A New Branch

Last week, I took another look at my mother’s grandmother’s death certificate.

According to the document, her “sister” had was present at her death and had signed the certificate.

But the thing that threw me off was that her “sister” had the same last name.

Allow me to explain:

My last name’s Campbell (on both sides, and as far as I know, unrelated, as each side of the family are from different parishes in Jamaica – Hanover and Saint James – but that’s for another post).

My mother’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Clarke. The last name of the “sister” that signed the death certificate was Campbell. Which, I suppose, if I had the means to research and link everyone together, might be plausible.

But if the sister’s last name was Campbell, she’d have to be a sister-in-law.

So into the records I dove. I needed to find a marriage certificate for my mother’s paternal grandparents. The certificate would have their fathers’ names, and that would be a starting point.

And find one, I most certainly did. It showed me a couple of interesting facts.

One, I learned both the names of their dads – my first set of great-great-grandfathers. One named Campbell, the other named Clarke.

Two, they were married April 1906. Which is pretty uninteresting in itself. Except that their first child was born in August 1906.

Nowadays, that’s not really anything that would raise any eyebrows.

But if the stories I’d heard were true – that my mom’s grandparents were from well-to-do farming families … and this took place in early 20th-century, pre-independence Jamaica … then perhaps this was proof of a shotgun wedding.

Well, then.


An attempt at searching for great-great-granddaddy Campbell yielded nothing.

But great-great-grandfather Clarke decided to cut me a break.

He was a cultivator who died in 1931, aged 87, from “debility due to old age”. So he was the patriarch of a relatively well-to-do family, and — given his age when he died — that lifestyle treated him well. His daughter – my mother’s paternal grandmother, Jane Ann Campbell – was the one who signed the certificate.

But then, something tugged at my brain. I’d laid eyes on another person named Clarke just days ago … but who was it?

I eventually found my way back to the eight-month-old whose death certificate I’d recently found.

The person who signed the death certificate was the child’s grandmother … named Clarke.

Well, well.

Another several minutes of searching led me to great-great-grandmother Clarke’s death certificate, recorded in 1936. She was 82. Guess who signed the certificate?

The mystery “sister” named Campbell, listed as the daughter of the deceased.

This was amazing. I’d just discovered one of my great-grandmother’s siblings, and their parents.

I did a bit more digging, before my lucky streak came to an end.

But my current working theory is that my great-grandmother Campbell (née Clarke) had perhaps as many as four other siblings (in this marriage, anyhow – can’t assume there weren’t some illegitimate kids).

I also have reason to believe her mother (my great-great grandmother Clarke)’s maiden name was Foster.

So, another name – and another branch – has been discovered, and it’s a good feeling. It’s going to be very hard when all this discovery I’ve made comes to a halt.

SOLVED (kind of): The Case of the Mystery Kids

So, remember when I wrote about those mysterious five siblings my grandfather had?

(No? Read this first.)

A week and a half ago – thanks to the Mormons – I’ve finally figured it out.

Originally, I’d said that perhaps they’d died as babies or young kids, of illness or unfortunate accidents.

According to the records, here’s the truth (or, the version I’m accepting):

One child, born 1910 – just over a year after my great-aunt Ellen – died before the end of that year, aged eight months. The official reason of death written on the certificate is “teething”. But the infant girl may very well have had some sort of viral infection or fever and, as it happened, was teething at the time.

Two sisters managed to make it out of childhood unscathed. But their lives wouldn’t be long ones, either.

One sister (born 1917) died while she was still a teenager (my best guess is that she was 17), of “cold and fever”. Her 23-year-old sister signed her death certificate.

And in a cruel twist of fate, said older sister (born 1912) died the following year of the aforementioned “cold and fever”, five days after her 24th birthday. My great-aunt Milda was the one who signed her certificate.

One of the youngest siblings (born 1919) was sickly and barely lived 20 days. (Poor little soul.)

One of the brothers (born 1907) had the best outcome, by far. He died 40 years ago this month, on the family property. Congestive heart failure was the cause. According to the death certificate, he was in his late 60s. I think the age listed is two years off, if his birth certificate is correct. Again, Milda was the one to sign the document.

But just like one of those sliding block puzzles, just when I think I’ve filled the gap, another one presents itself. Or, in this case, two.

My grandfather’s second-oldest brother was nicknamed “Baboo”. But – as in a lot of families – he was never addressed or referred to by his real name. So when I found the pile of birth certificates, I’d attributed his identity to a child born in May, 1911.

