Full disclosure: I 100% stole the idea for this post from Michael John Neill, the man behind the always excellent Genealogy Tip of the Day. He recently wrote a blog post titled "My Boring Ancestors", in which he summarized a few quick and anything-but-boring stories he's learned about his ancestors, and it struck a chord.
I admit, I was a bit disappointed when I first started researching my family history back in 2005. While I had no idea what my background really was, I had heard many a grand tale that had been passed down through the generations...all of which almost immediately proved false. Instead, it turned out that the majority of my ancestors were relatively poor farmers, tailors, and labourers from England, Scotland, Wales, and Germany. A handful were moderately successful merchants, fishermen, and businessmen. None of them seemed particularly interesting.
And, unless you happen to have a direct relative of great fame or infamy, none of yours will either, at first. The truth is, most people who have ever existed lived fairly ordinary lives in terms of education, career, and hobbies. Most people were educated to the normal point for their era, had a job common for their time, and engaged in pretty standard activities. If you look only at the basic facts found on most genealogy sites, you are unlikely to find anything of much interest. It's only when you really start digging in to your history that you learn no family is boring.
If I may offer a few choice examples:
William West, 1828-1908, 3rd great-grandfather
William was a farmer from Kentucky. That's about all the census will tell you about him. William was also a man with the urge to travel, abandoning his young wife and child in order to do so. Determined to become a Methodist minister and "fight Mormonism", William ended up making and losing a fortune in the gold rush, and becoming a Mormon. He would go on to marry, have several children, take up a plural wife young enough to be his granddaughter, have a child with her, abandon her and keep the child, become a rancher and missionary, take his entire family to Canada, and help build log cabins in Mountain View.
Bathsheba Layton, 1812-1863, 5th great-grandmother
Bathsheba came from a poor farming family and helped out by lace-making. Her brother Christopher's life far overshadows hers, if the history books are to be believed; he was a well-known Mormon Patriarch, founder of several towns, and infamous polygamist; she was a modest homemaker who never left her hometown in England. Yet, she bore a son out of wedlock and gave him her surname, greatly altering the course of our history. She raised him alone for a time, married a man several years her junior, had several more children, and though her parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews all converted to Mormonism and moved to the U.S. and Canada, she absolutely refused, dying a devout Christian in Bedfordshire, England.
Milton Hough, 1863-1927, 3rd great-grandfather
Milton was born, and died, in Iowa, and was a carpenter for most of his life. He was also known as a great musician and penman, and apparently wrote and performed scores for local theatre productions. His nephew, Earl, and his grandson, Clarence, were both raised as the adopted sons of his brother, Oliver, and Oliver's wife, Mattie. There's obviously a fascinating story there that I've yet to entirely uncover.
Mary Taylor, 18??-1931, 3rd great-grandmother
I've written about Mary before, but I just can't resist writing about her again. On paper, she was just a girl born in England, who, like many others of her time, found herself in the U.S., then Canada, part of a Mormon migration. She got married, she had several kids, she lived on a farm for many of her 6-ish decades on Earth. She also either didn't know how old she was, or lied about it for whatever reason (she personally reported her year of birth as anywhere between 1866 and 1871, and neither of those are likely accurate), and didn't know her nationality (or, again, lied about it for reasons unknown - she claimed she was Scottish, even though her mother was English and her father was Irish). She came to the U.S. at a young age, apparently alone, and lived with her uncle who would subsequently introduce her to the aforementioned William West. She would have a child with him, be abandoned by him, leave the Mormon church, develop tuberculosis, become addicted to morphine, help run a boarding house, meet her husband Henry, regain her health, and start a new family...all before her 30th birthday, even using her earliest given year of birth.
These are just a few of my "boring" ancestors. Ancestors who, on paper, were just small-town farmers, carpenters, lace-makers, and boarding house staff. Ancestors who lived in rural Europe and North America. Ancestors that literally no one has ever heard of. And yet, they all have a fascinating story to tell. They were musicians, writers, single-mothers when such a thing was unheard of, and hushed secrets. They were quiet (and loud) resisters, soldiers on both the wrong and right side of history, criminals, and missionaries. They were tradition-bucking outliers and easily persuaded sheep. They had secret children, secret lovers, secret spouses.
