DiscoverySeries: Genealogy

PART ONE :
THE LOST STONES OF ZION

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 Ancestry.com 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 Ancestry.com, 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.

Digital Delights

Are Libraries Still Relevant?

How Future-Ready Libraries Overcame Physical Limitations to Serve Those Sheltering in Place

Estimated reading time for this article: 3 mins

By James Johnson

I recently completed a research paper examining the varied COVID-19 pandemic responses of North American libraries. Of the three major types reviewed (public, academic, school), a consensus was achieved: future-ready librarians, relying on prior years of commitment to digital resource acquisition from capable predecessors, were successful in pivoting to a new, remote mode of service.

In January of 2020 both the United States of America and Canada reported their first cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2. This synchronous infection caused most Canadian provinces and American states to declare emergency measures around mid-March of 2020, respectively. Libraries were ordered to shut in Ontario on March 17th 2020, by the Premier Doug Ford. Similarly, just across the border in New York at the same time, public libraries were shuttering for their part in stemming the corona virus tide

As the economy ground to a halt, so too did our cultural outlets. Concerts, museums, archives, galleries, and of course, libraries all closed. How these institutions responded to abrupt closures is indicated by their seamless ability to function in an entirely digital environment. Those who had prepared, dedicated and curated the components required to facilitate the inevitability of remote-access were incredibly successful.

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) system, an oft cited luminary here on Library Tech Files, provided even more digital resources than in pre-pandemic years, including 2.4 million more e-books than the previous year, an increase of 32%

Not only did TPL open its digital stacks to more Torontonians than ever before, other digital services number in the dozens. It’s sometimes overlooked that libraries are not simply vessels for passive entertainment. Research and education resources are jewels in the TPL services catalogue. Powerful research tools like Ancestry Library Edition were made available for at-home use. Wasting away at home because your job closed? Courses from Lydia, Sage, and Gale are freely available for skill development and enhancement.

I often hear from reluctant readers that news and current events can be hard to come by. Print papers are scooped up by early-risers, soaring subscription prices and soft-paywalls act as significant discouraging barriers. Whenever I hear this argument, at least from Torontonians, I direct them to PressReader, an app that lets users read a vast selection of magazines and newspapers of the day, both locally and globally. All you need is a library card. Everyday, I have the National Post and Toronto Star downloaded to my mobile device via my preference settings in the app. Of course these apps aren’t truly free, our collective citizenry pays for these services through taxes. By that standard, consider it your obligation to utilize them.

Not every library system has the resources or budget to come close to what TPL offers. I get that. I’ve seen the numbers. Every library has its limitations and If one day soon I find myself uprooted to a new, smaller township, I hope to view it as an opportunity to advocate and encourage development of the library-community engagement in an effort to increase the sorts of services I value.

Digital services will continue to develop and prove themselves valuable assets to the library and information user. How your library prepares for future use will determine the continuity of success and user engagement. Libraries have demonstrated that they are community resource organizers and not only relevant today, but perhaps more so than ever.

If you reside in Ontario, consult the ministry’s index for your library’s website and details.

Archivist or Hoarder?

Prioritizing Personal Property and Tossing out the Trash

“A couple of bankers boxes should tidy this place up…”

Estimated reading time for this article: 5 mins

By James Johnson

Today marks the start of the 70th annual Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health week. Looking out my office window I can see the birds reclaiming their posts in the iridescent foliage bursting with fresh buds. A smell of midday BBQ wafts up through the open window and transports me to a promised land: the return of Spring, the precursor to the dog days of summer weather and baseball. With the Government’s assurance of community-wide immunization, a blessed return to normal is on the horizon.

As I ponder this wonderful future, I’m reminded of the benefits of Spring’s arrival. The shutters are flung open, offering a welcoming blast of cool, clean, refreshing air. The mental relief from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is palpable. And as one relishes this new sense of natural freedom, the cascading dust motes and creeping cobwebs jar reality back to the fore. There’s clearly some work to be done.

Spring cleaning takes on many forms for many people. It can take form in yard work and de-winterizing a property. One of my chores as a kid was to crawl under the house to the outside water valve to turn it back on after the winter thaw, so we could water the flower beds. Often times in spring, my brother and I would be tasked with sorting and cleaning out the garage, sharpening the garden and lawn tools, and taking trips to the county dump.

