Making Plans & Finding Clues

On Sunday evening, my mom called to share some interesting news.

During a phone conversation with my uncle from Florida, he suggested that someone should organize a birthday party for my great-aunt Milda, who turns 100 next year.

Of course, knowing my uncle, so it’s a not just a “suggestion”. He’s already brought it up with my uncle Egton in Jamaica, is willing to put a little money towards the shindig, and thinks Mrs. Shearer (one of my distant cousins) should help organize it.

This last point has me arching an eyebrow.

From what I’ve heard, my great-aunt was something of a — shall we say — strong personality in her younger days. So a number of family members who really know her, aren’t exactly Team Milda – Mrs. Shearer included.

But, my mom said, my uncle explained that Mrs. Shearer organized the last family reunion roughly 15 years ago (I didn’t go at the time), so she could make things happen. Plus, he added, no matter how anyone felt about Milda, she was the matriarch, the only one left from that branch of the family, and since she was reaching such a huge milestone, the least we could do for her was to celebrate the occasion.

From what I understand, one of Milda’s daughters goes down to Jamaica occasionally (either once a year, or once in a while, I don’t remember), and so Egton will have to broach the subject with her, to see what she thinks. We’ll see.

After the call with my mom, I went online to see if I could find anything new on any of my ancestors.

Given my recent windfall of records for Collin and Clemise, I didn’t expect to find anything.

I started out searching for documents linked to my aunt Milda’s spouse. But at some point, I typed in “Helen” – just for laughs – and in a matter of moments, I was staring in mild bemusement at three indexed border crossing records for my great-aunt, from the mid-1930s.

The timing was … odd. (Maybe this was Ellen’s way of approving of the idea of a party for her baby sister.)

Based on the information listed on each of the cards, here’s what I think I know.

First, it’s definitely her – the bottom of the cards list her original date of arrival in Montreal. Plus, it lists “Hanover, Jamaica” as her place of birth.

Other details:

Ellen’s “home” address was one I hadn’t seen before. I cross-referenced it with a Montreal city directory from that time, and based on what I found, I can only assume she was renting a room from the person listed at that address.

She had a friend in New York. The cards all state that she visited a fellow domestic named Sylvia Hill – in Corona, (which I think is now Queens) New York, in August, 1934. On the third card (from 1936), it listed a Mrs. Lillian Robinson, with an address in Harlem, but no additional information explaining who she was.

One of these things is not like the others … Two of the cards listed a Mrs. John Gilpin, with an address that differed from Ellen’s home address. There was a word preceding Mrs. Gilpin’s name … it looked like “Guardian”, but I wasn’t entirely sure, because the scanned image’s resolution was blurry, and the word had been typed over. The third card listed a Mrs. Ingham, whose residential address matched Ellen’s.

SO, I thought. Ellen DID have other employers. Interesting.

What was even more interesting was that the top of two of the cards were stamped with the words “DEBARRED” and “REOPENED AND ADMITTED”. I didn’t really pay attention to the stamps at first, but they would be explained to me later.

Tuesday afternoon, to be exact.

I’d been studying those cards for two days, when it suddenly occurred to me to check the scanned images to see if the cards were only one-sided.


Typed on the back of two of the cards was the following:

Mrs. Gilpin, former guardian, and applicant “had fuss”; no other friends or relatives in Montreal. Employed by Mrs. H. J. Ingham.

The back of the card was time-stamped December 20, 1935 and December 23, 1935 (twice).

So Mrs. Gilpin was Ellen’s guardian in Canada. But why did a 26-year-old woman need a “guardian”? (I suspect I’d understand why, but there’s nothing to back it up — yet.)

The note confirmed that Ellen had no relatives here in Canada. I was, however, puzzled by the notion Ellen didn’t have any friends here — that she was completely alone.

I shared my newest findings with the administrator from one of the Facebook genealogy groups. She had looked at the cards, and pointed out that Ellen was refused entry back into Canada.

Of course, this only sparked more questions:

Why was Ellen refused entry back into Canada? What sparked the “fuss” between Ellen and her guardian, Mrs. Gilpin? Did that cause problems for Ellen at the border? Was Mrs. Gilpin solely Ellen’s guardian, or was she also her employer?

