Category Archives: Family Tree

DiscoverySeries: Genealogy

This is part two of a Library Tech Files editorial DiscoverySeries. Click here for the first instalment.



A Matter Of Memory And

The Price of Forgetting

By James Johnson

Approx. 10 minute reading time

As summer winds down with a feeling of wanting, the election results have met my expectations. Sitting at my desk, once again looking out on the leaves changing their hues, the desire to shout ‘I told you so’ at no one in particular is quelled by the piles of books, maps, photographs, jotted notes with ink blots, and grave-rubbings that make my corner a little more crazy. Mysteries upon mysteries continue to stack upon one another, the simplest distraction is delightful and regretfully rejected when the work starts begging to be done.

This feeling of wanting runs deeper than a desire for strong government, or the love of autumn; the search for the Zion Cemetery stones is over. The stones have been found, locked for decades in the darkness of a utility shed on the edge of the village’s most populated cemetery. A thousand times a thousand I have passed these gravestones unaware, sat for hour upon hour over four years across the road from them (the township’s high school sits across from the cemetery, and I still often wonder how the school hasn’t yet the been the setting of a cliched horror movie).

Balanced on the literal edge of the cemetery, the land abruptly ends in a perilous ravine where, without care, the resting place of hundreds will inevitably cascade down upon one another. Including this old rickety shed with a mother skunk living beneath its floorboards. The retired caretaker agreed to meet with me to see if the stones were truly there. With him he brought WD-40 and a crowbar “for convincing”. After some negotiations the lock gave and for the first time in decades light entered that place. The air was almost sweet with decay, when wood and earth have met and married too long. Not wet or humid, the dryness of the air made the smell pleasant. There was no mold or mildew or swirling dust motes. There wasn’t much of anything. Except three distinct marble stones lined against the far wall holding the names of our family. Not two stones, but three. After all, I was looking for two unknown sisters. The first portent of inevitable wanting.

The names on these stones were familiar but unfortunately neither Susan nor Jane’s. The three stones appeared to belong to brothers and wives, possibly already accounted for in the family tree, suggesting these were left behind with newer monuments replacing them at the newly opened cemetery. The dates of birth and death were strange and not what matched my own research, or those newer monuments currently in place. I reminded myself that names were often passed down and commonly shared between cousins and even siblings. But these dates of death predated my family’s earliest settler records. Since our family predates the village’s incorporation, every person sharing my matrilineal name is blood-related, unless by some coincidence a random family with the same surname moved to the same quaint village that has struggled to avoid joining the growing ranks of the dying Canadian town. How, therefore, can these people – their lives and deaths – predate current settlement evidence? The portents of wanting rage.

The story of the Zion Stones was one of chance, luck, and near misses. The first notion of their existence arose during a conversational interview with family. The kind where folks dig deep in the corners of memory, when faces or names connect an axon or two. Eventually a wrinkle of a maybe became a growing confidence, until finally someone said “I’m sure we went down to that old field, where Zion was before, and I think we put two stones the farmer found in the fence row in the back of your Grandpa’s pickup truck.” The near miss came when Grandpa couldn’t recall the event ever happening, as time has gone on his memory has started to slip. The topic of buried relatives on the tree continued to gnaw at me, and helpful family eager to see the story unfold shared their records. They did so with an obvious affection for the people, place, and lives of this assuredly special town. A good deal of this summer has been spent exploring the links these records have provided.

Though certainly a trove of treasure, these items quickly became an added challenge for my already cluttered desk. Using the advice from a previous article on the matter, I set to work preparing the materials for collection. A significant and revolutionary method crucial to modern archiving or forming a family fonds is digitization.

As those of you knowledgeable in archiving or genealogy know, digitization can offer a great deal of benefits for discovery, access, notation, and general organization. Most of the items given to me are scanned copies of originals that have been lost, dispersed, or destroyed. While there are original documents remaining, of which I have had the privileged of examining in person, I have however not been granted permission to digitize them. The method most applicable for these purposes therefore was preventative conservation, rather than any restorative (though the originals are in dire need of both). During an endless night of scanning, notating, and filing, It was during this effort I first discovered the old ream of yellowed paper that first provided insight into the possibility of unknown members of the family. From oral stories to private and public records, the names on the paper I could confirm as the town’s original Beatty’s, Irish immigrants fleeing the famine and crippling subjugation under the English Crown.

Why was this item was of particular concern? In a moment of cleared-eyed reminiscence, at Grandpa’s bedside, he recalled there being told of “two spinsters”. While certainly less palatable today, the term was used in many documents when referring to unmarried women of whatever age. Genealogists are well aware of the rabbit holes married, remarried, widowed, bachelor, and spinster branches can take an unprepared researcher down. Without any follow through records like a marriage certificate or declaration, evidencing a person’s place on your tree (especially going back 100 or 200 years) can be near impossible.

This is a representation, the original has yet to be archived. Photo by Library Tech Files.

