On Research Distractions and Why a Good Archivist Can Be Your Best Friend

I’ve never been one of those family historians who likes to stick to researching just one family line until it’s “complete” and then start another line.  For one thing, in our hobby, each answer (i.e. a person’s name) leads to two more questions (his or her parents’ names).  Sometimes a new bit of data can turn up unexpectedly, which prompts me to drop the research I’d been working on and follow the new trail for a while to see where it leads.  This tendency toward distraction is sometimes referred to as “genealogical ADD,” and there are plenty of internet memes which suggest that this is a good way to waste a lot of time with little to show for it in the end.  However, I often find that taking a break from a line and coming back to it later helps me to see the research with fresh eyes, allowing me to make new connections in the data that I’d missed previously.

I’ve discovered that the secret to making progress while jumping around in my research is to keep good research notes.  I use Family Tree Maker, which currently offers options for both “person notes” and “research notes.”  I use this section to keep a research journal, where I analyze my data, brainstorm hypotheses, plan my next steps, and keep track of phone calls and correspondence with archives, collaborators, churches, cemetery offices, etc.  Sometimes it takes time before a reply is received, so rather than sitting by the phone with bated breath, I move on to other research tasks.

The other day, something prompted me to take a look at where I’d left things with my Dodds line from St. Catharines, Ontario.  Robert Dodds was one of my great-great-great-grandfathers on my Dad’s side of the family, born in England on 28 January 1817, according to the 1901 Census of Canada.  He died on 16 August 1906, according to his civil death certificate, and is buried in St. Catharines in Victoria Lawn Cemetery, Section G.  Unfortunately, this civil death certificate does not reveal Robert’s parents’ names, which I need to know in order to further my research.  His marriage record might also mention his parents’ names, but unfortunately, that’s been difficult to locate as well.

Robert married Catherine, whose maiden name has been variously reported as Irving1 or Grant.2  Most sources agree that Catherine was born in Ontario of Scottish parents, rather than having herself been born in Scotland, as suggested by the death record of her daughter (my great-great-grandmother), Martha Agnes (née Dodds) Walsh.1  Robert and Catherine probably married circa 1839-1840, since their oldest daughter, Hannah Dodds, was born 20 January 1841. However, early records for Upper Canada/Canada West are very spotty, as many did not survive, and it’s not clear exactly where Robert and Catherine married, or even in what faith.

Robert Dodds reported his faith as Methodist in 1861, Church of England in 1871,  Methodist in 1881, and Church of England again in 1891 and 1901.  Catherine Dodds reported her faith as Methodist in 1861, Presbyterian in 1871, and she died in 1872.  Rather conveniently, the Methodist and most of the Presbyterian churches in Canada merged with some other Protestant faiths in 1925 to become the United Church of Canada, so their archive is an obvious place to check for the marriage record.  About 30% of the Presbyterian churches in Canada chose not to participate in this merger, and these non-concurring or continuing Presbyterian churches became the Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Again, their archive is another obvious place to check.  However, many congregations have retained their own records instead of sending them to the archives, so it’s important to know where the marriage took place.

This brings me to the second problem, determining where they married.  It’s common to use census records to track the movement of families and individuals, but unfortunately, the first time we see Robert and Catherine in the census is in 1861, when they are living in Grantham and are already the parents of seven children.  As mentioned previously, it’s likely that Robert and Catherine were married circa 1840, so the 1842 Census for Canada West would be an obvious place to search for the young family to see if they were already in Grantham at that point, or if they were elsewhere in the province.  Unfortunately, most of the returns for this census did not survive, including those for Lincoln, Elgin, and Glengarry Counties, which are the three counties associated with this family based on other records. The situation is not much better with the 1851 Census. As luck would have it, and despite the fact that many returns for the Lincoln District did survive, the returns for the Township of Grantham and the City of St. Catharines did not.

By 1871, the family had moved to Yarmouth Township in Elgin County, where Catherine died in 1872 and is buried in Union Cemetery.  Her grave transcription reads, “DODDS /  In Memory of /  Catharine /  wife of /  Robert DODDS /  died /  June 12, 1872 /  aged 54 yrs. 1 month & 22 days.  /  My children dear assemble here  /  A mother’s grave to see  /  Not long age I dwell with you  /  But soon you’l dwell with me.”  (I find that transcription especially compelling in a morbid sort of way.)  Catherine’s death certificate states that she was born in “Martin Town,” that she was Presbyterian, and that she died at the age of 53, which would suggest a birth year of 1819.  Her grave marker suggests a birth date of 20 April 1818.  “Martin Town” points clearly to Martintown, Glengarry County, Ontario, a place settled by immigrants from the Scottish Highlands, which is consistent with what we know of Catherine’s Scottish parentage.

