Category Archives: Writing

Fact and Fiction in Family History

The conclusion of one of the stories on Vita Brevis, the New England Historic Genealogical Society blog, demonstrates a typical family historian dilemma.

“We still don’t, of course, know who wrote down the story, when, or how likely they were to know the true facts of the case, but someday the original family version may surface.”

Alicia Crane Williams’ conclusion to her post about a man whose ancestor’s wife allegedly received a dowry equal to her weight in gold (, Jan 9, 2017) was exactly as it should be. An important part of our job as family historians is to clearly make the distinction between history and story, fact and myth. Williams came across the story while researching a sketch of Henry Lamprey of Hampton, New Hampshire, but as far as she could tell, it was just that: a family story. She read it in an 1893 history of the town and traced an earlier reference, but she was still trying to figure out how much – if any – of the tale was based on fact.

As family historians, we all run across family stories, some amusing, others tragic. We are usually thrilled to find these stories since they help fill in some of the blanks between our ancestors’ birth and death dates. But that does not make them true.

Accounts written at the end of the 19th century are often suspect. Many towns in North America published books featuring profiles of prominent members of their communities. These accounts were usually provided by the families and they tended to emphasize the positive rather than relying on solid research.

My ancestor Stanley Clark Bagg is a good example. After he died in 1873, several Montreal “historians” wrote about his family’s roots. My research has proved that they made an error and this misinformation has been perpetuated until today in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (See “The Biography of Stanley Clark Bagg: Don’t Believe Everything You Read”, Genealogy Ensemble, Dec. 2, 2015,

Also common is the story about families being descended from royalty, aristocracy or the very wealthy. My MacGregor ancestor was supposedly descended from the clan chiefs and my Hamilton ancestor, a tailor, was – you guessed it – allegedly related to the Dukes of Hamilton. None of my research has showed either claim to be true.

Our job as family historians is not to just to repeat family stories as facts but to try to verify them and to correct the record when necessary, or at least indicate that there is doubt about a story. Many family stories do contain kernels of truth, and it is often helpful to put our ancestors’ lives into historical context. But if we can’t sort out what is fact and what is fiction, we have to be clear that we are recounting an unverified story.

How to Bring a Voice to Your Personal Essay

Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent.  Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.

Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.

Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers.  Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.

Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”

It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.

What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art.  The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent.  Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.

The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because   readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.

Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:

  1. Are you using your own unique voice?
  2. Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
  3. Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
  4. Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
  5. Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?

Are you a Genealogy Ensemble true fan?

If you are, you’ll want to sign up for our new mailing list right away so you can get notified about all of our fun upcoming projects. We’re planning to publish a book, lots of how-to articles and some quizzes later this year.

Right away, you’ll get nine of the best pieces of advice from genealogy rock-stars from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. These are some of the best genealogy writers in the industry, and we’re confident that their insights will inspire you to produce well-researched stories about everyone in your family.

Whether you sign up for our list or not, we really appreciate you reading our stories and commenting when you have something important to share. We love hearing how our efforts to produce compelling narratives about our ancestors affect you.

If there are people in our community that are producing great stories you think others should read, let us know. We’re always happy to share great work.

Thanks again for reading our stories.


Plymouth Navy Days

by Marian Bulford

Our group or ‘gang’ never went out with the local lads. Every Saturday night we went dancing at the NAAFI and met up with the young sailors from all over the British Isles who were stationed in Devonport. The NAAFI was a huge social club ….
It was always with the young sailors stationed in Devonport, from all over the British Isles that we met every Saturday night when we all went dancing at the NAAFI – the Navy Army Air Force Institute – a social club for all the services and service families situated in the centre of Plymouth and covered a whole city block. At one end, it was a hotel for service families and the other end was a restaurant three bars and a huge dance floor.

I was an excited 16 year old, with the whole world in front of me. Plymouth Devon, in the UK was my home town.

It was a naval port and had been for centuries. Who has not heard of Sir Frances Drake, the celebrated Tudor seafarer, famous for circumnavigating the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada? Or the Mayflower, the tiny ship that transported the first English Separatists, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620? [1]

Most of my family on both mother and father’s side, were Royal or Merchant Navy and had lived in or around the areas for centuries the same places I lived as a teenager.

Ships of all sizes were always in and out of Devonport, the area I lived in and when a ship arrived ‘home’ there was much celebration in the local pubs and dance halls. This was my town and I loved it.

It was also a very popular summer holiday area with lovely hotels and guest houses. This area of Devon was described as the ‘Riviera of the South’ we even had our own palm trees.

