Category Archives: Genealogy

Message in a web bottle

You may approach genealogical research like you would fishing — and just to bring it back to French-Canadians — ICE-fishing (OK I wrote the ICE word, but it’s going to warm up today!).  Instead of fishing with one rod, you set up as many lines as you can. The limit is how many you can check at a time… and how many holes you can dig before you are so hot you strip down to your t-shirt.

This is just what  a cousin did:

2001, Welland, Ontario: she sends on RootsWeb * a querry about my great-aunt Simone Viau-McDuff.  And waits.

2011, Laval, Québec: I’m poking around the web, put in Simone’s name into Google and find her message. Wow! For sure it’s the same person, but… the message is 10 years old!  No one keeps their e-mail address for that long. Too bad!

Still, I send my line to the water and reply. Next day, I get a reply.

Geraldine, daughter of my grandfather’s cousin, was jumping up and down in her living room when she got my message (just like I was when I got hers).

Like many Quebecers during the 20th century, her grandfather Philias Viau , had moved from Lachine to work in the Niagara region around 1904. He was my great-grandfather J. Francis Viau’s brother. They lost their French, but there are still some Wellanders that don’t speak English. The Welland canal was of great importance as a link between Lakes  Erie and Ontario. Many industries flourished along the canal, like The Electro Metallurgical Company unit of Union Carbide where Philias worked.

I went to visit Geraldine by train, learned about the region, met some great people. Among them, Renée Tetrault, a founding member of the Welland Branch of the Franco Ontarien Society of History and Genealogy now known as the Réseau du patrimoine franco-ontarien. Renée has served for more than thirty years as the expert who assists researchers at their Centre for Research in the Welland Public Library. She will describe the extensive holdings of their library in and offer suggestions for researching in Quebec.

Which leads me to introduce this French-Canadian resource: there are six regional centers in Ontario.  Three times a year they publish Le Chainon (paper or digital).  They have quite a few online resources (Ontario and other provinces including Quebec, and even American parishes) available to members, among which transcribed notarial records, BMS, cemetaries, family histories, cities and towns, census, archive guides, and a lot more.

Two things to remember:

When part of a family moves away, news and pictures are exchanged to keep in touch. Geraldine had pictures of my Montreal family that I had never seen and letters writen by my direct ancestors. The jewel: a cash book kept when Philias’ father Onesime Viau died in Lachine, where all spendings (lots of prayers in church) and income (rents) were described along with after-death inventory  and each child’s share of inheritance. The two of us were able to piece together family stories that individually we couldn’t figure out and dentify people on each other’s pictures.  Finding cousins will help you go up your tree in surprising ways.

Viau p
Onésime Viau and Antoinette Dorais with their children, Lachine, Québec

The other, send a lot of lines out, keep a log, follow up, but be patient. Be courteous, some will never bite, some are not interested. But dream big, don’t be stopped by logic and expect anything…fish come in many shapes and sizes, and even as messages in bottles.

* Rootsweb was one of the first online free cooperative genealogical resources. Ancestry has picked it up, but we can still go into archives or free.

Free public archives

No, it’s not just to get your attention, Archives publiques libres  is a group of people who believe archives should be free to search to all, and that, by the same token, if you put your information online to share with others, it is not so a company grabs your info to sell to others.

gratuit genealogieFollow them on Facebook 

On their webpage, they explain their position, list actions they take or that we can take to maintain a genalogical world accessible to all…

I really appreciate their inventory of free genealogical resources: simply click on maps and access lists fromFrance and around the world.  You can also find press releases, tips for using internet etc.

Empty Boxes

A sense of dread enveloped me on hearing David’s words: “Paige is the first of our generation with Alzheimer’s.” David and Paige are my cousins, the sons of my mother’s eldest sister Madge. Alzheimer’s has long held a dark grip on my family.

Madge died young as did her brother Clark. The remaining five siblings lived to seventy and beyond and all died with Alzheimer’s. Family clusters like this are unusual, my doctor assures me, and likely linked to something in the environment. The Willetts were born and raised on a farm in the Gaspe. Perhaps the trigger was something like drinking unpasteurized milk, my doctor suggested. Good, I’m a city girl and have always consumed pasteurized milk. But wasn’t that also true of Paige?

I was witness to the slow progression of the disease in my two aunts and my mother. Violet was the first to be moved to a nursing home when her sister Kathleen could no longer care for her. Eventually she appeared to have forgotten everything, even how to eat. She died when a feeding tube perforated her throat.