The original Presbyterian Church that served Martintown was St. Andrew’s in Williamstown.  Marriage records for this church are indexed here for the time period from 1779 to 1914 “with a couple of gaps.”3  However, closer inspection reveals that there are no marriage records past 1815.  In fact, this index seems to correspond to the collection of St. Andrew’s church records available on microfilm from the LDS, which exhibits the same gap from 1818 until 1855.  And as luck would have it, that gap neatly encompasses both Catherine’s birth record, circa 1818, as well as the record of her marriage, if it took place in this parish, circa 1840.  So at this point, we can’t say whether the negative result is because the record no longer exists, or because Robert and Catherine Dodds did not marry in this parish.  For kicks, I checked all the indexed births, marriages and deaths for the surnames Grant and Irving, even though the particular range of years I need is not available.   Interestingly, I discovered that the surname Irving does not exist anywhere in these indexed records, although the surname Grant is quite common in the parish.

So where does that leave us?  Well, at this point, I still don’t know where Catherine and Robert might have met and married.  It might have been at St. Andrew’s in Williamstown, but if that’s the case, then the record may no longer exist.  I still don’t know Catherine’s parents’ names, although the data seem to point toward Grant as a more likely candidate for her maiden name than Irving.  But even in the absence of birth and marriage records, it occurred to me that I could still try to find church burial records for both Catherine and Robert, and perhaps by some miracle, these might contain their parents’ names, even though the civil death records did not.

I struck out fast with Catherine’s death record.  I contacted Union United Church, which is the descendant of the original Union Wesleyan Methodist Church which operates the cemetery in which Catherine was buried, to inquire about burial records.  Unfortunately, I was told that they, “have no records that date that far back any longer either.”4  Robert’s church death record seemed a bit more promising, as there were a number of Anglican churches in St. Catherines by the time of his death in 1906.  To help me determine which one might have his death record, I telephoned Victoria Lawn Cemetery, where he is buried.  The secretary was very helpful.  She informed me that Robert Dodds’ interment was handled by MacIntyre Funeral Home, and “Rev. R. Kerr” was the pastor who performed the services.  A quick Google search shows that Rev. Robert Kerr (or Ker) was the rector of St. George Anglican Church in St. Catharines.  A bit more digging revealed that burial records from St. George have been microfilmed and are available from the archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.  I contacted them immediately to inquire about obtaining a look-up.

And that was when “real life” and other research pulled me away, and I put my Dodds line on the back burner again.  I wrote that e-mail to the archivists at McMaster University back on 4 September 2014, almost two years ago.  Almost immediately, I received one of those standard, “thank you for your inquiry, one of our archivists will be in touch with you shortly,” e-mails, and then nothing further.  I didn’t think about it again (obviously!) until just recently.  Flash forward to earlier this week, when something made me look back at my Dodds research.  In reviewing my notes, I realized that I’d never received a reply from the archivist at McMaster.  So I wrote to them again, mentioning my previous e-mail from September of 2014.

Lo, and behold!  I received a reply from a library assistant, informing me that one of the archivists, Bridget Whittle, had replied to me back in 2014, but the e-mail was sent accidentally to the Research Help department. She forwarded Bridget’s old e-mail to me:

“Your email was forwarded to us here in the Archives. Thank you for your inquiry. I’ve had a look at St. George’s Church in St. Catharine’s and there was no burial record for Robert Dodds in 1905 or the surrounding years. Is it possible it was a different church in St. Catharine’s?”5

How about that?  She’d actually taken the time to review the microfilm for me, no charge!

I wrote back to her to explain the conversation with the cemetery office at Victoria Lawn, and wondered if perhaps Rev. Robert Kerr ministered at more than one parish in St. Catharines, which might account for the lack of burial record at St. George.  Bridget replied,

“Given the information you received from Victoria Lawn Cemetery, it really does sound like it should be St. George’s to me. I checked again, just to be certain that I hadn’t missed it somehow, but he’s definitely not there.

I checked all the other churches in St. Catharines that had burial records for that time and didn’t see Robert Dodds in any of them (or records suggesting that Robert Kerr was performing services there). I’m not certain whether this means that for some reason the entry was never made or if there is some other place it might be. I have checked the vestry records for the time as well as a miscellaneous file in the hopes that there would be something, but again, came up short.

