A Guide to Understanding Cousins

I’m a member of various novice genealogical groups on Facebook, and recently joined one started specifically to help us beginners with our research by providing various online resources.

The administrator of one of these groups has been fantastic in finding links, including this one about cousins, courtesy of the Rootsweb community on Ancestry.

For the more experienced folks out there, this is probably elementary.

But now I think I FINALLY understand the definition of cousins who are removed.

If you’re ever confused, keep this handy.

The Haystack Gets Bigger

During a phone conversation earlier this week, my mom told me that my cousin had left Montego Bay and returned home to the States.

It’s a good thing I kept my expectations low –  turns out she never visited our great-aunt Milda. Apparently on the day she’d arranged to go see her, there was a torrential downpour and (since the roads aren’t all that great, even in the best weather) she couldn’t go.

The mystery continues.

My mom has since had a conversation with my aunt, who says she’s trying to make plans to go in the near future. A tiny part of me remains hopeful. The rest of me is trying to figure out how I’m going to scrape together enough time off to go to Jamaica in the fall.

IMAG0087 Okay. Fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon. I go to my mom’s house for my weekly visit. She’s shredding some documents in the kitchen — spring cleaning — and, as usual, doesn’t feel as if she’s made a dent.

THEN she says, “I was going through some things and found something you might be interested in.”

She picks up a dog-eared white envelope – perhaps legal-sized – and pulls out two black-and-white prints.

The penny drops.

They’re reproductions of art work by my half-uncle, who’s an artist by education (but hasn’t really done anything since the 1970s) and lives in Florida. He sent them to my mother ages ago. June 1992, to be precise.

IMAG0089(Here’s the backstory: the aforementioned cousin who’s just left Jamaica had, in the early 1990s, tracked down my mom’s half-brother and put the two of them in touch with one another.)

My uncle had written my mom a letter on the back of each of these prints, giving her a summary of what he had been doing for the last 30-or-so years of his life since they had last seen each other in the flesh — school, marriage, moving, kids and divorce, in approximately that order.

I quickly skim the letter … and then I get to the last paragraph.

IMAG0092In case it’s not clear from the photo (and apologies for the shadows I cast taking these images), the paragraph in question reads:

“As for Aunt Helen (sic) – Carol, Milda’s daughter – now living in Florida, does not know much about her, only that she is in Toronto – address unknown – she may be in a nursing home.”

This short passage suggests that Ellen did in fact move from Montreal to Toronto – which backs up what Mom has long since believed. Of course, this is based on word-of mouth, not actual proof.

There are now two complications with this search:

(1) I have no address. If Ellen was in a nursing home in Toronto, she could have been in any number of them. Which leads to the other complication …

(2) I have no idea of how long Ellen lived. Previous to the re-discovery of this letter, I’d been working under the assumption that she may have died in the late 1960s or sometime in the 1970s. But here’s what I didn’t account for: occasionally, some of the people in my mother’s family defy the odds and live for a long time. Great-aunt Milda is a great example (and I really hope she sticks around long enough for me to meet her).

If Ellen was somehow living at the time of this letter – 1992 – I’m now dealing with not only a lack of information, but perhaps privacy laws. But then again, she may not have been living by that point. Who knows? It’s also possible that Milda may not have kept in touch with her, or even know or remember when Ellen died.

So I’m still pretty much in the same place as before.

When I started this personal research project, I was fully aware that trying to find information about Ellen would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But as time goes on, I’m wondering if this is one needle that really doesn’t want to be found.

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.

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.

My Interesting Spit, and A Grinding Halt

As previously mentioned, a couple of months ago I purchased a DNA ancestry test online – which arrived with blistering speed at my front door – and submitted it, to see what my spit would tell me about my genetic background.

While I was away in Connecticut, I got an email notifying me of some initial results.

By the time I returned home, the testing was complete.

And what did my saliva reveal?

