Sunday, September 29, 2013

But my name is always spelled ...

Many times we get stuck finding records and documents concerning our ancestors because we get fixated on the spelling of a name. With a last name of McKinlay I have seen a number of variations in the spelling and pronunciation (ah those poor telemarketers from non-English speaking countries). For my own last name I commonly see it spelled as "McKinley" or even "MacKinlay". I have seen similar variations where my ancestors' names have been recorded so I just accept it and carry on.

Several years ago I was asked by the husband of my aunt to look into his family lines. Since this was just a first pass at this part of my tree I concentrated on looking for what could be termed "low hanging fruit". These are the records such as the decennial censuses along with birth, marriage, and death registrations recorded in the government files. With these kinds of records now indexed by and it is normally an easy task of find, read, analyze, and record. As always I started with what I knew and worked back in time. Everything was going great until John Haughton, the 2nd great grandfather of my aunt's husband.

In my tree John Haughton was born about 1821 in Ireland and married Jane Girdwood probably sometime before the birth of their daughter Mary in 1844. John and Jane had a large family of at least 11 children. When I first came across the mention of John and Jane Haughton in their son John "Hutton"'s Ontario registration of marriage document. Of course if I had been paying attention to that digital image and followed the process of "find, read, analyze, and record" my life would have been so much easier. Instead I skipped the middle two steps and paid for it later on.

With some additional research I was able to find the family of John and Jane in the 1861 census of Canada West in Rawdon township, Hastings County. Here the name was recorded by the enumerator as Houghton.

1861 Canada West census, Rawdon, Hastings County, population schedule, p. 70 (stamped), Household of John Houghton; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Sep 2013); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm C-1033

In the 1871 census of Canada they were still living in Rawdon township, Hastings County. The last name is spelled Haughton by the enumerator. However, they have everyone being born in Ireland.

1871 Canada census, Rawdon, Hastings, Ontario, population schedule, p. 11, family 41, Household of John Haughton; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Sep 2013); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm C-9993
John and Jane Haughton were next found in Tiny township, Simcoe county in the 1891 census of Canada. The children living with John and Jane are back to being born in Ontario and the name is still spelled Haughton.

1891 Canada census, Tiny Township, Simcoe East, Ontario, population schedule, p. 37, family 152, Household of John Haughton; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Sep 2013); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-6368

But where where the heck was the family in 1881? They weren't found in any of the indexes I had access to in 2011. I had clues from documents concerning the children that the family should have been in Tiny township by then but nothing came up in the searches. So I went "old-school/new-school" in my search. I treated the digitized images as if they were on microfilm and went through each page for Tiny township until I came across this:

1881 Canada census, Tiny Township, Simcoe North, Ontario, population schedule, p. 61, family 254, Household of John Hutton; digital image, ( : accessed 27 Sep 2013); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm C-13251

The enumerator wrote the last name as Hutton. Probably just as he heard it and since he might not have known the family he wrote it the way he thought it was spelled. Once again the children are back to being born in Ireland. If it wasn't for their son Noble I would have probably not recognized that this was the family of John and Jane Haughton.

Let's revisit the marriage registration of their son John. If I had actually paid attention to what was actually written on the document (the read and analyze steps) I might have saved myself hours of manually stepping through the census records. The clue was right there ... some of the authorities were writing the Haughton name as "Hutton". Just like it might have sounded!

Tip for the day #1: When stuck finding a name, try saying it out loud and have someone else write what they just heard.

Tip of the day #2: Never, ever skip the read and analyze step when looking at records. Many times the brick wall you have can be solved by reviewing your records that you already have.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

BIFHSGO Conference Research Room and Brickwalls

As John Reid mentioned in his Anglo-Celtic Connections blog, this past weekend I had the pleasure to be the host of the Research Room at the BIFHSGO 19th Annual Family History Conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The focus of this year's conference was on Irish genealogy research.

In the Research Room we had a number of computers with donated access to sites such as,, Genes Reunited, The Genealogist, British Newspaper Archive, and the Irish Times Ancestry Search. Along with those online resources we had a number of skilled and very patient volunteers to help the attendees with their research problems.

Being a conference focusing on Irish family history we had many questions concerning how to find their ancestors in Ireland and all the issues related with doing research from a distance. We also had some success stories:

  • One woman spent at least 6 hours finding records and documents concerning her family in Nova Scotia. She had the guidance of a number of our volunteers to help her out.
  • We had one participant find the newspaper article concerning an ancestor that confirmed a family story.
  • A transcription of an Irish parish register confirmed an aunt's research and also led to a possible collateral branch.
This year we also added place where people could post their "brick wall" problems.
Our "moss and ivy covered" brick wall.

