Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Family Stories: fact or fiction?

All of my novels are about family - and all delve into stories from the past. Even my fantasy trilogy deals with a young woman who comes from an ancient tribe, yet is determined to protect and save her much-loved adopted family.

Family stories come in many different forms. In most families it seems, there is one person who somehow ends up as the "official" Family Keeper of the Past and Collector of Stories. In my family, that's me. I have been an obsessive collector of family history and stories for over 25 years.

Some stories come from the mists of distant times, passed down from generation to generation -- often with a definite whiff of fantasy, or at best, a chunk of wishful "tailoring" attached to them.

I have more than a few of these in my own family.

Here is just one example of that:

It has been passed down, that one of my direct Irish ancestors was a sea captain who ran away with an English heiress - Lady Somebody-or-other. Really, who understands the concept of blarney better than the Irish? God's truth, so it is!

I now know for certain that this side of the family were poor Irish farmers, and later miners and one railway driver in England, so I doubt this story very much. But some members of my family have not given up hope, and really, you never know...

What is interesting is that many of these mist-clouded stories sometimes do have a kernel of truth in them, and it is always interesting (pretty exciting actually) to find that a tiny seed of fact does indeed exist inside that gilded blossom.

Here is an example of just such a story in my family:

Out of wedlock births in the 19th and a good part of the 20th C were shameful secrets and were, almost always, thrust into darkened skeleton-crowded closets never to be opened again.
One day, not long before she died,while we were sorting out old photos, my mother told me there was a secret in her father's family about a "child born out of wedlock," but she had no idea who this child was. She had heard it from a great-aunt while visiting in England. Mom was a bit curious and even had a handwritten note about it - which was very vague. But her father, George told her that his half sister was always overly dramatic and loved making up stories, so she'd dismissed it.

I found the truth behind this secret while I was on the trail of her
father's family. I discovered my great-grandfather William (George's father) had married twice. He was a widower with five children (most near their teens) when he remarried. This second marriage was to my great-grandmother Sarah. Sarah and William had one child together - my grandfather, George.

What remained hidden for almost a hundred years was that this tiny, delicate looking English woman had, it turned out, given birth to a child out of wedlock a few years before her marriage to William.

What makes this especially interesting to me, is that it appears that Sarah maintained a definite (physical) connection with her illegitimate child until her death.

This is how I uncovered that part of the story:

I put out a request on many family "same name" websites asking about this child. One day to my surprise, I got an email from a woman who said she thought we might be related. She had little information, but she gave me the name of her grandfather (who had been "adopted") and told me he appeared to have a definite connection to my grandmother and she gave me her maiden name - which did not match the child's surname. She wasn't sure what it all meant. I wasn't sure, either, as Sarah is a common name and so was her surname.

I began a search using his birth name which she gave me, and finally found him in a late 19th C census, living with a couple with another different last name. He was called a "nurse child" - meaning they were taking care of him - for a sum of money. He was exactly the right age and had come from the same area that Sarah had lived. Remember, his last name was not the same as Sarah's maiden name or the  couple who looked after him. Mmm.

This indicated to me, that the child's last name might be the same as her lover's, and she used it because she had a deep affection for him. Was her lover a married man? Was this son really hers? After all, he had a different surname. There was no record of an earlier marriage for Sarah, and the certificate of marriage to William lists her as a spinster. How could I possibly prove the connection between this nurse child and my great-grandmother?

Her son's surname, an unusual one as it happens, matched up with two men living in the same general area where Sarah worked as a housemaid at the time of her pregnancy. In the census records, each man had the same first and last name as her son. One was an old man in a work house (not him!) but the other was a young man - living very close to where Sarah lived as a single woman. He was a farmer's son. If he was her lover, they were in an untenable position, for he was soon to be married. Clearly he didn't have the guts (or the inclination) to do the right thing and marry Sarah, instead.

He married shortly after their "affair" according to my calculations. I found that his and his new bride's bans had been called around the time Sarah was pregnant. He and his wife vanished from their village shortly after their marriage, and I found them living in a small city two counties away. He worked as a town labourer, not a farmer. A few years later, according to the next census, he and his wife and their two children had moved back to the family farm.

