Making A Connection

Sometimes, social media has worked in my favour.

I’ve used it for work and for making plans.

I’ve used it to sell a pair of side tables — and a cake.

But when it comes to genealogy, it’s been hit or miss.

After finding the obituary for Ellen’s former guardian in Montreal, I decided give social media another try, by taking my discovery to one of the parish genealogy groups I frequent on Facebook.

I’ve tried this before, with photos or queries about direct ancestors. People have generally responded positively, but rarely with “I know this person”, or “This person is my [insert relative here]”. But since it wasn’t a direct relation, maybe it would work this time. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

On September 12th, I posted the obituary for Alberta Alexandrina Gilpin, along with a call-out to identify any of the names of Alberta’s nieces listed, if they were related.

One of the group’s members responded 90 minutes later.

That’s never happened to me.

While exchanging comments with him, a second member responded. Turns out Alberta was his great-great aunt. He’d been filling in his family tree, and I’d just helped give him more information.

(Side benefit of doing your own family research – helping unlock a door for someone else in the process!)

But back to the first member: he was from Brooklyn, but was out of town and was willing to help me out when he returned. He said he was visiting Toronto … where I live.

I told him this, and he suggested we talk by phone.

So the next evening, we had a phone conversation where I read him each of the nieces’ names … and he identified almost every single one of them.

He told me one of the nieces has a daughter who still lives in Montreal, who he promised to reach out to when he returned home …

And one of the other nieces in the obit is still alive, and living in Toronto.

Following our call, he called the living niece in Toronto. According to him, she apparently knew of Ellen, but couldn’t recall the full details. She had some information written down somewhere, but would look for it.

Hopefully my new acquaintance will follow up with her and find out if she’s been successful finding that information.

In the meantime, I’m trying really hard not to get excited, because the information could be related to someone else with the same first name*. It may not even be information about Ellen.

But deep in the pit of my stomach, the thought there might finally be a little more information about my great-aunt, has ignited a tiny ember of hope.

 

 

*When the group member initially responded to my message, he thought Ellen was related to his family, because he had a family member also named Ellen. I had to correct him and clarify what I thought my great-aunt’s connection might be to Alberta.

 

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The “Guardian”, Identified

After my tiny success finding some record of Ellen in the Jamaica Gleaner, I thought, what next? What else can I check?

I returned (yet again) to the 1930s immigration cards tracking Ellen over the border —  particularly the ones where Helen was temporary barred from re-entering Canada.

If you haven’t read that post – or need a refresher – click here first (and scroll a third of the way down the post, if you don’t have time to read it all).

A couple of the cards described how Ellen “had a fuss” with her former guardian – a Mrs. John Gilpin.

So I turned my attention to Mrs. Gilpin. Who was she?

Two weeks ago – while J was out of town – I was surfing the Web and came across a newspaper archive site with ties to Ancestry. Among the newspapers with accessible archives listed was the Montreal Gazette. You needed a membership to do any searches and access any of the results …

But the site was offering a one-week trial to use the site for free. I thought, eh, why not?

I started plugging in different search terms for Ellen. When that didn’t work, I tried the Gilpins. One listing named a Mrs. John Gilpin in a blurb about a community church event. It could have been her. But then again, it could have been anyone.

I tried a couple of other combinations. Nothing.

Then I remembered the address directories I’d been using a couple of weeks prior (they’re called Lovell’s directories). And a very long time ago, I’d used the directories to look up the Gilpins’ address. So I found their address and typed that, along with John Gilpin’s name, into the newspaper archive search engine.

An obituary appeared in the search results, for December 22, 1947. It was for a John Martyn Gilpin, who’d had passed away on December 17th.

It also finally gave me his wife’s name: Alberta Alexandrina Gilpin (maiden name Johnson).

I decided to roll the dice again, plugging Alberta’s name into the search engine.

In a matter of seconds, I was staring at her obituary – dated September 7, 1962. She’d passed away two days prior. And not only was her beloved late husband listed, but a number of Alberta’s nieces. (It appeared that John and Alberta didn’t have any children of their own.)