They were many things, but not one of them was boring.
If there is one piece of advice I could give to anyone just starting out it would be...well, it would be to source everything. But if I could throw in a second piece of advice, it would be to always dig deeper. Birth, death, and marriage certificates aren't going to give you much more than some basic facts. Census records may provide a little insight, but likely won't provide much of interest. If you really want to get to know your family, you need to do the work. Search for their diaries (you'd be amazed how many of them kept one, and how many of their ancestors later published them), look them up in newspaper archives, insist on finding their obituaries. Google their name, look up possible images of them (seriously - you may think your ancestors have no online presence, but I'll bet you a dollar they do). Awkward as it may be, interview your living relatives - these are living, breathing people who can offer first-hand stories about your ancestors. Go to the library; ask about books that may feature your familial surname(s).
Once upon a time, I thought my family was boring. Now, I am perpetually blown away by the fascinating lives these seemingly simple people lived. A little digging, a little commitment, and a little luck have taught me that if one thing is for certain, there are no boring families.
Unless you are First Nations, you are Canadian because somewhere along the way, one or more of your ancestors made the long journey from their homeland to here. This Canada Day, I thought I'd introduce you to the ancestors that brought us here.
Charles Henry Harding
Born in 1866 in Woodchester, England, Charles was the eldest child of Joseph Harding and Harriett Mills. In 1883, he married Clara Herbert, and the two had three children in England before deciding to move to Canada in 1888. They first settled in Saskatchewan, where he farmed, then moved once more to Lethbridge, Alberta. Clara passed away in 1910, and Charles married my great grandmother Barbara Strachan, also an English immigrant.
Charles was an alderman and public servant, working as a census taker and in the accounting department for the city of Lethbridge for a number of years.
While it's not entirely clear why he made the decision to move to Canada, it seems it was something discussed amongst his family, as at least two of his siblings also moved here.
Charles passed away in 1929.
Barbara Edina Strachan
Why Barbara chose to make the journey alone from England to Canada remains a mystery, but in 1910, she did just that. First moving to Vancouver and then quickly making her way to Lethbridge, Barbara met and married Charles Harding the following year. The two had three children, my grandfather being the youngest of the three.
Barbara was very active in the church and the community, perhaps a result of her outliving her husband by nearly 50 years. She passed away in 1977, 3 months after her 100th birthday.
George Foster Stalker & Sarah Ellen Easthope
My 2x great-grandparents (whom I still do not have photos of! If you do, I would be elated to see them!) were George Stalker, born in 1869 in Franklin, Idaho, the son of Scottish immigrant Alexander Stalker and American Ellen Foster, and Utah native Sarah Easthope, born in 1871 to English immigrants. The two moved to Alberta in the very early 1900s with their two young children, as well as Sarah's two children from a previous marriage. They settled in the Mountain View area, where Sarah's parents already lived, and had five more children there. George was a rancher and trapper, and was active in the LDS church, travelling to England at least once as a missionary. He passed away in 1940, Sarah having died the year before.
John Easthope & Sarah Taylor
John Easthope was born in Lancashire, England in 1835. in 1856, he married Sarah Taylor, and the two had four children in England. With a group of other newly converted Mormons, the family boarded the Emerald Isle in 1868 for a three month journey to the United States. Sadly (but not unusually), all four children died on the way.
They settled in Utah, and had five more children there. In 1873, John took a plural wife, Sarah Naylor (a name that likely caused pre-internet genealogists a lot of trouble - particularly because two different daughters with the same first name were born less than a year apart!) and they had nine children together. John's polygamy caused him plenty of social trouble, and in 1898, he and his first wife moved to Alberta, while his second wife stayed in Utah. John worked for the Union Pacific Railroad while in the U.S., and as a farmer in Canada. He passed away in Cardston, Alberta in 1908.