Interesting? Yes! But I still had no real proof. However, I do think this fellow is very likely the father of her son -- and I suspect he took off in order to avoid a scandal and came back to the farm when things had cooled down.

From the woman who contacted me, I found out Sarah (with her maiden name confirmed) had probably spent the latter part of her pregnancy in a mental institution as a working "boarder" during her confinement,  and for about two years after her baby was born. I also discovered this "boarding" of unwed mother's in insane asylums was not uncommon. Some are listed simply as "guests" which means they didn't work in the hospital because their family paid their way completely,  while others were working boarders like Sarah. I found out that Sarah's uncle, a tailor of some means, stood up for her at her wedding to my great-grandfather. I suspect he also probably paid her boarding fees.

When he was about two, Sarah gave her child into the care of a childless couple who had once lived very near her own village. They took the child and moved away. Sarah then married William. I had to wonder at the stern looking man (Sarah's husband) -- my great-grandfather -- in the photos we have of him and Sarah. He stands alongside her and his young son. He looks quite formidable. But, clearly, here was a man who allowed his new wife to visit her illegitimate son.

To  confirm that conjecture, one of Sarah's stepsons and my grandfather's half brother, told his daughter that they used to tease Sarah; often telling her she was "going to Coventry" (which had a double meaning for Sarah, I believe). The phrase, "sending one to Coventry" was used to shun or ostracize a person. But, I also discovered in my research that her out-of-wedlock son lived with his caregivers in a village very close to Coventry - hence the double meaning.  No doubt teasing her when she left to see her son was great fun. (Very clever and cruel step-children!!)

The final confirmation that I had the right child came when we were able to find her son's army records, where he lists his mother with my great grandfather's last name. The young man's birth father is listed as "deceased" - another term commonly used for illegitimate children to explain the lack of a father.
EUREKA!! I had him!! He was the right child and he was indeed the birth son of Sarah, now married to William! What is also very important and very telling is that the boy knew Sarah's married name - and used it for his army records. 

So what was the "arrangement" between Sarah and her husband William? Had my great-grandfather agreed to allow her to visit her son because he loved her, or because he pitied her? Or was it because he needed someone to look after the five children by his first wife, and this was part of the marriage agreement? I will never know. Past stories never allow for all the facts. But some of the above facts are certain. And that is exciting. I do know that George was much loved by his parents and half-siblings. He often went back to visit them in England after moving to Canada. And I also have a letter that says that one Willian's sons felt sorry for years afterward, because he and the other children had been so unkind to Sarah. I'm glad I have that information.

Chasing down family stories can become an obsession. In this case, ancestors I didn't know - or only had a vague notion of, suddenly came into focus for me. I found photos of my great-grandparents in my mother's papers after she died. These family members had lived their lives a long time ago, but, even now, I feel I am still taking an active part in their history. 

It took me a few years, and a lot of digging to find that little boy who was my grandfather's "other" half-brother. A half-brother I am pretty sure he never met. But finding the lost child, who later had a good life, a good job, and a happy family, answered the secret my mother had presented to me. I wish George had been willing to share this story before he died. But it was his secret to keep.

By finding this lost family member, I found a new and fascinating story for my whole family. And, as I collected more prime documents and more factual information on both sides of my family; including second marriages, more unwed mothers, wills, religious differences, marriage records, village parish records, censuses as well as street and village names that allowed  me to "travel" on Google maps to the very places where my ancestors lived in England, Ireland and Galicia-- they and their past lives truly did come alive. Many still murky or veiled, certainly, but others so clear.

So much still remains elusive. And that is all part of the beauty of it all. The search for stories never ends.

Stories get lost so easily when people don't listen. Don't ask questions. Don't save valuable family papers - or don't write on the back of photos!! (BIG sin for family keepers of photos!). I know people who know little or nothing of their family before their grandparents - and even then they often don't have any idea where their grandparents came from, or if they had brothers of sister, or who their parents were. Think of the stories they are missing!