Some – possibly all – of those nieces lived in New York. But a couple of names tweaked my brain. One had a last name similar to a member of one of the Facebook genealogy groups I frequent. The other just seemed like the type of name someone from the islands might have. A church elder. A family friend. Someone’s auntie.

Nah, couldn’t be, I thought.

When J returned, I shared my findings with her, and sent her the obits. It took her no time to find a birth certificate for an Alberta Alexandrina Johnson, daughter of John Deleon Johnson and Ann Johnson (née Bean), born in 1880. Alberta was born in a community in Hanover – the same parish as the Campbells on my mom’s side.

Up until now, it never really occurred to me that the Gilpins might have been black. But it seemed like they were Jamaican. So the relationship between Ellen and her guardian couple (whatever it actually was) started to make more sense.

Then J found John and Alberta’s marriage record.

They were married in Montreal January 20, 1925. She also found another record for a woman with the same name, married in the 1940s in Jamaica, which momentarily threw J for a loop. But I looked at that record and could see the dates or ages didn’t line up.

Also, Alberta’s parents – John Deleon Johnson and Ann Bean – were named in the Montreal marriage record.

As far as I was concerned, we’d solved a part of the mystery around the guardian briefly mentioned on my great-aunt’s immigration card.

And this new bit of information gave me hope that I might have found a tiny crack in the  long-standing brick wall.

Re-Tracing My Steps

As a novice family researcher, two things seem to be true:

(1) There are times – when no progress is being made – that you have to get up and walk away for a while, before trying again.

(2) Searching for clues can be like gazing at a painting. Even though you’re drawn to the subject, it might help to look at what else is happening in the painting. (I think I’ve heard this on a TV show or two, but I couldn’t tell you which one.)

Since hitting a brick wall with Ellen almost 4 years ago, I hadn’t uncovered anything new with her story. I’d wracked my brain, thinking of other approaches to researching around the wall.

But then, I had to get up and walk away. I wasn’t making much progress. And I had to remind myself I had my own life to live, too.

But during the time I wasn’t actively looking, that gnawing at my brain never completely went away.

In August, I was feeling a bit restless, so I started picking away again, the way one might at a scab. What other ways could I research information about Ellen, or the era she lived in?

So, I started again … at the beginning.

I looked at the 1929 ship manifest. Then the immigration cards from the 1930s. The last ship manifest for her return journey to Canada in 1938.

I visited the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Web site, going over the list of resources I could access. The only thing I hadn’t tried was something called the National Registration File of 1940, which you read more about here. I read the explanation, the instructions on how to make a request, and the comments. A couple of things were unclear to me, so I posted a query to one of the parish genealogy pages I frequented on Facebook.

I got a response back from a fellow group member, J, who has kindly helped me on and off over the past several years. As it happened, J lived in Ottawa and worked about a 10-15 minute walk away from where LAC is physically located, so she offered to stop by the building.

J also tried the various genealogy sites we frequent, to see if she might have any luck. She found an obituary for a woman with a similar name who was buried in Montreal, and was going to check with the cemetery’s archivist … but both of us didn’t think it was her. (Note: I just checked previous entries and realized we came across the same record about four years ago.)

I pored over old address directories for Montreal and came across a Helen Campbell in the listings. I tracked her for about a 10-year period (to 1950), then nothing. Part of me thought it might be her, but wasn’t sure because of the neighbourhoods this person lived in at the time. I put it aside.

Back to those immigration cards, scanning every centimetre. What bus line she could have used, which border crossing she would have crossed into Canada … Nothing led anywhere concrete.

J scanned the immigration cards, asking me about the friends Ellen stayed with when visiting New York. I searched for those names on Ancestry. I think I may have found them, but even then, I wasn’t 100 percent sure I’d positively identified them.

A couple days later, J messaged to say she didn’t have much luck in terms of how to trace Ellen. Someone working at LAC tried doing a couple of online database searches, but to no avail.

A thought occurred to me about churches. (A friend suggested this to me a few years ago, but I hadn’t yet exhausted my other options.) I didn’t know if Ellen attended church back then, but it might be one way someone new and alone in a big city might have tried to make community connections. I shared my thought with J, who said she’d pose the question in other Facebook genealogy groups on my behalf.

