Conditions weren’t the best to be tromping through a Scottish cemetery but Fort Frances resident Gordon Ross was on a mission—he was looking for his ancestors.
After hours walking between the tombstones in the wet, dreary weather, he and his brother hit paydirt. A chiseled, thin slab, a piece of history dating back to 1775 and 1771, with information that had eluded him for years about not just one but several family members.
“It was our best find on our trip,” Ross enthused, noting the pair had taken the trip five years ago to gather information on their family history. “When we found that tombstone, we were really ecstatic.”
Tracking their lineage is a practice royal families have been doing for centuries. And many speculate—or joke—about the blue blood passed down in family lore. But more and more, “ordinary” people are delving into clues from their past to unveil their own history, and getting to know more about those who brought them to where they are today.
“It’s absolutely fascinating,” remarked Jo Olson, who admitted she doesn’t spend as much time tracing her family lines as she would like. “It’s like looking into a whole other world.”
“It just seems to be a driving force that’s getting bigger and bigger all the time,” echoed Keith Watson, a volunteer with the Fort Frances and District Family History Centre who has been tracing his genealogy for more than 30 years.
“What really got me going was when my grandfather died,” Watson said, noting at that time, he starting talking to family members, then writing away for the proof of his ancestors.
“It’s addictive. You have to be somewhat of a detective to get into it and look for clues,” he added.
“Clues” include tidbits of information people can garner on family members, whether through word-of-mouth or from physical evidence, such as tombstones, that can lead them to the primary evidence—anything written down within a month after the event occurred, like a birth, death, or marriage certificate, or land title records (written documentation that will connect that person to the family line).
Given the first official census was taken in the mid-1800s (prior to that, churches were responsible for the records), and that people didn’t use surnames until the early 1400s, it can be a challenge.
That often leads genealogists, both professional and amateur, to spend hours peeling over leads—and sometimes misleads—in cemeteries, newspapers, churches, courthouses, museums, and archives.
“You can use the secondary evidence to get to the primary,” Watson noted. “[But] if you can’t prove it, then you go drifting off on another line.”
“[And] some things you can’t prove definitely,” added Lisa Strom, another history centre volunteer.
“It’s sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” agreed Ross.
Ross’ search began about 15 years ago after he retired. A first-generation Canadian on his mother’s side and second on his father’s, he said he’s amazed at how his two parents (one from England and the other from Scotland) happened to come to the Rainy River District, meet, and marry.
“I guess I was always interested in hearing about the family on my mother’s side,” said Ross, whose mother came to Canada when she was 18. “And of course, she always told us stories about the old country.
“I just wish I’d listened to my dad, asked him more questions,” he added.
A self-described history buff, Van Green has collected family information off and on since high school. When he retired seven years ago, he found more time to look into his past. He’s taken several trips to gather information, including visits to U.S. towns and an old homestead in Norway.
He has his mother’s family traced back to the 1500s, with the help of a genealogy book he picked up while visiting there.
That is one of the obstacles for those doing their genealogy. Any documentation is written in the language of its origin, or in Latin. That means sometimes using a language dictionary to translate.
Green, a first-generation Canadian, is “bogged down” right now getting the proof on his father’s family. His father, the youngest of 10 children, could list the family ties on both sides of the border but some of the information died with him.
“[And] I didn’t know my father’s parents,” Green added, admitting in tracking the family lines, being one of the older relatives was very sobering. “There’s nobody to ask these things.”
“Unfortunately for most people, it’s a project they start later in life . . . and then you’ve lost the human touch,” noted Strom, who first began tracing her roots three years ago.
Even though she has no interest in history books, Strom has more than 2,000 names recorded in her family history, and eventually plans to have the information compiled in a booklet for her relatives.
But she admitted having some history background helps when figuring out why people moved to specific areas.
“Certain historical events would affect where the population was,” she said, citing World War I where people from different corners of the world came together.
Locally, the fur trade and the Canadian government’s effort to populate the west brought people to this district.
“I’m not a real history buff,” said Olson. “But it’s like a personal revelation when you find things out.”
And it isn’t just about names and dates. Many people are interested in the family stories that connect them to what was happening in the world at that time. For instance, Green noted his ancestry goes back to the American revolution (rebels, not Loyalists, he added).
“You have to have a pretty good background in history to understand why they left [their motherland],” Watson said, noting circumstances in a country at that time help tell the story of the family’s situation.
Olson’s great-grandmother recorded about World War II and how she felt about Hitler. Stories like that give a very personal side to history, she noted.
“I think stories like that are treasures so when they’re told to us, we should record them. You rarely get to hear a personal experience of something,” she stressed. “[And] it’s very important to record tragedies.
“It does give you a chance to look back and be able to count the blessings in your life,” she continued, noting it was an opportunity to see glimpses of all those people who forged the way to make your life what it is today.
When you look at the difficulties they encounter, you realize how good you have it, she added. And from that, you feel a bond.
For Olson and Watson, recording their genealogies is more than a hobby. It’s part of the Mormon belief that the family is eternal and that marriages endure forever.
“I guess it’s because of the eternity of our natures,” Watson explained, referring to the last verse in the Old Testament.
For others, though, tracing the family tree is just a pastime. But many admit time is often fleeting when going back.
“There’s not enough hours in the day, and I’m retired,” Green laughed.
“It’s time-consuming but very rewarding when you hit paydirt,” Ross agreed.
While she’s backed off since she first started, Strom estimated she still spends some 10 hours a week recording the family history.
But where does the journey end? How many branches are enough on the family tree?
“I’m not concerned with a final end. I’m just having fun,” Green said. “It’s the fun of getting there and always meeting new people. [But] there’s always another hill to go over.”
As for Strom, she figured she’ll get back to the mid-1700s before the clues disappear. “I’m still looking for the castle,” she joked.
But Watson admitted he doesn’t see himself stopping on his quest, noting he’s considering becoming a certified genealogist after he retires and making a career of doing family research.
“Once you get into it and you get bitten by it, you get addicted to it and you can’t let go,” he said.