DiscoverySeries: Genealogy


A Surprising Journey On Researching Roots And Remembering Our Stories

By James Johnson

Since the discovery of child remains in mass unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools, I have thought deeply about roots and the significance of knowing. Of telling stories and remembering. First Nation’s families had their babies stripped from them, often never returning. They have the right of remembrance, of knowing and putting names to lost loved ones, bringing them home. As I acknowledge these sins and responsibilities of Canada’s forefathers, I reaffirm the importance of knowing, of reclaiming lost stories. My family’s own story is on the brink of extinction, and the reality of never knowing the answers to the great questions of where do we come from, and why are we here, that they will never have a voice to answer them, is disturbing.

I knowledge that the land my ancestors cultivated has been contested by many for thousands of years, and my Irish ancestors fled an ancient land in the clutches of famine, disease, political persecution, and death; fled directly into the jaws of a hinterland so cruel and brutal it bred men and women of steel, with humble morals and familial ethics that shaped generations capable of enduring the worst humanity could shake at them. Their struggles, their voices, though not the first of this land, deserve the treatment of remembering, preserving, and knowing. It is with great respect that I offer this story for remembrance.

June, the 1990’s,

A summer sun climbed about noon high as the old Ford rambled down a dusty concession, rolling just fast enough for the dry gravel to kick up an orange haze in the rear view. Pretty dust clouds are not subject viewing on this Saturday morning. My mother kept a relaxed eye on the load in the bed (a mix of scrap, yard waste, and trash that was trying to make a permanent place in our garage). Every summer we would take our yard waste or scrap to the county dump. On the way back, for as long as I can remember, I would ask if we could take the long way home, just to drive past the “old farmhouse”. Each time I would ask the same questions: who’s farm, where did they come from, how are we related, and so on. Each time the same response: “that’s your great, great, great…well it was my grandfather’s, and his fathers, farm. And before that it was nothing. We settled from Ireland, probably Enniskillen.”

And that was that. Every year until I left for college, I’d ask the same questions. In the mid 90’s, when my mother purchased an internet connection (measured in, and charged by, the minute if you can believe that), the web wasn’t yet outfitted to meet the needs of certified sleuths, let alone wannabe genealogist’s like myself. It wasn’t until the 2010’s would start making waves on my radar (though I would remain an unsubscribing lurker for the next decade). Instead of utilizing the growing database of records to search for my local roots and the “old farm”, I tried desperately to seek out any Irish or Scottish connections. Repeated barriers to access, poor research skills, and teenage girls impacted my already overwhelmed mind, and I soon shelved the family tree file.

You see, when the Irish Civil war erupted in 1922, the archives went up in smoke, and until recently, armchair genealogists wondered if their Emerald roots would ever see the light of day. Once a Scotch-Irish Canadian hits this research wall, there are typically two options. First, you can give up and wait for 2022’s Irish initiative to publish their salvaged records digitally. Or secondly, and proactively, you can start off your search at home. Dig deep and look for the roots your ancestors left behind. Listen to your elders and record their stories. Everything matters. Pieces to a puzzle.

On a recent return to my Canadian “ancestral” home town, my greatly improved research skills (thanks to my well rounded Library Technician education) and my mother’s generous gift-subscription to, rekindled my desire to find our family’s stories amid the boxes and folders she had kept safe all these years

Annexing her dining room table, a week long research session led to discovery upon discovery, revealing themselves in artifacts; names; letters long forgotten in recipe drawers; a passport and postcard revealing a relative’s journey to the homeland; and stones that line the old town cemetery rows.

One such discovery came by pure chance, and nearly missed the light of day. Midway through the visit, my mother reached out to a cousin of ours that had particular interests in the family genealogy. Over the phone they discussed who belonged where on the tree, as I jotted notes and paired Mr. with Mrs. “Oh and don’t forget Dr. Bagshaw”, my dear cousin finished. Oh yes, my mother thought, how could I have forgotten?

How indeed? When I located a Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw’s birth certificate, I quickly confirmed that she was my 1st cousin 3X removed. With shaking hands, I plugged this new information into Google and promptly blew my mind. Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw graduated from the University of Toronto in 1905 as one of Canada’s first female doctors.

Dr. Bagshaw would start a practice in Hamilton, Ontario, providing, often times free, medical care to the city’s growing immigrant families. Comfortable with midwifery, immigrants often called on Dr. Bagshaw to deliver their babies, not trusting the usual male physicians that were commonplace. As a result, Dr. Bagshaw delivered more babies than any other doctor from that time. During the pandemic, she contracted the Spanish Flu while treating the sick and dying. Surviving this deadly influenza, Dr. Bagshaw continued to deliver babies, into the 1930’s and the Great Depression. Watching mothers give birth to babies she knew would starve, Dr. Bagshaw did the unthinkable. She helped open and operate the first birth control clinic in Canada, providing women with contraception (often at her own cost) and the knowledge of how to take control of their reproductive rights. She did this at great cost to her public image, personal safety, and professional career. Clergymen from the pulpit decried “Heretic”, “Whore”, and “Devil” every Sunday, despite her actions having significant benefits to society during the times where having more children meant welcoming more death.

Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw (1881-1982) Medical director of the first birth control clinic in Canada.

Retiring at 95 as the oldest practicing physician in Canada, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw’s long and storied career is capped with multiple honours and awards. These honours include Induction as a Member of the Order of Canada, Hamilton Citizen of the Year, a public school named after her, and the Governor General’s Persons Award for her efforts to advance the status of women in Canada.

Her story was nearly lost to me, and I will forever endeavour to ensure my children and their children remember the impact their ancestors, like Elizabeth Bagshaw, had on the lives of all Canadians. These stories are what we must strive to know, to pass on. These stories inspire our young daughters to realize their potentials, to overcome challenges. To build better worlds.

After settling back to earth, and having read all I could on the woman, I left Dr. Bagshaw alone for the moment, and went back to focusing on the family tree. But something kept pulling me to the female names that were scattered throughout the branches. I settled upon two names. Susan and Jane. Nothing was known about these two “sisters”, save for a handwritten letter from a cousin of long ago. In this letter he makes mention of an old cemetery. Not the one I had scoured the day before looking for leads among the rows. No, a secret cemetery placed at the end of the old concession, steps from the family homestead, and nearly two hundred years before, known as Zion. According to this cousin, Zion cemetery was supposedly moved, the remains of relatives interred at the new cemetery on a pretty hill. Years later a farmer would work the land upon forgotten Zion, and come across a pair of old stones.

The lost stones of Zion allegedly bore our name, and belonged to the sisters of the men who came before my mother, and before her father, and before his father, and his. I have only just begun my research into the validity of these stones, including their potential current whereabouts. I know this is a long journey, and the prospects of success are few. What certainly can be confirmed is that these women deserve to have their stories known, shared, and remembered. Whether quieted by time, disease, or terrible injustice, all our human stories must be told.

I wish you all peace and success in your search for knowing. For beginners in Ontario looking for research assistance, or simply a place to start, I encourage you to explore the Archives of Ontario’s guides and tools.

1 thought on “DiscoverySeries: Genealogy

  1. Pingback: DiscoverySeries: Genealogy | Library Tech Files

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