We went back and forth like this for roughly a couple of weeks. In late August, J checked in to say she didn’t have any updates, as she had been busy with work. She was also going out of town for about a week, but would resume helping me upon her return.

On my own for the time being, I revisited those immigration cards and those ship manifests over and over. (I’m surprised I didn’t bore a hole through my laptop monitor.)

I decided to take another look at newspaper archives to see if I’d find anything new.

First, I searched the online archives for the Jamaica Gleaner, which dates back to 1834. I’d struck gold once before, with the death of my dad’s biological father. Perhaps after some time away, I might find more.

The Gleaner, near its back pages, used to print shipping notices – ships coming and going, but also people arriving or leaving Jamaica. I’d tried searching for Ellen this way once before, but wasn’t successful.

But on this day, I looked at the dates of the 1929 ship manifest, along with some of the other passengers leaving on the same voyage as Ellen – including a number of young women also from Hanover parish. I plugged dates around the time of departure into the search engine.

Bingo. I found a small notice in the paper, listing Ellen and the other young ladies departing.

I tried it again for Ellen’s departure in June, 1938 – then, she went by Helen.

I found that notice, and the notice for when she first returned to Jamaica in February, 1938. (I tried to find a ship manifest for that time period, but no dice.)

Not all the information was new. But it lit a tiny fire within.

Could I get the same result through paper archives from Montreal?

 

Two Deaths & A Drip

Hi, it’s me. I’m alive.

I also have a bit more free time on my hands nowadays, so I can hopefully post more.

And I’ve returned to working on my family research – such as it is. To fill you in on how that’s going, I’ll start with a tangentially-related story about my mom.

It’s been a roller-coaster of a year for her. A huge part of that is because she’s lost two of her brothers in the past nine months.

Last November, my uncle Ucline passed away from cancer. And on the same day, she found out my other uncle Egton was diagnosed … with cancer. So she’s been to two funerals in Jamaica – one last December, the other this past May. Between that and moving, she was weary, to say the least.

She knows I’ve been picking away at the family research. (And, of course, I excitedly tell her every time I make some sort of discovery.) So before she left for funeral number two, I mentioned since she’d see relatives on her father’s side of the family (where I’ve found the majority of the family research), she might want to talk to them if she had questions she wanted to try to answer.

She saw her older sister (who lives in Jamaica part of the year), her younger sister (the only sibling I’ve never met), and her (melodramatic) younger brother who resides in Florida. She visited her second cousin, Mrs. Shearer (remember her?) who, as it turns out, is actually several years younger than my mother (and not older, as she originally thought).

She met the daughter of one of her favourite uncles, who died in England in the mid-1980s. She started to ask her questions, but never got very far, due to family interruptions.

They even paid a visit to Cascade, where they visited a relation who still lives there (he’s in his 80s) and knows about the Campbells. They tried to locate the old homestead and family burial plot, which is down in a valley and inaccessible due to (a) overgrowth and (b) a gigantic tree which fell during a previous hurricane and has blocked the way. My mom still remembered the approximate location, but that’s as far as they got.

A couple of weeks after returning from Jamaica, she called me one evening, as I was  making some writing revisions for a freelance gig.

She’d been talking to her half-sister (the one aunt I’ve never met) and wanted me to verify the name of one of her uncles, who had a mental illness and was long-since deceased. I told her who it most likely was, then found out the reason …

Apparently while at my late uncle’s house, she had come across part of a will, in which my great-grandmother Jane Ann had left a parcel of land to said uncle.

This caught my attention.

I could care less about the land. (Trying to own real estate is one country is complicated enough, never mind entertaining the prospect of owning real estate in two.) But the will represents documentation that I didn’t think existed for my family – or was lost to time and the garbage bin.

I don’t know what (or who) else is mentioned in the will. My aunt (who lives in New Jersey) told my mom she would look at it more closely when she has time. But I’m not holding my breath as to whether she’ll disclose anything else.

But that tiny drip of information got me thinking about family research. About Ellen. And about that massive brick wall separating us.

Again.

So occasionally throughout the summer, I started re-tracing my steps for the umpteenth time. I looked at the documents I knew about. Visited my usual genealogy sites, searching for the same names over and over again.

And wondering if I would ever get another break.