Sarah Taylor was born in Lancashire, England in 1836. She worked as a weaver both before and after her marriage to John, and was also said to be an excellent singer who often sung at the Temple. She passed away in 1925 in Cardston.
Samuel John Layton
Samuel was born in 1855 in Kaysville, Utah, son of prominent Mormon Charles Layton and Elizabeth Bowler. In 1874, he married Mary Naylor (if you're wondering if Mary Naylor and the above mentioned Sarah Naylor were related, so did I. Thus far, I've not found a connection, but they did all come from the same general region of England), and the two had one daughter. It's unclear whether Samuel was a polygamist, or if he and Mary split up quickly, but by 1878 he had married and started a family with Sarah Trappett. The two stayed in Utah, having eight children there, before moving to Alberta, where they would have six more children. Samuel held numerous positions in Alberta, owning a general store, working as the local sexton and undertaker, and serving as justice of the peace. He was highly regarded in his community - one newspaper article highlights how what was supposed to be a small family gathering for his birthday turned into a town-wide celebration, and his funeral in 1944 was also a major event. Oddly, his obituary names his wife as Elnora, not Sarah, which suggests he married for a third time after Sarah's death.
Sarah was born in Norfolk, England in 1859. It is unknown when or why Sarah, her mother, and at least two of her siblings moved to the United States, but we can guess that it had something to do with her father dying in 1870 and Mormon missionaries convincing many English families to convert and move to North America. During her time in Utah, she met and married Samuel Layton, and the rest is detailed above. Sarah passed away in 1926 in Taber, Alberta.
William was born in Kentucky, USA, in 1828, the eldest son of Hardin West and only son of Catherine Milholland, who seems to have died during childbirth. He apparently married young to an unknown woman, but in 1853, left her and a child behind when she refused to join him in his travels. He spent time in Missouri, Oregon, Wyoming, California - where he hunted gold and was said to have both made and lost fortunes several times over - Idaho, and finally, Utah. Interestingly, during his travels, he expressed his intention to become a Methodist minister and "fight Mormonism", but was later converted and became an active and prominent member of the Mormon church. In 1868, he married Ann Arnell, and the two had five children. In 1883, at the age of 55, he married (or maybe didn't) the much, much younger Mary Taylor, and their daughter Minnie West was born in 1884. Whatever the relationship between Mary and William, it did not last long, and by 1898, he had moved his family, including Minnie but not including Mary, to Alberta. There, he was a carpenter and farmer, helping to develop the Mountain View area and serving the church. He passed away in 1909.
Mary Elizabeth Catherine Taylor
Since my last post was a lengthy account of what we do, and do not, know about Mary's life, I will just direct you there for the details and give you the short version here. Mary was born in England, and was sent at a fairly young age to live with her uncle, James Kearl, in Utah. It was through James that she met the aforementioned William West, and bore him a daughter. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Colorado, where she met her future husband, Henry Gibboney. The two married in 1892, and had five children in Colorado, before moving to Alberta in 1911. There, Mary reunited with Minnie, and lived twenty comparatively happy years there before passing away in 1931.
Of course, this only tells part of the story. All of the above ancestors are from my maternal line; you'll not find any of my dad's ancestors in the story of how I came to be a Canadian, because my dad himself was born in the United States. Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, he met my mother, born in Lethbridge, Alberta, through related churches. They married in 1978, and lived in Oklahoma before deciding to settle in Lethbridge. This just goes to show how fickle our ancestral stories can be; despite the many ancestors that made their way from Europe and the U.S. to Canada, my own nationality could have been entirely different had my parents made a slightly different decision.
I'm glad they didn't. I am thankful that I was born in Canada, and while I have no idea what my life may have been like had I grown up in Oklahoma, I certainly can't complain about having grown up in Alberta and British Columbia. I look back on the many people that led to my being born in Lethbridge and feel a sense of awe that if even one of them had gone a different way, it would be an entirely different person writing this piece.
Happy Canada Day to all of those who brought me here.