I recently found that my German family may originally have been Italian - and  as Italian Protestants, fled Italy during the Reformation to the more protestant Rhineland (Germany).

I also discovered that I have a distant cousin who fought in the civil war in the states (his parents came to the USA in the 17th C!)

And I have one line in my British family, that dates back to a large "tree" of Quaker families starting in 1530 (Henry VIII and later, Shakespeare's times!) -all thanks to a diligent family researcher (now in his nineties) who lives in Australia. Two of our multiple great-grandfathers were imprisoned for over five years each - for practicing their forbidden religion. One died in prison.

More stories to really dig into!

I don't expect to find kings, queens, or runaway lord's daughters in these exciting new searches. But you never know. One Buffie researcher now claims we are descended from Charlemagne. Really? impossible!


Karyn Huenemann said...

This was wonderful... so rich a history! Good for you for finding all these stories. Ancestry.ca doesn't tell us these tidbits... unless someone like you uploads them as addenda to the files.
And we share a narrative history, at least geographically: Rumour has it that my family--from the Shannon Valley--migrated to Ireland after being kicked out of Scotland as horse thieves...

Karyn Huenemann said...

PS -- and I love the parallelism between your profile photo up in the left and the younger picture of you in the bottom right of the collage... spectacular eyes.

Margaret Buffie said...

Thank, Karen for both comments. I love stories like yours. You'll probably find it's pretty close to the truth. But they may have been stealing cows - or chickens! There's always a few things that change through the ages. It's kind of like those party games we used to have where you sit in a ring and the first person whispers a simple message to the person next to them - and then it is whispered to the next person in turn. Remember those? The idea is to keep it exact. The last person has to say the message out loud. And it's never exactly the same. And sometimes WAY off.

Humpty Dumpty said...

Searching out family histories is so much fun. As you said, it is a shame when people don't label their photos, so future generations have no idea who's in them. My grandparents were a bit like that and it is very frustrating for me not to recognize the people in those old pictures. One thing my grandfather did do was preserve letters from his grandfather in England. Most were responding to letters by his dad as well as making comments on the Winnipeg Free Press articles that he read because his son had given him a subscription to our paper. My dad did a comprehensive family tree and I still correspond with distant cousins 'across the pond'. Now that Dad's gone, it's up to me to keep track of all that. I commend you for the diligence in which you have searched out those wonderful family stories. :)

Margaret Buffie said...

Thank you HD(Withershins?) :-) Aren't we lucky to have letters like this?

A few years ago, I finally figured out a number of people in many photos from a few photos that had some crytic lines on them, like "John and dgtr Ade, 1946 and "Cousin Wilf/ Wales 1951."
Which John? What cousin? I finally worked some of it out using my grandfather's letters to my grandmother (c. 1906) whom he courted for a few years before going back to England and marrying her. I wish I had HER letters to him, but I'm greedy. They moved back to Wpg after their first child was born. It's amazing how really digging in and puzzling over photos can work - along with magical bits of info that seem to come just at the right time - like one tiny page of notes my mother made (after her one trip to England) which I found stuck in her photos. Suddenly it all made sense. I love Eureka moments!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Eureka moments are wonderful! I will have to sit down and take the time to do that with my grandparents' photos.

(My name is Susan Rocan. My first book was called Withershins, so that is what I use as my blog name. Sorry about the confusion)

Margaret Buffie said...

I knew Withershins was you, Susan, but didn't want to use your name openly on the site. Some people don't like their names posted.

It is pretty excitng when you can sort out who people are with from old unmarked photos! I am now writing info on the backs of old photos in pencil. I feel as if I have years of this stuff to do! I DO have years of this stuff to do.....sigh.

My daughter has just started her own genealogy research business online. She has a masters in history and has done research for people - and has been researching her dad's family tree for last 20 years. One of the posts coming up on her new website is going to be something like "What secrets can we find in old photos." It's been fun helping her set it up.