After a recent conversation with my mother to confirm my hunch, it turns out that “Baboo” is likely the great-uncle who died in 1974. And I’ve yet to find a death certificate for the son born in 1911.

So now, I’m back to two names that are unaccounted for – the mystery brother, and the sister called “Hilda May” (whom I’m somehow still convinced might be Milda).

Of course, this is a normal part of the process. But I was suddenly on a roll, and I’d gotten cocky. Never get cocky with history – especially when it’s got the fog of time working in its favour.

And as long as you remember that, every so often it’ll continue to throw you bones, as it sees fit.


Assistance in Unlikely Places

In light of my recent discoveries, I decided to look for a little extra help with my research efforts. If you’re a genealogy newbie like me, this post might be of some help.

While searching on Google, I stumbled upon this Caribbean surnames index which – as it turns out – is managed by a gentleman here in Toronto. And best of all, it’s free!

All you have to do is register (heed the administrator’s terms of use!), post the surnames of the ancestors or relatives you’re looking for (as well as the country, city or town, etc.) on the appropriate discussion boards, and see if any of the fellow users see your query and help you make a connection. Or, just scan the discussion boards before you post – there may already be a request posted by someone who could be one of your relatives.

In addition to the Caribbean surname index, the administrator also has Irish and Canadian indexes.

With respect to my search, once I registered, I went to the general discussion boards and came across a list of other resources to help users with their searches.

One of those resources, as it turns out, is something I use regularly: Facebook. If there is a group for almost everything else under the tree, you might be able to find a genealogy group for your search. And if there isn’t one? Start one. You never know who else is out there, looking for the same information you are.

In my case, there are Facebook members who run genealogy groups for each of the Jamaican parishes. So I signed up for two of them.

One of them accepted me in a short amount of time, and I posted a blurb about the ancestors I was researching.

A member from Atlanta responded to my query almost immediately, suggesting we might be related.  The last name of his ancestor wasn’t one I’d heard within my family tree, so I was initially skeptical. But anything was possible.

The conversation on Facebook led to me to sign up for another genealogy Web site and touching base with the Facebook member there, since he was an administrator for a couple of the genealogy groups there.

The Web site he uses is, in my opinion, a bit awkward to navigate compared to the one I’m currently using. But I’m on a two-week trial, so we’ll see how this works out.

Meanwhile, the group administrator for the other parish genealogy page I’d asked to join accepted me almost immediately. And, just as speedily, she set about trying to find records for some of the mystery members of my family.

I’m still trying to figure out whether that was a good idea.

I believe she has the best of intentions. But she emailed me a ton of records I’d either seen on previous searches I’d done on my own, or that I wasn’t entirely sure were my relatives.

It was a bit overwhelming.

(It also doesn’t help that all my relatives seem to have super-common names.)

One record in particular, though, could be the death certificate for my mom’s maternal grandmother. But the date is off by four years. Still, a few of the details on the certificate were spot-on. I’m trying to cross-reference this by checking with other family members, to see if I can solve the mystery.

For now, I’m going to stick with the connections I’ve made. Maybe the additional assistance will help keep my search moving along.

Three Deaths, Two Marriages, and One Unexpected Name

While my research on Ellen has stalled once again, I’ve discovered information for other ancestors in my family tree in the meantime.

You see, unbeknownst to me, the Mormon genealogy site I’d been using to search for records had updated its Jamaican civil registration collection in August.

So when I was searching the online database a couple weeks ago, it spat out some results I wasn’t expecting.

First, I found the death certificate for a 50-year-old, married railway worker who had died of “haemorrhage and shock” after a collision between a railway engine and a truck.

I still couldn’t be completely sure, because of the man’s marital status. But his profession and the circumstances of his death were too uncanny to dismiss.

This man could most likely be my paternal grandfather.

The second death certificate I discovered was that of my mother’s paternal grandmother. I remember my mom telling me what year she thought she’d died, and the cause of death. The certificate gave a death date that was a year off, but her name, her residence, and the illness looked about right.

I could not believe my luck at what I was finding.

I’d also found two marriage certificates: one for my maternal grandfather, and the other for my paternal grandmother.

I showed my mother the online records (on her desktop computer) when I went to visit her last Wednesday, to get a second opinion. Other than the cause of death, she didn’t know much about my dad’s father. But she looked at the certificate and said she couldn’t see why it couldn’t be him. Same with my grandmother’s marriage certificate.

The only record she was really skeptical about was her grandmother’s — only because she was convinced she was older when she’d died, and the age recorded was much younger.