Mary was a woman of many names and stories, almost all of them difficult to trace or confirm. She has variously been recorded as Mary Taylor, Catherine Taylor, Mary West, Kittie West, Kittie Gibboney, and Mary Gibboney. One family tree I stumbled upon even had her listed as Kittie Kearl - a likely result of her turning up on a census record with her grandmother, Elizabeth Kearl.
Even more confusing is her year of birth. While pretty well all sources agree she was born on the 22nd of July, the year has been listed as anywhere between 1863 and 1871 - a huge discrepancy even considering the shoddy record keeping of the time. Mary herself seemed to favour 1871 as her year of birth, but as we will see, she either was not actually sure of her age, lied about it at some point, or let those with inaccurate information do the talking.
Also highly inconsistent is her place of birth. While all of my research points to her being born in England (her parents lived there, her brother was born there, and we know she moved from there), she often gave her place of birth as Scotland: her LDS record, boarding pass, and a couple of census records state this, while two other census records say England, and a death certificate for one of her children says the United States. Why she thought she was Scottish is a mystery - her father was born in Ireland and her mother in England.
All of this confusion leads us to...even more confusion. The first time I wrote about Mary, I stated that I had no idea how she ended up in the United States, particularly considering how young she must have been when she moved, seemingly alone (the 1900 census claims she'd been in the US since 1879). Another of her descendants was kind enough to fill me in a little on that - she had apparently been sent to live with her uncle James Kearl in Utah. This makes me wonder if she had been orphaned - we know her father died in 1872, but I have yet to find a record of her mother's death - and sent to the US where she could be with relatives younger than her aging grandmother. It is apparently through her uncle James that she met fellow Mormon William West, a man four decades her senior. Whether their...ahem...relationship was ever made official or not is unclear, but in 1884 (making her, at youngest, 13, and at oldest, 17), she bore William a daughter, Minnie West. Shortly after, William took his family to Canada, leaving Mary behind.
At this point, she somehow made her way to Colorado, where she helped run a boarding house, developed tuberculosis, became addicted to morphine, and met her future husband, Henry Gibboney. Interestingly, her brother James was there with her, though I've found no records of him outside England, and have no idea whether he came to the US with her or showed up later. Henry apparently helped Mary overcome her health issues, and the two were married in 1892.
Mary and Henry went on to have five children of their own, all born in the United States, and in 1911, the family removed to Canada, partly in the hopes of finding Minnie. The two did indeed reunite, and even had a portrait taken together, marking the first photo of them since Minnie was a baby. Mary passed away in 1931, and is buried in Lethbridge*, Alberta, where much of our family remains to this day.
I think about Mary often; not only because her story is a genealogists nightmare, but because it is fascinating, tragic, and makes me wonder so much about who she was as a person. I can't help but wonder how her life - a life that saw her separated from her parents, sent halfway across the world, wed to a man 40+ years her senior, becoming a mother, having her child taken from her and being abandoned, running a boarding house, developing a serious illness and in turn a drug addiction, and getting married once again, all before her 25th birthday - shaped her as a person. A life that almost certainly would have left her wondering where she fit in and who she could trust. A life in which "stability" was likely not part of her vocabulary. I think about how her early life may have informed her later life. Was she a doting mother, or a distant one? Did her inevitable feelings of abandonment make her strong and independent or meek and fearful? I look at the above portrait of her and like to imagine a woman who has seen it all, and survived. A woman who wore the weight of the world on her shoulders, and topped it off with a fancy hat. But the truth is, of course, I have no idea who she really was. It's taken me nearly a decade just to sort out some of the most very basic facts about her, and just when I think I've done that, I am introduced to a new fact that alters everything. Mary may always remain a bit mysterious, but it is that very mystery that keeps me on this journey.
-Mary is buried in Taber, not Lethbridge
My last post was about Minnie West, my great-great-grandmother, a woman I've long found myself fascinated by. I had no intention of following that up with a piece about her husband, my great-great-grandfather Clarence Layton, as I like to change things up and feature a different part of my family in each post. But it just so happened that, while researching my grandmother today, I stumbled upon an interesting little booklet entitled "Golden Memories of Taber Central School". Yeah, I know, that doesn't sound interesting, but it just so happened to have been written by Clarence's step-daughter, and serves as not only a history of the school, but a partial biography, detailing several decades of his life as the school's caretaker.