This exercise of sorting the clutter from the crucial served more than the purpose of tidying. Taking stock of what you have and what you need (or don’t need, as is most often the case) allows the home/work/play space to remain inventoried and relevant. A good rule of thumb, say in a home handy-workshop, is to categorize the tools and materials by storing or displaying them according to group and size. When stock is depleted (screws, nails, solvents) it’s easy to know when to replenish it. Organizing our things in a structured manner also helps determine what is essential to us. Out of place tidbits usually get tossed.

The satisfying results of organization demonstrated in the image above not only indicates an organized workplace but an organized mental space. Much of our mental health concerns can be attributed to the quality of our living spaces and how well we care for our persons in private. A strong indication of good health is a clean living space, both in organization and hygiene. Far too often we neglect these spaces by overcrowding them with the uncatagorized. Just the other day I was filing mail that had been left to pile on my desk. After writing on last week’s periodical review I still hadn’t sorted and filed the current issues, resulting in a backlog of completed and yet to be reviewed titles.

I managed to sort out my workspace fairly quickly thanks to some preparation and a simplified classification system anyone can customize to suit their needs. For instance, an often overlooked yet crucial aspect of data redundancy is the hard copy element. It’s also often overlooked that physical representations of data, when stored appropriately, can stay safe and unharmed for hundreds or even thousands of years. On the other hand, digital data loss can occur as quickly as a snap of the finger. Demagnetization, a small drop from a short height, or even an ounce of water can wipe away an entire family’s historical record from a hard drive. For my part, the most important documents are scanned and saved on an external hard drive. The hard copy is filed in the appropriate section of my personal records. This is the most affordable and simplistic home-brew data redundancy methodology and it works great for me.

Alternatively, Cloud based solutions are finally at such an affordable price that securing your data digitally has never been more accessible. But that data, as soon as it leaves your hands, is no longer truly in your control. No doubt you’ve given those privileges away in your user agreement. Alternatively, you can set up your own cloud servers at home, using a RAID setup with network sharing. This can be costly and technologically challenging to the general public, serving as solution for the more privacy-focused individuals bent on preserving their data.

In my case, our family does not need comprehensive data storage services. We are not operating any businesses, save for self-enterprise. Our needs are simple, and so too should the solution: a device’s internal storage for convenient access, externally through solid state hard drives as back-up, and hard-copy for long-term preservation.

Hard-copy is integral, and I’ll give you an example as to why. One tax season, we forgot to declare an income line and were audited. Failure to supply the document could have resulted in serious fines. Thanks to our hard copy organization system, the document was located quickly, scanned, uploaded and received within minutes. It was stress free. Can you say the same of your tax season experiences?

Not only must we keep our spaces organized, so too must we keep our information. Acknowledging hard-copy’s value in data redundancy, filing and storing using colour codes and alphabetization is as easy as it can be. We have several large, water tight bins that stack and allow for quick access using vertical hanging file folders, similar to the image below.

Files” by T a k is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Whatever method you end up employing, data collection, storage, and maintenance should be tailored to your needs. Photo-focused and intent on capturing life’s precious moments? Structure your digital photo library with hierarchies, nested folders, and date points. Most stock operating systems come with organization tools in their photo-viewers. Researching ancient civilizations and cross-continental genealogies? Hard copy those documents for preservation and reference. The outcome should be the same.

Organize your spaces and the information you store in them. Shake off the primal need to save everything for that rainy day. Focus on the essentials first. Taking stock in what you value is no small task and you may find yourself losing enthusiasm as the “keep” pile quickly outgrows the “toss” pile. Don’t be discouraged. Instead, take a break and return to sorting after some time. You may find that a little time and a second pass can help make it easier to reassess an items value.

Most importantly, have fun with it. This is an exercise where the singular purpose is to benefit your work space and mental well being. Stay healthy and remember to reach out to someone if you’re experiencing mental or physical distress. And finally, I ask that if you enjoyed this article and wish to see more content like it, please consider commenting and sharing on your social media.