In the next several weeks the information on those cards will be posted on the BIFHSGO web site in the hopes that someone might be able to help solve a problem or too. I will also be going through them to see if I can possibly find some answers for their brick walls. I will be posting my findings in this blog along with how and where I discovered the answers to the questions.

However, there were some common methodology related problems with many of the posted brick wall problems:
  • Not knowing what records are available (or aren't available in some cases)
  • Not understanding what records are available in the various collections
  • Assuming everything must be online
  • Not knowing when the various civil registrations started for births, marriages, and deaths
When you come across a new collection learn what is actually included in the collection. This can save hours of frustration when attempting to search for records that aren't included in the collection.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You mean it isn't like the ad?

I came across this comment at the end of a plea for assistance in a Facebook group related to Canadian genealogy, "I have looked on and and I have found nothing." I just shook my head and thought that yet another person has fallen victim to the TV ads put out by Ancestry. You know the ad ... just put in your name and the names of your parents and the records will just automagically appear.

Unfortunately, that is just not the case for many people. For this poor soul he was looking for records that would give the date of birth of someone that was born before the days of civil registration. This usually means some serious finger work needs to be done.

So where do you start when you have a situation like the above? You've checked Ancestry and FamilySearch and you have nothing. All you know is the name, approximate year of birth, the forenames of the parents, and province and township the person lived in. Since there are many possible places to look let us start with reexamining the records online ...

First of all find the person in the earliest census record that you can. In the Canadian census records one of the questions asked is what religion are they. When looking for records in the pre-civil registration period that answer is one of the key clues. Depending on the census and if the family had land you might also have access to the agricultural schedule. That may give you the lot and concession (if living in Ontario) where they lived. If they were farmers, then check out the Canadian County Atlas Project for maps of the various townships. Sometimes the maps will indicate the nearby churches. If they lived in town then local histories might give a clue as to the churches in the area.

You now know where they lived, their religion, and the nearest churches. The next step is to do a search (Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.) to find out where the various parish records might be. A search for the name of the church and township might even reveal that the parish is still in existence. Reach out by telephone or e-mail to the parish or diocesan archive. Of course you may just run into the problem where the records have been lost in time. For some strange reason older churches have a tendency to get struck by lightning and then burn to the ground. Something to do with putting a big metal object on a tall wooden steeple if think.

Whatever you do don't give up if the first avenue of research results in nothing. Where else might the birth be recorded? Newspapers? Grave markers? (Although that can cause other issues. See my post titled "Zombie in the census?") Military enlistment records? Family bible? The diary of the minister who baptized the person? The diary of the mother? (I've used that one to confirm details.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Zombie in the census?

My motto when doing genealogy research is "Trust no one, verify everything, and even if it is written in stone it may be wrong." In the case of when I was trying to determine the exact date of death of my 3rd great grandfather, Robert Howe, this motto was my guide.

Robert Howe was born around 1823 most likely in the area of the Parish of Norton, Kings County, Colony of New Brunswick (later Canada). He was the oldest child of nine children of Charles Howe and Hannah Baxter. On 14 Nov 1848 in Kings County, New Brunswick Robert married Sarah E. Pickel. However, the problem with Robert started with what was written on his grave marker.

The Canadian Gravemarker Gallery, digital images ( accessed 15 Sep 2013), photograph, gravestone for Robert B. Howe (1826-1900), Hillsdale Baptist Cemetery, Hammond Parish, Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada.

According to what was written on the stone it was fairly clear that he died in 1900. This was a replacement stone since the original marker had faded away due to the ravages of time and weather.

There was only one minor problem. I found him in the 1901 census of Hammond, Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada living in the household of his son (and my 2nd great grandfather) Frank Howe.

1901 census of Canada, New Brunswick, district 18, sub-district C-1, Hammond, p. 3, dwelling 31, family 31, Robert Howe; RG 31; digital images,, ( : accessed 1 Oct 2011); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-6442

Since I'm fairly certain that enumerators of the 1901 census were not given instructions to count zombies I knew something was wrong and I didn't think the problem was with the census record.

So ... where to start to solve this little mystery?