This poster shows ‘Plymouth Sound’ and ‘Drake’s Island ‘ in the background, the beautiful Tinside Art Deco Lido Pool and of course, the sailors. I could have been one of those girls in the poster……

Holiday Poster

Over the last year, my 16 year old school friends and I had built up a close group of boy sailors, ‘Matelot’s’ as we called them, the young 15 to 16 year old Navy boys learning their trades as apprentices on board various ships at the Devonport Dockyard, where many of my ancestors had worked over the centuries.

NAAAFI Building, Plymouth Devon c. 1961

The Plymouth NAAFI Club

We were all very excited in 1961 because the NATO [2] fleet arrived in Plymouth!
About 15 foreign ships would be arriving and the population would swell. The local population was pleased as money would be made and our group noticed a lot of ‘strangers’ in town when the fleet arrived. Lots of ‘ladies’ from London arrived, or ‘unfortunates’ as my Gran called them, and they stood out because of their accents.

Many foreign languages were also heard in the streets of Plymouth, some I was only hearing for the first time, and we tried to communicate with some of the sailors with lots of miming laughing and hand waving.

The biggest ship in town was a United States Aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, which caused great excitement: it was as big as a small town.

But imagine our reaction on the following Saturday, when we went to our usual dance at the NAAFI and saw our very first black men in the flesh AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time!

We had never seen black people before, there were none in our part of England, and especially not ones doing the twist! Boy, they were ever good! Not a patch on us or the local sailors and we could not wait to copy them. But that is another story….


[2] NATO Fleet: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1952,
Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance, joined later by West Germany.


Sister Pilgrimage

Early Sunday morning, dressed in our special t-shirts, we left in plenty of time for the morning church service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods.  The greeter welcomed us warmly, and we asked if there might be any Haningtons at church that day.  She beckoned down the aisle to her husband who then introduced himself as Allen Hanington. 4-1StMartin-Haningtons (9) Overjoyed, we threw our arms around our surprised distant cousin and snapped a commemorative photo.  And so our journey began.

4-1StMartin-Haningtons (8)

My 3x great grandfather, William Hanington, was the first English settler in Shediac, New Brunswick, in 1785.  He was an amazing fellow who emigrated from England at the age of twenty-six, built a whole community, set up lumber exports, built ships, married a PEI girl and had a family of thirteen.   Later in life, in 1823, he donated a piece of land and built St Martin’s-in-the-Woods Anglican Church, where he was buried in 1838.St Martin's in the Woods

4Shediac (23)

Front: Sister Pilgrimage July 2015 Back: William Hanington – 3x Great Grandfather 1759-1838

This past July, my sister and I decided to go on a one week “sister pilgrimage” to explore our family history in Shediac from 230 years ago.  We ordered our specialized t-shirts and planned our family-and-friends-fun-filled trip to the Maritimes. A very special trip for us both.  We hadn’t travelled together before and my sister, recently widowed, was embracing a “carpe diem” attitude.

Peggy’s Cove was our first  tourist attraction and we enjoyed a stroll around the lighthouse and its spectacular rocks overlooking the ocean. The quaint little shops were charming and the local afternoon tea was delicious.

On our way to Shediac, NB, we visited my sister’s friend Helen who was new to the area and provided us with a hearty lunch.  We checked into our B&B in Shediac, and set off to explore the delightful little town.  On the waterfront, we climbed onto the famous giant lobster to pose for the ultimate tourist photo.  4Shediac (17)Afterwards, while strolling along the boardwalk, we came upon a historical monument dedicated to our 2x great grandfather Daniel Hanington, a famous politician in his time. What a terrific surprise!

6AppleBlossomCafe (4)

The Anglin Sisters meet the Wallace Sisters.

Hopewell Rocks was our second tourist attraction with its incredible change in tides.  That morning, we walked along the “beach”.  Then we lunched nearby at the Apple Blossom Café, run by three retired schoolteacher spinster sisters.  What a hoot they were!  After lunch, we returned to find high tide had completely transformed the whole bay.  Amazing!

The next morning, our GPS helped us find our way to tiny Clairville, NB, to visit my friends Carol and Bruce.  Their cozy place was beautifully perched up on a hill overlooking a vast field.  After a tour of their house and garden, we had a delicious lunch and then set out for Charlottetown, PEI.

While driving across the spectacular Confederation Bridge, it was difficult to imagine how William and his Indian guides paddled across the Northumberland Strait in 1792 to claim his bride in Summerside, PEI (then known as Ile-St.Jean).

