the man in the top hat

One of my favourite photos of the ancestors shows a man wearing a top hat, a dog by his side. Sent to me by a cousin about a dozen years ago, the image was identified as “Great-grandfather Robert Hamilton.” That was my great-great-grandfather, the Scottish-born weaver who immigrated with his young family to Scarborough, Upper Canada in 1830.

I thought it would make the perfect cover photo for the book I am writing about the history of the Hamilton family. Most studio portraits taken in the late 1800s were uniformly stiff. Although this man has a serious expression, the image is unusual for its painted background, and dog is appealing.

But was the man in the photo really Robert Hamilton (1789-1875) the immigrant? After all, he had a son named Robert Hamilton (1824 -18731) and his grandson was also Robert Hamilton (1856-1908.) I forwarded the photo to several distant cousins who have researched the family, and to Rick Schofield, archivist at the Scarborough Historical Society, in east-end Toronto.

Rick was the first to reply, probably horrified that I might have already gone ahead with the cover. I speculated that the photo might have been taken in the 1850s, and Rick pointed out that there were no photo studios in Scarborough then, and travel by horse to Toronto would have been quite a challenge. He asked what the original photo looked like (I didn’t know) and pointed out that, in the 1850s, Daguerrotype, Ambrotype (glass) and tintype photos were the most common, as well as albumen type and card-mounted photos.

I then forwarded the image to several other relatives, including cousin Alison in Dallas, Texas. It turned out she has an original carte de visite of this photo that includes the name place where it was taken: J.J. Milliken Photo Studio, Toronto.

A quick search online showed that this studio was in business in the 1890s. Since Robert Hamilton the immigrant died at age 86 in 1875, and his son Robert Hamilton died of typhoid fever in 1871, that left grandson Robert Hamilton, a farmer in Southwestern Ontario.

Case closed, I thought. Until I realized, not so fast. If the photo was misidentified as the wrong Robert Hamilton, how could I even be sure this person’s name was Robert Hamilton? This could be a picture of any family member, perhaps the husband of one of the daughters, a cousin, or even a close friend. All I can say for sure is that this photo was taken in the 1890s, by a Toronto photo studio, and was probably a picture of a member of the Hamilton family.

I recently used the photo of the man in the top hat on this blog. It has now been replaced with a verified picture of Robert Hamilton the immigrant, taken when he was an old man. This photo is included in a history of Scarborough that was published in 1896. At that time, the editor would have been able to check the sitter’s identity with residents who remembered him.

So, who wrote the wrong identity on the photo sent to me years ago? Probably my Aunt Margaret or Uncle Glen Hamilton. Both were proud of their Scottish origins and interested in the family’s history, but neither of them actually did the hard slog of genealogy, looking up and sorting out births, marriages and deaths. They would not have realized that their great-grandfather died years before this photo was taken.

They made an assumption and I didn’t question it for many years. Lesson learned.

The Genealogy Ensemble Banner

Several of the photos in the Genealogy Ensemble banner up top include members of the Hamilton family. At far left, my father, Jim Hamilton, and his twin, Arthur, in 1918; a Catholic church in Quebec, photo by Barry McGee; Gwendolyn Bagg, my grandmother on my mother’s side, on her wedding day in 1916; left to right, three cousins in Winnipeg: Margaret Hamilton, Isabel Hamilton and Olive Hamilton, around 1915; Jim Hamilton’s baby book; Whickham Parish Church, County Durham, England; OPR birth record of Alexander Tocher, Grange, Banffshire, 1754, http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Notes and Sources

1. David Boyle, editor, The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, Toronto, 1896 (http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924028900970/cu31924028900970_djvu.txt)

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