Genealogy as a Story

Nice to meet you! I am Peg, the web developer for www.lithuanianheritage.ca. Like you I have a passion for genealogy, starting about three years ago. I am not Lithuanian but, just like you, my family immigrated to Canada. I want to know where my family came from and why.

Margaret Jackson and her father James about 1916

Margaret Jackson and her father James about 1916

My interest started with two old silver teaspoons: one marked “London”, one marked “St. Nazaire”. They were a gift from my great aunt when I was a teenager. All I knew was that she, despite being a small-town Canadian girl of English origin, had trained as a nurse in Scranton Pennsylvania and then served with the American Red Cross in World War I. I had to find out where she’d gone, what she’d done and why she did it. That was the start for me.

Genealogy and DNA

I think that genealogy study comes in three flavours. Each one needs a separate approach but all three have the same underpinnings.

The first is the analysis of DNA. Of course, you have seen the ads on television for DNA testing from sources such as ancestry.ca and 123andme. Finding out that your ethnic background is either singular or very diverse can be both fun and helpful. You may be able to limit your search to a specific part of the world or it may open up leads you hadn’t thought of. In Scotland people have been using DNA with a great deal of precision in a tribal sense. Haplogroups are a big area of study but I am afraid that I use mine more for cocktail chatter than anything.

The Family Tree

My DNA map: where did the Swedish come from?

The second type of study would be what is called a “Name Search”, the type where you create a family tree. This type requires the most detective work of all. It can be incredibly frustrating as you chase for months for a single fact that has eluded you and then exhilarating when you find it. This type of research often provides the surprises and the unexpected. My family name “Douglas” is about as Scottish as it comes. Imagine my surprise to find that this part of my family is actually from southern Ireland and came to Canada, like many Irish, in the Great Famine period. This single fact changes how I think of my family by quite a bit.

In my family tree I have two Samuel Marlborough Douglases (father and son) who between them had 6 wives, four of whom were named “Mary”! The only way I can keep it all straight is to document it carefully.

The Ontario Genealogical Society provides very helpful forms on which you can record your data: https://wellington.ogs.on.ca/ The forms are found under the “Getting Started” tab on their main page. I use the Vital Statistics form (for details of birth, marriage and death) for each individual, the Family Group record to group family members together, and the Pedigree chart to create a family tree. The forms become invaluable when time elapses between finding facts and to help work out conflicts in information.

They particularly encourage you to document the source of your data: essential if you ever need to reverifywhat you found. I also group all my information by person in a tree structure of folders on my computer. My father Ted’s folder contains his information plus two subfolders for his mother and father. Ted’s father Fred’s folder contains his information plus subfolders for Fred’s two parents. In each folder I’ve put images (jpgs or pdfs) of vital documents such as birth, marriage, death registrations, census lists etc. That way I can go back and reverify anything I need to.

As I search for records I try to remember that most of the data was recorded by hand and that the recorder didn’t necessarily have good handwriting. I always need to search for: Douglas, Dauglas, Daglas, Dugles, Dhuglas (Gaelic), Dogles, Douglass, Duglas… you get the idea. At the Archives we’ve been told that finding information on Lithuanian families can be difficult but you may find items if you search for the Polish or Russian version of your name, remembering that dark time when the Lithuanian language and culture were suppressed.

Storytelling

You may have guessed by now that my favourite type of genealogy is to tell the story of a person in my family. Why did this person come to Canada? How did their family influence the direction of their life? Where did they go and what did they do when they got there? In addition to learning about my ancestor, this type of genealogy allows me to do a deeper dive into the social history of a specific time period.

Besides photos and letters, these stories usually need some name research to help place the person in their family context and to fill out details of their life. So those forms I mentioned in Name research are really useful as you create a story.

Is writing a story like this difficult? Starting can be rough but once you are immersed in another person’s life it becomes much easier. My stories have been given as gifts to my parents and had far more impact than I could have imagined. They were amazed at what I was able to find. I answered a lot of questions that had been around the family for years but had never been answered. And it called forth bits of knowledge to help me move forward on other family members. I would never describe myself as a good writer but these books are treasured and are pulled out regularly.

Getting and Giving

The big trick is just to get started somehow, anyhow. I the case of my aunt I started with an email to the American Red Cross. After all, it was the only fact I had. A wonderful volunteer answered me almost immediately with suggestions on where to go looking and how to do it and I was off and running. There was a bit of back tracking because of errors in some of the record keeping. Eventually, and with a couple of referrals back to the volunteer, I was able to become certain that I had the right story.

Much of the nursing she did was for sick soldiers in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918

Wide, contextual searches help too. I did a lot of research on nursing in World War I in order to understand what it was like for the nurses going off to war. I got really lucky: one of the books for general research had a wealth of photos from the specific hospital at which she served. Among those photos was a picture of the whole nursing staff and there she was!

I also want to commend to you www.familysearch.org. This website is a huge resource and collates most of the free genealogical data sources on the web. Although it has been sponsored by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, its orientation is non-denominational and I haven’t found a reason not to use them. They also have local family history centers which you may visit in person. These are staffed by volunteers who are mostly not members of the LDS and can help you get started. As with all genealogical data, the origin of the data needs to be evaluated before using it.

Another is www.wikitree.org which has the ambitious task of creating one giant family tree for the whole world!

You can give back by volunteering to work on genealogical projects yourself for an Archive or one of the databases like familysearch. For example, familysearch uses volunteers to read and transcribe records from new sources which are then added to the database.

Finally…

I am hoping that this post will help you find the type of genealogy you really want to do, then get started. Every time I go backwards in time I find out something new. I would love to hear what you’ve found out for yourself.

Now back to finding out exactly when George Douglas came to Canada.

This post is also available in: EN

Posted in Genealogy.

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