We checked into our B&B in Charlottetown and headed off to meet Anne of Green Gables, our third tourist attraction.  Luckily for us, there weren’t many visitors that day and she was able to personally fill us in on all the latest town gossip.

On our last day, we visited our mother’s best childhood friend. who is living with her son and family just outside Charlottetown.  Our mother passed away when we were very young, and AuntJean“Auntie Jean” has been a precious source of their childhood tales. It was such a thrill to see her again.

Later on that Sunday after the morning service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods, we visited with Allen’s charming sister Lillian, the family historian who knew our exact location in the Hanington family tree!

And just down the lane from the church, off  Hanington Street, was our grandmother’s summer cottage.  Our grandfather, Canon Lindsay, would fill in as their pastor from time to time over the summers and several people at church that morning remembered him fondly.

Finally, as we drove down the driveway to visit with Allen and his wife Willa, there they were sitting on the porch swing waiting to welcome us into their home. 4-1StMartin-Haningtons (18)The afternoon flew by with lemonade and homemade treats and eventually we bid farewell to our cousins with heartfelt promises to keep in touch.

PS  The August 2015 family newsletter, the Hanington Herald, just arrived by mail! Included in the comments from the President’s Desk (that would be our cousin Allen!), it says: “We just experienced a lovely visit from the Anglin sisters; Lucy (Montreal) and Margaret (Ottawa) who were visiting in the area and attended morning service at St Martin’s-in-the-Woods Anglican Church on Sunday, July 5th 2015.  We had a very nice visit on Sunday afternoon.  They are descendents of Daniel Hanington.”

Life Decisions

A simple act followed by a statement can be life-changing. Such was the case for Kaarlo.

Several  years of study at Michigan College of Mines in Houghton, Michigan had prepared Kaarlo, a young Finnish boy from Ashtabula, Ohio  for a career in the mining industry. He had worked as a cook on the ore boats on the Great Lakes and knew he wanted something more fulfilling, much as he loved sailing the lakes.

In 1928 he graduated with a degree in Mining  Engineering. There was a job waiting for him at  Royal Tiger Gold Mines in Breckenridge, Colorado. He packed his Model T Ford and set out for the west with high hopes and dreams of creating a good life, doing something he truly enjoyed.

It wasn’t long after arriving at the mines that he found the owner-manager tampering with the assays (the device used to measure gold). Once the owner realized that the young man was aware of his actions, he ordered him to be “out of town by sundown!”.  Kaarlo didn’t back down and stated that he would leave as soon as he could get his car on a railroad car to carry it  over the mountains.

Dreams of working in the gold mines were crushed. Being young and a go-getter,  he immediately contacted the College to see if they knew of any openings for newly graduated engineers. They responded that there were openings in Canada in the nickel mines in Copper Cliff, Ontario.  It was time to head north.


                                    The Big Nickel in CopperCliff, Ontario,  now part of Greater Sudbury

Kaarlo Victor Lindell crossed in to Canada on the 31st of January 1929 at Bridgeburg, Ontario1 with hopes and dreams of a rewarding career and a new challenge. He found a room in a boarding house and began working for the  International Nickel  Company(INCO) and never looked back. He spoke Finnish and soon made friends with his coworkers, among them many Finns. His employer took advantage of his knowledge of Finnish and in 1934 was sent to Northern Finland where he was actively involved in opening a nickel mine in Petsamo. In 1939 that part of Finland was seized by the Russians.

Along the way he met a pert, pretty, vivacious young lady, named Estelle (Esty) and sought her hand. They were married on September 6th 1930 in Sudbury. In the meantime Kaarlo had legally changed his name to Karl and took religious instruction in the Catholic faith having been a Lutheran all his life.

In 1939 with WW11 on the horizon Karl wanted to serve his new country. He became a naturalized citizen on the 8th of August 19392, however, with four children and a fifth on the way,  (me) his services were needed in the nickel  industry. He remained at work for INCO. Nickel production was crucial for ammunition during the war years.


Royal Tiger Gold Mines thrived from 1918 and into the 1930s, however, it declared bankruptcy in 1938 and in 1973 the town and all the buildings in it were torched to keep the “hippies” from squatting.

Northern Ontario, on the other hand has over time developed  and prospered.

It is interesting to speculate how Kaarlo’s life might have been, especially  if he had stayed in Colorado?


I would not be here to tell the story!


Are we responsible for ancestors’ mistakes?