The obvious place is the Vital Statistics from Government Records (RS141) from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick website. New Brunswick has digitized and placed online the birth, marriage and death registration images. Even better, you can view and download the images for free! It should be simple to find Robert's death registration ... right? Unfortunately, wrong. His death registration couldn't be found there.

In my collection of goodies I received from various family members was the collected memories of Pearl (nee Howe) Holland, one of Robert's granddaughters. In that collection was the story of Robert's death that she wrote in 1979. Pearl wrote that she was eight years old when Robert died. Oops, that doesn't help to much since her birth was about 1891 and she was writing about an event that took place almost 80 years ago. Next stop?

So off to Library and Archives Canada to see if they have a copy of the Kings County Record, the newspaper that was and still is published in Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada. I got lucky. They did have the years between 1901 and 1911 available. A few clicks of the mouse and I placed an order for the microfilms.

Wait a second ... where did that 1911 date come from? Since Robert wasn't in the 1911 census I was fairly certain he was really and truly dead by then. So an initial upper bounds had been set for this manual search for his obituary or death notice.

I started looking in the Kings County Record edition that came out just after 31 Mar 1901, the date of when the 1901 census of Canada started. Remember, he was supposedly still alive on that date. Fortunately this is a weekly newspaper with not too many pages in each edition. A short time later on the second page in the 25 Oct 1901 edition I came across this little tidbit, "Howe - At Hillsdale, on Oct. 23, R. D. Howe, aged 81 years."

The genealogy happy dance was quietly performed while in the LAC reference room.

However, the real treasure was also on that same page:

"Robert D. Howe an aged resident of Hillsdale died at his son's residence on Wednesday as a result of being severely burned. The deceased had been in rather a poor state of mind for some time past and was ailing with dropsy being confined to his bed. On Monday unnoticed by those attending him, he got hold of the matches and set fire to his bedding which was soon a raging mass of flames. The smoke attracted the attention of the occupants of the house who at once rushed to the unfortunate man's room. The son Frank Howe received severe burns about his face and hands in the attempt to save his father. After a severe fight the fire was subdued, but not until the water supply was exhausted and all the surplus milk about the place was utilized as a fire extinguisher. The deceased was eighty one years of age and leaves a family of sons to mourn the loss of a father."

Everything in this article about Robert's tragic death had been mentioned in Pearl Holland's story. The only thing she was mistaken about was the year. It was 1901 not 1900. A minor little mistake that has confused many researchers of the Howe family tree.

The moral of this little tale? Always verify the dates on the grave markers. Especially if the gravestone is a replacement.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

When Asking for Help ... Part 2

In "When Asking for Help ... Part 1" I wrote about how not to ask for help in the many genealogy related groups on Facebook. Here is an example of a query that caught my attention and with a little bit of research I was able to answer some of her questions:
"Hoping someone might be able to help me understand as I don't know much at all about the military. Why would the 1st Battalion of the 15th Foot. (The Yorkshire East Riding) have been in Fredericton, York County, New Brunswick back in 1967 [sic]? My 2x great grandfather who was from Calne, Wiltshire, England married on 26 March 1867 in Fredericton. I found them on the 1871 UK census back in Calne. I'm searching out for someone to do a lookup for me in England for his Muster Roll and Military record. Emily Caroline Witham was born 8 April 1846 in Fredericton but I've not found out much about her at all other than the 1851 census. This is a big brick wall on my tree."

This query caught my attention for a number of reasons. The first is that when I was growing up I lived near Fredericton for several years. The posting also contained specific information related to the queries. There were also clearly started questions and requests for information being made. Finally, the original poster of the questions provided some additional information shortly after the first query was posted:

"This is all I have that I'm trying to figure out: "Quoted Text: Morning News (St John), 1 April 1867 "m. 26th ult., by Rev. Wm Armstrong, James BREWER, Bandsman of 15th Regt. / Emily WITHAM, Fredericton (York Co.)" I'm guessing on the 1st Battalion of the 15th Foot."

Now it got interesting. There are a couple of names, a couple of dates, and regimental detail from the original newspaper article. Since I do a lot of my research using the Internet I had a few places I could start with. But first I needed some background information. What was the 15th Regiment? Was it the 15th Regiment of Foot? So off to Google with the search "15th regiment new brunswick". That pointed me to a blog posting by the York Sunbury Historical Society titled "15th Regiment of Foot in Fredericton in the 1860s".

