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?