And what about Sylvia? If Ellen had no friends in Canada, then how’d they meet? Was Sylvia a friend from back home? Or did they befriend each other in Montreal, only for Sylvia to move to New York (for whatever reason)?

Beyond these questions, this search reminded me of a valuable lesson:

When finding an ancestor’s records online, ALWAYS check to see if there is a second page. Because you never know what you might find.


As I may have previously mentioned, I joined a number of Jamaican genealogy groups on Facebook in hopes it might help me with my family research.

Just over a week ago, the administrator of one of those groups posted an entry inviting members to share their “brick walls” – those ancestors whose research trails seem to have hit a dead end.

I decided to add my brick walls – my paternal grandfather, my maternal great-grandfather, and my “favourite”, great-aunt Ellen – to the list. Couldn’t hurt, I thought to myself.

The next day, the administrator posted my brick walls first and asked me for some information. I gave what I could – making sure to clarify/correct some details in the process.

She started with my paternal grandfather, posting some birth and marriage record information she thought could be leads. She even listed a ship manifest, in which a guy with my grandfather’s name and his wife apparently went to New York.

Considering that I know that my grandfather died in a railway accident in the early 1950s, I’m not sure that what she’s found are records for him. But I’m not sure they’re not, either.  In order to try and verify this, I’d have to find a family member who actually had some sort of contact with my grandfather and ask them things I can cross-reference against the administrator’s findings. That could prove quite difficult.

Next, she mentioned that she’d found some possible sources on information for my maternal great-grandfather, but she was still digging for more information. Given what she’d turned up on my grandfather, I suspected she might have found some of the same documents (birth certificates for children) that I’ve stumbled across. I’m cynical, but waiting patiently.

Then, she moved onto my third brick wall — the ever-mysterious Ellen.

The administrator first responded with initial information about Ellen’s employer. I wrote back explained the work I’d already done in this regard. She asked about whether I’d contacted any descendants (I did – one phone call to a great-grandson), whether I contacted any descendants of Ellen’s siblings (it’s complicated), and then suggested possible theories that perhaps Ellen married (unlikely) or went to join other siblings in Canada (nope, she was the only one in Canada).

She found a burial date and a lot number for an Ellen Campbell in Montreal in 1944. I quickly found the woman’s marriage certificate and told the administrator it was the wrong one.

She suggested that since she arrived in Montreal, that she might have been listed in documents as Helen or HélèneI conceded it might be possible, since for years folks originally thought her name was Helen.

You’re rambling – get to the point, you’re probably saying by now.

Wait for it …

Three days ago, she posts a link to a passenger manifest for a ship travelling from the Panama Canal Zone to New York in June, 1938.

Guess who may have gotten on in Kingston, Jamaica?

At first, I misread it and grumbled. Based on Ellen’s first trip to Montreal in 1929, I had already crafted this narrative in my mind, and I saw this document as an attempt to unstitch what little I knew.

But then I stopped, and read it again.

This time, she was on to something.

The woman was listed as a Helen Campbell (the name we all thought was hers). The age was off by one year, but all the other particulars lined up – a domestic, born in Cascade, whose father was a J. Campbell.

She had paid for her own ticket, and was travelling to Canada, via New York. She carried about $15.00 in cash (which is worth about $243 CAD today).

But a couple of things on the manifest stood out.

First, it listed her last permanent residence as a place called Rollington Pen. As best I can guess – with the assistance of Google – it’s Rollington Town in Kingston, Jamaica.

Secondly – and this is what’s currently burrowed in the folds of my brain – she had previously passed through the U.S. on her way to Canada. In 1937.

When would Ellen have gone back to Jamaica, and why? I’ve been wondering how long Ellen had stayed with her employers in Montreal. But I never truly considered that she could have gone home, whether for a visit, or as a temporary arrangement. The administrator mused aloud about her status. But weren’t Jamaicans (and other West Indians from British colonies) considered British citizens (on paper) before independence? This is something I’d need clarified.

Why was Ellen living in Kingston? Was it a matter of convenience for travel purposes? Was she waiting to be called up to her next job? Did anyone know Ellen was living in Kingston?

Was THIS when the family rift ACTUALLY occurred?

And, of course: Where in Canada was Ellen going? Did she go back to Montreal? Did she end up in Toronto?


My kingdom for a temporary census records leak … Sigh.

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.