Clarence was born on the 21st of April, 1882, in Kaysville, Utah to Samuel Layton and Sarah Trappett. When he was small boy, the family moved to southern Alberta, where Samuel became a prominent member of the community, holding several positions over the course of his life: justice of the peace, undertaker, grocer, blacksmith, school board member, and Mormon elder. Clarence, too, would become very involved in the community, earning the rank of high priest in the LDS church, and devoting most of his life to Taber Central School.
Not a lot is known about Clarence's early life - his father, as mentioned above, held many positions in the community, and Clarence, being his first son, undoubtedly assisted his father in one or more of these jobs. What we do know is that, in 1902, he married Minnie West, and was apparently involved in farming and ranching for the first few years of their marriage. In 1910, with his father as a member of the school board, he became responsible for the gathering and organizing of materials to build Taber Central. From there, he became the school's caretaker, painter, and orderly, and was responsible for maintaining the coal furnace - a job he took so seriously, he actually lived in the school at times to ensure the furnace was always hot. It was this concern, in fact, that earned him his affectionate nickname: Pop Layton. He was perpetually worried about the cold conditions students faced for much of the year, and made a point of bringing the kids that had to walk the farthest or ride in on horseback through the furnace room to get them warm before classes began.
Clarence stayed with the school from 1910, when he was just 28, until his death at 72, in 1954. Over the course of those 44 years, he helped build the school, worked as its janitor, caretaker, painter, orderly, furnace man, and cadet advocate. The final entry about him in the book I discovered today reads as follows:
In October 1954, a familiar figure at Central,
As stated above, Clarence passed away in 1954. His first wife, Minnie West, died in 1929; they were both survived by their eight children: my great-grandmother Dorothy, William, Hazel, Cecil, Viola, Irene, Harold, and Orlin. His second wife, Elva Pickett, died 26 years after Clarence, and they were both survived by their two children, Patricia and Lynn.
A hard truth in researching one's genealogy is that you absolutely are going to find that some of your ancestors were bad people doing bad things. When you stumble upon an ancestor who spent their life just trying to be kind, you must embrace them, and Clarence is that person for me. Literally every story about him points to his kindness, his compassion, and his dedication to the good of the community. He fascinates me just as much as his wife, Minnie, does, and I am proud to call them my great-great-grandparents.
Certain ancestors tug at us a bit more than others, for various reasons. Sometimes we feel we can relate to them somehow. Sometimes it's because their stories are fascinating and mysterious, or because we can't find any stories at all. Sometimes we get a sense of loneliness when researching them, and feel compelled to get to know them. When it comes to Minnie West, it's all of the above.
Minnie was born in 1884, probably in Idaho, to 56 year old William West, and teenager Mary Taylor. William, already married, took Mary as a second partner, and when the relationship ended almost immediately after Minnie's birth, Mary left the home and Minnie was raised by William and his first wife Ann.
In 1902, less than a year after she shows up as a single daughter in the Canadian census, she married Clarence Layton, son of well-known Samuel Layton and great-great nephew of Mormon pioneer Christopher Layton, in Utah. As Clarence was also living in Canada in 1901, it seems likely that they wed in Utah due to their Mormon roots, especially considering that their first child, my great-grandmother Dorothy, was born in Alberta the next year. Minnie and Clarence would go on to have eight children over the course of eighteen years, all born in the Taber area of Alberta where Clarence worked as a school custodian and jack of all trades. Minnie died at just 44 after "failing to recover from a serious operation".
What fascinates me about Minnie is that every "fact" I find about her is uncertain. Her life, much like her mother's, is a bit shrouded in mystery. Her details offer more questions than answers. Why did William take a teenage bride so late in life? Plural marriage was common among Mormons then, but William had been a one-wife man for over 15 years when he married the very young Mary, and had only one child with her before their relationship ended, making it an unusual situation, even for polygamist Mormons. Did she know Mary was her mother, or did she grow up believing Ann was? The few stories that survive about Minnie indicate she had no contact with her mother until the year after her father died, despite them living fairly close to one another. Does this mean she didn't find out about Mary until William died? Does it mean she knew about Mary but was not allowed to see her? Does it mean Mary chose not to contact Minnie, or that Minnie chose not to contact Mary? How did she feel about having half-siblings, through her mother, the same age as her own children? Why, despite her having been well known and liked in her community, is so little about her known today?