First question had been answered. That was almost too easy. The look up of James Brewer's service record was the next challenge. Since the 15th Regiment of Foot is a British regiment I went to and started searching the British military records for James Brewer with a keyword of "15th". Only 3 James Brewers were listed and one of them really fit the profile: James Brewer of the 1st Battalion of the 15th Regiment of Foot was medically discharged in St. George, Bermuda on 5 May 1870. Five pages of his discharge papers had been digitized. On page 2 was a listing of where he served including New Brunswick and on page 4 was where he was born, what he looked like, and where he was planning on living after his discharge. All the details matched.

Finally, to confirm all the dates related to the regiment and marriage I checked the digitized British Military and Naval Records (RG 8, "C" Series) collection at the Library and Archives Canada web site. This is a great resource for pre-Confederation military files in Canada but it is really buried on their site. If you want to use this resource, as a starting point, click on the Help link on the page to figure out which digitized microfilm you need to look though. There was no mention of James Brewer  on the index cards but there were letters back and forth concerning the delay of movement for the 15th Regiment of Foot to Bermuda.

So with a "good question" and about 3 hours of research the poster of the query was very happy.

Friday, September 13, 2013

When Asking For Help ... Part 1

I'm in a number of groups on Facebook that deal with genealogy in specific areas of Canada. I joined those groups so that I might be able to learn more about the resources available for researchers like myself and maybe, just maybe, help those in need of genealogy assistance. Many times people are asking for help in finding out more about an ancestor that lived in those area. Maybe they have a census record for that distant family member and then that person disappears, other times all they have to go on is that a family story that stated the ancestor lived in a specific place at a specific time.

However, one thing in common with many queries is that they rarely provide enough information for someone help to them. Here is a real life example from a regional group that even after 2 weeks has yet to have a single reply, "I am working on Sinclair, Hunter, McKays and so many other family trees. It has been difficult finding the families. I hope someone on this page will be able to help me".

The problem I see with this kind of overarching plea for help is that they have only provided surnames, and relatively common ones at that. When asking for help try to give specifics and focus on one person. What do you already know about the Sinclair family you are looking for ... forenames are a good start. Birth (baptism), marriage and death (funeral) dates can really help in narrowing the focus. What county where they living in? Finally, what were the records that you first or last seen them? Was it a census record or maybe a baptism transcription?

In part 2 I will show a query that caught my attention and ended up with me learning a little more about the military in pre-Confederation New Brunswick.


Welcome to Family Tree Knots. This is my blog to discuss those tricky genealogy problems I’ve run into either in my own tree or while helping others in their research. But before I delve into those problems I feel that introductions are necessary.

My name is Ken McKinlay and I’ve been researching my own roots for about 14 years. Initially I became interested in my family’s background because I kept hearing about three stories:
  • On the Howe side of the family I was descended from a Loyalist; 
  • A scullery maid on the Mayflower was an ancestor on the Chipman line; 
  • The McKinlays came to Scotland from Ireland. 

Being curious and also a little doubtful about what I was hearing I wanted to find out the “truth”.

In those 14 years I’ve made probably all the usual goofs and mistakes a researcher can do. In the beginning I was just copying other people’s information without checking the sources, sons were marrying their mothers, and having census records associated with ancestors that were dead years before the enumerator visited the household. That consumed 3 years of my research life and I had to throw away two attempts at creating my family tree due to my errors and foul-ups. After that I turned to recording the information within Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and also on Ancestry.

My use of PAF lasted for about 8 years. During that time I was a “Name Collector”. I just followed the data I collected. It didn’t matter that I was recording the brother-in-law of the sister of the husband of my 3rd cousin twice removed. It was a name and I was a collector. My tree grew by leaps and bounds but several years ago I realized that I didn’t know anything about the people I was finding. I had discovered the truth concerning the stories above but I couldn’t really prove it to anyone else ... at least in a coherent way. It was time to change how I did my research.

First, I started to take courses from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies to improve my methodologies. Also I switched from PAF to Legacy Family Tree to record the information and to help me with writing citations (my weakness). Finally, I put aside everything I had learned to date and started from scratch.

You read that right. I tossed out 8 years of work in documenting my family tree. Now I didn’t destroy the documents but I did put aside what I had found.

I started at the beginning and this time I actually read what I had previously found, thought about it, and then recorded the details … those little (but oh so important) details such as occupations, physical appearances and travel. Suddenly those brick walls or “knots” in my tree started to disappear. Also I started to get a glimpse into their lives.

As for the title of the blog being “Family Tree Knots” … they are the parts of the tree where a branch was attached but the only clue that a branch might have existed is that knot.