Learning about the Acadians, fur-traders, immigrants, soldiers, farmers and business people who are among my ancestors usually gives me strength and fills me with gratitude. I know that the decisions they made led to opportunities that have enabled me to thrive.

My parents and ancestors gave me many gifts, including a safe, happy child-hood and ongoing friendships with my aunts, uncles and cousins. I grew up knowing all four of my grandparents and some of their siblings, something that lots of children don’t enjoy. I especially appreciate those relationships now that three grandparents have died and my great-aunt and grandmother are both bedridden.

But what about the liability side of that leger? Do my children and I bear any responsibility for the mistakes of ancestors who are now dead?

There’s no inheritance to consider and Canadian law doesn’t require families to honour the debts of people after they die. If they did, there would be at least one ancestor who could cause us problems. The scoundrel got his clients drunk and stole from them. I’ll probably find others like him as research continues, although I hope not.

There are several ethical considerations beyond finances though. Do my children and I have a moral responsibility to atone for our ancestors’ actions too?

If the answer to this is yes, then what would the limits be?

Are we responsible for only people in our direct line or do cousins’ actions count too?

What if there are family stories about misdeeds but no documents? Do those count?

How far back do we go and does it matter where they lived? A century? In that case, my responsibility is limited to actions in Belgium, Canada, England, France and North Dakota, I think. (My mom’s dad’s parents emigrated from England and a few women came from Belgium but so far everyone else has been in Canada since the mid-1600s or so. As far as I know. I haven’t done my mom’s side very far back yet, but my great grandmother and her parents were born in Canada.)

Would the actions of step-grand-parents count? If so, then add Scotland for my grandfather.

My kids get all those plus Portugal.

If we do bear responsibility for ancient wrongs, what could we possibly do to make up for the actions? Apologize? Pay the victims? Say a bunch of hail Mary’s in private? Volunteer for organizations that make up for the misdeeds? Donate to these organizations? Find the ancestors of people my ancestors hurt and make some sort of deal with them?

How do you ensure that searching for reconciliation does no harm? We have lots of soldiers who participated in wars long-past. If we attempt to atone for those, don’t we risk reviving historic family blood feuds that are better left alone?

Those are just some of the questions raised by the idea taken on an individual level.

On a societal level, things get even more complicated. Nonetheless, successive Canadian Governments are taking responsibility on our behalf for historic wrongs. They’ve provided funds and apologies to communities for:

All of these issues are heart-breaking and I’m relieved that the government found a way to direct some funds to the living people who suffered from past policies. The payouts to communities on behalf of people who have died trouble me more, but I imagine that these were made to limit potential payouts from future lawsuits.

I also question how the Canadian Government can act responsibly to atone for the past on these issues and yet refute the argument that today’s population is responsible for past errors during worldwide negotiations to deal with climate change. Canada clearly benefited from historic industrial development while poorer countries did not. This decision pit the Canadian Government against environmentalists and was part of the impetus behind the Idle No More movement (

Idle No More raises Canada’s most difficult challenge on both an individual and society level—reconciling with our First Nations people.

Reconciliation is hard enough if we look only at people currently living. It becomes even trickier when the lives of ancestors are considered.

I believe that this is where individuals can make a big difference. We’ll all be able to tell better stories if we carefully trace, document and repatriate our Cree, Ojibway and other First Nations people along with the rest of our family members.

Our families need to be whole.

Listening to Genealogy experts in my Sauna

A few of them made long car rides to Ontario flow by quickly. Others made visits to the doctor seem shorter. I’ve even heard a couple while sitting in the sauna.

So far, twenty experts have taught me how to improve my genealogy research while sitting around. All thanks to CDs I ordered of sessions from the Federation of Genealogy Societies ( 2013 Conference in Fort Wayne Texas.

The Helen F.M. Leary Distinguished lecture by Elizabeth Shown Mills, from is my favourite so far. Her story about figuring out that a marriage lasted three years by examining a housekeeping bill compels me forward when going through multiple series of papers for some clue to reality. (Also, I found a series of online interviews with Leary herself for free at

Tips are good too. Peter Drinkwater, the product manager from convinced me that printing pdf’s is the best way to keep copies of things I find online, because the source information is automatically printed as part of the image.

Eric C.M. Basir convinced me to save photos as tifs.

I never knew that orphans used to be indentured as a way of earning their keep until Angela Walton Raji spoke about the Freedman’s Bureau during the James Dent Walker memorial lecture. Never even heard of James Dent Walker (, despite him being the 14th person nominated to the U.S. National Genealogy Hall of Fame.