Well, according to the overall speculative results, I’m 87.2 per cent Sub-Saharan African, 11.6 per cent European (mainly English/Irish – I think “Scottish” – with “Broadly European” elements), 0.5 per cent Middle Eastern/North African (actually “North African”), 0.4 per cent East Asian/North American Indian (which, to me, possibly means the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean or Central America), and 0.3 per cent unassigned (“undecipherable”, in my mind).

Of that 87.2 per cent of Sub-Saharan African ancestry, 83.6 per cent of that is of West African descent.

This part isn’t all that surprising; if one’s family is from the Caribbean or are of African-American descent, chances are, this will turn up. I think what took me back was how high the percentage was. I suppose, knowing that so many people came together because of colonialism/slavery, and migration later on, I was actually expecting that percentage to be lower.

(I told my mom, and she actually doesn’t believe it, because of the stories she heard growing up.)

I’m also keeping in mind that, as I also mentioned back in June, this isn’t the final answer on my ancestry. The type of testing I did is called autosomal testing. So while these results give me a general picture of my genetic makeup, it won’t tell me which ancestries belong to which parent.

Also, “West African” is still extremely broad. It doesn’t tell me if I’m what’s now considered to be Nigerian or, say, Sierra Leonean. (And, frankly, I suspect it will be quite a long time before this particular company I used will be able to make the distinction, if ever.)

What I did find interesting is that my mitrochondrial DNA – that teeny, tiny, shred of DNA that’s carried through my mother’s side of the family tree, through her maternal line – can be found exclusively amongst people in present-day Ethiopia and Sudan, and seems to have arrived there about 15,000 years ago.

I might try and find another company that gives more specifics, if one exists (and they ship tests to Canada).

Meanwhile, the trail of bread crumbs that I’d hoped would help me continue to string together more information about my great-aunt Ellen seems to have vanished.

I’d sent an email request to Library and Archives Canada, just to see what they might come up with.

While waiting for a response, I also stumbled upon a contact for a local historian in Montreal, who managed to tell me a bit of information about the address I saw on Ellen’s passenger record, as well as find a tiny bit of information she found about the owner at the time of my great-aunt’s arrival, as well as who currently lives there. (From what I understand, it’s not in the state it once was.)

A genealogical consultant with Library and Archives Canada did eventually email me back a few weeks ago, but she merely pointed me in the direction of the passenger record I was already well aware of.

In my request, I’d also inquired whether the Canadian government kept track of letters it sent abroad.

(Backstory: According to my mother’s knowledge of Ellen, my great-aunt did keep in touch with one person from her family: her baby sister, whom everyone called Milda. When Ellen fell ill, the Canadian government apparently sent Milda a note, inviting her to Canada to take care of her. Milda made preparations to come to Canada, only to cancel the trip at the last minute. Which suggests that Ellen possibly died before Milda could reach her.)

The consultant replied that, while Library and Archives Canada does hold old government records, not all departments retained their old records, nor are they all indexed. She said there was no record of Ellen’s name in their database, and suggested that the letter could have been sent by a provincial or local office.

And the historian in Montreal reached to some other local historians with our shred of information, to see if they perhaps knew something about my great-aunt’s employer at the time of her arrival in Canada. But despite being intrigued about my inquiry, they all said it was too specific for them to be able to help.

On top of this, are two other roadblocks of sorts:

One: birth and death records — or, the civil registration of said records — are the responsibility of the provinces and territories. And, naturally, it helps if you have information about the person for whose records you’re searching.

Two: census returns are in the custody of Statistics Canada, and are closed for  — get this — 92 years. (The 1921 Census of Canada was just released in 2013, to give you an idea.) So, unless you’re looking for information about yourself, for pension or legal purposes … OR, you’ve gotten written permission from the person whose information you’re trying to obtain … good luck.

(Also? NINETY-TWO YEARS. What an arbitrary number.)

So, here I am, stumped.

And currently, my remaining lead lies with a 98-year-old woman living in a nursing home in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Who is she?

That would be Milda — Ellen’s youngest, surviving sibling. And my great-aunt, whom I’ve never met.

I have a cousin who lives relatively close to her, and my mom spoke to her weeks ago, asking if she could pay her a visit and ask her some questions, in hopes that she’ll say something, ANYTHING, that would be useful.

