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.