Lots of different people have spoken about the importance of keeping detailed research logs.

Iowa, Scotland, the Midwest, Iowa, Desmoines—I don’t even know whether I have ancestors in any of those places or not, but listening to research experts describe all the different details about everyday people that were revealed through documents, photos and official records has been so inspiring.

There’s still another 63 conferences to go too, just from the one conference. And next year, the Federation of Genealogical Societies will be combining their conference with RootsTech in Salt Lake City. The dates are set: February 12 to 14.

You can order your own copy at

Friday factoid: Military Service Records

You can get more detail about your ancestors if you consult the service records in person.

My grandfather’s previous job as a baker, his relationship with women and the letters send to his family were all part of his service record, but I had to scan every page carefully for these fascination details. I still remember reading those words in the middle of a long form: “burned letters from girlfriends.”

Oh I wish they hadn’t done that.

That crucial form wasn’t part of the genealogy package my mom got before she died either. Nor was the form that talked about his job as a baker before the war or his leave without notice. Nor his will. Perhaps other family members wouldn’t want to know such things, but they are crucial hints to his impulsive character.

Researchers can consult the military service records of anyone who died while serving for the Canadian Armed Forces via Library and Archives Canada.

You can also consult the records of soldiers who died after they served, although you may have to provide staff with copies of obituaries.

The process is straightforward, but time-consuming. Request the records you need prior to visiting Library and Archives Canada, if you can.

I began my search at this site:

To find the records of Richard Charles Himphen, I selected the World War II Military Service Collection and typed his last name and first names into the box.

That gave me this screen:


This provides all the information you need to access the records.

Click on order records and you get this window:


I highly recommend that you go  look at the entire record. My mom got the genealogy package of her father’s service record before she died. It didn’t contain nearly as much as his service record shows.

Hope your search is a worthwhile as mine was.

Farewell Sergeant Himphen

I have been searching for any information about my dad Sergeant Richard Charles Himphen since I was a very little girl. My mother has now passed away and did not ever want to share information about him and I suppose always found it to be such a sad time in her life.”

My mother wrote these words in an email on June 9, 2005.

Similar words are read frequently by librarians, archivists and others who hold sacred information about our ancestors.

RichardCharlesHimphenMy grandfather was among 45,000 Canadian soldiers who died during World War II. In addition to his wife and daughter, he was grieved by parents Charles and Violet, brother Robert and two sisters, Rita and Margarite.

Other women grieved too, including Miss M.E. Cull from Kent, who thought she was his fiancée.

Our family found out about her because of a single page in his service file report that says she made a claim as his fiancé.

She wasn’t his only special someone either. Another page in that same file says: “destroyed letters from girlfriends.”

Those same records detail Richard’s military career, which began on a part-time basis at the age of 17. He’d already worked for two years as a baker’s helper at the Canada Bread Company by the time he joined the Active Militia of Canada in October 1937. He was assigned to the 30th Battery of the RCA, where he served until June 1939.

A year later, he left his job to enlist full-time as a private. He signed up with an infantry battalion called the Irish Regiment of Canada, which trained at Camp Borden. His enthusiasm for his chosen path seems clear from a statement on a form he filled out in April 1941. His answer to “state any employment or ambition you may have,” was “soldiering.”

He married Evelyn Doris Johnson in June at the Silverthorne Avenue Baptist Church and shipped overseas in August 1942.

His daughter Marilyn Violet, my mother, was born the following April. He got notice of her birth by telegram in Britain.

His regiment was sent to Italy before he could get home to see her. They arrived in Naples in November.

On May 4, 1944 Richard stuck his left thigh on a bayonet while taking cover in a slit trench during shelling in Cassino. He couldn’t walk for 13 days, but recovered fully.

He fought in Italy for four more months. On September 13, during an action taking Coriano from the enemy, he was mortally wounded.

Major Gordon Brown, who took part, described the day afterwards in a history pamphlet:

in the early hours of the morning, before dawn, the Irish swept down from Besanigo Ridge into the valley which separated it from Coriano Ridge, and began to work their way up towards the town…“B” Company, under Captain Bill Elder, completed the job by finishing the clearing, and covering the Castella feature.”

Richard was pierced under the spine and suffered a “sucking wound to the chest” on his right side. He was brought to the 93 BG Hospital, where he died October 12.

His will was a single signed page in his pay book:

DSC09387In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to Mrs. R.C. Himphen, 663 Old Weston Rd, Toronto, Ont”

It was signed, but neither dated nor witnessed.

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