So when I saw this unknown record keeper’s scrawled hand the “spinsters” screamed out at me. Confirmation of someone, sometime ago, acknowledging the existence of phantoms. Names to rumours. Running with this new information, I located a Jane and Susan Beatty in the 1871 and 1881 censuses. They were registered as a family adjacent to one of the brother’s farms. Realistically, they probably lived in the farmhouse in the winter, helping to raise the children, then into their own cabin on the same lot near the farmhouse when the seasons warmed. I imagine the brother’s wife and eight children quickly outgrew this space, indicating why these single elderly women lived as a unit on the same land as their brother’s family, albeit separate. Even though they are often deeply flawed, the old censuses provide potentially useful data. In her final census appearance in 1891, Jane Beatty is now 85 years old (probably not accurate) living with her brother’s family. Sister Susan sadly missing from the entry (unfortunately, probably corporeal accurate). Presumably, the sisters would be interred in a tiny cemetery, not a quarter mile from the ancestral farm. As highlighted in a wonderfully useful monograph by one local historian, the village quickly became a beacon of commerce and manufacturing, outgrowing the old necropolis. The remains were moved, the land sold and farmed for the next hundred years, the soil turned again and again, while three marble monuments, swallowed by goldenrod and side-oat, remained wanting along the fence row.

I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t convinced in my heart that when those shed doors swung open, the light of day too would swing the doors of this mystery wide open; and the headstones of the two sisters, long forgotten, would scream their names so loud the none of us would soon forget them. Instead, another mystery prompting yet another quest of uncovering perhaps an even older connection to my family and my hometown barged into a head-space not quite ready to deal with it.

The wanting comes again in finalizing my thoughts on the matter of the Lost Stones of Zion. How the names engraved unto them not only affirmed the perceived perpetual silence of the sisters whose names, births, lives, and deaths I remain unable to verify, but proffered a resolution for which I may not be ready to accept. That for all efforts to reclaim memory, It may be that I am not meant to know these women. How can a single word – Spinster – be all that remains of their memories? Are they the “village” for which raising not one but many children requires? A shoulders to bare the burden of loss; the neutral voices of embittered kin-conflicts; the steady hands delivering under candlelight the babies of other women, raising them as quiet guardians and favoured aunties. The wanting remains in the passing into oblivion of all their choices, decisions, dreams, creations, and contributions as a growing unshakable truth.

I acknowledge that this type of certaine fin thinking conjugates with the fear in the corner of my mind persistently engaged with the truth of my eventual and certain death. This is not a rare obsession; it infects you all. It just takes time and the right nudge. My sophomore year of university, I met a girl and the story goes about the same as any other. All that can and will be said is it didn’t go well, though we certainly had our fun when she was sober. One thing she left me with, besides a regretfully apathetic direction in life, was a newfound respect and paranoia for death’s obliteration. She was acutely aware of her own demise, or at least the spectre of it, and made sure I was too. Moreover, she made sure I knew that nothing I did mattered and that nothing would be left when I was gone. I know this came from a dark place for her, but it resonated as a lesson I have never forgotten. I’m happy to say I don’t think she is the same person today as the one I knew then, and for the better.

The lesson she taught me is it that it can go one of two ways. We can be forgotten among the fence rows just as easily as venerated on marble. In family records, the footprints of your having been here exist in photos, ticket stubs, old ledgers, journals, receipts, and promises on postcards. All this mess swirls online, especially for my fellow “Millenials”. Sure, you have ten thousand pictures of your face with silly filters, but do you have them really? How much control do you have of the cloud, or of the third-party social media platform curating your entire life? How much control do you want? Do yourself a favour and get organizing, or hand it off to a family member showing the most passion for preserving these artifacts of your own existence. Otherwise accept that even with today’s connected and self-publishing landscape, there will be a time when what makes you you, is no longer remembered.

A brighter side…

Despite the hard truth of knowing the Lost Stones of Zion probably will never bring back the memories of the forgotten sisters, hope springs eternal thanks to a group in the Netherlands that have done Canada an unforgettable service; by maintaining and honouring the graves of fallen Canadian soldiers from WW2. During this summer’s investigation into the family tree I was able to learn about John Edward Johnson and his sacrifice, to see his face and where he rests. This incredible organization seeks to preserve and honour the memories of those who served and died during the country’s liberation from Nazi Germany. Thanks to these dedicated individuals, time won’t be able to take his memory from my family, and though I may not be able to visit his grave, I can talk with him at the click of a button. For this I am truly grateful.

If you should take with you but one thing from my family tree genealogy experience so far, let it be this: you have at your disposal to either begin recording your story, or begin preserving the chapters passed down to you from your ancestors. Whichever way, you owe a responsibility to the roots, branches, leaves, and fruits of your growing family tree to steward your artifacts, tell and retell stories, and remember the lives that come before, so those of us ahead may not be left in wanting.

* A note to that linked article about dying Canadian towns: I agree with Campbell’s premise on the nature of the ever moving Canadian, however dispersion of traditions and values into surrounding communities in a jumping-ship fashion shouldn’t be considered the normal course of a town’s life cycle. With respect, our towns have souls of their own. Too few today acknowledge the living nature and growing history of a physical place. I understand and respect that reconciliation in our conversations today is crucial and both our first nations’ and settler histories and places should be preserved for all knowledge seekers.

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.