or ipad to capture information but it has become a hodgepodge of disorganization when not housed together in one organized, efficient system.  It is time to learn to properly use Evernote and change over my old fashioned files!

One file I have been keeping in hard copy format–yes on traditional cue cards in a file box quite like recipes–is my Brick Wall Ancestors File. When I encounter a very challenging, impossible brick wall individual–in our direct lines–on my family tree I created a card for them.  It included all the basic facts I had gathered on the individual on the front and, on the back, what I still wished to discover, the questions I had regarding the individual, and where I might find this information.  Similar to a research plan but in miniature!

Evernote Notebook.

Evernote Notebook.

I’ve found the file helpful to keep my research grounded and focused and helps me to visualize the present reach of my family tree’s branches!  It will be far more useful in a digital, carry-along format and I think Evernote is going to be my go-to location for this file of notes!

I’ve created a notebook for my Brick Wall ancestors and a separate one for my husband’s.  I am ordering the notes alphabetically and have indicated the country/countries of research. I added the key information in bullet points then numbered my basic questions and research starting points.  If I find additional information in my research I have added it through checklists and attachments until I can verify and add to my tree.  Fingers crossed this will be effective and efficient!

Note Example.

Note Example.

Note Example.

Note Example.

Madness Monday: What’s In a Name?

Sophia Johanna Karoline Laartz  AKA Sophia Lewis

Sophia Johanna Karoline Laartz AKA Sophia Lewis

One of  the most maddening experiences in Genealogy is spending hours researching a family and coming up empty time, and time again!  It can be challenge enough when you know the information you are dealing with is complete and accurate but occasionally the information we have to work with is faulty and misleading!  At least we know the names of the people we are looking for…or do we??

Sophia Lewis (Laartz)

Sophia Lewis (Laartz)

I knew full well the name of my 2nd Great Grandmother, Sophia Lewis!  My grandma had even preserved a photo of her with great love and care.  Sophia Lewis had married my 2nd Great-Grandfather Martin Alexander Blancher 3 Nov 1866 in Oxford County, Ontario.  The marriage record index actually listed Martin’s last name as Bluchen, which I believe was a transcription error.  Martin was ten years Sophia’s senior. From this record I learned that Martin was indeed from the US as family lore indicated and his parent’s names were Richard and Elizabeth–good generic names!  Sophia was from Germany–again exactly as my grandma had always stated–and her parents were listed as Christopher and Rachael. It was believed Rachel’s maiden name was Chandler. I was so pleased to have names and locations to work from!

I began to search through the Canadian records to flesh out this family’s story.  The earliest Canadian census I could find for the Lewis family was the 1861.  Christopher was written as Christian but there was Rachel and Sophia and Sophia had siblings, Charles, Christian (Jr.), and Eliza.  While Christian (Sr.), Rachel, Sophia, and Charles were born in Germany, Christian (Jr) and Eliza were not.  This would be helpful in determining immigration year! Sophia had been born around 1850 in Germany and Christian (jr.) was born in 1857 in Canada so the family had obviously immigrated within that 7 year window.

I could trace the family here in Canada, later census records, more children–William, Henry, and Sarah Lewis–but with only Germany as a location of origin for the Lewis family nothing led me further back.  Location, location, location  is everything when tracing family across the pond and I had little more than the vast ever changing country of Germany!

As seems to be the case in genealogy a little luck can be all one needs, one more piece of the puzzle which is the lynch pin, the clincher! It was luck which finally ended the madness.  A woman contacted me on Ancestry.ca.  She had seen my tree and all the research I had collected and realized the family connection.  A distant cousin, she had a private tree of which I was unaware and she had information, amazing information!

Sophia Lewis was actually Sophia Johanna Karoline Laartz, her father Christian Johann Theodor Laartz and her mother Fredericka Maria Linow Shultz!  Sophia’s brother, Charles was named Jahann Karl Frederich, and a sister Frederike Karoline Dorothea.  Of course, I realized Lewis was not a particularly German version of a surname but I had not known about the name changes.  It was backed by amazing documents which were in this woman’s possession and a fascinating story.

The Pastor's Letter 4 May 1855

The Pastor’s Letter 4 May 1855

There was a “passport” letter written, certified, and sealed by the family’s pastor and dated 4 May 1855.  This letter detailed the names and birthdates of each of children and indicated their parents names. Propably to verify the family ties for their emigration. The documents indicated that Christian Laartz and Fredericka (Rachael) Shultz were unmarried.  It seems both worked for a farmer who would not allow them to be married.  At the time servants required their employers permission to marry or they could be hanged.  These circumstances made common-law style relationships, like that of Christian and Fredericka, quite common.  Unfortunately, this was a source of great embarrassment to them when they emigrated and they hid these documents in an old hymnal to protect the family’s reputation.  It is thought that Christian and “Rachael” did marry in Canada in 1880 but I have not found proof of this event.