Every tidbit I learn about Minnie sparks my interest in her anew, and makes me ponder if the image I have formed of her is at all accurate, or marred by all I do not know. I think about her often, and wonder if she could have ever imagined that she, the lone daughter of a rancher old enough to be her grandfather and a teenage immigrant, she, the quiet but busy wife of a school janitor, would so pique the interest of her great-great-granddaughter, born half a century after her death.
War is, for better or worse, a major part of history, and therefore a significant aspect of our ancestry. Most of us, if we dig deep enough, will find a point at which our family story was altered, somehow, by battle.
In honour of Remembrance Day, I will be posting a series of entries about my own family's military history, beginning with my closest ancestors who served in WWII.
Frederick Norman Harding
1917 - 1971
Fred was my maternal grandfather, though I never met him; he passed away nine years before I was born. Though fiercely devoted to him (her phonebook entry remained "Mrs. Fred Harding" until her move to a care facility), my grandmother is a very private woman, and did not talk about him much, so everything I know about his military service has been pieced together from newspaper articles and documents I have found over the course of my research.
A September, 1943 blurb in the Lethbridge Herald reports his "safe arrival overseas", and states that he had enlisted three months prior, taking his training in Wetaskiwin. He served as a Private with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, and in late September or early October of 1944, was badly wounded on the Dutch border and airlifted to England to recover before coming home to Canada.
A few years later, he would meet my grandmother, and the two would go on to raise four daughters in Lethbridge. Fred passed away in 1971 at the age of 53.
George Alexander Stalker
1904 - 1988
George was my great-grandfather, the father of Fred's wife. Like many others of his era, he did not talk about the war upon returning home, but he did keep many material reminders, including his stripes, pay books, identification card, and military portrait, which I am honoured to now have in my possession, and which give us an idea of his experiences overseas.
He enlisted on June 26, 1940, at the age of 35. He served as a gunner, earning the rank of General, and was likely involved in several intense battles as part of the Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. While it's not known when exactly he returned home, the last pay book in my possession is from late 1944.
George returned home to a four year old daughter he had never met (his wife was four months pregnant when he was deployed), and their seventh and last child was born a couple of years later. He returned to farming, and also managed a United Farmers of Alberta store. I remember him as a kind and energetic man, who took great joy in family celebrations. He passed away in 1988, at the age of 83.
1906 - 1962
Edwin was my paternal grandfather's step-father. The only son* of German immigrants, he was a postal worker and member of the National Guard in Illinois.
At the beginning of the war, Edwin was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 202nd Coast Guard, and was stationed first in Fort Bliss, Texas, then, due to his having been a private pilot, was transferred to the Air Corps, which took him to Missouri, Georgia, and then overseas to the Pacific Theater, where he was promoted to Captain. In my grandfather's own words, "he flew forward artillery and parachute spottings, won the Bronze Star with 4 clusters, the Air Medal with a cluster, was shot down and survived several days in the jungle of Luzon, Philippines. As the war ended, he was flown to a hospital in Japan, where he recovered from severe jungle rot of his legs, (which plagued him for the rest of his life), and was discharged in 1945."
Upon his return home, he continued his military career, training pilots in both the United States and Turkey, becoming among the earliest tactical helicopter pilots, and finally being promoted to Colonel and Commander of the Air Division of the Transportation Corps. A building at the Fort Eustis United States Army instillation is named for him.
My grandfather speaks highly of Edwin, describing him as encouraging, supportive, and kind. He passed away in 1962 and is buried with his wife, my great-grandmother, in Arlington National Cemetery.
*When I first published this piece, I said Edwin was an only child, when he in fact had two sisters. This has been edited for accuracy.