While all this is unfortunate, I’m afraid that for the names of his parents, you wouldn’t be likely to get it from the burial record anyway. I know you said you were having a hard time tracking down his marriage record, but that would be more likely to have the information.

Do you know if he was married in St. Catharines? Around 1840 is pretty sparse record wise, but I would be happy to have a look if you know the city he was married in.5

Wow!  It just makes my day to encounter someone so wonderfully helpful.  Of course I replied with more information regarding my search for their marriage record.  Bridget’s response was both thoughtful and on-point:

Thanks for going through all of those details. I can see why you’re running out of options. Based on your information I checked a few of the other churches (namely the one in Grantham and a few that are now part of St. Catharines, but were not at the time). Frustratingly, I’ve still come up with nothing new. I was hoping I might catch a baptismal record for Hannah, at least so that we knew we were on the right track, but still nothing.

I have put a call into the Archivist for the Niagara Diocese, Archdeacon Rathbone, to see if we can figure out how it is that all of that information about Robert Dodds can be recorded at the cemetery and then not show up in the burial register. He’s away today, but I’ll let you know what I come up with.

The records we have here don’t go as far east as Yarmouth, East Elgin. That falls under the Diocese of Huron. If you haven’t been in touch with them already, you can reach them here:  http://diohuron.org/what/HR/archives.php

You probably know this already, but the Methodist church in Canada merged with a few others to become the United Church. If you go hunting for the Dodds’ under the Methodist connections, you’ll want to get in touch with them:  http://www.united-church.ca/leadership/church-administration/united-church-canada-archives

And good grief! I see what you mean about that 1901 census. I’m inclined to agree that it’s Jany [the month of Robert Dodds’ birth], but it’s a shame that it is so difficult to read (and that the UK census doesn’t go back that far).  I will let you know what the Archdeacon has to say. Hopefully he’ll have some other lead.5

 

So what are the take-home messages in all of this?

 1. Keep good research notes.

You never know when life is going to intervene and you might have to put down your research for a while.  As long as you have good notes, it should be easy to pick up again when you’re ready.

2. Follow up with all your leads (even if it’s two years later).

E-mails do get lost sometimes.  If you don’t hear from someone for a while, don’t assume he or she was ignoring you.

3.  Be sure to reach out to the librarians and archivists in the geographic areas in which you’re searching.

They are a fantastic resource — typically knowledgeable about the history of the area in addition to knowing what records, maps, finding aids, and reference works are available, and where to look for them.  Nothing beats local knowledge.  The search may continue for my elusive Robert and Catherine Dodds, but at least it’s nice to know that I’ve got some allies in my quest.

Sources:

  1.  New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1935, #4549, Death Certificate for Martha Dodds Walsh.
  2. Death record for Hannah Dodds Carty, eldest daughter of Robert and Catherine Dodds (click link for details and image).
  3. Per information at the parent website (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~onglenga/), this index was created from, “‘St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church,’ (aka the Rev. John Bethune records); Williamstown, Charlottenburgh Twp., Glengarry, Ontario. Transcript by Dr. K. A. Taylor Registers of births, marriages and burials: 1779-1914 (original and typescript versions). MS 107 Reel 1.  File contains transcriptions from 1779 up to 1839 with a couple of gaps.”
  4. Whitehead, Karen.  “RE:  [Cemetery] Availability of Church Records.” Message to the author from unioncemetery.uucc@gmail.com.  4 Sept. 2014.  Email.
  5.  Whittle, Bridget.  “RE:  Question submitted through Ask a Librarian chat.”  Message to the author from archives@mcmaster.ca. 3 Aug. 2016.  Email.
  6.  Featured image:  Gordon, Bruce. Photo of St. Andrews United Church Cemetery. Digital image.Find A Grave. Find A Grave, Inc., 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.

 

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2016

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “On Research Distractions and Why a Good Archivist Can Be Your Best Friend

  1. Julie, we are crossing paths in another venue. My great grandmother, Helen Doyle, was from St. Catharines, and her family is buried in Victoria Lawn Cemetery! I have taken a couple of trips up there to do some research, and right now am investigating a DNA match that seems to be from my Doyles there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that’s pretty cool! I visited St. Catharines on a research trip a number of years ago, and I also visited Martintown in Glengarry County in 2006. I know more about my Canadian ancestors (most of them!) now than I did then, however, so I think it’s time to go back for another visit.

    Like

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