But I’m dependent on a cousin who — understandably so — has her own, very busy life to live. And the last time I heard from her was a couple of months ago. And I can’t really afford to fly down myself to ask. (Plus, peppering a relative — who doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall — with questions? I think it requires much more tact than that.)

If there are any interesting developments, I’ll let you know.

But in the meantime, a question for any expert or novice genealogists in their own right, who may stumble across my blog:

Can you recommend any valuable tools or resources that have helped you in your searches for long-lost relatives? I’d be interested in hearing them — especially ones that you might consider underrated or underused. Thanks!



All The Names

IMAG0665Have you ever opened a cupboard or closet, looking for something specific, only to have a bunch of objects come tumbling out (and occasionally hitting you in the face)?

I think, figuratively (or is that metaphorically?) speaking, that’s just what happened to me.

When I recently found my great-aunt Ellen’s birth date on a genealogy Web site, I ended up uncovering some things I didn’t intend to.

According to my mother, her father (the maternal grandfather I know about) was one of six children.

Weeeell … the internet showed me another story … one that included the names of two other siblings – sisters – that I’d never heard of.

Turns out my mom had never heard of them, either.

At first, I thought I had made a mistake. But the parents’ names were exactly the same. I mean, what would actually be the chances of having two families in the same village, with two sets of parents with the exact same names? It didn’t make any sense.

Not to mention, there were three other names that looked suspect. Like they could also be siblings.

Before I go further, a bit of a rewind:

A lot of the records on the Web site had scanned images of various records, such as birth certificates. The catch is, while one can search to one’s heart’s content, in order to see said scanned images to confirm hunches and suspicions, one has to create an account.

Until this point, I didn’t create an account. The terms and conditions I had to agree to, if I started creating a family tree on this site, left me uneasy.

But as I continued to revisit the site, the curiosity increasingly ate away at me like a dirty penny immersed in a glass of pop.

I had to bite the bullet. So I created an account, for the purpose of being able to fully conduct searches, and returned to those records.

One by one, I checked out the birth certificates for the kids I knew about for sure.

And then I checked the others.

Holy shit.

My grandfather was one of ELEVEN.

So what happened to the other five names? I searched the site, and couldn’t find any other information. My best guess is those unlucky souls didn’t make it out of childhood.

Perhaps they died as babies or young kids, of crib death, illness or unfortunate accidents. But that’s how secretive families (mine included) can be.

Then, things took another weird turn.

A recent Google search for the village my mom’s paternal relatives are from, coughed up a result for a reverend with a last name far removed from my own.

Seems that – with the help of his grandson – he’d done some genealogical digging on a scale much grander than my own. I’d landed on a detailed document detailing six generations of one descendant of his family.

Some of those descendants are my mother’s relatives.

A number of them have long since passed. But the ones my mom recognizes, she and her sister knew them, or were cared for by them, perhaps in the summers between school.

So. I’m having a bit of trouble fully processing the information.

I suppose this type of thing happens is unavoidable when digging into one’s family history.

But so many names at once?!

For now, I’m putting these discoveries aside and will try focusing on two searches:

(1) What happened to my great-aunt

and, if I’m successful

(2) Trying to find out about my long-dead paternal grandfather, a rolling-stone railway worker, about whom tiny specks of information were divulged to me while preparing for my father’s funeral in February.

If my mother’s family was secretive, my dad’s people sounded like Fort Knox.

I hope that vise-like grip will loosen when I go to visit some cousins and uncles for several days, later this week. One of them is throwing a 21st birthday party for his step-daughter. And, from the sounds of the equipment, planning and logistics required, and the party itself, it’s going to be a Big Deal. (If someone doesn’t fire off fireworks, I’ll be surprised.)

Wish me luck.


Finding Ellen

As the child of immigrants, I was always of the firm belief that my mother was the first of our family to step on Canadian soil, setting in motion this chapter of my family history.

I suppose that’s still true. But as I recently found out, it’s not entirely accurate.

Years before, one of her aunts arrived here from Jamaica.