Kathleen was next. Frequently she tried to escape her home. Once she was found wandering miles away in a seedy section of the city. Someone drove her to the address on a letter in her purse, her old apartment. The new tenant invited her in to wait while the police searched their missing people’s files. Evidently the two women had a lovely afternoon chatting about their world travels, the tenant seemingly unaware of my aunt’s dementia. Social skills are said to be the last to disappear. Kathleen died of pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” my mother called it. Years later it was difficult for me to give my consent for mum to have a pneumonia vaccine.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s accelerated rapidly following my father’s death. For a while she was aware of her confusion struggled to regain control. She railed against going to a home and accused me of kicking her out of her house. “Take me home” she would cry again and again. “That’s where my umbrella is. And my memory.” In the end, she forgot who I was and that she was ever angry with me. Time and memory became short circuited. She searched for her own mother in the rooms of the home asking constantly why she hadn’t come to visit her.

My mother died peacefully at the age of ninety-four. By that time she too would not eat or drink and her words made no sense. But Alzheimer’s treatment had advanced. There was no force feeding, just gentle care and comfort from family and staff in her own room and in her own bed with soft music in the background. We no longer prolong the dying of Alzheimer’s patients but travel with our loved ones on their final journal. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.

A few years earlier my husband and I had emptied mum’s house and put it on the market. I’m still haunted by the image of the empty boxes we found stored in the basement: big boxes and small boxes, cardboard boxes and boxes covered in velvet, blue Birks boxes and boxes from the St. Hubert Barbeque. The boxes were the remainders of a lifetime of experiences. But the boxes were empty, a very powerful metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Today I am healthy and my memory boxes are full. So I write of memories, my own memories and the stories of my family that I have researched. If one day my memories are lost, my boxes will hold the record.

Madge Alexandra Willett Whitney 1902-1941 (39 years)
Clarke Stanford Willett 1912-1960 (48 years)
Violet Gwendolyn Willett 1903-1983 (80 years)
Kathleen MacDonald Willett 1907-1991 (84 years)
Marion Geraldine Willett Angus 1917 -2011 (94 years)

Also:
George Ralph Willett 1905-1983 (78 years)
Keith Arthur Willett 1910-1980 (70 years)

Cherishing memories

My paternal grandparents immigrated to Montreal from Scotland in 1912 and settled in Pointe St. Charles. They moved every few years and, as the family became a little more prosperous, they moved to Verdun. I grew up listening to family stories that took place in Verdun.

Kathryn Harvey, a Montreal historian, has posted this an article about the Verdun Memories project on the web site montrealmosaic.com.

http://montrealmosaic.com/reflection/verdun-memories

Kathryn Harvey and Leila Marshy put together a short film shot about Verdun Memories called Cutting, pasting and remembering. This film is about the memories and also about the joy of sharing these memories with others. You can view this film at:

http://www.verdunmemories.org/

Remembering the 9.5 Million Dead of World War I

Canadian actor and playwright R. H. Thomson has undertaken a remarkable project to commemorate the names of the more than nine million people who died in World War I, individually, and at the exact time of each person’s death, no matter what the person’s nationality or military rank.

Over the next four years, those names will appear in various ways. They will be streamed to computers, tablets and cell phones. They will be displayed on the walls of buildings or in public spaces. And they will be distributed in an app to museums, schools and universities.

Among the many nations participating are Canada, the U.K., Germany and France. Russia, where more people died than anywhere else, is considering its participation, but may have difficulty because some of the archives were destroyed. Some countries have declined to take part.

To learn more, go to http://theworldremembers.ca. You can listen to Michael Enright’s Feb. 23, 2014 interview with R. H. Thomson at www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/.

Friday factoid: Project Gutenberg

On a summer day in 1971, Michael Stern Hart typed the U.S. Declaration of Independence into his computer and shared it freely online via the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

That moment was the beginning of Project Gutenberg.

As of today, Project Gutenberg contains 44,847 books and texts in the public domain that can be searched via keyword, title or author. I’ve already written about finding a book mentioning one of my ancestors. This is a great way to find out context about various time periods or simply find some great texts to download to your electronic book reader.

Visit the site for your own searches at http://www.gutenberg.org/.

Why Did Charles and Mary Mathieu Move Back to Canada?

