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.

 

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?

 

“Meeting” Clemice

As I mentioned in my last post, a while back I’d come across an index of marriage registrations in Wolverhampton, England, which had a listing for my great-uncle Collin and his wife — a woman named Clemise Wilson.

Before my recent discovery, when I’d been searching for documents for Collin, I tried looking for documents for Clemise as well – a birth or death certificate, anything. But I hadn’t had any luck.

One evening last week, while sprawled out on my couch and checking social media, I came across a tweet which had a link to a post giving tips on what it claimed was an effective approach to finding relatives through searches on the genealogy site I frequent. It’s called the “wildcard”.

The article explained that it wasn’t unusual for people who indexed records for previously deceased ancestors to either input names incorrectly, or for officials who filled out the original records to be inconsistent with spelling names. Either they wrote the names the way they heard them, or were simply poor spellers.

The “wildcard” search involved using asterisks or question marks in place of letters, in order to trigger different results.

So, on a whim, I decided to test out the method. I typed in part of Clemise’s name, using an asterisk.

BINGO.

In a matter of seconds, I was looking at her birth certificate.

And her name wasn’t Clemise. It was Clemice. No wonder I couldn’t find her before.

Armed with brand-new information, I went to the family tree I’d constructed on Ancestry and plugged in her birth date.

Almost immediately after saving her profile, three hints materialized.

In a matter of moments, I learned when she arrived in England …

And when she died.

Considering the weeks –  even months – when countless searches turned up nothing, when inquiries on different forums didn’t yield a single answer, and the frustration and impatience I’ve often felt with (what seemed to be) the lack of progress, finding so much information in such a short amount of time has been remarkable.

I realize this lucky streak has come to an end.

But I really don’t want it to.

Island Bound

My vacation starts today!

And on Tuesday morning, I’ll be boarding a plane and flying down to Jamaica for a week.

The last time I set foot in the country, I was 16 and my grandfather was on his deathbed.

Admittedly, I’m a bit anxious. For starters, this will be the first time I’m going to Jamaica without any immediate family members.

As well, things have changed.  A lot of the relatives I knew have grown up, or have left and are in other countries. Not to mention that I’m very self-conscious of the fact of my Canadian-ness — that I carry myself differently, and don’t speak patois — so I feel uneasy about sticking out like a sore thumb.

And then, there’s Aunt Milda.

I’m trying to tell myself to keep my expectations low and to prepare myself for the possibility that she won’t want to tell me anything. But I really, REALLY want to be pleasantly surprised. I want my expectations to be exceeded. I want to come away with some keys that will unlock those doors that have stayed shut for all this time. But I know real life doesn’t necessarily work that way.

On top of everything else, this is my vacation. It won’t be all about family research. I just really want to kick my feet up and take everything in.

But, enough talk! I’ve got a LOT of running around and packing to do. Wish me luck.

Found!

Monday afternoon, as I was getting ready to eat my post-lunch brownie, my phone rang. It was my mom.

She’d just gotten off the phone with my aunt, who’s getting ready to return to the U.S.

She told my mom that she’d called my uncle (who lives just outside Montego Bay), to see if he might know how to find out where my great-aunt Milda might be, since she was moved out of the nursing home in Montego Bay in late April.

Turns out she’s been moved to Mount Salem – it’s basically a suburb/community just outside Montego Bay proper. There are two nursing homes there, and she’s in one of them.

So. Unless one of my relatives lends some assistance, I’ll have to consider taking a short trip down to Jamaica during my summer vacation.

I’ll keep you posted.

PLOT TWIST.

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?

SO. MANY. UNANSWERED. QUESTIONS.

My kingdom for a temporary census records leak … Sigh.