Tag Archives: Digital Stewardship

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.