Growing up, she’d asked her dad about his sister, named Helen. He scolded her, telling her not to mention his sister’s name. No explanation was given.

She and her older sister knew what this aunt looked like, by way of a single photo – she was, by then, approaching middle age – and kept it for years. (It has since disappeared.)

After she arrived here in 1968 (after seven years of training, then working, as a nurse in the United Kingdom), my mother tried to look for Aunt Helen, under the impression that perhaps she’d come to Toronto. She called all the women in the phone book with the same name, only to come up empty.

And, for years, the story behind Aunt Helen remained a cold case of sorts, shrouded in mystery.

On last fall’s trip to Italy, Mom had spoken about her side of the family and mentioned this aunt with no story nor reason behind her abrupt departure to Canada, or the rift it apparently caused within her dad’s family.

I’m sure this wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned this mystery relative. But for whatever reason, this time, it stuck, and has been lodged in a corner of my mind, like a dog-eared cue card wedged in a dusty book, for months.

My father’s sudden death this past winter – aside from leaving me with a lingering melancholy – has gotten me thinking about the importance of family. Or, at least, the importance of trying to know about one’s family.

I started thinking recently, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find something out about Mom’s Aunt Helen … to give her the gift of some closure, to stop wondering?

Two and a half weeks ago, out of sheer boredom with my life – and my work – I decided to start scratching away.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Mom didn’t know when this aunt was born, or even when she would have left Jamaica (other than that it was before she was born, perhaps even before her sister’s birth three years earlier).

A lot of my Google searches were dead ends. I even tried looking for any proof of Helen’s existence, through the free resources offered by the Library and Archives Canada Web site – combing through immigration records, scouring for any record of her voyage on ship passenger lists. Nothing.

Late one night, I tried Google for the upteenth time, and stumbled upon a genealogy site run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (Yes, Mormons run a genealogy Web site. They also have many, many birth, death, marriage, baptism and other church records from around the world – including Jamaica. I only learned this recently.)

So I tried to input what I knew, using different combinations, parents’ names (as I knew them), with no dice.

Frustrated with the lack of results, I tried another approach, by using my grandfather’s name to see if that prompted any results.

Mere seconds later, I was swearing and staring, wide-eyed, at what looked like a listing for my grandfather’s date of birth (which I would have to verify with my mother the next day), and … based on the information … the listing for the birthdate of my long-lost aunt.

As it turns out, she wasn’t Helen – as I was led to believe – but Ellen. (I also stumbled across other family records, but more on that later.)

The following day at work, I called my mom and verified my grandfather’s birth date, and then told her about Ellen’s birth record – which, understandably, threw my mom for a bit of a loop. After about 20 minutes of excitedly sharing my findings, I hung up the phone, and decided to take another crack at Library and Archives Canada.

It led me to a photocopy of the passenger list, which included the record of her travels to this country.

I could hardly believe it. All I could do was gaze at my computer screen in sheer disbelief. I kept that on-screen window open for at least a good couple of hours.

In the span of about 15 hours, I had gone from having almost no information, to two solid pieces. The blurry shape had acquired a bit of focus.

Further digging helped me to understand what I now know (so far):

Almost 85 years ago, Ellen left her well-to-do family, boarded a ship – the “Lady Rodney” – from Kingston, Jamaica, and arrived in Montreal some 11 days later.

She was all of 20 years old, and alone. She came to work as a domestic, at a time when Canada was doing everything in its power to remain as white as it possibly could, discouraging all but handfuls of requests for “coloureds” (African-Americans and British West Indians) to be let into the country.

The timing of her arrival was also interesting, as it was roughly four months before the big stock market crash of 1929, and the start of the Great Depression.

But why Canada? Why not Great Britain? And how on earth did she find her employer? Those are things I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.

Further online surfing and visits to the library have given me a bit of context about the time Ellen would have come to Canada. But no other concrete bits to go on.

Did Ellen stay in Montreal? Did she, in fact, move to Toronto at some point? And when did she die?

These are the things I hope I’ll get to discover, to help flesh out a story with already extraordinary beginnings.