Meyers Gazetteer entry for Penzlin, Mecklenburg, Germany

Meyers Gazetteer entry for Penzlin, Mecklenburg, Germany

I was grateful for the new information but I was able to return the favour by finding the name of “Rachael” Schultz’s father and German place names on the documents this cousin had not noticed previously: Grob (Gross)  Flotow and Penzlin, Mecklenburg. After a bit of research in the Meyer Gazetteer and some messages on a Mecklenburg message board I was about to learn more about the region.  I am now eager to dive into the microfilm records Family Search holds for Mecklenburg, Germany!

Awareness of name changes and anglo-sized names in the new world can crack brickwalls….a few more pieces and that cracked wall could crumble!
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Friday Find ~~ Sometimes it Pays to Just Ask!

Genealogy is often a puzzle in logic, an exhilarating trail of mysteries, and detective work.  It is a journey into the past which is a fulfilling and a thoroughly enjoyable experience until BAM! one slams into that immovable brick wall.  As genealogists we know these roadblocks are inevitable.  Challenging, these walls can seem impenetrable  but occasionally they are transparent and you are able to see through to the possibilities on the other side.

I smashed through a wall of glass this week!  I had become stalled as I crept out on a branch of my husband’s maternal family tree.   I knew the names of his 3rd Great-Grandparents and their provenance but could not forge back another generation.  Mary Jane Burgie lived in Collingwood, Simcoe, Ontario, Canada and married a man named John McGinnis.  I had found them in several Canadian census records after they were married and knew they had eight children.  I found birth dates on those census records and death dates on their tombstones but try as I might I could not find any of their vital records online.  Genealogical research at a distance has become far easier as more and more information is digitized and released online however it is still impossible to find everything you require on the internet and breaking through brick walls can be trying when you are not on site in the communities, provinces, states, or even countries of our ancestors.

What steps do I follow when I am unable to search a locality’s resources firsthand?

1. I find a message board for the most specific, narrowed locality I can and I post a query.  It is amazing who may see your inquiry and be able to either help to obtain the information you are in search of or already possess it.

2. I research the resources and repositories available in the area specifically local libraries, museums, and archives have been most helpful in my personal experience.

3. I determine what records these repositories may hold.  Most often the local libraries have access to newspaper archives and many now have indexes to obituaries and even birth and marriage notices.

Those are the steps I followed while looking for further information on the Burgie and McGinnis families.  Though I have yet to receive a reply on the message boards for both the Simcoe area and for the surname Burgie in Ontario I did discover that the Collingwood Library has an obituary finder on their website.  After a quick search I found Mary Jane Burgie and John McGinnis along with others of the same last names in the vicinity.  Now I had reference numbers for the obituaries but no way of accessing them.

I am an experienced researcher and I know the goldmine of information obituaries often hold.  I have ordered newspaper notices and documents from libraries and archives in the past often at great expense but I’ve learned it never hurts to ask for information and I have encountered many people I call “genealogy angels”.  “Genealogy Angel” = A person, whether an independent researcher, family member, or library/archive staff member, who takes the time to run with your inquiry and provide you will information–for free digitally through an email or for just the cost of postage through the regular mail–out of the goodness of their heart!  I composed a quick email to the Collingwood Library detailing some of the information I already possessed about May Jane Burgie and John McGinnis, information  I was hoping to discover, and references to the obituaries I was already aware the library possessed.

“It could not hurt to ask”  is a fabulous philosophy!  Two days later I received two emails from a “genealogy angel” at the library.  She had digitized the obituaries I had referenced and had taken the information from those obituaries and run with it to conduct research herself.  I discovered the names of Mary Jane Burgie’s parents, Joseph Burgie and Mary Whalen, the names of their other children and their spouses and the circumstances of Joseph and Mary’s deaths.  I found out where they were born and where and when Mary Jane and John  McGinnis were married.  Unfortunately, I still only know the name of John McGinnis’ father but I also was given the church information I require to search out his birth registration.

burgie, joseph, sr obit burgie, mary obit mcginnis, johnmcginnis, mary burgie

It may seem a minimal amount of new knowledge to some but it has already lead to a wealth of new data, fascinating facts, and new avenues of inquiry for further research!  Take another look at your brick walls perhaps some are more transparent than you might think!
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