One thing I’d noticed: the person who’d signed her death certificate, was listed as “the sister of the deceased”. But her last name …

Was she actually my great-grandmother’s sister-in-law, and it was just easier to write “sister”?

Or, was she really my great-grandmother’s sister, who’d married one of my great-grandfather’s brothers?

It even bewildered my mom a little bit. She’d never heard her grandmother talk about siblings. Or, if she did have any, my mom had never met them.

At that point, she left the room to do something, and for whatever reason, I decided to plug in one more name – that of my maternal grandfather’s father – just to see what would happen.

In less than five minutes, I was staring at his death certificate. I went to find my mom to show her what I’d found.

There was one thing about the certificate that had us positively stumped.

The family member who’d signed the death certificate was Milda, Ellen’s baby sister … the lone sibling currently still alive.

Except that the name she wrote on the certificate, ISN’T the one on the birth certificate I’d previously assumed to be hers.

Up until now, I presumed that her name was Hilda May – based on the birth certificate I’d found – and the name she’s been going by is a nickname, or some sort of amalgam of her first and middle names.

NOPE. Apparently her name’s Milda Maud. Both my aunt and her older sister have confirmed this.

Was the name assigned to my great-aunt at birth a mistake? Did she decide to change her name when she was older?

Or was there another sibling that I hadn’t accounted for?

A Little Bit of Light

Two months ago, my research on my great-aunt Ellen hit a wall.

(Read here, here and here for the backstory.)

I followed up with the writer I’d met in July, to see if her aunt had recalled anything from the time her mother (the writer’s grandmother) worked in the shirt factory back in the 1930s.

Unfortunately, the aunt didn’t remember. Also, she had some health ailments, so she had bigger fish to fry.

And, if you’ll recall, I’d contacted some local historians in Montreal, and while I did get the employer’s name (or rather, her husband’s), I was told my search was too specific for them to be able to help.

So I turned to Google, looking for any results that included the name of the employer’s husband.

I came across an online opinion piece about health care, written by a man whose great-grandfather was a founding member of what is now the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal … and shared the same name as the man I was looking for.

After wrestling with the idea of contacting him, I took a chance, found him on Twitter, and messaged him. When he responded in kind and invited me to email him, I sent him a note with my story.


I contacted folks affiliated with some cultural associations in Montreal, to see if perhaps they had some sort of archive or resource that I could access for possible clues. A couple of them responded, providing me with email addresses of other people I contact, which I did.

Radio. Silence.

By early October, the lack of movement was unbearable. I sent out another round of emails (with more abridged versions of my query).

One response led me to a 90-year-old woman who, as it turns out, didn’t come to Canada until after the West Indian Domestic Scheme had begun in the mid-1950s, so she wouldn’t have known Ellen. She suggested I contact Citizenship and Immigration, and gave me names for a church and a funeral home to contact, if I had any details about when she died. (As of right now, I still don’t.)

She did mention one useful nugget of information: To get into Canada, Ellen had to have been sponsored by the person who employed her (the woman referred to it as a “slave drive”). To me, that made sense. In the late 1920s, there weren’t that many ways for African-Americans and West Indians to enter – and stay – in Canada without getting rejected and/or deported. (Any Canadian historians reading this are free to correct me, if I’m wrong.)

I spoke to another woman known as the go-to historian for Montreal’s black community. She said, point-blank, that if Ellen was just passing through, there’d be no trace of her in historical records. (Frustrating to hear, but not in the least bit surprising.)

She said that she occasionally went through archived documents, and told me to send her an email with my great-aunt’s name and any information I knew. If Ellen lived in Montreal and was active in the community, her name might come up in those documents. While she couldn’t guarantee that she’d get back to me,  she said she would try to email me if she found anything.

Lastly, I sent another email to the man who’d mentioned his great-grandfather in his online article.

He called me within 10 minutes.

He mentioned that he’d responded to my email back in August. For whatever reason, I’d never received it. But even back then, he was intrigued by my message.

Understandably, he was a bit wary of my intentions. I reassured him that I wasn’t trying to get back at his family for whatever reason. Really, all I wanted to know was whether anyone remembered her.

We had a nice conversation, and he told me a bit of what he knew about his great-grandfather and his family. Although his mother had passed away a few years ago, he said there were other grandchildren that were still alive, and he’d try to ask them to see if any of them recalled anything.

I was hoping to meet him last week, but that fell through. Here’s hoping that we do meet. Even if nothing comes of it, it’s another mini-adventure on this interesting journey.