According to his Ontario birth certificate, my great-uncle Jean Charles Horace Mathieu was born to Charles Mathieu and Mary Agnes Proulx in Fort William, Ontario on April 24, 1911.[1]

Ten years later, the family had moved to 500 Aylmer Avenue in Windsor, Ontario, where they were renting a six-bedroom house. Both parents were 51 years old. His father Charles worked as a carpenter. His wife, who was born Marie Agnès Proulx, was then called Agnes. (She went by Mary and/or Agnes depending on the documents.)  Jean Charles had two older brothers, Arthur (16) and Raymond (14), an older sister Fernanda (12) and two younger brothers, Lawrence (8) and George Albert (6). [2]

My great aunt told me that most of the family, except for Raymond, moved back to Canada from Michigan after his dad lost his job in the depression.

I wasn’t able to find them on the 1930 U.S. Census, so if they did go to the States and returned, the entire experience probably happened between 1921 and 1930. There is one person who has a family tree on Ancestry who indicates that a Fernanda Mathieu crossed into Canada in 1924. That may have been John Charles’ sister, but it isn’t confirmed.

They were back in Montreal by August 8, 1940, when Jean Charles volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

To find out their address, I used Steve Morse’s search engine at Steve Morse’s website to search Lovells directories. I found carpenters named Charles Mathieu living at 6760 St. Denis in 1932[3], and at 3286 St. Antoine in 1940[4]. There were no listings for carpenters of that name from 1933 until 1939. Also, I don’t have anything to say whether these listings actually represent Charlie’s family.

My original question remains a brick wall.


[1] Photocopy of Province of Ontario pocket birth certificate issued at Toronto on November 10, 1947, registered in April 24, 1911 in Fort William, Thunder Bay District by Geo. H Dunbar, Registrar Dunbar.

[2] 1921 Canadian Census, Province of Ontario, District of Essex North, Roger West Minard Subdistrict, Number 47, June 13, 1921, B, Page 20, derivative source.

[3] Lovvell’s Montreal Alphabetical Directory, 1932, p1456

[4] Lovell’s Montreal Alphabetical Directory, 1940, p1771.

Discovery Channel airs new series about Yukon gold rush

On Monday, January 20 at 9 PM (ET and PT), the Discovery Channel in Canada will broadcast a new three-part series, Klondike, about the Yukon gold rush in the late 1890s. Parts two and three will air on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 21 and 22. The series is based on Charlotte Gray’s book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike.  This is a rare opportunity to see part of Canada’s history on the small screen.

As genealogists, we often try to picture how our ancestors lived. While admittedly, TV and movies may not provide the most accurate portrayal of the time, they can still provide a sense of how people dressed and acted. As far as I know, none of my Canadian ancestors ventured to the wilds of the Yukon Territory. During the Klondike period, most of them were living in Montreal and Toronto. Nevertheless, I expect my ancestors were aware of the gold rush and perhaps some of them even dreamt of taking part.

Klondike Street Scene

“Our Canadian Roots” February 20

Ruth Dougherty (left) and Joan Benoit chat in front of Earl John Chapman who is seated at the table speaking with Oskar Keller.
Ruth Dougherty (left) and Joan Benoit chat in front of Earl John Chapman who is seated at the table speaking with Oskar Keller during Military Roots Day.

The Quebec Family History Society (QFHS) Heritage Centre and Library in Pointe Claire held an open house for people interested in genealogy and history related to their Canadian Roots last year, Wednesday, February 20.

The event was the brain-child of executive secretary Joan Benoit, who has been helping run the QFHS for the past 32 years. “We basically want to bring members together to celebrate and share our common interests in a fun way.” she said. “It caught my imagination.”

The event took place from 1:30 until 4 p.m. at 173 Cartier Avenue, Pointe-Claire, just south of the highway. About a dozen showed up to enjoy coffee out of their own mugs and pleasant family history research discussion.

This was the third in the “Roots Day” series that took place last year. The previous one, Scottish Roots, was the most popular, attracting some 55 people. It was followed up by Irish Roots on March 20, English Roots on April 17, Female Roots on May 15, and Quebec Roots on June 19.

The series began the previous December with an event focussed on military traditions. That one attracted about thirty people over the afternoon and evening. Author and amateur historian Earl John Chapman was there talking about his books, including a history of the Black Watch and his most recent work, “Bard of Wolfe’s Army: James Thompson, Gentleman Volunteer, 1733-1830.” The work collects Thompson’s journals together with historical commentary to help readers understand the times. It might appeal to people with ancestors who served during the siege of Louisbourg, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or the attack on Quebec City.