Baby Shower Genealogy
At a recent baby shower, I began daydreaming about all the babies born in our family, stretching back and back into the mists of time. I’ve traced back the various threads of our family - to England, to Colonial America, to Sweden, to Germany. How marvelous that these threads should braid together in this wonder - my grandson.
I’ve been researching my own family tree for several years now, in fits and starts, as time permits. It can be as simple as asking a question of the right person, or as complex as unraveling the da Vinci code. I began with Mom, getting the real names and birthdates of her siblings and parents.
Mom remembered the names of Dad’s brother and of his aunts and uncles, too. In that family, though, the names she remembered were not always helpful. Dad was born in Duluth, Minnesota. Armed with the list of names, I googled Duluth Minnesota +genealogy. As most counties and provinces do, Duluth has a genealogy website. Each one has its own resources online, and they are all different. Duluth has births, deaths, and marriages for the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But I could not find Ed, Dutch, Orrie, Bill, Jeanie, or Annie. I found William and Anna easily enough. I knew Jeanie was really Georgenia and Orrie was really Robert Orwell, because they had given me bonds when I was born, with their signature. Ed turned out to be George Edward. On further questioning, Mom remembered that Dutch was really Ewart. Not quite—he was Walter Ewart. And Henry had been forgotten altogether.
How did I find these relatives? On the census records. From surprisingly early times, governments have counted citizens. The information given varies widely, but usually includes the head of the household, spouse, and all the children, with their ages, birthdays, and occupations. Sometimes the value of their home or farm is given, too. And a great many of those censuses are searchable online.
I was quite shocked at how imperfect the census records that simply give an age can be. When I had the correct names, I could easily find the birth records—and learned that census records were often imprecise—even a decade off!
I found that Dad’s family were in the census records for Duluth from 1885 on, but not before that. Where had they come from? I checked the naturalization records for the boys, and learned they had come from Canada. I learned their parents’ names because each spouse was required to list their mother and father on their marriage record.
Then I found the family on Canadian census records and learned which county they lived in. I posted a message on the Rootsweb mailing list for that county. Soon I was contacted by a relative in Canada who had the complete genealogy of Dad’s father’s mother’s mother. It went back to the early 1800’s in Cumbria, England. On the Rootsweb mailing list for Cumbria, I contacted a relative who still lived there, and who had the complete genealogy of family members who had stayed in the Mother Country. Dad’s father’s mother’s father was the son of a Tory who moved to Canada after the Revolutionary War. I learned this from a distant relative, who contacted me after I posted a query on a Rootsweb mailing list.
Dad’s father’s father remained elusive. I knew he was Robert Harper, and that he had married in Canada, though I did not have that record. I couldn’t go beyond that, until Mom remembered that Robert had a sister, Kate, who lived in Superior, Wisconsin, and whose daughter Samantha had married a Bingham—and the Bingham’s owned a hardware store.
I was on the chase again. I found Samantha’s marriage record, and learned that her parents were Catherine and William Williamson. On Catherine’s death certificate, her father’s name was given. I thought it was Orvid. An odd name, but it made sense because Grampa was always called Orrie and Dad was Robert Orville. But, be prepared, because old handwriting can be hard to decipher. I found Catherine and Robert Harper on just one Canadian census record, when they were children in 1851. And their father wasn’t Orvid. He was David. I found David, wife Jane and Robert, Catherine and two other. I was able to trace Catherine, but not the other two children. And I couldn’t find David or Jane after 1851.
When I returned to genealogical research after a rather long hiatus, I subscribed to Ancestry.com. It has a huge collection of records, from countries across the globe. Imagine my delight when I found that David was one many, many brothers and sisters who immigrated to Canada with their parents from Suffolk, England! Our Harper family is very small—all at once I had a huge flock of cousins (very distant cousins). One of them found David in Nebraska, with a new wife and two new children. A kind couple in Nebraska answered my query on the Rootsweb mailing list for the county in which they lived. Lo and behold! He had married a third wife after wife number two died, and a fourth one after that. I’ve been able to trace one of my half-cousins to Iowa, but the other one proves still elusive. I hope to find an obituary that will give me more clues. It’s addictive, this voyage of discovery.
And I am struck with wonderment at the long and tangled skeins that have come together in this baby, this miracle of time and place and mystery.
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